Posted on Friday, February 14th, 2014 by Peter Sciretta
When I sat down with director Jose Padilha at Comic Con to talk about his upcoming Robocop reboot, I expected to have a very superficial conversation about his first Hollywood blockbuster. Instead, he dished out a deep psychological dissection of the characters and story of his film.
I’ve now seen the film and got another chance to talk with Padilha about the finished project. We spoke about how he got the directing gig, and the source of the concept at the core of the film. We talk about his background before filmmaking, when he studied political economy at Oxford. He tells me the most interesting thing he learned about the advancement in robotics while developing the movie. We discuss the struggles of trying to make a smart blockbuster movie in the Hollywood system. Why his RoboCop is not R-Rated and dealing with the MPAA over graphic violence in the film. All of this and more can be read in my interview with Jose, after the jump.
Peter Sciretta: Before you came onto the project, Darren Aronofsky was set to bring it tot the screen. He supposedly left the project because he couldn’t get studio executives to see his hard-R vision. But your film dives deeper than the average blockbuster; it’s smarter. Did you adopt any ideas from that first development phase?
Jose Padilha: No we didn’t actually. We chose not to read the script. I chose to start from scratch. The way this happened was, after Elite Squad, I went into Sony and they were offering me a lot of movies, but none of them was RoboCop. I didn’t want to make any of those movies they were talking about. And there was a RoboCop poster in the room. Eventually I said to them, do you own RoboCop? And they go like, “Yeah.” I asked who was directing, if it was still Aronofsky. “No.” “Can I do it? Cause I have an idea. Because this is the one we got to make”. And they go like, “what do you mean?” And I said, you know, I want to do it in the near future. America’s using robots for war. Everybody. Everywhere. But it doesn’t allow robots at home because there is a law that forbids it. And this corporation wants to change the law and creates RoboCop to try to convince American people that it’s a good thing. I said that on the spot.
You just came up with that on the spot?
I kind of, you know when you’re listening to people talking about things you’re not interested in?
And I was looking at the poster and all of the sudden they are talking about the poster and came up with the idea. Eventually I had to say it and they were like “Let’s do this!” and then 2 days later I got a call from my agent saying, “I don’t know what you’ve done, but they are offering you RoboCop.”
And, you know, you’re right, if I may say something about the ideas that [the original] RoboCop aimed at. RoboCop is way smarter than a regular big movie. People ask me, are you scared that you’re doing RoboCop, it’s a classic. I would be fucking scared if I was doing a bad movie that had no ideas in it. I mean, it’s RoboCop. To me, it’s the connection between the automation of violence and fascism that Verhoeven saw and that he put inside that character.
Remember Alex Murphy he was fighting against the directives, right? It’s so powerful… I mean, America pulled out of Iraq because soldiers were dying. What if there were no soldiers, just robots? What would have happened? Think about it in another way: a soldier or a policeman, if he gets an absurd order from the state, he can question it. If you take the policeman away and then put a machine, that’s it. Or think about it in yet another way; every single army or police group that made outrageous things, first they had to be dehumanized, they had to be trained in a way where they lost that humanity, they behaved machine-like. So this connection, it’s already in the original RoboCop. It’s there.
And it’s a great idea because you can take that into the present and adapt it to talk about the drones. We are flying drones in, killing people, in other countries. And Germany has drones, and England has drones, and pretty soon we are going to have robots that are going to… Today in the telegraph, today by coincidence, there is an article about the American army trying to replace soldiers with robots. And it’s going to happen. Every country will have to decide: Do we want robots in law enforcement? They then will have to say what’s going to be used and not used in war. I mean, this is a huge issue. I was really happy because RoboCop is the perfect character to provoke people to think about that.
You must have done a ton of research on robotics when you were developing this. What’s one of the craziest things that surprised you?
You know, you’re right about that. The reason I decided to make this movie is because I already love the subject matter. So I always read about robotics in my life because I like it, and I think it’s important. But I did more research and I saw this thing, and you can look at it on the web, where people have chips implanted in their brain and they think, and using though they can make a genetic machine move, far away from them.
Oh, check it out. Even monkeys do that. It’s insane. And it’s going to happen, man. And this interface between man and machine, which is another big part of this movie, it’s going to be more and more common. Those statics are going to be more and more developed. Brain errors will be replaced by sophisticated hardware and software that processes the same information in a similar way. It’s going to happen.
We were saying this movie is smarter than you average blockbuster and a lot of filmmakers go to school for communications or film studies. You studied politics at Oxford, right?
I did, and actually I’m sort of academic failure. Because I started everything and never finish a thing, but then I become a filmmaker. I started in Brazil, studying Physics. I stopped that to work in the financial market because they were hiring people who knew mathematics. Then I finally graduated in Business Administration. I went to Oxford for a while and I took political economy, and I didn’t really know what I was going to do until I made a documentary.
My first movie was a documentary and I really love filmmaking. My father was a film producer, that’s why I decided to do a documentary. So I am sort of all over the place. But I really believe, in a certain sense, in self education. I believe in curiosity and reading books and researching things for yourself. I always was like that, I never really loved professors telling me what to do and to think. And this kind of background that I… It’s about curiosity, you know what I mean? If you are a curious human being and you have a brain, you can research and you don’t have to go the regular way. Yeah, but I am digressing here, I’m sorry. Got lost in my own story.
I think all those different areas help inform your movies, even this film. It was reported that Fernando Meirelles, that you had called him and said that this was one of the toughest things that…
That never happened, actually.
It never happened?
Fernando later on called, I’m sorry man that got misinterpreted. I never called Fernando by the way. My editor who was with me called Fernando to talk about another movie. And we were talking about, at that time it wasn’t even shooting, and that came out. To make a movie like RoboCop, you only introduce the first character 11 minutes into the movie. The bad guy ain’t bad. I mean, he saved Alex Murphy’s life, Sellers. He is smart, he is not the Joker, he’s not blowing people up. I mean he’s not a mustache twirling kind of bad gay. That ain’t common. I mean we have a political satire in this movie. We criticize, right? I mean crazy, racially involved types. That’s it, it’s played there. We have a take on the idea of imperialism. The idea that we are God’s children; that’s not normal in a studio movie.
So, yeah, it takes some effort to get it done there. And I can tell you that it boils down to fighting for it over and over again to knowing what you want. So the studio looks at the material, they may be worried about it, but they see it’s powerful. So for instance, I have decided to show them my cut. I have 10 weeks that I can lock myself in a room and nobody can come in because I’m DGA. That’s the rule. But I didn’t do that. I mean I cut different sequences and sent it to them. Then it boils down to the preview. Like, you preview the movie and if it works everybody’s happy. And I believe in the audience. I believe in the audience. I think you can make a smart movie… Listen, I’m not creating anything here. Think about The Matrix, it’s a really smart movie.
It’s one of the smartest Sci-Fi movies in popular culture.
Ever. Yeah. And so I kind of think, it’s been proven that you can make a smart movie and people will watch it. People are smart. Just look at what’s happening on television right now. I mean, a series like The Wire, it’s very complex. And the audience is right there. The idea that somehow the audience is not going to get sophisticated things is just silly. And it a little bit has to do with the fact that doing sophisticated things take a lot of work and so it’s better just to do. But I never bought that. We previewed this movie and it was almost exactly the cut that you’ve seen, there’s very little difference. We only had one preview and it totally worked. And when they did the focus group, with all the studios active there, they asked the first gal “Why do you love this movie?” and she said “Because it’s political.” And I went like “See!” I mean, we don’t have to go away from those.
When you’re in the process of development, fighting battles to get this stuff in, did you lose anything?
Well we didn’t lose many, man. I brought Josh Zetumer, the writer, down to Rio and we spent a month together and we put sequences on the wall and there wasn’t anybody there, no producer, no studio. And we had a date. We had to start shooting at a certain date and that kind of helped me. Because by the time you will write it they are able to read the screenplay going, “I want to change this” and there’s no time. And also, I got the chance to do rehearsals. That was a really, really great thing for me because then you bring the actors with you. You go into a meeting room with a writer, there’s nobody there [from the studio], then you’re rewriting the screenplay as you try the scenes. The actors are giving their input and everybody gets close to the story. Then you have a screenplay that’s a collaboration and it becomes very hard for somebody to change it, you know what I mean? But having said that, the studio allowed me to do it. I mean, listen, Brazilian director, Brazilian director of photography, Brazilian editor, Brazilian composer — I clearly had a lot of room to do this movie. Why did they do that? I don’t know, maybe because they didn’t know me.
When you went into production, was this going to be a PG-13 movie?
Well, they put in the contracts, right, that you should do your best effort at whatever. But it never plays out in the set. You know what I mean? I mean you just shoot the movie you want to shoot.
Well you have some clever moments in there where people swear, and you play with and get away with some stuff…
Yeah, I mean the real violence in this movie, it’ s not on the bullets, it’s on the graphic depiction of what’s left of Alex Murphy. I mean, it’s violent because it’s the violence done to the character. Like dehumanizing this guy slowly, right? That’s the difference between this RoboCop and the other one. It’s that we chose to make RoboCop slowly. So he wakes up and he doesn’t believe he’s a fucking robot. I mean I’m dreaming, I’m in my yard listening to Frank Sinatra, I cant be a fucking robot. Then he finds out he’s in fucking China, that’s just a joke, but outsourcing him. But then, you know when he see’s what’s left of him he wants to die. And I wanted to be really, really graphic about that. That’s the thing that I love about it.
I wanted to be graphic about it and people were like “Woah, what is the MPAA going to say about- nobody has ever done that” and said “I don’t know, I suppose we are going to find out.” And you know, we did the best we could for the movie. I think the movie has the amount of violence that it demands. I mean we have an ED209 blowing a kid to pieces. It would be cut to some objection, he says “Are you okay, Callie?” like it never happened. You know what I mean? We did the movie, we sent it the MPAA, they looked at it and they said PG-13. I’ll take it.
So there was no back and forth with that?
Will there be an unrated directors cut on Blu-ray?
I like this cut that I have. I mean, I don’t see the reason why… You know, a movie is not better because it’s more violent. I mean, what is at stake when you make a movie is: is the violence appropriate to the movie? To the subject matter, to the story. Like, yeah, you have to have violence in Clockwork Orange. You have to. Got to be violent. In Elite Squad you have to have it. In the original RoboCop you have to have it. But in this movie we’ve made, its not necessarily. Because it’s kind of a different take.
I get that. What are you going to be doing next?
I wish somebody could tell me. I mean I don’t know, man. I have a documentary project in Rio about how in the last two years, more than 5000 people disappeared in the city of Rio de Janiero. Five thousand. That’s twice the number of people who died on September 11. I suspect the police are killing a lot of people, but we don’t know. And I want to do a documentary about that. I have a screenplay that I developed about the tri-border. This is a frontier between Brazil, Paraguay, and Argentina, which is really crazy violent place where it has Belize there and Mosares there. The Brazilian federal police of Paraguay and the drug dealers. It’s kind of crazy but it’s real. And I’m writing a screenplay for Warner brothers, Sci-Fi.
Yeah. Also about the philosophy of Mayan issues. What it means to be a human being. Are we a software? All those issues that I already touched upon. Right now I’m calling it the Mayan Corporation. And you know, one of those. It depends on the… you know the drill.