No special effects were used to make the Chevy Malibu glow while parked at the repossession lot. Instead, the car was completely coated with 3M reflective paint, at an approximate price of $600 per bucket.
Miller talks about the cosmic unconsciousness: "You'll be thinking about a plate of shrimp, and all of a sudden someone will say plate, or shrimp, or plate of shrimp." Later, the two Latinos who've stolen the "Asimov" car park outside a diner which features a huge sign in one of its windows reading: PLATE O' SHRIMP $2.95.
When filming began, they only had one 1964 Chevy Malibu. It was stolen a couple of days into filming, forcing the film crew to scramble to find a replacement. Shortly after finding a replacement, the original was recovered by the police undamaged. This was fortunate timing because about a day later Fox Harris severely damaged one of the Malibus by accidentally ploughing it into a gasoline pump! In the carwash scene, one of the gas pumps is clearly severely dented up and damaged. This is the pump Fox plowed into in a previous take.
When the Asimov character is in the phone booth using a "coding device" to talk to Leila, his dialogue is played backwards. The scrambled voice is someone reciting a poem from the book Alice In Wonderland.
Lance Henriksen was a front runner for the part of the lobotomized driver of the Chevy Malibu. Dennis Hopper was considered for the role of Bud, but his erratic behavior at the time ultimately made him unsuitable for the part.
Zander Schloss, who plays Kevin the Nerd, ended up joining the punk band Circle Jerks after production ended. They play on the soundtrack and appear in the movie as the lounge act that Otto "can't believe [he] used to like."
Agent Rogersz is supposed to have a cybernetic, metallic arm. Due to the low budget of the film, the producers were unable to come up with a convincing prop arm. Her arm in the film appears to be nothing more than a glove made out of metallic-threaded cloth. The cheap effect confused numerous viewers as to why other characters in the film were so fascinated by her "glove".
All of the products used in the movie are generic, notable for their blue stripe on white packaging and black text. The filmmakers were satirizing a real-life growing trend in American grocery stores at the time where because of the sluggish 1980s economy actual generic, white packaged foods were popular. The blue stripe seen in the movie is taken from a real-life blue stripe generic beer can that was sold by Southern California's Ralphs supermarkets. The filmmakers choose to mock this as showing how banal American life had become in the early 80s, including making up their own generic products like 'Food - Meat Flavored', 'Dry Gin', and 'Drink'. Because these products had no advertising and quietly left supermarket shelves by the 1990s many modern viewers of this film think that Alex Cox made up the generic food idea himself.
According to Alex Cox's autobiography, Zander Schloss was initially hired as a production assistant. He had asked to play the role of Kevin, Otto's nerdy friend. But the role first went to Chris Penn, who had asked Cox several times for a role in the film, and initially asking to be cast as Lite. Cox already had a particular actor in mind for Lite and, after one day of filming with Penn in the role of Kevin, Cox felt his style was too comedic for the tone of movie. The part eventually went to Schloss.
Amid the confusion surrounding the glowing Chevy, you can hear Bud saying, "I would rather die on my feet than live on my knees." This is a quote attributed to the Mexican revolutionary Emiliano Zapata.
The maps shown in the opening credits are presented in geographic sequence. The car is apparently driving from Los Alamos, New Mexico (site of an actual U.S. Government weapons research lab), traveling west through the towns of Santa Fe, Albuquerque, Grants, Gallup, Ramah, and through the Zuni Indian Reservation into Arizona, through St. Johns (down US Highway 666), Winslow, Flagstaff, Williams, Ash Fork, Kingman, and then into California, where the car is shown as being outside of the town of Needles, about 240 miles northeast of Los Angeles.
Edge City, the name of this film's production company and the destination on the front of the bus Otto takes to his parents' house, is also the U.S. title of director Alex Cox's first film, Sleep Is for Sissies (1980). Edge City is also the term used by sociologists who specialize in urban studies where a concentration of shopping, entertainment, and business outside traditional urban areas are consolidated into geographic locations, usually former suburbs, ethnic enclaves, or semi-rural communities - the Greater Los Angeles area has over 14 municipalities.
An alternate ending was planned but never filmed: Otto was to join a group of South American revolutionaries. A small element of this ending can be viewed in the scene in which Marlene is at the Rodriguez brothers home, where an arsenal of weapons is stashed.
Harry Dean Stanton wanted to do a 'baseball-type signal' to Emilio Estevez in a scene where he had to show him where to park a car. Cox - a notorious sports-hater - refused the suggestion. According to Alex Cox on the DVD commentary, Stanton lost his temper: "I've worked with the greatest directors of all time. Francis Ford Coppola. Monte Hellman. You know why they're great? Because they let me do whatever the fuck I wanted!"
Alex Cox visited Iggy Pop personally at his apartment, to explain the movie to him and request that he do a song for the soundtrack. Iggy's career was going through a rough patch at that point - prompted in part by the singer's 'wild lifestyle' - and he needed some money and breathing space. It also helped that Cox gave Iggy carte blanche to do whatever he wanted with the song. "It was like a gift from God to express myself," said Iggy of the opportunity.
Alex Cox's friend Tod Davies convinced him to cast Harry Dean Stanton as Bud by describing Stanton as having the ideal "great remnant of the Old West/cadaver look." Cox, however, didn't need much convincing, having loved Stanton's work in Two-Lane Blacktop (1971) and Lanton Mills (1969).
In addition to his appearance on a TV screen in the "Art Remnants" segment, Executive Producer Michael Nesmith has a non-speaking cameo as the Rabbi who approaches the glowing Malibu with Reverend Larry.
At the American Cinematheque Q&A in 2010, Olivia Barash revealed that her agent told her not to try out for this movie by no-name people, but "I was rebellious, and I went." Her agent kept asking her not to do the movie, because it was "never going to do anything."
For the first couple days of filming, Harry Stanton refused to learn his lines. He said that Warren Oates read his dialogue in Two-Lane Blacktop (1971) off of note cards stuck to the dashboard so he should be able to do the same. Alex Cox overcame this obstacle by informing him that refusing to learn lines was in breach of the SAG contract (which may or may not be true). Stanton memorized everything perfectly after that.
Filming a scene in which Bud brandishes a bat at the Rodriguez brothers, Harry Dean Stanton wanted a real bat and did actually use it in one take, swinging it around recklessly. The other cast members were (relatively) OK with it, but Robby Müller took Alex Cox aside and said: "Just now I felt the wind of a wooden baseball bat pass over my face. I will not shoot this scene unless all the actors use plastic bats." Unsurprisingly, Stanton was furious when asked to use a plastic bat, screaming out that "Harry Dean Stanton only uses REAL baseball bats." A literal tug of war ensued over the bat, much to the amusement of the crew. Fortunately, a quick-witted production assistant was able to swap the wooden bat out for a plastic one.
Rob Muller's strategy was to shoot the film as a series of two-shots, many of which were in motion, thus complicating the camera and lighting setups. This led to progress slowing down somewhat, causing friction with the producers. As a result, Alex Cox had to fight a number of running battles with them over Muller's aesthetic choices, culminating in one instance when he and Jonathan Wacks literally came to blows over the issue. They had just shot the scene in which Otto drags Parnell's body out of the Malibu and leaves it on a bench. Muller had filmed it wide-angle but Wacks thought his approach was boring and wanted greater, more dynamic coverage. Ultimately, Cox got his way and Muller's more painterly approach went on to define the film. He also learned that speeding up the pace of filming had a lot more to do with efficient logistics than aesthetic choices. Transportation chief Dave Schaffer imparted this lesson to him on set: "Don't waste any time at the beginning of the day. Know what your first shot's going to be before you arrive. That way, everyone can get to work right away and I won't have to move any vehicles."
Dave Schaffer noticed that Alex Cox didn't have his own car, and suggested that he use the Malibu as his personal transportation, saving Schaffer the effort of having to assign a Teamster to look after it. One evening, Cox drove the Malibu to the Edge City offices in Venice to confront his producers about Muller and the slow filming pace. While they were lost in spirited conversation, the Malibu was stolen. Scenes involving the car were rescheduled and the Teamsters mounted a frantic search to find a similar car. Eventually, one was found, and technical experts worked on it to make it resemble the stolen vehicle. Just as they got done doing so, the old Malibu was found abandoned in Riverdale. A silver lining was that they now had two 'hero cars'.
The gunplay in the store was filmed in a certain way due to concerns about an MPAA pushback on violence. The scene is somewhat bloody, but Alex Cox makes sure to film ketchup bottles exploding in the foreground so it's never clear whether the red stuff on view is blood or ketchup.
When Duke is first seen, he is wearing a Sid Vicious t-shirt that says "I Did It My Way," referencing The Sex Pistols bassist's version of the Frank Sinatra classic "My Way." Two years later, Alex Cox directed Sid and Nancy (1986). That movie featured a scene that included a recreation of the video for "My Way."
Otto's co-worker (Kevin) at the supermarket sings the jingle for 7-Up just before Mr. Humphries fires them. Later at Mr. Humphries' house, Kevin can be seen in the background, adjusting a TV set that's playing a 7-Up commercial.
The license plate on the Chevy Malibu reads "127 GBH" G.B.H is the name of a punk band. GBH is also a British term for assault, Grevious Bodily Harm. Police 10 codes list a code 10-127 as Vehicle Lightly Damaged.
The aesthetic of the film is influenced by the underground comics of the 60s and 70s, particularly the work of Robert Crumb and Gilbert Shelton. The Rodriguez brothers are modelled on Shelton's Fabulous Furry Freak brothers.
Fox Harris couldn't drive a car, a complication that led to many composite/body double shots becoming necessary. The first day he showed up to the set, he promptly proceeded to drive his car into a bridge. Subsequent scenes made him so nervous, he would break out into hives. The opening scene with the motorcycle cop on the desert highway was one such composite, made up of shots completed on different days with Alex Cox doubling Harris where necessary and Cox's bike mechanic Varnum Honey playing the cop.
Harry Dean Stanton's general moodiness and constant grumbling about money prompted Alex Cox to consider writing him out of the rest of the film and giving his remaining scenes to Lite. Michael Nesmith vetoed this plan, so Stanton stayed in the picture. It also helped a little that Stanton noticed how the crew revered Muller, and began to do so in turn. So if Cox wanted something done, he'd sometimes tell Stanton that it was "for Robby". It worked.
The filmmakers hadn't secured a complete location for the repo office. All they had was an empty lot. So production designers J. Rae Fox and Lynda Burbank had to build an office out of scratch on the lot. A lot of the special effects were makeshift quick fixes.
The movie was made by "Edge City Productions" - Edge City is a recurring theme in Tom Wolfe's "Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test". The destination placard on the bus that Otto takes back to his folks' house reads "Edge City".
Alex Cox chose the AMC Matador as the government agents' car "for its weird shape and for its name." In real life, the Matador was used as the primary police vehicle by the LAPD (also U.S. Government agencies incl. the Department of Defense) during the early 1970s. During its tenure with the LAPD the Matador had a zero to 60 elapsed time of 7 seconds and a top speed of 125 mph when fitted with the AMC 401 V8 motor.
Alex Cox had met Sy Richardson at UCLA and called him to audition for the bit part of the angry man who storms into the repo office with his girlfriend. Cox thought he was a powerful actor and gave him the larger role of Lite instead.
Fox Harris was already on Alex Cox's radar, since he was the only actor who was nice to the filmmaker when he worked as a guard/caretaker at the Actor's Studio in Los Angeles. When Harry Dean Stanton brought Harris up as a possibility for Parnell, Cox jumped on the idea.
Michael Nesmith asked Alex Cox to come up with his dream choice and promised to find the money to hire whoever it was. Cox thought of Rob Muller's car scenes in The American Friend (1977) and suggested him. Muller had only worked on one American film before and hadn't enjoyed the experience but, upon receipt of Cox's script, liked it so much that he agreed to sign on.
The trivia item below may give away important plot points.
While scouting for locations, the crew encountered Muhammad Ali, who was training at a local gym. He was propositioned to do the scene at the movie's finale; it would have played like so: Ali would have exited the helicopter along with the three Holy Men. Ultimately, after the glowing Chevy Malibu refused to allow the Priest, Bishop, and Rabbi to come any closer, the greatest boxer who ever lived would attempt to approach the car; but he too would fail to make contact. Ali politely declined to do the scene.