Interview: ‘RoboCop’ Director Jose Padilha Talks Not Replicating The Original, Putting His Stamp on the Material & More

By February 12, 2014
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Until now, Brazilian director Jose Padilha was best known for directing the Elite Squad movies – low-budget action films set in his home country about corruption in the police force and the political hurdles that have to be cleared in order to preserve justice. Sony hired Padilha to direct the studio’s remake of RoboCop, a move that makes sense considering that story shares some similar themes with the director’s previous projects.

A couple of weeks ago, I had the opportunity to sit down with Padilha during the film’s press day in Beverly Hills and talk to him about the challenges of making his first studio-produced movie, why he didn’t really try to remake Paul Verhoeven’s original movie, his experience working with visual effects, what it was like to direct Michael Keaton and Gary Oldman in the same scene, and much, much more. Padilha is an engaging, whip-smart guy, and he gave some terrific answers during our conversation. I can’t wait to see what he does next. (There are minor spoilers sprinkled throughout this interview, but nothing that should damage your enjoyment of the film.)

GeekNation: Thanks for speaking with me. First of all, I have to admit something to you. I was not pleased when I heard a remake of RoboCop was on the way.

Jose Padilha: Listen, let me say this to you: if I wasn’t the director, I wouldn’t be pleased either. (Both laugh) Because I’m a fan.

I assumed this film would try to copy Paul Verhoeven’s iconic 1987 original film, and I have to say I was pleasantly surprised with what you did with it and how you seemed to not even really try to replicate what he did with that movie.

Well, it’s not doable. The Verhoeven movie had the Verhoeven signature, and it’s iconic, and it’s important, and it’s part of the history of filmmaking. It would be so stupid to try to do it again, or even to try to just make a cash machine out of that. Explore it like that. It would be silly. I totally understand people who were fans of the first movie being worried about it because, let’s face it, recent adaptations of movies haven’t been that good. So I get that.

One of the main plot points in this movie involves tipping public perception in favor of RoboCop in order for a bill to be passed. I find it interesting that in a way, you’re essentially having to do the same thing – tip public perception from “oh man, another remake” and telling people, “No, really – this is actually its own story.”

That’s funny. I never thought about that.

What’s your approach to trying to convince people, or are you planning on just letting the movie speak for itself?

Listen, politics and media, it’s about convincing people. We have politicians trying to convince people that we should have no gun regulations. We have politicians trying to convince people that there should be gun regulations. We have media people giving their opinions. This is what it’s about. It happens. My issue about that, my approach was more down to Earth. I actually think that the development of drones and robots is right around the corner. We already have drones killing people in war. We’re soon going to have robots replacing soldiers or replacing law enforcement. This opens a lot of issues. Verhoeven clearly saw in the original RoboCop that there’s a connection between fascism and the automation of violence.

Think about this. Why did America pull out of Vietnam? Because soldiers were dying. Now take the soldiers out, and put robots there. What would have happened? There is a connection. Verhoeven saw that. The other way to think about it is to think that every single police department or army that made mass murder had to enter a training that dehumanized the soldiers. That turned the soldiers into some sort of robots. You’ve seen this in several movies, and in reality. Another way to think about it is, if the state gives an order to a policeman, and the policeman finds the order problematic, he can say no. If you have a machine, there’s nobody to say anything. There is a connection between the automation of violence and fascism. Verhoeven saw this, and that’s what genius about RoboCop.

It’s still – the abstract idea behind RoboCop, it’s totally valid today. The better the technology, the stronger the idea gets. So my take was, let’s take this genius idea, a very fruitful idea, let’s not try to repeat the movie, let’s be true to the original core of it. To the brains of it. Let’s talk about what’s going to happen next. And you know what’s going to happen next? Countries will have to decide by themselves whether they’re going to use robots or not in law enforcement. And there’s going to be something like the Dreyfus Act [featured in this RoboCop film]. There’s going to be people in America that will say, ‘Yeah, we use it for foreign policy, in war, but let’s not have robots here at home pulling the trigger.’ It’s going to be religious people saying stuff like this. Non-religious people. Democrats. Republicans. There’s going to be a debate. This is going to happen, man! Write it down!

The original RoboCop was a giant sendup of corporate culture, and this one seems to be much more about politics. The Elite Squad films dealt heavily with politics, but let’s talk about studio politics for a second. When a film’s budget gets to a certain point, I imagine it becomes increasingly difficult to feel like you have the proper amount of control over the direction of a project. How much did you feel you were able to put your own personal stamp on this movie?

I think it’s pretty clear that this ain’t a regular big studio superhero movie, right? We only introduce the main character eleven minutes into the movie. The bad guy isn’t bad – he’s Michael Keaton, and we love him. He saved the life of Alex Murphy to begin with. The evil scientist is smart as hell. RoboCop never solves his problem. He’s still a robot inside. He’s never going to have sex with his wife. We don’t have a happy ending. We have a film that’s political, talks about drones, criticizes the right-wing crazy Rush Limbaugh media. We clearly had a lot of room to do this. Why did we have a lot of room? I don’t know, man. I just took it. (Laughs)

To tell you the truth, it’s an endeavor. If you’re doing RoboCop, you can’t do something stupid with RoboCop. It’s like shooting yourself in the foot. The studio understood. That’s why I love this project. This is why Aronofsky was attached to this project. It only attracted people who really want to do movies like that. And the studio understood it. They said, ‘You know what? Yeah.’ And furthermore, I think people are getting the idea that superhero movies – some of them are good, some of them are bad – but they’re all kinda looking the same recently, the same movie over and over again. I think MGM bought into the fact of, ‘Let’s try to do something new. Let’s bring this director.’ You know, when I invited my director of photography – a Brazilian guy – my editor is Brazilian, my composer is Brazilian. It’s a bunch of Brazilians! It meant to me that you have a bunch o room to do this. But of course, it always boils down to the preview. And we got lucky. We cut a movie, one hour and fifty four minutes, we previewed it, and it scored really high.

There were two things that I kept going back to that I’d tell the studio. One was, ‘Look at television. We don’t need to underestimate the audience. The audience is smart.’ A lot of movies are treating the audience like they’re stupid. They’re not. We can be sophisticated, we can have ideas in it, we can be political, we can name the characters after philosophers, we can have Norton talk about the illusion of free will – we can have all that, and everybody’s going to get it. It can be about changing a law, which seems to be abstract. It’s about whether the Dreyfus Act is going to stand or go, whether robots will be allowed or not. That’s connected to fascism, and it’s about that. What’s the RoboCop victory in this movie? His only victory is that the Dreyfus Act stays. That’s it. It’s like a picture against fascism. And I kept going back to the television series because they’re really smart, like “The Wire,” “Breaking Bad.” The audience is there. They’re watching it. So that’s one thing.

And the other thing was, the regular superhero movie like Spider-Man, Iron Man, it’s about – kids want to be Spider-Man. They want to be Iron Man. So you get a charismatic actor and you get really cool scenes. You can make a good movie out of that, a fun movie, and that’s the regular superhero model of the movie. But not even Alex Murphy wants to be RoboCop, man. That’s another animal. I think all of this helped me out.

RoboCop Keaton Oldman

You mentioned Michael Keaton. Some of my favorite scenes in the movie were just when Gary Oldman and Michael Keaton were talking to each other in a room. What was it like directing those guys? (Padilha brightens up tremendously when I mention this scene.)

That scene didn’t exist, actually. The scene was a telephone call. In the sets, I had Michael Keaton in one set, and Gary Oldman in another, and I looked at them. Gary Oldman was supposed to be in China. I brought Gary and Michael in and I said, ‘You know what, guys? I have two of the best actors ever, and I’m going to do a fucking telephone call? I can’t do that. How do we change this. We’re going to change the script right here.’ And Gary said, ‘Oh, we do this. We do the same scene, but at the end, we have him say ‘Get your ass back to China’ and that sells it!’ Gary’s a genius, and I’m like, ‘Good idea!’ We wrote that down, put them in a room, and here’s the scene – action. A lot of that scene is improvised. ‘But I don’t know how to sell average.’ ‘We need to give the American people a product they can root for.’ ‘That’s a man inside a machine!’ It’s just two great actors. You have to let them do it. It’s one of my favorite scenes in the movie, too. The performances of Michael and Gary are just crazy.

The Elite Squad films, aside from sharing some obvious story similarities about rooting out corruption, are small, gritty, fast-paced thrillers that were also very cheap in comparison with this project. Along with the fact that there are just more people working for you, what was the biggest change for you going from something small to something of this scale?

One of the key moments in this movie was when I asked the studio for two weeks of rehearsal, and the studio said yes. Because it allowed me to bring the actors to Toronto, lock ourselves in a room, have a writer in there, and make sure that everybody understood each other and everybody understood what the story was. To me, it’s about working for the story. It’s not about the cool camera movement that’s going to make the director look good. Fuck that. It’s about what’s the best camera movement to tell this story in the best way. It’s not about the actor who’s going to shine above the others. It’s about, how can we do this together? And it was very clear that the actors we had, because they’re confident in their ability, they went for it.

I saw Gary give lines to Michael Keaton, and vice versa. Abby [Cornish, who plays Alex Murphy’s wife] might say, ‘I don’t want to say anything in this scene.’ People got into the story, just like I do it in Brazil. In Brazil, I have more time for rehearsal. I have a month. Here, I got two weeks, but it changed the whole dynamic. Once everyone’s focused on the story, then you can have improvisations because everyone understands what it is. What we’re trying to say. It helps that the story is about something. Once that’s there, the scope doesn’t matter.

If memory serves, most of the stunts and effects in the Elite Squad films were practical, or at least they looked very practical.

All of them were. Not most – all of them!

So how was the experience of working with primarily visual effects for RoboCop?

I knew nothing about visual effects when I got into this project. I’m not going to lie to you about this. I knew zip – I had never done it! So, to me, it was about how I could get people who really know how to do this to help me out here, because I don’t fucking know what to do. And I got a great VFX team with great vendors. It was a very happy thing for us to be able to get FrameStore, a great company, into the movie, and also Method, and others. I basically went and designed my shots and took everybody to the sets and explained what I wanted to do and how the camera would move, and then the visual effects team looked at it and said, ‘OK, if you do this, this is what’s going to happen. Let’s simulate this in a computer.’ I’d look at it and say, ‘OK, let’s change it like that.’ So it was like bouncing back ideas and trying them and listing the shots so they could understand. In a certain sense it actually helped me because it forced me to think about everything beforehand.

RoboCop Kinnaman Cornish

Cool. I think I have time for one more question, so I’m wondering: was there anything that you weren’t able to put in the movie that you really wanted to get in there?

No, man. I think essentially we got the movie we wanted to make. We got the opening sequence with the Tehran thing, which is a comment about what I just said about Iraq and all of that. We got Samuel L. Jackson as this crazy, right-wing, Rush Limbaugh commentator there making fun of those guys and the crazy imperialistic statements these people make. We got the emotional core of the movie with Abby, J.P. [Ruttan, who plays Murphy’s son], and Joel [Kinnaman], and we managed to keep that.

We never solved the RoboCop problem. We end the movie, and the Dreyfus Act is still here, but lo and behold, you’re a fucking robot and you’re not going to make love with your wife, and you’re not going to be a regular father. We keep that. We didn’t lie to the audience. We pretty much did what we wanted. We were able to get the music that I wanted, like Focus, and The Clash, and Frank Sinatra…all these songs that people would never think of for RoboCop, that we tried to put in there. It was a good ride, man. It was bumpy and a lot of work and a lot of arguments, that’s true. It’s not gonna happen like that. But at the end of the day I’m happy with the movie.

RoboCop arrives in theaters this Thursday, February 13th. Read our full review here.

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Ben is a writer living in Los Angeles, California. His work has been featured at ScreenRant.com, FirstShowing.net, MySpace.com, GeekTyrant.com, and many more sites across the web. Some of his favorite movies include The Rocketeer, Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy, Tombstone, Lucky Number Slevin, Raiders of the Lost Ark, Ferris Bueller's Day Off, Collateral, Double Indemnity, Back to the Future and The Prestige. Follow him on Twitter: @BenPears.
  • James T Hartl

    glad he was happy with the movie