9 Things I Learned at the RoboCop Press Conference


When you’re in a room with Michael Keaton, Gary Oldman, Abbie Cornish, Joel Kinnaman and Jose Padilha, you can’t not have fun. But can you learn stuff?

Assuming that what you want to learn about is the new RoboCop, of course you can. But I also found out who the biggest smartass of the bunch was, and hear some of Keaton’s Batman memories. Plus more details about the subtext of the movie (Hint: it begins with a “D” and ends in “rones”). Here’s what I took in…

1. Director Jose Padilha’s First Name is Pronounced With a Hard J.

Seriously, the first time somebody calls him “Joe-zay” rather than “Ho-say,” it seems like it must be a mistake. After everybody does it, you figure they’re either all wrong and he’s just too polite to correct them, or he really does prefer the anglicized pronunciation.

2. Once Again, for the Cheap Seats: the Movie’s About Drones. And Those DARPA Robots.

Padilha: The first RoboCop had a great idea, which was the connection between the automation of violence and fascism and you can think about this connection in several ways. Consider Vietnam. America got out of Vietnam because there was movements at home due to the fact that soldiers were dying. If you take away the soldiers and you put robots there, what happens? 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 that the state asks of him. He may think it’s unethical to do it. A machine doesn’t have that critical aspect. And so if you think about the first movie, you had Alex Murphy fighting against the directives inside his head, so that character embodies this idea that you have to dehumanize the perpetrator of violence in order to have fascism.

3. Got It? Drones.

Padilha: 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, what is it that defines you as a man? Is it your brain? Is it your body? Is it because your brain runs a certain software that makes you a man? The movie opens up the philosophical questions. So 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 when is it a drone, and when is it a human? They are the same. They are discussed in the same books.

Michael Keaton (deadpanning): I just figured out what the movie’s about.

3. Okay, It’s Kinda About Fox News Too.

Padilha: As to why we replaced the commercials with the media – 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 everybody has. I mean, we have those in Brazil, and I’m sure there are those in England, France and Germany, and I have to say personally I’ve had it a little bit with them, so why not make a little fun?

4. Gary Oldman Might Not Have Gotten the Memo About the Drones Thing.

Oldman: I don’t see a great difference between someone sending a robot or a drone to bomb people and controlling it from a Playstation from another country 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 is this: if you have a guy piloting the plane, and let’s say he throws a bomb into Pakistan and kills an innocent kid by mistake, you can, in principle, judge the person. He made a mistake, or not – you can punish the person. Now, if you have an autonomous robot, that’s not being piloted – it’s a software – that’s running a program and it’s deciding by itself whether to release the bomb or not, liability becomes fuzzy. So 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, who maybe failed? How many companies did the same software? 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.

Oldman: How different Lone Survivor would be, if it was a robot not worrying about CNN.

5. The Secret to Playing Superheroes Is Panic Attacks.

Joel Kinnaman: The first time I put [the costume]on, we were out in Pasadena, it was a hot day in LA, it took like one hour and 45 minutes to put it on, and it was so uncomfortable, it was digging into my shoulders and I was sweating like a pig, and after 20 minutes I said I gotta get out of this.

And then I was thinking to myself that it was a daunting idea that I was gonna have to wear this for 14 horus a day, 6 days a week for 5 months, but actually the suit became one of the first seeds that led my imagination to the vulnerability that Alex Murphy felt after he became RoboCop, and it was an interesting contrast, because he’s got this body that is so powerful, but he feels very uncomfortable, he’s amputated from his throat down, he doesn’t know who he is any more. And my little level of uncomfortability led me to think of what Alex would have felt, times 1000. I was surprised that the suit that should make me feel so powerful actually made me feel vulnerable.

Many of the most emotionally demanding scenes, I had to be completely still. Especially in the scene where I wake up, and Dr. Norton reveals what’s left of me. And when you 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. So when we as actors try to access those feelings, the body is a great tool to use, and you clench your stomach, and you do something physical and it sort of helps your emotions along the way. And in this instance I didn’t have that luxury, so it was a higher level of difficulty.

What helped me out was that in most of these scenes, I could look into the truthful eyes of Mr. Oldman, so that would always help.

6. Batman Agrees With That. Jim Gordon Laughs at His Pain.

Keaton: People don’t know how hard that is to do what you need to do, because your natural instinct – or your unnatural instinct – might be to say let’s face it, I’m in this suit that out of context is kind of ridiculous, so your inspiration or your desperation might be to want to go out…and what he didn’t do was that. What he did do was kinda suck back inside. He made these unbelievable transitions, too – 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.

He probably won’t get credit for the degree of difficulty that was required.

A long time ago when I made the first Batman, I made a joke but I was 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, and we didn’t know that the suit was even gonna work at all until literally hours before we were about to start shooting. We’d shot a lot of the Bruce Wayne stuff – which was the key, by the way. The Batman thing: I didn’t know what I was gonna do with that. So when I got in it, I was like I’m in trouble, man, I gotta really face this thing. Because you couldn’t get out of it. The second one you could kinda get out, but this thing was like, wrapped, packed. It didn’t totally work because one of the first shots – does anybody care about this, by the way? – this whole thing [He demonstrates Batman doing a dramatic turn] I mean, I take some credit of course, but really it was practical. It really came out of the first time I had to react to something, and this thing stuck to my face. Somebody says something to Batman and I go like this, and the whole thing goes SCHWWWMP! Big fuckin’ hole in the face. So I go, well, I gotta get around that, ’cause I gotta shoot this son of a bitch, so I went “You know what, Tim? He moves like this.”

So I’m very claustrophobic, and they actually, at Pinewood, used one of those old boards that they put you on if you’re playing a knight – a leaning board. And I drink a lot of coffee, I eat a ton of vitamins and I drinbk a lot of water – I couldn’t do none of that, because I couldn’t get out of it to go to the bathroom, so inside I started having panic attacks, so I thought, how’m I gonna do this, I feel , like really, really scared, and then it hit me…this is perfect. It is designed for this really unusual dude, Bruce Wayne who has this other personality that’s really dark, and really alone, and really kinda depressed. This is it. You take all that stuff, this suit was giving me, and I said ah, I got it. I know exactly how to do this now. It’s odd how that happens to actors. A thing you think, I have no idea how to do this, something will happen, often in your life, that comes up, and you just kinda get it. I think it’s fear, is what happens.

Oldman: I had all of that in The Dark Knight, and I wasn’t wearing the suit.

Keaton: Forget anything I just said.

Kinnaman: I got no sympathy from Michael Keaton when I was wearing my suit. He was like, shut the fuck up, they had to glue my suit on. Yours has air conditioning in it.

Oldman: The great thing about having been in all that makeup 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 any more? You feel so good. And you say things like “Are you hot in that?”

7. Gary Oldman’s Nerdy Acting/Procrastinating Technique.

OIdman: If it’s good writing, it’s on the page. I often think that if you’re breaking a sweat, if you’re working too hard for something, then it’s always a problem. If you’re trying to make the writing work, and it’s like your map, and there’s all the signs in the material, 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, so I didn’t really look outside of the script very much. As far as these bionic engineers and neuro-surgery, I mean I Google, and the great thing about Google is that you type in neurosurgery, and somehow you end up with Peter Sellers, or watching Frank Sinatra But no, Google, great resource.

8. Remakes Are Okay Because Shakespeare. Also, Drones.

Kinnaman: 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, and I thought it was a brilliant idea, and I think it’s human nature that we retell our favorite stories. In the theater we do that all the time: I’ve seen four different Hamlets, every one has given me something different. In 1987 when this film was made, it was a futuristic vision that felt very much like fantasy. Incredible film. But in 2013, technology has had an exponential curve, and we’re so far into the future that in 1987, we couldn’t imagine where we would be right now. And for us, where society has come today, the concept of RoboCop really made sense to revisit. It was one of the great opportunities to meld a big-scale exciting action movie with some great philosophical and political questions.

9. The Connection Between Cops and Bacon Is Very Different in This Film.

Padilha: There is a classic moment from Joel and Gary , when Joel wakes up from the Frank Sinatra scene, and he looks at his hands and he 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. 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, his psychological reality has been molded for a purpose that’s not his own, and that reminded me of Francis Bacon paintings.

Bacon paints figures, and he lights them isolating them from the rest of the painting and they’re always twisted, and you can look at it different ways but either you can think about society deforming those people, or those people’s own psychology deforming them. I decided first to put Francis Bacon pictures 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 the production designer, and I said design the lab after that. Design the docking station after Bacon, and let’s design the scene where RoboCop is set apart – you have a lung, a hand and brain – after that Bacon picture.

And if you take a look at the picture, and what the design is, they’re really similar. So the whole Chinese lab was designed so we could have the docking station lit like a Bacon painting. For instance, we 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 a Bacon distorting painting.

Oldman: I just thought it was an action movie.