Jose Padilha interview: RoboCop, Elite Squad & philosophy

We talk to director Jose Padilha about the RoboCop remake, drone warfare, Elite Squad and much more...

It’s a weird coincidence that, as Den Of Geek waited in a London hotel to interview RoboCop remake director Jose Padilha, the news appeared on the television that the first top secret drone had been rolled out in the UK. For Padilha, whose new take on RoboCop explores the impact of automated warfare, it’s a small example of how the science fiction in his film is just around the corner.

Dressed casually with round shades (not unlike those of a Jean Reno assassin), Padilha seems laid-back and upbeat when we’re ushered in to meet him, and in conversation, his mind is restless and positively effervescent. In just ten minutes, our conversation swerves from Paul Verhoeven’s RoboCop to Full Metal Jacket, from drone warfare to philosophy, and then onto documentary filmmaking and what drives him to make movies.

I was fascinated to see the number of parallels between your Elite Squad films and RoboCop. Both in terms of seeing cops being turned into killing machines, essentially, and also the triangle of politics, police and media. Was that why you wanted to make it?

I think that in the Verhoeven movie, the original one, the character already embodies a philosophical idea, which is that for violence to become extreme, there has to be a dehumanising process.

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So if you look at a film like Full Metal Jacket, for instance, and you see the training of the troops going to war, you see that training dehumanising the soldiers to the point where they aren’t critically engaging violence. The same thing in Elite Squad: you have a squad in Rio, in Brazil, who are trained to the point where they lose the capacity to think critically about their own acts, and behave like machines.

Verhoeven saw that, and he automated the dehumanising thing, which is to say he took the man out of the picture. So there’s a strong parallel in RoboCop.

You could also say that Nascimento is a conflicted character in Elite Squad, because he has his family trying to pull him out of the violence he’s become a part of. That conflict is exterior to the character of Nascimento, between two things that aren’t a part of himself.

It’s interior to the character of RoboCop: you have a man fighting a machine inside a single entity. And that’s why it’s a brilliant concept in Verhoeven’s movie.

Then there’s the other side of it: there is a political debate that’s going to happen around the use of drones, and the use of robots in war. It’s a serious issue. You can think about it like, if America pulled out of Vietnam because soldiers were dying, if robots were there instead, what would have happened?

It’s true that the automation of violence opens the door to fascism. And it’s a real, serious issue. I think in 10, 20 or 30 years, countries are going to start talking about legislation, where they’re going to have to decide whether they should allow robots to kill people, or allow law enforcement to become automated.

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And I think there’s going to be an increasing amount of negotiations and debates at the UN over what’s going to be legal or illegal as far as using robots for war goes. So I think those are pretty grounded subject matters that will show up in the near future. 

There’s a line in the film that I think encapsulates one of the themes in the film: “The illusion of free will”.

The Gary Oldman line, yeah. There are several ways in which we don’t have free will. One way is that our reality, or at least a big part of it, are given to us before we’re even born. So we don’t choose in which country we’re born, so if we’re born in a very poor family in Africa, your chances and choices in life are greatly reduced. Bill Gates called this the ‘womb lottery.’

And so yeah, there’s that. But there’s also the philosophical concept that there’s no free will at all. The standard position in the philosophical world is that there is no free will – none at all. It’s an illusion, and what happens to us is what happens to our physical body, which is in turn governed by mathematical laws that predict how particles interact with each other, and that has nothing to do with free will or conscience.

Nobody really knows how to explain consciousness. There’s no scientific explanation for consciousness. In that scene, Norton [Gary Oldman’s character] states the philosophical understanding of consciousness, which is that it’s an illusion. When the machine engages in war, the visor comes down, and Alex is just along for the ride – the machine sends information into the brain, and makes Alex thinks what the computer’s doing is his decision.

Now that’s essentially what philosophers think we are.

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But what about free will when it comes up against technology? Because as you said, the software overrides his brain patterns.

You’re right. Technology impacts free will and freedoms in general. Starting with privacy. I mean, the same way countries will have to decide what to do with robots in law enforcement, countries already have the technology to set up structures that will listen to your phone messages, that will read your emails. They make privacy really difficult. And they’re making choices regarding that – America has made a choice: we will take your email, and we will look at it if we want to.

That’s a choice they’ve made. You’re right, there’s a relationship between technology and freedom. Technology can give you freedom – you could be free to get in a space ship and go somewhere else – but on the other hand, technology can take freedom away. The key that opens the key to heaven also opens the door to hell. 

Were those things there when you came on board, those themes?

When I came on board, there was nothing, actually. There was a Darren Aronofsky script which took place 3,000 years into the future. It had nothing to do with want we did. I wanted to do my own take on it, so I started from scratch – I started to make a movie that was political, that talked about the use of drones, the imbalance of power it can create, the fascism it brings to foreign policy.

So I developed a movie thinking about that, and the existential drama of someone who wakes up and discovers that he doesn’t have a body anymore. What the fuck am I? Who am I? Does it make sense to live like this?

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Those were my main strengths, or ideas that I wanted to bring to the movie. I wanted to make a movie that could make a broad audience think about those issues, which I think are kind of fundamental.

Are those the things that made you want to become a filmmaker in the first place, those social themes?

I’m a documentary filmmaker first and foremost – I’ve made more documentary movies than fictional movies. I still work on docs. A documentary filmmaker is someone who wants to make a movie because he wants to talk about something.

It could be a character that touches his heart. You can spend, sometimes, four, five, sometimes nine years making a movie, it’s a big part of your life, and I can’t imagine myself doing something that doesn’t matter to me. Just for the money? That’s not what I want to do.

So the reason I became a filmmaker was because I thought it was an interesting medium through which you can talk about social issues, sometimes. Political issues, like violence in Rio de Janeiro, police corruption and all that. And then I can branch out and reach a broader audience. It’s like journalism, in a sense. 

Did have any ambivalence taking on this project given than it’s a remake, rather than go to Hollywood and make something original, perhaps?

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The original RoboCop idea has Alex Murphy inside a machine fighting its directives. That’s perfect to talk about the drone issue, to talk about the philosophical thing about what’s the difference between man and machine. What I saw was a very fertile idea, which in 1987 was sci-fi, but now is going to become real. It’s going to happen.

So I thought that’s a good concept to use to reach a broad audience, and Hollywood is interested in remaking RoboCop, because they see it as something that has a chance to succeed. And so I thought I could merge those two things. Having said that, it’s not easy to get a movie that has these ideas in it, and get it through a studio process. It’s not easy, you know? You’ve gotta do well in the first preview!

Jose Padilha, thank you very much.

RoboCop is out in UK cinemas on the 7th February.

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