Ahead of the Ada & After: Women Do Science [Fiction] film season at the ICA, director Rachel Talalay took some time off after directing Missy and an army of Cybermen taking over the world to talk to Club des Femmes about working with Ice-T and Courtney Love on Tank Girl, and why pink makes her head explode.
Club des Femmes: It’s been 20 years since Tank Girl exploded onto our screens, hard to believe! What do you think is its legacy?
Rachel Talalay: I have had some fan mail that is incredible - there’s a school teacher in Australia who uses it as a jumping-off point to teach boys about grrrl power. It’s a lot easier to swallow the pill of its box office failure now that it has cult status and longevity and so many people now tell me how much they love it. And if they don’t, they are either offended or they just think it’s chaotic and stupid. Fair enough. I always wanted the movie to be a 1 or a 10 – you get it or you don’t.
What are your favourite moments from the film?
I like using Shaft for the Tank reveal. I also like the Portishead chemical shower scene. It was scripted as something awful—chemicals that burned the skin—but I thought Tank Girl should be ornery and enjoy the pain. That doesn’t really come across because we didn’t show others hating it, but it just worked as a moment when she is allowed some quiet peace. And I would have liked the Let’s Do It dance sequence, if the studio hadn’t hated it so much that it became a horrible battle. I’d still like to re-edit it, restore the missing material and use more Busby Berkeley overhead shots.
The music in the film is really crucial. What was it like working with Courtney Love to develop the soundtrack?
Courtney had wanted to audition for the role Sub Girl, but then the Kurt Cobain tragedy happened and obviously everything changed. She wanted to be involved somehow, and asked about music supervising. It was right after Natural Born Killers and she was hoping to help develop a soundtrack that was fully integrated, where the source cues replaced score, but our schedules didn’t quite work out. She sent me numerous notes and ideas. As with the movie, the soundtrack was a battle on many levels, with parties weighing in on all sides. But many of the choices were ours. Executive producer Tom Astor was invaluable in teaching me about new bands. I was glad to be introduced to Prodigy, Offspring, Green Day, Belly, Bush and Portishead, among others, during that time.
Courtney as Sub Girl! That would have been amazing. And there’s already two legendary musicians in the film…
I’d already worked with the wonderful Iggy Pop on Cry-Baby. And Ice-T, well his acting legacy is historic. Ice is funny as hell. I’m not sure he was really ready for the Stan Winston Mutant Kangaroo full-on makeup but he was game. In the ADR stage, he rapped Cop Killer for us. That ranks as one of my top ten ‘I can’t believe this is happening’ moments.
And in another… you recently got your hands on the TARDIS, as the first female director on Doctor Who since 2010. How did that come about?
It’s not like I slept with Mark Gatiss to get to Steven Moffat. Now… that would be a story! I’ve read some criticism—on the internet of course—that it’s ‘American’ to campaign for a job, and more criticism that I sent them a reel of my action work. I’m lucky to have a variety of humour, action, special effects and drama in my showreel: I’ve done kids, animals, animatronics, stop motion, et cetera et cetera. Who else did Freddy [Krueger, from the 1991 film Freddy's Dead: The Final Nightmare] and Wind In The Willows?
Several experienced women in the film business have told me they were inspired by the fact that I wanted to do Doctor Who, and I worked to get the job and it paid off. They said it made them feel more confident to go meet people with whom they wanted to work and speak about why.
While I do teach and I do mentor, I want my work to be the most important lesson. I had to fight for my opportunities and I still do. More than anything, if my success leads to other women finding confidence to go after what they want, that’s victory.
Speaking of which, Catherine Hardwicke’s first major credit was as production designer on Tank Girl…
She had been designing a lot before Tank Girl, but we had to fight to get her because she was not in the union at that time. The executives and producers were suspicious of her being too indie/low-budget. There was no question in my mind, from the moment she entered the room with reams of ideas, I knew I could not do better.
She got the job because she was right for it. She brought a lot to the table, but we all collaborated with both Jamie Hewlett and Alan Martin. Jamie did a lot of designing for the movie. His original artwork is—needless to say—incredible. Catherine was collaborative, respectful and inventive.
If you are deeply Tank Girl in your psyche, it just comes out in the way you talk about it, and in Catherine’s case, her ideas were never-ending.
You and Catherine have both shown that genre films can boast strong female protagonists… why are so few other filmmakers catching on?
They might be afraid they have to write dialogue that passes the Bechdel test.
They are afraid that men want to watch men and women want to watch men.
They are afraid that men are afraid of strong women.
They believe that if you put women in a room, they get drunk, cry over men, their mascara runs, and there are loud shrieks.
Yes, that’s glib. One problem is how complex society is – you can sexualize a man by showing abs, and the worst response is ‘beefcake’, and then he can go on and save the world. Sadly, sexualizing women is more likely to get in the way of allowing her to save the world or even be intelligent - although that is changing.
Do you see your work as feminist?
One should not be afraid to call oneself a feminist, if one believes in equalities. No stigma should be attached to the label. I hate that toy stores are gender segregated - I have visual overload neural meltdown in the pink sections.
Many girls growing up today do not understand the extent of the impact of the 60s and there’s a story to be told that isn’t only flower children and drugs, but about the power of passionate youth. I have a piece from the 70s about the miner’s strike and being an American in the UK at that time. I’m always big on independent women from Victorian and Edwardian times all the way through the 70s. I like to look at the fight against repression. I always want to tell the stories of strong women. ■
Tank Girl comes back to the big screen at the ICA Thursday, 20 November. Be smart like Booga and get your tickets and tea early and often!