Directing your first big-budget Hollywood studio movie is a challenging prospect, even for an experienced filmmaker. Remaking a movie that many consider a perfect sci-fi masterpiece, Paul Verhoeven’s 1987 RoboCop, makes the task perhaps even more daunting. But Brazilian director Jose Padilha — best known outside his home country for his gritty crime dramas Elite Squad and Elite Squad 2: The Enemy Within – has a simple response to that: “I never got afraid of the movie.”
Updating RoboCop is, in some ways, not impossible. Working with a sterling cast that included Gary Oldman, Michael Keaton, Jackie Earle Haley, Abbie Cornish, Jay Baruchel and Joel Kinnaman in the title role, Padilha has crafted a version of RoboCop that addresses modern-day concerns while also looking back to the original. Whether he has succeeded or not will be debated and decided by critics and moviegoers, but Padilha is satisfied that he’s done his best.
Den Of Geek sat down with the director for an exclusive interview to talk about making his first American studio film, getting along with his cast, re-imagining RoboCop and how his own experiences in Brazil informed his vision of the story.
Den Of Geek: How was your first time working on an American studio film?
Jose Padilha: I had a real, real good time on the shoot. I’m known in Brazil for this but I think if you ask the actors, there’s no stress in my set. I mean I don’t see a point in stressing out and creating an environment of fighting in a movie set. I think inviting collaboration and talking to everyone and having everybody in the crew engaged…I like getting everybody involved and working towards the story together with the actors and so on.
And listening to people. I don’t do it just to do it, I do it because I mean it. Sometimes I ask the gaffer, what do you think about this? You’ve got a lot of smart people who’ve made a lot of movies together who love their craft. I love it, too. So why not enjoy yourself doing it? It’s really hard work. You have to wake up very early every day, stay in the set for 12 hours at least. It’s a really, really difficult hard working job that people do because they love it.
This is your first time working with a big international cast of very well-known actors. Did you have any preconceptions about what it would be like to work with this kind of group of actors?
No. I always have had the premise that everybody works for the story. And so for me it boils down to what’s the best cinematic way to tell this story. We can talk about why tell the story — that’s another issue. But after you have decided that’s the story you want to tell, and you develop and you design that story with that in mind, then it’s about telling the story the best possible way. And that goes for the camera, for the director. Why would I do a fancy camera movement that might make the director look good but might not be the best choice for the story?
Same thing goes with acting. It’s about how we tell the story. I had this experience with Gary Oldman and Michael Keaton in rehearsal where they were giving lines to each other. “No, I think in this scene it’s better if you have this line because of this and this.” And we changed the line accordingly. This is an example of actors going for the story, you know. And the same thing happened with Abbie — sometimes Abbie would say to me, “You know, I’d rather not say anything in this scene.” And I go, “I think you’re right.” Joel, too. If you create an environment where everybody wants to tell the story and everybody understands that — including the director, the lead, the movie star, everybody — then it’s possible for you to have fun in the set. It was like that in Brazil and it was like that here.
Did you want to make this film yourself or was it offered to you?
I went into a meeting at MGM where just after, I think, Elite Squad had been (at the Berlin Film Festival). It was a general meeting with John Glickman and Roger Birnbaum. And it was basically about other movies. They talked about a lot of movies but in the room there was a RoboCop poster. And I really, really love Verhoeven’s RoboCop. I think it’s a brilliant film.
Did you have any trepidation about remaking such an iconic film?
My relationship to the Verhoeven movie — it’s one of being inspired by it. It inspires me. It brings good things to me as a filmmaker. It makes me want to talk about that character. And so I never got afraid of the movie. I just felt, “This is a great idea. How do we use the great concept that is in the original RoboCop to bring it to life again to talk about this issue that’s going to happen — drones and robots being used for law enforcement and war, and the risks that this involves.” And you go about it creatively. I suppose you could be afraid but you’re only afraid if you’re not thinking about the story and about the movie. If you approach the movie thinking, “Oh, what if I fail. What’s it going to mean for my career,” that’s already an egoistic thing because you’re thinking about yourself. And somehow when I’m making a movie I don’t do that.
How did growing up in a country that’s had so much social turbulence and upheaval of its own inform your view of this material and perhaps inspire it as well?
Brazil used to be a dictatorship, a right wing dictatorship. And filmmakers in Brazil naturally worked in opposition to that. Movies in Brazil were censored. You would send your movie to a government guy who would cut it and then send you the cut that you could show. So I love freedom and I love free speech and I love those values. And I hate imperialistic right wing crazy positioning, because my home is where I learned the dangers of that. And, by the way, I also hate left wing imperialistic positions — you can see the history of Russia and you know what I’m talking about. So fascism is fascism. It doesn’t matter if it’s left or right. And that informs my take on RoboCop a lot. I mean, we make fun of crazy right wing media that we get everywhere in American and Brazil and France. And we also discuss what would happen if a dictatorship like North Korea has robots and what would happen there. It wouldn’t be nice.
You were trained as a physicist earlier in life. What does the movie say about technology and science?
I think we are getting to a place where certain philosophical issues will be tested empirically. So we ask ourselves – it’s a key question – what is it that makes us human? Is it because our brain processes information in a certain way? Is it because we are running some software in our brain? If we run this software in a computer that’s not organic, will this computer feel something? Will it have a conscience? We don’t know the answer to that. We cannot emulate the complexity of a brain with computers yet. But we may one day be able to do that and then we will figure it out.
Those issues are at the core of this character because the character’s a hybrid between man and machine. He’s a man inside a machine. And he’s forced to ask himself, “Am I still human?” He looks at himself and he only sees his lung and his hand and the first reaction is “I’m not human, I want to die.” Then Dr. Norton (Gary Oldman) says to him, “But what about your wife?” The emotional relationship he has with his wife and his kid is there which makes him think, okay, I’m human. I want to be alive to watch my kid grow up. That’s a human thing. And then they take away his free will. Because people think free will is part of what being human is.
The movie is a fun movie. It’s a political movie. But it’s also a philosophical movie, I think. I tried to craft it this way with the help of the actors and I think it’s there — if you look at it you see it.