Murphy's Law: Paul Verhoeven and RoboCop
An extract from Rob Van Scheers' Paul Verhoeven: The Authorised Biography.
Paul Verhoeven: The Authorised Biography by Rob Van Scheers (Faber and Faber) is the definitive study of the Dutch director, and in this abridged extract from the chapter 'The Americanization of the Bible: RoboCop' Van Scheers talks to Verhoeven and other key personnel (including Rob Bottin and Peter Weller) so as to reconstruct the genesis and sometime-stormy creative journey of RoboCop to the screen.
The room in the Beverly Hills Hotel had everything a visitor would expect for $190 per night, concluded Paul Verhoeven as he unpacked his bag on Saturday 28 September 1985. He had just arrived from Amsterdam. He put aside the address book that he had found in his luggage; it was not going to be of much use in the United States. Verhoeven realized that he had taken an irreversible step. He was 47 years old, weary of both film and the social climate in the Netherlands, and he now would have to start all over again as a director. Although Hollywood's inner circle knew his work and had been very enthusiastic about Turks Fruit, Soldaat van Oranje and De Vierde Man, he was practically unknown to the wider American film-going public. Verhoeven had come over to shoot RoboCop, a science-fiction story about a cop who is turned into a destructive machine. This invitation from Orion Pictures had made him decide it was time to make a definite move to the United States. As soon as the children had finished their school year in the Netherlands, his family would also emigrate. Until then, he would have to cope on his own.
Verhoeven realized that, for the American public, film was first and foremost a circus. A story had to be divided into three parts: a beginning, a middle, and a grand finale — preferably with orgiastic explosions. He could not point to a three-act structure in the work of Federico Fellini and Alain Resnais that he had so admired in the past, or even in his own films, but he had decided in advance to submit himself to the iron law of Hollywood. His survival tactic was 'Go with the flow'.
The creators of RoboCop were Michael Miner and Ed Neumeier. It was the twenty-something Neumeier who had approached the thirty-something Miner with the suggestion of writing a script together. 'When I worked for Warner Brothers as a reader, they were shooting Blade Runner. At night I used to leave my office and go over to this amazing set they had. It was very inspiring and I kept thinking, "This is a movie about robots who look like people. Wouldn't it be cool if there was this thing that looked like a robot and that was a cop?" After that, the problem was how to glue the audience to their seats. 'I figured out that what would shock them most was if the hero of the story got killed right away — like 10 minutes into the movie, so you think, "O-ho, the movie is over!" I suddenly realized that it has to be a story about a guy who becomes a machine.'
This is why policeman Alex J. Murphy, on the first day of his transfer to the unpleasant district of Old Detroit — barely 4 pages into the script — is shot to pieces by a group of gangsters led by the villain Clarence Boddicker. After a thorough electro-surgical overhaul, Murphy returns to the streets of Detroit as a machine man — RoboCop.
Although this was to be a genre film, in the best tradition of the comic strip it was also intended to spice it with satirical comment on contemporary America. References to the Reagan era — the era of Michael Milken and the junk bonds swindle — are evident throughout. The origin of this satire dated back to when Neumeier, as a development executive for Universal Studios, became acquainted with the mores of yuppie life. At that time he was surrounded by — as he now calls them — 'stupid people in suits who were always working out of greed and getting away with it'.
For the design of the RoboCop suit, the job went to Rob Bottin, who had made his name with his work on The Howling (Joe Dante, 1981), The Thing (John Carpenter, 1982) and Legend (Ridley Scott, 1985). His brief was clear; the audience must not immediately burst out laughing when Peter Weller makes his entrance as the robot. Verhoeven had decided that it had to be in the spirit of the female robot from Metropolis (Fritz Lang, 1927). 'Rob and I argued a lot about the costume,' Verhoeven confirms. 'At one point it was so bad that he did not want to talk to me any more. In the first instance his design was 90 per cent perfect, but I wanted it 100 per cent — and then it went off in completely the wrong direction.' Finally, Verhoeven and Bottin decided to go back to the original design with a high-tech element added here and there.
Because the suit was still not finished, Verhoeven devoted his shooting time to the scenes without the robot. When the costume finally arrived two weeks later; leading actor Peter Weller was more shocked than relieved. He had practised at home in New York with an American football outfit. In this he had been assisted by Moni Yakim, Professor of Movement at the New York Juilliard School, but neither of them had counted on the suit being so heavy. While Rob Bottin pulled the actor into the suit at 4 in the morning, he sensed that Weller's uncertainty was turning into irritation: 'He just sat there, muttering: "This ain't cool, man. This ain't cool at all!"'
After 12 hours of lugging, fitting and measuring, Peter Weller would not come out of his trailer. Verhoeven was asked to go and see him: he went immediately, in a thunderous rage. He was ready to murder someone when his eye fell on the robot, and his anger instantly evaporated. With a huge grin and cries of delight, he walked around the machine man, looked at him from different camera angles and spontaneously gave the designer a kiss. 'This is great!' Verhoeven rejoiced.
This blissful moment lasted exactly thirty seconds. 'Well, I hate it,' the man in the suit itself snarled. The actor explained that he had planned to move very loosely, but now he felt like a monolith. As a Method actor he was able to play a character only if he believed in it unconditionally. Shaking his head, the director walked away again. 'I didn't understand Peter's attitude at all at the time, but it was, of course, total stress. He had not had a single minute to walk around in the costume, to look in the mirror; to make a video of it. It was not his fault that the suit arrived too late.'
Equally under stress and in fear of losing even more shooting days, producer Jon Davison decided to make an issue of it. With the support of Orion chief Mike Medavoy he decided to make a typical Hollywood-style gesture. Peter Weller was fired — instantly. 'Peter', Ed Neumeier explains, 'was the only one who fitted the $ 600,000 suit. The idea that we would let someone else walk around in it was a total fantasy. That dismissal was pure bluff.' There followed a string of telephone calls between the actor, agent, lawyers, studio and producers, after which the provoked actor promised to mend his ways: 'Sorry, Paul. I'll be cool.' The director was not yet convinced, but accepted the apologies. Verhoeven had understood that there was some ground for Weller's complaint about the suit. At the advice of Verhoeven's wife, Martine, who was staying on location for a few days, Moni Yakim, the Professor of Movement, was flown over to Dallas. Weller was given the weekend to practise his movements.
Peter Weller: 'Moni said, "Listen, we'll slow everything down. We'll let the weight of the suit work for us." That turned out to be a brilliant idea, because this made RoboCop much more pathetic. Because I started to walk on the ball of my foot, instead of on the heel, his step changed. He was no longer a streamlined, ultra-hip man of steel, but a somewhat unsure, more human character. And so Paul sculpted his film around this sad metal creature.'
Verhoeven is willing to go one step further. 'For me, RoboCop is a Christian fairytale. First, Murphy is gunned down in the most horrific way: that is the Crucifixion. Next, the film makes a steep descent into the finite, after which he experiences his Resurrection, in a modern way… RoboCop is a Jesus figure — an American Jesus. Entirely in tune with current ideas here, he says, "I don't arrest you any more." He has done with Clarence, the time of turning the other cheek is over. Americans want to be humane, but if they think it takes too long, Christian morality is pushed aside for the moment and they go for their weapons — just like RoboCop.'
RoboCop became the hit of summer 1987, both in the USA and the rest of the world. In addition to good reviews and profits that were satisfactory in every respect, there were RoboCop dolls, video games, T-shirts, pinball machines and a cartoon series. Ed Neumeier believes that RoboCop was made at exactly the right time: 'The film just happened to come along at a time when crime was becoming a big problem in America. People were, and still are, very frightened. I didn't realize that when I was writing this character; I thought I was making a satire about Reagan's America. But the audience locked on to it because RoboCop was a guy who was going to shoot down criminals in the street. Finally. Even my old Catholic aunt loved it.'