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There are few challenges greater in Hollywood than following one success with another, but remaking a universally beloved movie for questionable purposes has to be one of them. But José Padilha, director of Bus 174 and Elite Squad, did just that, creating his own version of RoboCop for modern audiences.
Whether audiences think he has succeeded remains to be seen, but the filmmaker took a markedly different approach with the material than his predecessor, reimagining Paul Verhoeven’s 1987 capitalist satire as a social commentary on the nature of man and his relationship with ever-advancing technology.
Padilha spoke to press at the recent Los Angeles press day for RoboCop, where he revealed what’s involved in creating a concept that could survive on its own even as it underscored what was effective about the original film. He also offered some insights into how his version differs from its predecessor, and perhaps more importantly, why.
Maybe just to get started, how did you decide to address hot-button issues like the battle over medical technology and how long people should be kept alive?
José Padilha: The first RoboCop, Verhoeven’s film, already it had a great idea, which is the connection between the automation of violence and fascism. For law enforcement, if you replace a soldier with a machine, you take away the possibility of the soldier or the policeman to not do something the state asks of him. He may think it’s unethical to do it, but a machine doesn’t have that critical thought process. If you think about the first movie, you have Alex Murphy fighting against the directives inside his head, and so that character embodies this idea that you have to dehumanize the perpetrator of violence in order to have fascism. Now in order to bring the movie to the present and to talk about what’s going to happen, every country will have to decide soon whether they’re going to want to have robots for law enforcement or not. And we set up this movie in a place in time where we said America has already decided not to allow robots for law enforcement.
This corporation, Sellars, wants to sell robots there. So he has to create a way to circumvent the law, and the only way to do this is to put a drone out there but to say that this drone is a man – put a man inside the machine. If you do that, then you create a character that’s a little bit different than Verhoeven, because you need to have a man. You’re selling that this machine is a man, so Alex Murphy wakes up, he’s totally conscious, he has his memories, he’s a man and then he finds out that he’s a robot. Once you do that, you can start to talk about philosophical issues that you mentioned, stuff like what is it that defines you as a man? Is it your brain, is it your body? It all boils down to the premise of the movie, and if you developed this movie in a coherent way, you necessarily have to tackle those issues.
One big difference from the original is that there’s none of the funny satirical commercials like in the first one. What prompted the decision to instead portray the media through Samuel L. Jackson’s character?
Why we replaced the commercials with the media? I think it’s because the media became like the commercials, in the real world, and so we thought it was a good thing to have a little bit of fun with, the crazy, right-wing model, Rush Limbaugh guys that everybody has. I mean, we have those in Brazil, and I’m sure there are those in France, England and Germany. Personally, I would have to say I’ve had it a little bit with them, so why not make a little fun?
Talk about Gary Oldman’s character. Dr. Norton, who’s sort of like Dr. Frankenstein with a conscience, and how you came up with him as RoboCop’s counterpart.
We got two weeks of rehearsal, and the fact that usually you don’t get that, it’s very, very important in filmmaking. If you’re thinking about doing a gigantic movie, it’s a lot of investment, and then you don’t rehearse it, it doesn’t make a lot of sense. In the rehearsal, several things happen. One is that you fine-tune the script. Two is the director looks at the script from a structural perspective, whether a story has an internal logic that makes sense, what it means, what it’s about and all that. But you can never look at the story like if Gary’s looking at Dr. Norton, he’s going to look at that character and it’s going to be deeper than what the director can look at, because the actor has that character to look at only. And so when you lock yourself in a room with great actors and you have the time to develop the script, you save so much time on the set, so much money on reshoots. Rehearsal is really an important thing in filmmaking, and I’m so glad I want to thank the studios for backing us up and giving us the time. It was really, really important.
The original film has more than a few iconic lines. You used several in the film. How did you choose which ones would work and how many would be too many?
Well, first thing that I wanted to say here is sometimes people have the illusion that the director’s choosing everything. He’s choosing the lines, he’s choosing … the way I work, the way I worked in Elite Squad 1 & 2 and the way we worked in this movie, also because we had the rehearsal, is that there’s freedom on set. People can change their dialogues and we changed dialogues several times. We changed scenes. There’s a scene in this movie that I love where Dr. Norton is explaining to Sellars why RoboCop can never be as good as a machine. Just make this work like that, obviously I can’t sell average. But that scene wasn’t going to happen. The screenplay had no scene where Gary Oldman was in the same room with Michael Keaton. It didn’t exist. It was a phone call from China. We were on the set, I looked at them and said, “You guys are here, you’re Gary Oldman, you’re Michael Keaton. I’m not going to do a phone call!” They would figure out how it happened.
But a lot of the lines that we have in our movie where … Everybody saw RoboCop over and over again, and so once, Jackie Earle Haley said, “I wouldn’t buy that for a dollar.” He just said it. I think it’s kind of like soccer, and I suppose American football and basketball was the same. If you were the coach, and you have great players around you, good things will happen. And that’s kind of how the lines that went in there, some of them were in the script, others were not. Others everybody, they just put it into the movie. And I hope some new lines like “Bad cop, RoboCop,” “Why’s America so robo-phobic?” will have their mark. I hope so.
RoboCop arrives today in theaters.