Interview: ‘RoboCop’ Director José Padilha On Ethical Issues, Kubrick’s Influence & Reinventing Steadicam
Posted on Wednesday, July 24th, 2013 by Peter Sciretta
When I sat down with director Jose Padilha to talk about his upcoming Robocop reboot at Comic Con, I expected to have a very surface conversation about his first Hollywood blockbuster. But what I got instead with a deep psychological dissection of the characters and story of his film, references to how he was influenced by Stanley Kubrick for a sequence, and interesting details on how they needed to reinvent the Steadicam rig to shoot Point of View sequences from RoboCop’s perspective. It was also shocking to hear him talk candidly about how he isn’t even involved in the 3D process for this film. All of this and more can be read in my interview with Jose, after the jump.
Peter Sciretta: I loved ELITE SQUAD.
Jose Pahilla: Oh, cool.
Slash Film: I loved all of the films. I also love ROBOCOP.
JP: So do I.
Slash Film: So the question is, and I’m sure you’re asked this a lot, but why remake ROBOCOP and why remake it now?
JP: Those are good questions. I haven’t heard them like this. Well first of all, I’m not trying to remake ROBOCOP, because I don’t think ROBOCOP is remake-able. When I hear the word “ROBOCOP” I think about the first movie only and I think that the first movie has a lot of bold direct decisions in it that worked out. Some of them were aesthetical, like the use of violence was aesthetical to me.
Slash Film: Yeah.
JP: And all of the corporate ads that were mocking corporations and portraying how corporations dealt with the general public.
Slash Film: Yeah, it’s almost like parody at times.
JP: Yeah, in a dismissive way basically. All of those things are for me part of what I understand by the word “ROBOCOP” and those things just cannot be repeated. They are there and they are their own thing, so for me it was more an exploration of the underlying philosophical ideas of the concept of ROBOCOP. SO if you look at Robocop and you look at what’s going on today, more and more we are getting close to actually having a Robocop. Now we have drones, so we can wage war on other countries from far away. We can kill people without even being at risk. In the future we are not even going to have drones, because drones are piloted by someone, so if the drone makes a mistake, like if a guy presses a button and the drone kills a bunch of kids, you can always go and sue these guys or blame this guy, but in the future you’re going to have autonomous robots that make their own decisions. Say you have a robot in the middle of the desert fighting terrorists and the robot decides to shoot at a terrorist and kills a kid instead, who is to blame? There’s no human being there.
Slash Film: That’s why you’ve got to have a human in there.
JP: There’s no human though. So if you don’t have a human being in there, then is it the company that made the robot? Is it the army that deployed the robot? Is it the software manufacturer? Who is to blame? The idea that if you can’t blame someone, then ethics and law don’t apply to an action and this is being debated in philosophical circuits right now, because it’s going to happen. It’s going to become true. It opens a gigantic door to fashion, because the pressure we had, for instance during the Vietnam war where soldiers were dying and that’s why the war ended, it doesn’t exist anymore, because there are no soldiers in the war. All of this to me was implied in the original ROBOCOP. It was there, way ahead of its time by the way, because now it’s easy to think about that. At that time it was kind of crazy. So we decided to make a movie where we are in 2026 where we are in the future, America is using robots for war all over the world, but because robots are not accountable, the Americans will not allow the robot to pull the trigger domestically, there’s a law that forbids that. So this corporation is losing a lot of money, because it cannot sell robots at home. So how do you circumvent the law? You put a man inside a machine; you make a robot that has a conscious. So we abide by that concept and by doing so I think we were able to do one thing that interests me in the movie the most, we have a general ethical, political, philosophical discussion that is meaningful for humanity. It really is. It’s going to happen, but it plays out in the head of a character in Detroit, because Alex Murphy is saying “Did I really kill this kid or not? Who shot this guy? Was it me or was it the robot in me? Who am I?” In order to explore this idea, this concept, dramatically, we did something that’s very different from the original. In the original, Alex Murphy isn’t there when he becomes Robocop. It’s later that he slowly comes back, but originally he’s not there. Our Robocop, because the company has to pretend it has a man in the machine making the decisions, he’s there. So the guy wakes up and finds out he’s a fucking robot. “What the fuck have I become? I want to die. I don’t want to do this. How do I talk to my wife?” So that creates a dramatic dimension in the movie that reflects the original philosophical question that plays out inside the head of that character.
Slash Film: I’m sure there’s stuff dealing with now that he has so much expensive tech on him, he’s not allowed to be himself or whatever. I mean he’s an investment, right?
JP: Yes, that too. The other thing that plays out in the movie is they debate him like a Coca Cola bottle. “If we make him more shiny, will the audience like him a little more?” So he becomes a product like you say and the process of him becoming a product is manufactured in the movie in different ways. One, they do focus groups to decide how he’s going to look and that kind of shit. The other thing that they do is there starts to be a conflict between the human and the mechanical part of him and when this conflict takes place there is the risk that this thing is going to malfunction and “we cannot have a malfunction.” I know I don’t have to tell you anymore, because you already know what the movie is about.
Slash Film: Yes.
JP: (Laughs) I haven’t told this to anyone, so you have something here!
Slash Film: Well thank you. You know, I have to ask you. When pictures of the suit first came out on the internet there was a lot of unfavorable response. I haven’t seen the footage at Comic Con. I haven’t seen any footage and I’m sure people might come around to it, but what do you have to say to the people out there that aren’t able to see this footage that saw the set photos?
JP: Well, “go watch the movie, because it is Robocop.” That’s what I have to say. I mean I have a lot of respect for ROBOCOP, that’s why I’m making this movie. I can tell the fans right now, Robocop is Robocop. The pictures you’ve seen, there’s more to the picture than meets the eye, but I don’t want to give it away. Like I said, there was a marketing process of making Robocop, so you have more than one rendering of the character in the movie.
Slash Film: Okay, I get that. The original film was rated X originally for violence. It has that stylized violence that you said…
JP: Yeah, I don’t see the point, for me, of the use of violence in the first ROBOCOP. It was a decision that had to do with the tone and the character in the story they were portraying. I’m not doing the same movie again, because I can’t do that, it’s just too good. So for the movie that I’m doing…
Slash Film: There’d be no point for you to do the same thing.
JP: For the movie that I’m doing, R rated is not… I don’t see being R rated as the most important thing in the world, because I’m exploring philosophical and dramatic concepts first and foremost. Now we do have a lot of shooting and people die on camera, killed by 209s and that stuff, so I don’t know how the rating is going to be, because that’s not my part of the job. I just shot it the best way I could. Now nobody was on the set saying to me “Don’t shoot like this.” It didn’t happen like that. I don’t know how it’s going to go in the future, but it wasn’t like that during the shoot. I think we have the correct amount of violence for the story we want to tell and this is how you measure it to me, if you put more violence than the story demands, it becomes ridiculous. If you put less, it becomes ridiculous. You’ve got to nail it just right.
Slash Film: Yeah, whenever it’s distracting it’s distracting.
JP: The amount of violence that the original ROBOCOP had was perfect for the original ROBOCOP story not necessarily perfect for my rendering of it.
Slash Film: It sounds like you’re making a film that’s much deeper than I think people were expecting it to be. It’s not the surface level ROBOCOP.
JP: Not at all.
Slash Film: I overheard you talking to someone else referencing Kubrick, which is not something I think anybody would be expecting you to be referencing when you’re talking about ROBOCOP. Can you tell us how you’re referencing Kubrick?
JP: We have roughly a thirty minute sequence of Robocop coming to grips with the fact that he is Robocop. It’s a big part of the movie and it’s in a great set, a beautiful lab, and it’s Gary Oldman, a total genius actor, Joel Kinnaman delivering an amazing performance…
Slash Film: I love him.
JP: Yeah, and I went for wide angle lenses, slow camera movements, because I saw it as a Stanley Kubrick…
Slash Film: You’re usually a handheld guy, like kind of shaky cam.
JP: Yeah, but this is my favorite part of the movie, the guy waking up and saying “Fuck, I’m a robot. What the fuck am I?” This I shot… it’s a ripoff of Stanley Kubrick’s style of shooting because it’s all the wide lenses that people don’t use any more.
Slash Film: Especially up close.
JP: Yeah, accepting the distortion, because it is about the distortion anyway. It’s a distorted account for that person and so it’s a lot of slow camera movements, slow paced part of the movie which I really love. Having said that, we do have shootouts in this movie and a bunch of them shot ELITE SQUAD style, hand held too.
Slash Film: I was surprised that Robocop actually does look like Robocop. He has a huge robotic suit and stuff and I was actually expecting, when they announced this where there’s going to be nanobots and he’s going to look like a normal person…
JP: Yeah, that would be too much. Robocop is Robocop, you know? That wouldn’t be Robocop.
Slash Film: So that never came up in development?
JP: No. It’s Robocop. It’s a bigger, stronger, robot looking… stronger than a man. It’s a robot.
Slash Film: Did you shoot the film in 3D?
JP: No, we shot the movie regularly.
Slash Film: So it’s going to be post-converted?
JP: I don’t know.
Slash Film: That’s funny.
JP: I don’t really, to tell you the truth.
Slash Film: That’s crazy.
JP: Yeah, you know I shot a two dimensional movie. That’s what I did. I don’t control whether it’s going to go 3D or not.
Slash Film: That’s a big marketing thing. I heard that you built a special steadicam rig. Why did you have to create a new steadicam?
JP: Our Robocop is hooked to all the CCTV cameras in the city, so it’s like Big Brother, he can see everyone who is being photographed on a CCTV camera, because that’s what’s going to happen in the real world and conversely, because images are being transmitted to him, what he sees is also being transmitted to a lab, so everybody can see what Robocop sees and so I have a lot of POVs in the movie and a POV is an interesting cinematic animal, because in a POV you can look straight into the camera, you can talk to the audience, you’re talking to Robocop, right? And I wanted my POVs to feel realistic and usually POVs in movie are done with steadicams and wide angle lenses. Steadicams by nature turn slowly… You can’t turn a steadicam fast, it’s impossible. Human beings on the other hand go like this. (He moves his head.)
Slash Film: Yeah, they whip their head around.
JP: And so we created a new steadicam with a head on it. So we have a steadicam that goes like “voom, voom.” Nobody has ever done this before and that’s the Robocop POV. We needed four people to operate it.
Slash Film: That’s crazy.
JP: It is crazy.
Slash Film: Wow. I’ve been waiting for Hollywood to do another film that’s entirely done in POV and it’s interesting, like in SPIDERMAN there was that one shot. This will be interesting.
JP: We’ve got a lot of POVs in our movie, because POVs are constituted of this storytelling. I mean in order to monitor Robocop, these people monitor him by seeing what he sees and what he’s doing.
Slash Film: I think it would work in Robocop more than it would in a non-robot story, because POV is in some ways off putting, but I feel like that’s what you want.
JP: That’s exactly right. And also Robocop’s POV, it’s more than a regular POV, because Robocop has a lot of sensors that detects a lot of things that the human eye can’t.
Slash Film: So it’s going to be augmented reality?
JP: So you can look at someone and see “This person is nervous.” You know what I mean? “He’s sweating. This is aggressive behavior.” All of those softwares are running in his head at the same time, so it’s an incredibly resource of information that we can get into the movie through those POVs. We also have POVs of 209s and POVs of other robots, other drones in the movie. The opening sequence shows the Pentagon controlling a gigantic number of robots in Tiran as we have invaded Tiran. (Laughs) I hope we don’t, but we are now using robots to keep the terrorists at bay and so we have this sequence that shows that.
Slash Film: One last question. This is probably a story question and it might be answered in the film, but with the drones why isn’t someone behind a computer somewhere controlling the robot? Why does a human have to be inside the robot?
JP: Why is the human inside the robot? Well the human is inside the robot because in America it’s forbidden to use autonomous robots, that’s it.
Slash Film: I’m not saying autonomous like a drone, like have someone behind a keyboard with…
JP: Yeah, autonomous is a robot that doesn’t need a drone, so the robot has a software that’s so complex that it can do its own thing like the Terminator and this is where robotics is going. It is going this way and the reason it’s going this way is because if you don’t have any person, it’s cheaper, you don’t have the hire anyone as it works by itself, the thing makes less mistakes or so it’s claimed, it doesn’t’ get tired, it has no problem with the weather, it doesn’t get sick. There are a lot of advantages to having autonomous robots and they will be used. There are some applications that you cannot have human beings using. For instance it’s clear to me that robots will be used in space exploration over and over again.
Slash Film: They already are.
JP: Yeah, and you have to use them, because if you go to Mars or even if you could go to the sun, it takes eight minutes for a light signal to go from here to the sun and you can’t control a robot online, it has to be able to make its own decisions, because there is too big of a time lag, so robotics is going to go in this direction and this direction has huge philosophical implications unless you think that we can create robots with a conscience that can make choices and therefore can be judged like by a jury “You shouldn’t have done that.” You know what I mean? I am kind of skeptical about that in the short run. I think before this happens, because I don’t know what generates consciousness, actually nobody does, I don’t know what physical process is behind it, so I think until we can prove that there are robots with consciousness we are going to have to grapple with the issue that we are taking accountability out of law enforcement and war and that’s kind of a big step.
Slash Film: It’s scary, but we will see in your film. Thank you very much.