How Tank Girl Went From Box Office Bomb to Cult Classic

Rachel Talalay’s 1995 feminist comic book movie was way ahead of its time

A few months ago, Rachel Talalay was Skyped into a Florida screening of Tank Girl, the stylized action-comedy she directed in 1995, expecting a question-and-answer session. “Except it wasn’t a Q&A,” she says by phone, “it was people coming up to the microphone and testifying for me what the movie meant to them in the ’90s or later, or what it meant to their parents who had then shown it to them.”

In the mid-1990s, Tank Girl was an anomaly. It wasn’t just a comic book film. The source material was British, created by artist Jamie Hewlett (who went on to co-found cartoon band Gorillaz) and writer Alan Martin. It’s a story imbued with a punk spirit and centered around a woman.

In the film, Tank Girl, aka Rebecca Buck, played by Lori Petty, fights oppression in a post-apocalyptic wasteland where water is scarce and harassment and violence against women and girls is prevalent. Tank Girl was a rebel seemingly made for ’90s feminists teens with her skinny brows, dark lipliner, and a sex-positive outlook. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the film bombed at the box office. Over decades, though, it’s become a cult favorite.

rachel talalay tank girl 1995 movie tom lowe
Rachel Talalay

Tom Lowe

On June 16, Talalay will receive the Inspiration Award at the 2018 Etheria Film Night. The annual event, co-presented by American Cinematheque and held at Hollywood Egyptian Theatre, puts the spotlight on genre films directed by women. Talalay is a trailblazer in this regard.

Early in her career, Talalay worked with John Waters. She was a production assistant on Polyester and went to produce both Hairspray and Cry-Baby. “What I learned from John is make the movie that you want to make,” she says. That lesson impacted her while making Tank Girl. “The feeling was that I got to make this outrageous comic book movie and I’m going to make the movie that I want to make.”

Her directorial debut, though, came with a popular horror franchise– Nightmare on Elm Street. In 1991, she helmed Freddy’s Dead: The Final Nightmare. “Everything I learned about filmmaking I learned from Nightmare on Elm Street because we did everything,” she says. “We did make-up effects, we did visual effects, we did stunts, we did it all with no money and that was the most unbelievable training ground.”

All that comes into play with Tank Girl, a wild action flick filled with irreverent comedy. Talalay took to the character when her then-teenage stepdaughter gave her a copy of the Tank GIrl comic for Christmas. It took her about a year to convince the creators that she should option it. “I wanted to make a film that was a plus or a minus, you either get it or you don’t,” she says.

Ultimately, that’s what happened. Amongst those who didn’t get it were the studio powers. There were scenes cut out of the film—scenes that Talalay says included necessary information for viewers—because Tank Girl’s dildo-decorated bedroom was considered offensive. One intimate scene between Tank Girl and her mutant kangaroo boyfriend Booga had to be scrapped. “They acted like it was bestiality rather than a man in a rubber suit and a surreal experiment,” Talalay recalls. An instance where Tank Girl put a condom on a banana before throwing it at a villain—gone.

She says there were also issues when Tank Girl, after having been imprisoned and tortured, didn’t look attractive enough. The reasoning, she surmises, “all seemed to come from different people’s tastes, rather than what’s going to make a good movie or what the audience is interested in.”

Talalay’s experience wasn’t unique. “Everybody has one of these experiences,” she says, “but it was tough that it was the movie that I was so passionate about wanting to push the envelope on.”

Still, I had to ask, “Would it have been less shocking if Tank Girl had been Tank Guy?”

Talalay answers, “Oh, yeah, definitely. Absolutely. Completely.”

That’s what makes Tank Girl more worthy of reconsideration now. It’s a movie that was of its time—from the lead character’s Riot Grrrl-raver style to the Courtney Love-compiled soundtrack that included Bjork, Portishead, L7, and more. It’s also a movie ahead of its time. Tank Girl deals head on with sexual harassment; it’s how our heroine meets her sidekick Jet Girl (played by Naomi Watts). It’s a movie where women have each other’s backs and are empowered to make their own choices. It was everything a young woman at the time could hear on a Bikini Kill album or read in a zine, a new wave of feminism that was surfacing by the middle of the decade, but would ultimately be stifled and fall out of fashion by the end of it.

But times change, sometimes for the better. Talalay remembers going to San Diego Comic-Con to promote Tank Girl in 1995 and finding a mostly male crowd. “You go to Comic-Con now and it’s the most wonderful, diverse—and it’s 50-50 and everybody is in cosplay and it’s way beyond comics…female fandom has found its absolute world,” she says.

Talalay too has found her world. She hasn’t directed a feature since Tank Girl. (She clarifies that she has received movie offers in the past five years, adding, “it’s just been that they haven’t been the ones that I want to do at this point.”) After a period she refers to as “the dark years,” she carved out a niche in genre television. She has directed for the beloved British sci-fi series Doctor Who and counts episodes of Sherlock and Riverdale amongst her credits. The funny thing, though, is that even at Doctor Who conventions, fans will bring her Tank Girl items to sign.

“It’s absolutely found its audience as time has gone by,” says Talalay of Tank Girl. “We were definitely ahead of our time and scared the studio to death.”

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