'It was a war!': The crazy behind-the-scenes story of Tank Girl
Director Rachel Talalay looks back at creation of cult comic book adaptation.
Beginning at 12 p.m. PT on Monday, director Rachel Talalay and actress Lori Petty will mark the 25th anniversary of their comic book adaptation Tank Girl with a tweet-athon designed to entertain the movie's quarantined fans. The event is remarkable and not just because the extraordinary times in which the world finds itself. For many years, Talalay preferred not to discuss the release of the movie, one of the more notorious box office bombs of the '90s, which cost around $25 million but earned less than a fifth of that figure at the domestic box office. "It ruined my career," she says. "It put me into movie jail. It was a disaster. I couldn’t talk about it for 10 years."
Talalay's feelings towards the film started to change in the mid-aughts as she encountered more and more fans of the movie, about a gun-toting, wise-cracking, and mutant kangaroo-dating woman attempting to survive in a drought-stricken apocalypse. "People started coming to me and saying, 'Oh, you know, I love that movie,'" says Talalay. "It’s just grown and grown, until six or seven years ago I stopped being embarrassed by it. I wasn't embarrassed by it, I was embarrassed by this feeling of this massive movie jail I was still in. I mean, in so many ways this film is such a seminal part of us. It was such an unusual opportunity to [make] the feminist icon movie that then hasn’t been permitted for a long time."
There's little doubt this in many ways goofy superhero romp is a feminist movie with a capital "F" (and a capital "U" too). Throughout the film, Petty's character is depicted as an independent spirit in charge of her own sexuality and more than capable of facing off against the movie's many abusive male characters. When one of the film's villainous goons presses a gun to Tank Girl's head, unzips his fly and demands oral sex, Petty's character first asks for a microscope and tweezers so she can locate his penis and then breaks his neck. Later, she levels her tank's massive gun at the male driver of a truck she is attempting to hijack and asks, "Feeling a little inadequate?" Not that everyone is a fan of the film. Indeed, a quarter of a century on, Tank Girl remains a hugely polarizing movie. And that's just fine with Talalay. "I always said, 'I want to make a film that you give it either a one or a ten,'" says the director. "You’re either going to love it or you’re going to hate it. If your main question about the film is, 'There’s no water, why does she change her hair?' you’re not the right audience for this film. I had that very clearly in my rebellious mind when I made it. I was like, I don’t give a s---!"
Tank Girl was originally created in the late '80s by British artist Jamie Hewlett (who would later team up with Blur singer Damon Albarn to form the virtual band Gorillaz) and his art college friend Alan Martin, who wrote many of the character's adventures. A boozy, sex-loving maniac who drove her tank around the post-apocalyptic Australian desert looking for good times and mayhem, the pair's heroine became an instant hit with readers after she debuted in the U.K. magazine-cum-comic anthology Deadline. Starting in 1991, Dark Horse began publishing Hewlett and Martin's tales in America, which is how Talalay first encountered the character. "I was given the comic actually by my stepdaughter as a Christmas present," says the director, who is married to film producer Rupert Harvey. "I just opened it and I’m like, 'Okay, this is me!' I was such a punk-rocker and such a rebel — or at least a rebel in my own mind."
Born in Chicago and raised in Baltimore, Talalay studied mathematics at Yale and was offered a job at IBM. Instead, she went to work as a production assistant on Polyester, the 1981 cult classic by director John Waters, who became a mentor. “She was thrown into a world of complete lunacy that I don’t think Yale had prepared her for,” Waters told EW in 2016. “It was very much an independent movie. The neighbors were calling the police, trying to get rid of us. We were the only movie that had scary hairdressers working on it. But she handled it really well.”
Talalay next joined the staff of rising indie studio New Line, which was about to make a major mark in the horror world with 1984's A Nightmare on Elm Street. Starting as an accountant, Talalay swiftly moved through the ranks, ultimately becoming a producer on 1988's A Nightmare on Elm Street 4 and then directing 1991’s Freddy’s Dead: The Final Nightmare. The film was a hit but, with Hollywood executives not exactly falling over themselves to employ young female genre directors, Talalay resolved to pursue the rights to Tank Girl. "It took me a year to option it," she says. "I didn't have a studio behind me, I didn't have money behind me. I just pursued them and pursued them and pursued them and finally I broke them down."
Having acquired the rights, Talalay began pitching the project to studios and production companies — a quest which almost seems worthy of a movie in its own right. "The first pitch was with [James] Cameron’s company," she says. "I was passionately [talking] and at the end of it the executive looked at me and said, 'We already have a film with a female lead.' What do you say, right? I went and I sat in my car and I called my agent and I said, 'I can’t do this. I can’t do this if that’s what the response is going to be. I just can’t do this.'"
Talalay persevered and received a warmer welcome at Disney where former Columbia Pictures chief Dawn Steel had a production deal. "Dawn Steel found out about it and was like, 'I have to have this project!'" says Talalay of the late executive. "I had a wonderful meeting. Dawn had a reputation of being a total hard-ass. But at one point she stood on a chair and went, 'I am Tank Girl! I will have this project!" In her heart, Talalay knew that Uncle Walt's company would never a greenlight a project in which the heroine smoked and drank, let alone one in which she is sexually attracted to a kangaroo. "I’m sitting there going, there’s just no way Disney is going to want this," she says.
The director also pitched the project at Steven Spielberg's company, Amblin. "The executive said to me, 'I’m really flattered that you think I’m hip enough for this, but we’re not,'" says Talalay. "I told that to Jamie and Alan and they made a T-shirt which says, 'TOO HIP FOR SPIELBERG.'"
In the end, three companies showed firm interest in Tank Girl. "Steve Woolley’s company Palace wanted it, and New Line wanted it, and then MGM," says Talalay. "I was like, I don’t want to go to New Line, I’ve had so much history [with them]. I didn’t know that Palace could really afford to do the tanks properly."
That left MGM/UA. "We made this decision to go with MGM, who made the biggest offer," says Talalay, "which turned out to be a terrible decision."
MGM suggested the director hold open auditions in a clutch of countries, including Britain, purportedly to find the movie's lead. Talalay today admits the auditions were simply an attempt to promote the project. "That was a publicity ploy," she says. "I mean, that was all MGM doing their thing. But it was terribly fun and it spawned the Spice Girls. Three of the Spice Girls met in line for it. I tell people that I’m responsible for the Spice Girls, because I made them stand in a queue for so long that they said, 'Screw this, we’re starting a band.'"
British actress Emily Lloyd was originally cast as Tank Girl, but left the project, reportedly because she refused to have her head shaved. "I don’t know if it’s appropriate even now to talk about that," says Talalay.
Lloyd's replacement, Point Break and A League of Their Own actress Petty was game to shave her head and to do pretty much everything else Talalay asked of her. "Lori just knew that she was Tank Girl," says the director. "There’s a way that somebody comes in and you knew that they had to be part of this project, that their life was part of this project. Lori just knew it was her — and Lori did everything, she did half of her own stunts."
The film's supporting cast included Ice-T, who played one of the kangaroos or "Rippers" as they are called in the movie, and A Clockwork Orange actor Malcolm McDowell, who portrayed the film's villainous head of the Water and Power company. "I'm just a huge Malcolm McDowell fan," says Talalay. "Clockwork Orange is probably the movie that influenced me most for this and one of my very favorite films. And I loved if... He was absolutely my first choice. What was great about Malcolm was he understood it, he had the cheeky sense of what it was. Right before that he had been the baddie in Star Trek (McDowell played the antagonist Tolian Soran in 1994's Star Trek Generations). He had been so shocked at how unbelievably seriously everybody took Star Trek. He was getting death threats from fans. He was just delighted to come in to a movie where everything was a farce and that had the same kind of cheekiness that his whole early film career had."
Talalay cast the then-unknown Naomi Watts in the role of Tank Girl's dark-haired sidekick Jet Girl after she gave an "incredibly great" audition. "We were worried about her being blonde," says Talalay of the actress. "The casting director told me that Naomi was so broke that she actually paid for Naomi to get her hair darkened for the audition." The director recalls Watts being very shy. "I remember Lori saying, ‘Naomi, you’re not supposed to be behind me at all times, so you’re not on camera,'" says Talalay. "'You’re supposed to be there, where you’re on camera.' I mean, just pure introversion. The cinematographer (Gale Tattersall) said, 'If I leave one place in the room where there is no light, Naomi will find it.'"
Talalay assembled a highly impressive behind-the-scenes team, including Oscar-winning make-up effects creator Stan Winston, who worked on Aliens, Jurassic Park, and the Terminator films. Winston balanced his duties overseeing the look of the Rippers with his work on the Michael Crichton adaptation Congo which was in production around the same time. "We couldn't afford Stan Winston," says Talalay. "He just wanted to do the movie more than anything and came and cut his fee so much. I’m sure that he was funneling money from Congo — he was funneling the money from something to us. I was always so proud that in his museum of amazing effects he had the Rippers very prominently placed by the 'alien' and by the Terminator."
As production designer, Talalay recruited Catherine Hardwicke, who would go on to become a director in her own right, making 2005's Dogtown and a little film called Twilight. "I met with a bunch of different production designers and they were all like, 'Hey, what do you want?'" says Talalay. "And Catherine came in with a truckload of ideas. When I said this is who I want, I remember the producers saying, 'What do you mean? She doesn’t have enough credits!' [It was] one of those moments where you’re like, This is kind of scary that you’re yelling at me. I thought I could hire the production designer who I thought was right for my movie that I developed. I said, 'Well, could you please meet her and take a look at why I think she’s [the right person]?' It was a no-brainer. Equally with Arianne Phillips, the costume designer, who had an Academy award nomination for Once Upon a Time in Hollywood. She had done The Crow but that’s pretty much all she had done. She was doing covers for Rolling Stone and stuff at that point. [The producers] were like, 'Well, where are her credits?' I said, 'Everybody else comes in with tear sheets that are the work that Arianne did. Why don’t I go to the real designer?' For me, it wasn’t about experience it was about being right for the project."
Courtney Love helped assemble the movie's soundtrack, which would include tracks by Bjork, L7, Portishead, and the singer's own band Hole. "Courtney had wanted to play Sub Girl, which was a role that was bigger and then got cut down for financial reasons," says Talalay. "She was coming into audition and then Kurt killed himself. So needless to say [she no longer want to appear in the film]. But she still wanted to be involved. When time had passed, she came in to see me and said, 'I’d love to help supervise the soundtrack.' Most of what she did was send me lots and lots of ideas. I had physical tapes from her and scratched notes on hotel napkins that she had then mailed to me and things like that."
The movie was written by Tedi Sarafian (son of Vanishing Point director Richard C. Sarafian) with assistance from Tank Girl creators Hewlett and Martin. "We didn’t have a lot of money for the script and Tedi Sarafian was a rising Hollywood writer at that point," says Talalay. "Tedi wrote a pretty straight ahead action movie, he gave us the structure, and he gave us the good feminist material, and then Jamie and Alan came and made it way wackier. She had a horse at the beginning and they were like, 'She can’t have a horse, she should have a water buffalo!' I have reams of wonderful notes from them of how to take it back into Tank Girl."
Talalay recalls the shoot being a hard experience for all concerned. "We shot in a semi-closed-down copper mine in Tucson, Arizona, then we shot sequences in a closed-down shopping mall in Phoenix, and then we came back to L.A. to do all the stage work," she says. "But the big Water and Power stuff is all this closed-down copper mine. We were always being stopped for chemical spills. I’m sure we were all full-on poisoned," she adds, not entirely joking.
The shoot was particularly tough for those playing the Rippers, a clutch of actors which, in addition to Ice-T, included future House of Cards star Reg E. Cathey and Jeff Kober, who played Tank Girl's paramour Booga.
"It was a hard, hard, hard, physically hard movie," says Talalay. "It was very hot in the Arizona desert. I just remember, the Rippers, their suits were like wearing couches. So, it’s 110 degrees, you’re in the Arizona desert, it’s filthy, you can’t breathe, they put on a thousand pounds of makeup with servos and everything. Every Ripper has two people with radio controls to control their ears and their facial expressions and somebody to run their tail. So, if you had all eight Rippers, 24 people showed up in the room and you’re like, 'There’s no room for you guys!' And the guys are scorching, they’re sweating like hell. Ice-T was hilarious. I so adore him. Everyone’s like, 'Ice, you never complain, you never ever complain.' He just goes, 'Better than prison.'"
While Ice-T may have been cooperative, the film's hero prop — the tank itself — was not. "The tank tended to get sand in its tracks and then stop," says Talalay. "But also you couldn’t ever back up. The tank had to go all the way round two miles forward and come back half an hour later."
Talalay speaks much more warmly about directing the film's song-and-dance sequence in which Petty performs the Cole Porter song "Lets' Do It, Let's Fall in Love." "That’s because I am and was obsessed with Hollywood musicals," she says. "Growing up, absolutely obsessed. Fred Astaire. Gene Kelly. Busby Berkeley. That was my escapism. And I’m like, 'Well, we’re going to do whatever we want, so I’m going to do a Busby Berkeley number!' And Adam Shankman (director of 2007's Hairspray) ended up choreographing it. That entirely came from out of my head saying, ‘We’re going to stop, we’re doing a musical number and that’s that.'”
As tough as the shoot was, Talalay's problems really began after she assembled a cut of the film. When the director struck the deal to make the film with MGM/UA the company's CEO was producer Alan Ladd Jr., who had been enthusiastic about the project. In July 1993, Ladd departed the studio and the following month the late John Calley was appointed to head up United Artists, which made him ultimately responsible for Talalay's film. "When we made the decision, Alan Ladd Jr. was running the studio and he got it and he was excited for it for what it was," says the director. "Then he was replaced by John Calley and there was not one iota of this movie that John Calley understood. From then on, the experience was really tough. I was just in a battle all the time to try and keep it as fresh as it remained. Yeah, it was a war."
Calley insisted Talalay remove a number of sequences, including one which showed off the titular character's collection of sex toys. "Well, so Tank Girl’s bedroom was decorated with dildos," says Talalay. "[An] entire wall of dildos. He was just appalled by that. So the whole sequence had to go. Now, you would digitally blur them, or something, but instead we had to cut the whole sequence."
The studio chief also objected to a sequence in which McDowell's character puts Tank Girl in a subzero location and tortures her. "He just didn’t like the fact that she’s ugly," says Talalay. "I thought, Lori’s been great here, she’s so brave, she looks so terrible doing this scene, isn’t that fantastic? It’s very Jim Cameron-esque, the reality of how awful this is. John Calley is like, 'I can’t even look at her, she looks awful, I can’t even look at her. We've got to cut this sequence.' We’d done a test screening where it was one of the favorite sequences in the movie. I’m like, ‘Well, this is one of the favorite [sequences].’ ‘Well, you’re gonna cut it way back down.’ So, he let me cut it down rather than out and then it was no longer one of the favorite sequences in the movie. I'm a math nerd and I went and said, 'Hey, here's the statistics — people loved it, now they don’t. Can we put it back?' And he went, 'No.' It’s the worst when everything is just personal opinion. ‘This offends me.’ ‘This offends me.’ Now I understand that the film scared them, it scared all the male executives. "
Talalay's stress levels were not helped by the fact that she was pregnant. "It definitely added another level of hardness to it," she says. "You’re getting up and having morning sickness and going to work in 110 degrees. Fortunately I was only pregnant near the end of the movie. But then I was pregnant through the entire editing and postproduction."
Tank Girl was rated R. Talalay believes if the protagonist had been male the MPAA would have given her movie an audience-friendly PG-13 rating. "Because it was a female hero saying these things we got an R rating and the R rating really really hurt us in terms of the box office," she says. "Tommy Boy opened the same weekend and did much better than we did. We were told by theater owners that people bought tickets to Tommy Boy and then went to went to watch Tank Girl. So, that screwed our statistics, because they expected a much higher box office. It has sexual innuendo but it’s not extremely violent. Basically, the MPAA screwed us with the rating."
Tank Girl opened on March 31 1995 and earned just $2 million over its opening weekend. "It was devastating," says Talalay. "I mean, they didn’t have massively high expectations for it. But it got so much publicity and so much good word of mouth that they were expecting it to be pretty successful. It was really mind-blowing to see the box office so bad."
With her movie career in tatters, Talalay transitioned to TV and is now one of the pre-eminent directors of small screen fantasy and science-fiction shows with a list of credits which includes Supergirl, Riverdale, and Iron Fist as well as an episode of Sherlock. She has also directed some of the most-loved episodes of Doctor Who and it is through that show that she discovered her dead-on-arrival flop had been resurrected as a cult movie.
"A lot of it became clearer to me when I started going to conventions with Doctor Who and 30 percent of the stuff that was brought to me [to sign] was Tank Girl stuff," she says. "Suddenly I was like, wait a minute, this has a whole other [life]. Now, people go, 'Of course, it goes without saying that I love Tank Girl' and you’re like, 'Well, maybe it didn't go without saying, but thank you very much.' One of my favorite moments at a convention is somebody came up to me with a photograph and said, 'This is our wedding cake.' And on one side is the TARDIS and on the other side is Tank Girl. I said, 'My love children! My wedding cake love children! Bless you!'”
Talalay believes that the movie has accrued an added resonance in the age of #MeToo. "I rewatched the film in the theater when the Directors Guild of Canada did a screening a couple of years ago," she says. "Twenty-something years later, it was the first time I could sit through it. I went, Wow, yeah, okay. We really called #MeToo."
Remarkably, it looks like Tank Girl could be driving her way back to the big screen. Last year, it was reported that Margot Robbie's LuckyChap production company is developing a Tank Girl reboot. It could be argued that Robbie has already channeled the character in her performance as Harley Quinn in the recent Birds of Prey. "I don't know whether the director saw Tank Girl, but I’m just going to assume based on how close the opening is that [they did]," says Talalay.
The director is currently at work on a family-friendly Netflix family film titled A Babysitter's Guide to Monster Hunting. But Talalay makes clear that she will always feel pride towards the family un-friendly Tank Girl.
"All women have a piece of Tank Girl in them," she says. "It’s that piece where we’re not repressed for being women. It’s embedded in our spirits. The way men behave — we need an icon to feel that freedom for us."