We know we said we were done with the Tech Issue, and we are. You'll get to read some of the Brazil Issue a little later today, but until that happens, why not look back fondly on what we were still promoting three days ago and enjoy an interview with the guy who wrote Robocop.
Picture it: Me, age seven. Under the covers, all shivers, shitting my pants as Peter Weller is about to have his arm blown off by a crazed balding asshole with a triple ought. The load dropped when the shots were let off their leashes to turn a newly transferred city cop into a pile of oozing red and grey matter. It was horrifying. But from this quivering mound of dead flesh came something I never could have imagined. A man machine. A hero so fierce that he would stomp a mud hole into the ass of Detroit, Michigan’s criminal element, re-invent the idea of law enforcement, and capture the imagination of boy, girl, woman and man alike.
This unit was Robocop, a fully functional robotic police officer. The movie was the only thing I had to believe in. Balls, it’s still all I have. Well, except for my wife and my job, but who’s counting that shit? The man behind this story is Ed Neumeier. Since Darren Aronofsky’s reworking Robocop, I thought it pertinent to go back and have a chat with the film’s originator. I asked Ed the questions, and he gave me the answers.
Vice: The movie was released 20 years ago. How do you feel the future you depicted back then has held up compared to the futures portrayed in stuff like Blade Runner, Total Recall, and Back To The Future?
Edward Neumeier: One of the advantages that Robocop has over most of the futuristic films of its era is that it’s not a very ambitious future. The most futuristic element in that movie is probably Robocop himself. There are a few terrible effects due to monetary restraints and a very corny matte shot at the end when the character Dick Jones falls out of the window, but I think it holds up strangely well compared to most. It does its job.
Agreed. What did Back To The Future suppose would happen? That in 2015 we’d be driving in the sky? That’s six years from now.
Yes, ha, there are no flying cars--they are a major problem unless you have a lot of money. That’s always been a long running joke in the sci-fi circles: “Wither thee flying car?” Funny story about that is, James Cameron was for a short time actually trying to build one. He went so far as to approach engineers at Leer and NASA but I guess it eluded even him. I never really heard much after the initial plans were being made. We never wanted things like that for Robocop because the concept of our story was that it was 15 minutes into the future.
I know, it’s the perfect choice for an urban dystopia but why choose Detroit for a setting?
This is a question I’ve had to answer time and time again. I think it was a metaphor of the mid-80s and old technology, the Rust Belt, and an end of an era—utter disrepair. It was actually shot in Dallas and a small town outside of Pittsburgh called Monessen, which is where we shot all the scenes in the old steel mill. No one’s ever come up to me screaming “THAT’S NOT DETROIT!” so I think we did fine. I’ve never even been to Detroit, oddly enough.
It’s a lovely cesspool. The last time I was there pretty much everyone I talked to brought up a home invasion or mugging they were involved in. I heard that upon reading the script the director, Paul Verhoeven, actually threw it in the trash at first glance. True?
Well, it was sent to him by Orion and the story goes that he got the script and read the opening page that read “Robocop; The Future of Law Enforcement” and he immediately threw it away. He thought it was kid stuff. Then Orion pressured him to read it again because they felt he might grasp the subtext of the film so he asked his wife, Martine, to read it. She did and said to Paul “Ohhh, I think you probably should read this, it’s something you’re gonna like.” He got to around page nine or ten, where the hero’s hand and arm gets blown off, and it just snapped on for him. Within three days he was on a plane out to LA to talk. The other big scene that struck a chord with him was when Robocop goes back to his old house and smashes everything up. Paul always referred to that as paradise lost. We actually wrote a more serious version and tried that but it didn’t fly so we just stuck to the original. Paul believed heavily in authorship for the screenwriter.
After he finally read the script and things got rolling was it his intention to make an X-rated film or was that just how it ended up?
I don’t know if that was his intention but it was uncommon for films like Robocop to get slapped with an X-rating, all it meant was you had to re-cut it. The interesting thing about this film is that we got an X-rating eight times and finally we had to cut a scene which I didn’t even think looked particularly good. That was when Robocop—while still fully human—gets his arm blown off in the steel mill. It was done with a wire yanking the arm away as the arm gets shot at and I thought it looked terribly corny but it was the scene that scaled it back enough to get an R-rating.
That scene actually scared the shit out of my wife last time we watched it. Speaking of broads, I know the realm of sci-fi seems to be populated mainly by the male but how did women react to this film?
It’s interesting, Robocop was loved by women, even more so than Starship Troopers, which had several women in it playing heroic roles, but I think there is something noble about him. He was defending people, you know, so it made a deep impact with even older women. There was a perception that crime in America during the mid-80s was on the rise so we were beneficiaries of that current paranoia.
Has anyone every talked to you about actually building a real Robocop?
No, but as a result of the movie I was grabbed as a consultant by the US Air Force for a program called 2025. They were trying to re-imagine their role in the future and they wanted me to foster imaginative thinking. The movie’s also highly influential in robotics labs at most US universities, like Stanford and USB. They call everything Robo-this and Robo-that all because of the movie. There was also a project called Soldier In The System that the US Army was developing, sort of a robotic soldier—not a bipedal robot, but something rudimentary that would kill you if programmed to do so.
Jesus Christ, did it ever come to fruition?
I recently read an article about it where they were worried that the robots would turn and fire on friendly position so they were trying to figure out how to teach robots battle ethics. That’s something our kids will have to worry about: robots not understanding who to kill in the fog of war.
I can only hope. So, you turned down a position as a Vice President at Universal Pictures to continue work on Robocop. What’s the story behind this?
I was a story analyst for Universal for a while and then I became a junior executive or a creative executive. I was being groomed for bigger things. They had the Vice Presidency in mind for me but I couldn’t last in the corporate level of things. Actually most of the boardroom scenes and corporate stuff in Robocop are culled from my year of wearing a suit. The scene when Ed-209 is being tested during a board meeting, malfunctions, and kills a board member was inspired by a daydream I would frequently have during meetings where a giant robot would burst into the room and just start gunning people down!
I have that same daydream everyday. You beat me to fictionalizing it. Originally you wrote a script for Robocop 2 but it didn’t get used? What was your story?
The version of Robocop 2 that I wrote would have thrown him much further into the future. I’m kind of glad we didn’t get to see it through because of what we talked about before, that the original movie had such a minimal science-fiction element to its plot. My sequel was much more comic-book-y but there was some fun stuff that we were toying with, like a sort of ghost-in-the-machine-type spirit that happened to be female and Robocop ends up falling in love with. We didn’t have much time to work on it due the fact that we were working on a script for Oliver Stone—who was very hot at the time—and because of an impending writers strike. We got fired during the strike before we could work very hard on it.
How did Frank Miller come to write the second and third films?
Well, I recommended Frank for a completely different project, but once Orion canned my original script they brought him in to rewrite that instead.
What did you think of the sequels?
I don’t think they were really successful either in tone or in the heroics. I’m saying that with a grain of salt because it’s a hard job to follow up a movie like the first one, but I still don’t think it came off right. I just don’t think the second movie was very much fun, and the third movie was a tepid attempt to make a PG-13, more family oriented version, which needless to say defeats the entire purpose of Robocop.
Well, what about the new one they’re talking about? Are you working at all with Darren Aronofsky’s remake set to come out next year?
No, I’m not involved at all, which is good because I don’t really think I would want to retrace my footsteps with this one. I basically just heard that Aronofsky was doing a remake and that they didn’t want anything to do with us, Verhoeven included. I said to myself, “That’s nice, I guess they’ll have to pay us some money now.” The good news about this situation is that Aronofsky is a very talented filmmaker so it won’t be a clunker, and also from what I’m told he wants to make a very tough, brutal film as compared to the satirical version that Paul and I crafted. Making it a serious film is most likely the smartest thing to do with it because I don’t think a script like ours would play very well these days. It’s too sarcastic and cynically humored. It just wouldn’t fly.
JOHN SHARKEY III
(photo by Leslie Rosenthal)