Man and machine unite in “RoboCop,” a reimaging of the 1980s cult classic, directed by Jose Padilha. In a Detroit ravaged by crime, Officer Alex Murphy (Joel Kinnaman) becomes the star product of OmniCorp, the world’s leading robotics defense company. OmniCorp’s CEO, Raymond Sellars (Michael Keaton), sees an opening for the perfect policeman – a robot that can clean up the city without putting police lives at risk, but the idea of a robot pulling the trigger makes people anxious. Opening in theaters on February 12th, the action thriller boasts an impressive cast that also includes Gary Oldman, Abby Cornish and Samuel L. Jackson.
At the film’s recent press day, Kinnaman, Keaton, Padilha, Gary Oldman and Abby Cornish talked about how the project came together, what drew them to their characters, how Padilha’s vision and his philosophical and political ideas fit inside the concept of “RoboCop,” how the new film compares to the iconic classic, the challenges Kinnaman encountered working with his costume and how it helped him discover the vulnerability of his character, how Keaton’s experience donning the Batman suit compared, and what John Paul Ruttan and “The Wire’s” Michael K. Williams brought to the film.
Here what they had to say:
QUESTION: One big difference from the original is that there are none of the funny satirical commercials. Can you talk about the decision not to use commercials this time around? Also, you guys address a lot of hot button issues aside from security. What went into the thought process to make this a little deeper than the first one?
JOSE PADILHA: The first “RoboCop,” Verhoeven’s film, already had a great idea in it the way I see it, which is the connection between the automation of violence and fascism. You can think about this connection in several ways. One way to think about it is to consider Vietnam and how America pulled out of Vietnam because there were movements at home due to the fact that soldiers were dying there. If you take away the soldiers and you put robots there, what happens? The same thing goes for Iraq. In 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. A machine doesn’t have that critical perspective. And so, if you think about the first movie, you had Alex Murphy fighting against the directives inside his head. That character embodies this idea that you have to dehumanize the perpetrator of violence in order to have fascism. But now, we are getting very close to having robots replacing soldiers. We have already seen drones flying abroad. And so, we wanted to make this idea current.
In order to bring the movie to the present and to talk about what’s going to happen, every country will have soon to decide whether they are going to want to have robots for law enforcement or not. The UN is going to have to pass legislation about what’s going to be allowed or not in war as far as machines go. By coincidence, on the newswire today, there’s an article about how the American Army is trying to replace soldiers with robots. It’s almost like out of a movie. It’s going to happen. We set up this movie in a place in time where we say that America has already decided not to allow robots for law enforcement, but this corporation, Sellars, wants to sell robots there. He has to create a way to circumvent the law and the only way to do it is to put a drone out there but to say that this drone is a man. Put a man inside a machine. Once you do that, you create a character that’s a little bit different than Verhoeven’s character because you need to have a man. They’re selling that this machine is a man.
Alex Murphy wakes up totally conscious. He has his memories. He’s a man and he finds out he’s a robot. Once you do that, you can start to talk about philosophical issues like you mention, stuff like what is it that defines you as a man. Is it your brain? Is it your body? Is it because your brain runs certain software that makes you a man? What is it? So then, the movie opens up to all those philosophical questions like you said. It all boils down to the premise of the movie. If you develop this movie in a coherent way, you necessarily have to tackle those issues. The political issues that have to do with the use of drones are very close to the philosophical issues that have to do with what is a drone and what is a human? They are the same. If you look at the literature in philosophy, you are going to see that they are discussed in the same books actually.
As to the Samuel Jackson character, Pat Novak, and why we replaced the commercials with the media, I think it’s because the media became like the commercials in the real world. We thought it was a good thing to have a little bit of fun with the crazy, right wing mogul Rush Limbaugh guys. Everybody has them. I mean, we have those in Brazil, and I’m sure there are those in France, England, and Germany. I have to say personally I’ve had it a little bit with them, so why not make a little fun.
MICHAEL KEATON: Well, thanks for coming. That about does it. (Laughter)
PADILHA: I take the question seriously. (Laughs) That’s a mistake.
KEATON: I just figured out what the movie’s about.
GARY OLDMAN: I don’t see a great difference between someone sending a robot or a drone to bomb people and controlling it on a PlayStation from another country. It’s thousands of miles away as opposed to someone in an airplane who is thousands of feet away releasing a bomb.
PADILHA: The difference for me – we’re having a debate here – just wait for a second and we’ll open up for questions later. (Laughs) I’m kidding. The difference is this. If you have a guy piloting a plane, and let’s say he drops a bomb in Pakistan and kills an innocent kid by mistake, you can in principle judge the person. Did he make a mistake or not? You can even punish the person and put the person in jail.
KEATON: You question the government. You don’t question the person.
PADILHA: Yes, whoever did it, but you can question someone. If you have an autonomous robot that’s not being piloted, and it has software that’s running a program, and it’s deciding by itself whether to release the bomb or not, liability becomes fuzzy. Who is to blame? Is it the guy who deployed the robot? Is it the guy who built the robot? Is it the guy who did the software and maybe failed when he put it inside the robot? How many companies did the same software? I mean, it’s an issue that’s debated in philosophy. Law has to change to cope with technology. We don’t have a legal apparatus to deal with that yet.
KEATON: That’s the difference
OLDMAN: How different a lone survivor would be if it was a robot not worrying about CNN.
Q: For Joel, I know every role presents different challenges. Can you talk a little bit about some of the challenges you faced with this role and in particular dealing with your costume and what all that entailed?
JOEL KINNAMAN: First of all, it was a bit of a challenge to put on the suit. The first time I put it on, we were out in Pasadena. It was a hot day in L.A. It took one hour and 45 minutes to put it on. It was so uncomfortable. It was digging in everywhere. It was pressing down on my shoulders. I was just sweating like a pig. After 20 minutes, I said I’ve got to get out of this. And then, I was thinking to myself, it was a daunting idea that I was going to have to wear this for 14 hours a day, 6 days a week, for 5 months. Actually, the suit became one of the first seeds that led my imagination into the vulnerability that Alex Murphy felt after he became RoboCop. It was an interesting contrast, because he’s got this body that is so powerful, but all of a sudden he feels very uncomfortable, and he’s amputated from his throat down. He doesn’t know who he is anymore. My little level of uncomfortability led me to think of what Alex would have felt times a thousand. I was surprised to think that the suit that should make me feel so powerful actually made me feel vulnerable. That was interesting.
In terms of the difficulty that it presented, in many of the most emotionally demanding scenes I had to be completely still, especially in the scenes when I wake up and when Dr. Norton (Gary Oldman’s character) reveals what’s left of me. That was one of the difficulties of wearing the suit. If you all think back to the moments when you’ve gone through the most pain in your life or the most severe anxiety, your body is very much involved in that. Your body is expressing those emotions. When we, as actors, try to access those feelings, the body is a great tool to use, and we clench our stomach, or we do something physical, and that helps our emotions along the way. In this instance, I didn’t have that luxury so it was a little higher level of difficulty. What helped me out was during most of these scenes I could look into the truthful eyes of Mr. Oldman, so that would always help. (Laughter)
Q: Michael, having played a character where you had to work with only a small part of your face showing, did you and Joel have any conversations about the limitations or freedom of doing something like that?
KEATON: Yes, we had a conversation about 11 minutes ago actually. (Laughs) We did, and I kind of saved it for him. I mean, I think I mentioned it to him once before. I find talking about acting often is not very interesting and very self-involved, so I’ll blow through this very quickly. Without making a big deal about it, he’s really a fine actor. This cast is so good, and when you see the movie, it pays off in every scene. When you see him with her (referring to Abby Cornish who plays Alex Murphy’s wife), you really feel something. Usually with movies, you don’t feel real emotion, but this cast is so good at every level.
Joel’s job is particularly difficult, because what I was saying was people don’t know how hard that is to do what you need to do. Your natural (laughs) or unnatural instinct might be to say, “Let’s face it. I’m in this suit which out of context is ridiculous.” So, your inclination or your desperation might make you want to go out, and what he didn’t do was that. What he did do was suck back and went inside. He makes these unbelievable transitions, too, I noticed from he’s human, then he’s robot, then he’s robot and human, and that’s really hard to do when you’re wearing a big black suit. I was really knocked out by him. I was knocked out by the movie, and I hadn’t seen him until a week ago or so. But I kept watching him in it and it’s really extraordinary what he did. He probably won’t get credit for the degree of difficulty that was required.
I didn’t hear him speak about this before, but in a way the suit becomes your… A long time ago, when they were asking me when I did the first Batman, I made a joke but I was actually serious, “I just work the suit, man. I let that suit go to work for me.” And that’s kind of what you have to do. I’m very claustrophobic. We didn’t know that the suit was even going to work at all until literally hours before we were about to start shooting the suit. We’d shot a lot of the Bruce Wayne stuff which was the key by the way. It was. That was the key. I was never worried about the Batman thing. The way in was Bruce Wayne. That was always it for me. That was it. The Batman thing, I didn’t know what I was going to do with that. When I got in it, I went, “Oh, I’m in trouble, man. I’ve got to really face this thing because I can’t get out of it.” The second one you could kind of get out of, but this thing was wrapped. In fact, it didn’t totally work, because in one of the first shots, this whole thing came out of – I’ll take some credit for it – but really it was practical. This whole thing went like this (demonstrates how he worked behind the mask). It really came out of the first time I had to react to something. This thing stuck to my face. Somebody said something to Batman, and I go like this and the whole thing goes kaput.
I thought, well I’ve got to get around that because we’ve got to shoot this son-of-a-bitch. I’m like, “You know what, Tim (director Tim Burton)? He moves like this (very stiffly). That’s what I think.” I’m very, very cautious moving, and I’m in this thing, and they actually used one of those old pinewood boards that they put you on if you’re playing a knife, a leaning board. I drink a lot of coffee. I take a ton of vitamins and I drink a lot of water. I could do none of that because I couldn’t get out of it to go to the bathroom. They put me in this thing, and inside, honestly, I started having panic attacks. Literally panic attacks. People call them panic attacks and I have a little history with that anyway, and so I really did. I thought, “I don’t know how I’m going to do this, man.”
I started feeling really, really scared. And then, it hit me just what Joel said. I went, “Oh, this is perfect. This is designed for this really unusual dude, the Bruce Wayne guy, the guy who has this other personality that’s really dark and really alone and really depressed. This is it.” You just take all that stuff, that suit and all that stuff that suit was giving me. I said, “I got it. I know exactly how to do this now.” It’s odd how those things happen to actors. Like you think, “I have no idea how to do this.” Something will happen often in your life. I think all these guys will tell you that. It comes up and you just kind of get it. I don’t know how you get it, but actors are pretty extraordinary in that regard. I think fear is what happens. (Laughter)
OLDMAN: I had all of that in “The Dark Knight” and I wasn’t wearing the suit. (Laughter)
KEATON: Forget everything I just said.
KINNAMAN: Believe me when I say I got no sympathy from Michael Keaton. When I was complaining about my suit, he was like, “Shut the fuck up. You got it easy. They had to glue my suit on.”
KEATON: I did, all the time. That sissy suit! They had air conditioning in it.
OLDMAN: Well the great thing about having been in a lot of make-up and stuff like that is that when you’re working with someone who’s in it, and you’ve been there and done it but you’re not in it anymore, you feel so good.
KEATON: You feel so great.
OLDMAN: You say things like, “You’re hot in that.”
KEATON: I know. I enjoyed every minute of watching him. I just sat there in my little suit and watched him.
KINNAMAN: There was a lot of gloating.
Q: Joel, did you have to adopt any kind of physical regimen either to endure the suit or to do the action choreography, and did they give you any aspect of the suit to take home as a souvenir for your tour of duty in it.
KINNAMAN: I did get the guns that I have in a frame at home. I was very happy about that. After putting on the suit for the first time, I felt how taxing that was going to be. I realized that I was going to have to be in good shape, and there wasn’t going to be much time to train while I was shooting because it was going to be long days. So it was just getting in good shape. But then also, because of how we were discussing the programming or the software behind RoboCop’s movement patterns when he was in a battle situation, our idea of that was it would be more special forces. I was hoping to do most of those movement scenes so I trained with the Swedish Special Forces for three weeks. It was some guys that I’d trained with previously for other projects. And then, I also trained with the L.A. SWAT Team.
Q: Gary, your character, Dr. Norton, reminds me of Dr. Frankenstein but only with a conscience. How did you get into that character and did you think of him or any other type of mad scientist while you were preparing for that role?
OLDMAN: Yes. Well it is that sort of Frankenstein monster. It’s an unusual relationship because it’s the patient doctor, then the monster scientist, then it’s like a father-son relationship. They’re like friends, and then it becomes even like a father-son. I think maybe possibly there was a seed of the idea there in the original, because it is very Frankenstein sort of man tinkering around in God’s toolshed. It has that. But in terms of character, it was a terrific script to start with. And then, we had the luxury of rehearsal, because Jose wanted rehearsal which is unheard of really in moviemaking. So, over two weeks, we made the script better. But the character really, if it’s good writing, it’s on the page with all the clues to the character. I often think that if you’re breaking a sweat, if you’re working too hard for something, then that’s always a problem if you’re trying to make the writing work. It’s like your map and there are all the signs in the material of finding [your way]. It’s that old Stella Adler thing of reading out, not reading in. I didn’t bring my own baggage to it. You use your imagination and what is there on the page. I didn’t really look outside of the script very much. As far as these bionic engineers and neurosurgery, I Google. The great thing about Google is that you type in “neurosurgery” and somehow you end up with Peter Sellars or you’re watching Frank Sinatra playing. (Laughs) You know those searches. No, Google is a great resource.
Q: The original film has a special place in pop culture and cinema history. Could you give me your initial thoughts when you first heard about the film and that you might have a role? Were there any second thoughts about taking part in this?
KINNAMAN: When I first heard about it, I got a call from my agents and they told me that there was a remake of “RoboCop” being made. My initial reaction was that I might see that in movie theaters. I didn’t think it was a great fit for me, at least where I was at the time. But then I found out that Jose Padilha was going to direct it, and I’d seen his documentary, “Bus 174” and his two “Elite Squad” movies. That completely changed my perspective of what the possibilities of a remake could be, because there are a lot of wrong reasons why you would make a remake, but there are some good ones. When I heard that Jose was going to direct it, I was pretty certain that it was going to be one of the good ones. And then, I sat down with Jose and he told me the vision of the story that he wanted to tell by using the concept of “RoboCop.” I thought it was a brilliant idea. I think it’s human nature in many ways that we retell our favorite stories. In the theater, we do that all the time. I’ve seen four different Hamlets and every one has given me something different. In this case, it feels like in 1987 when this film was made, it was a futuristic vision that felt very much like fantasy. It was an incredible film. But in 2013, the technology has had an exponential curve, and we’re so far into the future that I think in 1987 we couldn’t imagine where we would be right now. For us, where society has come today, the concept of RoboCop really made sense to revisit. It was one of those great opportunities where you could meld a big scale, exciting action movie, but at the same time get the opportunity to talk about some very interesting philosophical and political questions.
ABBY CORNISH: I’d like to say something about it. “RoboCop” for me was actually a very nostalgic film from my childhood. I grew up with brothers, and so we had it on VHS, and we watched that VHS until it shredded itself and it couldn’t be watched anymore. When I heard that “RoboCop” was being remade, I instantly was interested. And then, I heard Jose Padilha was directing it. I had a Jose Padilha movie marathon one night where I watched “Elite Squad 1,” “Elite Squad 2,” “Bus 174” and emailed you after that.
PADILHA: Nobody has ever done that before. Don’t attempt it. It’s very dangerous. Don’t do it at home.
CORNISH: It was an amazing night. I was still up when the sun came up by the time I finished my Jose Padilha movie marathon. I thought this is an incredibly talented director who it would be an honor to work with. And then, I heard Gary Oldman who I’ve respected and admired forever, Michael Keaton, and Samuel Jackson were in it, and then I heard Joel Kinnaman was playing RoboCop, and I thought that was great casting. To be honest, for me, this is the most fun I’ve ever had on a film and I’ve learnt the most. I was really lucky in regards to the fact that I had time off because I flew back and forth. There were moments on set where I’d wrap, and rather than go back to the hotel, I’d sit and stay on set. Jose was really lovely because he’d let me sit behind the monitors, and I learnt a lot watching him direct. Gary and Michael were also lovely. They let me hang around and watch them do a scene together, too. For me, it was a massive learning curve and it was really enjoyable. I think Jose has made an incredible film with “RoboCop.” It’s a great remake. It holds its own.
KEATON: I decided to do it, and then I heard Jose was going to direct it, and I thought, “Oh shoot, I made a huge mistake.” (Laughter) But it was too late and I had to do it.
PADILHA: Yeah, then he was stuck. (Laughs) To work with this cast and Samuel Jackson who isn’t here and other actors like Jackie Earle Haley who is amazing and Jennifer Ehle is great and Michael K. (Williams). There are so many great actors in this movie.
CORNISH: And John Paul Ruttan.
PADILHA: Oh yes, and JP who we cast in the last second. I mean, we went through 200 kids, and we couldn’t find a kid who would match them (the rest of the actors) and would also be a great actor, and JP came in at the last minute when we were doing the rehearsals. He came on. They did a scene. As soon as the scene was over, I looked at Abby and I said, “It’s JP.” But before I could say anything, Abby turned to me and said, “It’s him!” And I went, “Okay!”
CORNISH: What’s interesting is as soon as JP walked into the room, I knew he was the one. I just knew. I looked at this kid and I knew. And then, he did the scene and he killed it. He’s an amazing actor. John Paul Ruttan is an amazing actor. And then, Joel and I walked him out to his mom, and I winked at his mom and went back in. I was like, “Jose…”
PADILHA: Yeah, we found the kid at the last moment. Gary said something that I want to add to. The fact that 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 think about it, you’re doing a gigantic movie and there’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 you fine tune the script. Two is the director looks at the screenplay from a structural perspective and whether the story has an internal logic that makes sense, what it means, what it’s about, and all of 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 or mostly. 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. I’m so glad and I want to thank the studios for giving us the time. It was really important.
Q: Did you rehearse for a couple weeks when you did the Squad movies?
PADILHA: Yes, for months actually, because the Brazilian actors are cheaper. (Laughs) So, we can afford it.
Q: Jose, why did you choose to have the lab in China?
PADILHA: The movie talks about it. I think there’s a classic moment in the scene with Joel and Gary for me when I was shooting. When Joel wakes up in the Frank Sinatra scene and he looks at his hands and says, “What kind of suit is that?” and Dr. Norton says, “It’s not a suit. It’s you.” This is where we go away from “Iron Man” because it’s not a suit. It’s him. He’s become a robot. And he’s become a robot because a corporation wanted to make a product, so his body has been transformed, distorted, and his psychological reality has been molded for a purpose that’s not his own. That reminded me of Francis Bacon paintings. When Bacon paints, he puts figures in his paintings and he lights them, isolating them from the rest of the painting, and they’re always twisted. You can look at it in different ways, but either you can think about society deforming those people or their own psychological reality deforming them. And so, I decided to first put a Francis Bacon triptych picture behind Sellars when he says, “Let’s put a man inside a machine,” when he has that idea. And then, I gave those paintings to Martin Whist, the Production Designer, and I said, “Design the lab after that. Design the docking station after Bacon. Let’s design the scene where RoboCop is set apart and have a lung, a hand, and a brain after that Bacon picture.” If you take a look at the picture and you take a look at what the design is, they’re really similar. The whole Chinese lab was designed so we could have the docking station lit like in a Francis Bacon painting. We could isolate RoboCop in the center of the room, leave him alone in there, and we could have the open up of his body to look like that painting, to look like a Bacon distorting painting. It’s kind of a visual device we used. I’m glad you asked that because I’ve been wanting to say this forever.
Q: The original is a classic for a lot of people, but it’s also given pop culture a lot of iconic lines and you use several in the film. How did you choose which ones would work and that Joel felt like he could actually say and how many would be too many?
PADILHA: Well the first thing that I want to say here is that sometimes people have the illusion that the director is choosing everything, like he’s choosing the lines and he’s choosing… And the way we work, I mean, the way I worked on “Elite Squad 1 and 2” and the way we worked in this movie, also because we have the rehearsal and I go back to that, is like there’s freedom on the set. People can change their dialogue and we changed dialogue several times. We changed scenes. There is 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.” You know that scene where he says, “I can’t sell average. I don’t know how to do that.” But that scene wasn’t going to happen. The screenplay had no scene where Gary Oldman was in the same room with Michael. It didn’t exist. It was a phone call from China. We were on the set, and 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. Just go there and then we’ll figure out how it happened.”
OLDMAN: Well, it was the one line, but I’m supposed to be in China. Yeah, that’s a problem. How can you be in the room? I know what! I’ve flown over to meet him and he says to me, “Get your ass back on that flight, back to China!”
PADILHA: And so, a lot of the lines that we have in our movie where everybody saw “RoboCop” over and over again and sometimes Jackie Earle Haley just said, “I’ll buy that for a dollar.” He just said it. It’s kind of like soccer, and I suppose American football and basketball are the same. If you are the coach and you have great players around you, good things will happen. That’s how it happened. The lines that went in there, some of them were in the script while others were not. Some they just threw in there and they made the movie. I hope some new lines like, “Bad cop, RoboCop” or “Why is America so Robophobic?” will hit the mark. I hope so.
KINNAMAN: There were a couple versions of the script where so many of the old catch phrases were in it and we all had a discussion. We’re doing a reboot of “RoboCop,” but we’re not doing Verhoeven’s “RoboCop.” Verhoeven is a film director that I have a lot of respect for and he had a very specific tone. And Jose is a phenomenal film director that has a very specific tone to his films. I think it would be a disservice and actually disrespectful to the original to try to keep every line in there. We kept one or two, maybe three, as homage to the predecessor that we all loved so much. But I think more than that would be a mistake. It felt pretty cool to say a couple of those lines.
Q: Abby, one of the things I really enjoyed about the film was that the role of Clara Murphy was expanded from the original. Can you talk a little about how you approached the role and how it evolved from the original film?
CORNISH: Originally, when the film was pitched to me, there actually wasn’t a shooting script so I took the role without even reading the script. It was pitched to me in that it was probably going to be around four or five scenes. I sent an audition tape and Skyped with Jose, and then got the role and literally jumped up and down and around the house and called mom and dad and my brothers and sisters. It was a very exciting moment for me to be cast in this role. But what was lovely is, as the film developed, Clara Murphy developed as well, and the family dynamic and the family relationship became an important element. I think for Jose, he felt that it was important to ground Alex Murphy with a home, with a family, with a loving wife and a beautiful son, and for that heart and soul and that driving passion for his journey to not just be about revenge but also because of his heart and his soul and the pulse of the thing that drives us all in love. I got really lucky there in regards to the fact that the role grew as the project went.
Q: There are a lot of diehard “Wire” fans everywhere and Michael K. Williams is very iconic. How was it working with him in this movie as your partner? Can you speak a little bit about his work and how you felt when you found out you were going to be paired with him?
KINNAMAN: When I heard the idea that was raised that Michael was one of the names discussed for the part, I jumped on Jose and I was like, “Look, if we have an opportunity to get Mike, we gotta get him.” I mean, he’s [amazing]. I’ve seen the whole series of “The Wire” twice. He’s a great guy and we had a lot of fun on set. There were a couple of times when we had scenes when we were undercover and we were about to go into a house, and I was like, “Mike, c’mon, give me a whistle. Give me a whistle, please!” and he was like, “Alright!” and he gave me the whistle. I was like, “I’m in ‘The Wire’! I’m in ‘The Wire’!” That was a great moment for me. We had a lot of fun. He brings so much flavor to it and so much heart. It was a great thing.