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Director Paul Verhoeven on Robocop, the Bit of 'American Nonsense' That Changed His Career

Paul Verhoeven attended Cannes in May 2016.
Paul Verhoeven attended Cannes in May 2016. Shutterstock

The first time Dutch director Paul Verhoeven read the script for RoboCop, he was enjoying a day at the beach. Verhoeven says he got about 20 pages through it before dismissing it as just another piece of “American nonsense.” Then he went for a swim, and when he returned to dry land, he saw his wife, Martine, reading the script, and she urged him to take another look.

Verhoeven says he came to the part of the story where RoboCop, a cyborg made from the deceased remains of a Detroit police officer killed in the line of duty, tours the empty house he once shared with his family and learns for the first time that the offiecer, Alex J. Murphy, had a loving wife and an admiring son.

That scene, crafted by screenwriters Ed Neumeier and Michael Miner, showed Verhoeven that RoboCop was about more than just a robotic cop who blows holes into bad guys’ chests with a big-ass gun. It explored some real, deep, complex emotions and theological concepts through the movie’s seemingly simple characters, and Verhoeven saw some real heart beating underneath layers of RoboCop’s expensive hardware.

Verhoeven recently spoke to the Dallas Observer from the set of his latest movie in Holland to talk about the challenges of making a futuristic movie on a small budget, the path that took him and his crew to Dallas, and why the memory of the first time he saw RoboCop still makes him tear up a little. 
click to enlarge Paul Verhoeven attended Cannes in May 2016. - SHUTTERSTOCK
Paul Verhoeven attended Cannes in May 2016.

Dallas Observer
: Do you remember the first time you heard about Ed Neumeier and Michael Miner’s script for RoboCop and what you thought about it?

Verhoeven: I was living in Europe at that time and the script was sent to me by the representatives of the company that made the movie Orion, a smaller studio in Los Angeles, not big like Paramount or something like that. They made pretty exclusive films, or at least they were trying, and Barbara Boyle, who was the assistant of Mike Medavoy [the co-founder of Orion Pictures], was at that time the head of productions of films for Orion.

She sent me the script, and at first, I was not terribly interested. In fact, I rejected it, but my wife read the script after me and convinced me to read it again, and it took me a couple of weeks to decide to do it. Then I went to the United States in November or something of 1985 and met Ed Neumeier and Michael Miner, and we discussed the script and there was a problem with the financing, so it stopped, and then moved forward again in the beginning of 1986.

Then Michael Miner got sick, and it took really a lot of time before he recovered. That took nearly a year or something, so I was more dealing with Ed Neumeier than with Michael Miner because Ed Neumeier was always there by my side, and we discussed all the problems and changes in the script and whatever you do when you prepare for a movie. Ed and I went to the locations together with John Davison, the producer. So it started, in fact, mostly in the beginning of ’86.

"I was at the beach, so I read about 20 or 30 pages and then I threw it away and said, 'This is stupid garbage and American nonsense.'" – 'RoboCop' director Paul Verhoeven

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What was it about the script that changed your mind?

I came from a really different background making movies in Holland. They were more realistic. They were much more about real people. I think doing science fiction, although I admire Star Wars, which was already there at that time, I felt it was really not my film very much, and I started to realize that when I was reading the script and saw that it was sci-fi and fantasy and I was not into it. But my wife pointed out there were aspects of the story that would attract me and be of interest to me.

There’s the story of RoboCop visiting his house where he’s already RoboCop and he finds out he was called Murphy before, and he finds out where he lived and there’s these kinds of feelings and flashbacks about his wife and his son.

In fact, when I started to read it more precisely, that was really the scene that convinced me that there was, for me, from a theological point of view, that there were elements there that I felt were interesting. When I discovered that in the script on, let’s say, the guidance of my wife, then I started to feel differently about the script because I saw there’s a possibility to not only do the sci-fi but also for me there would be a layer of philosophy or theology or whatever that was interesting enough for me to make the movie. That’s basically what, more or less, happened.

I heard from a couple of people that when you read the script, you threw it against a wall. Did that actually happen or was that just hyperbole?

No, I was at the beach, in fact, so I read about 20 or 30 pages and then I threw it away and said, "This is stupid garbage and American nonsense" [laughs]. So I went for a long swim and came back and joined my wife again about one or two hours later, and she read the script and it started really when she said, “I think you’re wrong.” So it took me a couple of weeks and a dictionary — because there were a lot of words in English that I didn’t know — to really make it my way and to find my way in it. Finally I called Barbara Boyle and told her that, "Sorry I said no, but I want to do it."

Was Dallas the first visit you made or the first choice for shooting the movie?

The budget was at that time, maybe $11 [million] or $12 million, and ultimately the movie was made for $13 million but it was not a very high budget, of course. The idea was that I would make the movie, the backgrounds of the movie modernistic and futuristic like Blade Runner, and I started to realize after a couple of months that there was no money to do that, and in fact, the excellent producer Jon Davison said, "We can make the backgrounds fantastic in the direction of Blade Runner, but we can’t have the costume, so what do you want, the costume or the background?" There was only money for one of the two. 

"We went to Detroit and that didn't look like anything, really. We went to Chicago and we didn't find it there. Ultimately, we reduced our search to Houston and Dallas, and ... we felt that Dallas would give us more possibilities." – Paul Verhoeven

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The building of the costume of RoboCop was expensive, of course. It had to be invented, and it had to be sculpted. A lot of the money of the movie went into getting the RoboCop suit right, and that took time and of course with such a low budget, there was not a possibility to do science-fiction in the Blade Runner way, so we didn’t do that. Then, of course, based on that possibility to do anything about the background, then we were looking for a town that had at least a modernistic outlook and ultimately, we ended up with two towns.

We went to Detroit and that didn't look like anything really. We went to Chicago and we didn’t find it there. Ultimately, we reduced our search to Houston and Dallas, and ultimately after discussing and going to both towns and returning, we felt that Dallas would give us more possibilities also to do, let’s say, streets that weren’t modernistic but that we could blow up [laughs] and we decided to do it in Dallas. The whole movie is shot in Dallas with the exception of the ending, the steel factory that was shot in Pittsburgh.

Ultimately, we felt that Dallas would give us that, let’s say, that Old Detroit that’s mentioned in the movie. We felt that Dallas would give us the possibility to show streets that were in disarray and also falling apart or whatever, and there were enough skyscrapers to give us a modernistic look. That was the reason to go to Dallas, which was perfect. We had a great time there. Everything went very smoothly. There was a lot of cooperation. We never got in any problems. Everything we wanted to do was possible and we found all the locations there.

In fact, one of the scenes where they go to the meeting in the beginning, there was an empty floor in one of the skyscrapers there, and we built our set inside what was there already and we didn’t use any studio stuff except, I think, once for an [executive bathroom scene], but that was it. For the rest, we shot it all in real locations, which was perfect. It gave the movie an interesting style.

It was not trying to be modernistic. It was not trying to say, "OK, we’re going to create a completely new future as the world will be looking in 20 to 30 years," because, as I said, the money was not there. It was ultimately a perfect match. The fact that all the streets were kind of normal made the presence of RoboCop even more interesting. So I think we were lucky. Sometimes you’re lucky and you still make the wrong choice, but in this case, we were really lucky and made the right choice.

Did the fact that you couldn’t do a Blade Runner-style sci-fi help make the film more prophetic or satirical?

I think you could have done that, but I think in retrospect, this was more interesting and the fact you had to accept the reality because that was what we could do and we could not change the reality or in fact nearly not. It was also inspiring. You had to say, "This is there. How can I use it?" and it changed the script a little bit because the buildings were in a certain way, so basically you had to adapt to the buildings, but that gives you a lot of inspiration because you have to think all the time, "The script says that and the building is that. How can I change my script so it fits the building?" instead of thinking, "How can I fix the building so it adapts to the script?" I had to adapt the script to the buildings that were available.

Ed Neumeier was always there with me so we could discuss everything, and if the building had to be changed, then basically we would sit down and say how do we change the scenes to fit in this and that. I had a feeling there was a lot of improvisation and a lot of creativity because I didn’t know Dallas. I was not American and my [director of photography Jost Vacano] was not American. He was German, so we were all living in a new world, and I think the whole script and the way the movie is shot with these strange intermissions with the television news that interrupt the main storyline, that was me really being amazed by the U.S. I had been to the U.S. for a couple of days for some films that were never made, but this was the first time I was living in U.S. and looking at the news, being amazed by how different the United States was from Europe [laughs]. It still is, actually, especially now.

In one of the final scenes, RoboCop destroys ED-209 and then enters OCP headquarters (Dallas City Hall). - AF ARCHIVE / ALAMY STOCK PHOTO
In one of the final scenes, RoboCop destroys ED-209 and then enters OCP headquarters (Dallas City Hall).
AF archive / Alamy Stock Photo

There’s a lot of things I love about the movie, but the fake commercials you put in are some of my favorite parts.

I think that was pretty new to interrupt the main narrative, the RoboCop narrative, to interrupt that with newsreels in a hard script. It was thrown in, really, and I’ve said many times that I was inspired by a Dutch American abstract artist [Piet Mondrian] who has these paintings of squares, red squares and blue squares, but they are all interrupted by black lines, and I had a feeling it would be like that. The red and blue and the yellow, that would be our main narrative with RoboCop and his adventures, and the black lines that are going in the painting horizontally would be the news and I shot that as such.

The idea to add news to the narrative was already in script. I didn’t invent that, but I pushed it [laughs]. I pushed it very hard in a certain direction that it would be extremely abrupt and unexpected, and sometimes you had these movies that start with news reels but then the story starts. To interrupt a main narrative with a commercial or with news, that was really, I think, modern or post-modern probably.

I keep hearing this story about the gas station explosion, and from everyone that I’ve talked to, it sounds like the most infamous moment because [the explosion] was so big.

It was probably bigger than we thought [laughs].

"I was inspired by a Dutch American abstract artist, Piet Mondrian, who had these paintings of squares, red squares and blue squares, but they are all interrupted by black lines." – Paul Verhoeven

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Yeah, that’s what everyone said.

We were all far away, so it was not dangerous. There’s another explosion that is pretty late in the movie when they get these new guns that came from South Africa, I think, these guns that they start to use in the street to see if they work in the last 20 minutes of the movie, and there’s an explosion there when he shoots in the window of a store there, and that was such a big explosion, you can see it even in the reaction of the actor. He dives away [laughs]. We were all shocked. That was beyond what anybody had in mind. Everybody just looked at each other and said, "Wow, we survived." I don’t know if it was really dangerous, but it looked very dangerous.

I had one person tell me that people on the highway could hear it and were calling the fire department.

Yeah, sure. It was really sensational. I think that was the Shell station and when it’s gone, it says "Hell."

Yeah, Ed [Neumeier] told me about that joke and I didn’t remember seeing it, but when I watched it again …

Yeah, I think you can see it vaguely and it’s not very dominant, but that was all under control.

When you were making the movie, did you think it was going to be really big, or did you know what the reaction was going to be?

No, I don’t think I was even thinking about that too much. It was such an adventure for me coming from a completely different culture, and there’s still an enormous difference in culture between the United States and Europe, even now. When I went to the United States, my wife, Martine, came with the kids. My daughters came a couple of months later because they finished the school year in Holland. We left Holland, but we kept the house in Holland that we had, and it’s only after two years after RoboCop — after the success of RoboCop and then we saw that I got a new movie, Total Recall with Arnold Schwarzenegger — it’s only then when we sold our house in Holland.

It’s more like, "Let’s go there and see if it works, and we’ll put our kids in school for one year. If we have to come back, then they’ll learn English and it will be fine that we do this, and if it works, we’ll stay," and then it worked and we stayed and we’re still there. I’m in Holland now because we always kept an apartment here, but we sold our house that we had, and a couple of years later, we bought an apartment so we could go back and forth if we wanted, but of course, I’ve been mostly living in the United States since 1985.

"For me, the big mistake of the remake is that the guy Murphy basically gets wounded, of course. He loses a lot of his limbs but he doesn't lose himself. In the remake, he's aware that he's an entity and that makes the movie immediately heavy."

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From your perspective, what made the movie a big hit — and not just from a financial standpoint, but also in the sense that we’re still talking about it 30 years later?

Well, at the time, it was a relatively big hit. It was not Star Wars or something, but because of the low price, low budget and the money that came in and it was still interesting. I think the people that set it up, Michael Miner, John Davison and Ed Neumeier — it was original. It was not heavy handed. It had a lightness to it. You had to smile at it. It’s not continuously enormous tension. Even in the commercials and other things where you have to smile about these people.

My feeling of, "OK, I’ll do it; we’ll see what happens," it made the movie not heavy. If you look at the follow-ups, the sequels or the remake of RoboCop, for me, the big mistake of the remake is that the guy Murphy basically gets wounded, of course. He loses a lot of his limbs but he doesn’t lose himself. In the remake, he’s aware that he’s an entity and that makes the movie immediately heavy. The writers of RoboCop, of my RoboCop, didn’t do that. They had the intelligence and the brilliance in fact to make sure the brains of RoboCop were 90 percent eliminated, so he was not aware of his limitations.

In the new version, he’s aware of his limitations, he’s aware of what he's lost and it makes everything much heavier, and that has a certain sense of ultimate reality, and they avoided that by having the memories of RoboCop be extremely limited, not there or just little flashes that he feels but he doesn’t know. I think that was such a clever solution basically to avoid heaviness because he’s not aware of his limitations. It gives him a lightness and for an audience, you don’t push the audience in thinking, “Wow, this guy, he loses his limbs and this and that and isn’t that horrible for him” and stuff like that. You don’t think about it. It’s there but it’s not there, and I think that’s the brilliance of the concept that the brains and memory of the RoboCop, of Murphy, is erased.

The really beautiful ending of the movie when you start to realize at the end that in some way, he’s found a certain humanity and when the old man in the last scene of the movie asks, “What’s your name, son?” after he’s killed the bad guys and he doesn’t say RoboCop because normally he’s RoboCop for himself. At that moment, he says “Murphy.” Even though all these things that have happened, this certain aspect of humanity returns. I think that’s a beautiful, nearly religious concept.

I remember when I saw the movie for the first time in New York, and it was a very, let’s say, mixed ethnic audience and it was the first screening, a special screening. When the old man says “What’s your name, son?” the audience, before Murphy can answer, the audience was screaming in the theater, “Murphy!” For me, I think that was the most beautiful moment I’ve witnessed with a movie of myself. It was so staggering that the movie had proven to them at that time that a certain amount of humanity had come to back to RoboCop and that he basically owned his name again.

They felt that so precisely, the whole theater of 300 people yelled, “Murphy!” That was such an amazing moment. Even now thinking about that reaction, it nearly tears me up because it was so beautiful. Like one of the reviews was, “The movie never loses its heart to its hardware.” With our little group, we had succeeded in proving to the audience that Murphy, that the RoboCop, was back to a certain level of humanity. That was, I think, fantastic.
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Danny Gallagher has been a regular contributor to the Dallas Observer since 2014. He has also written features, essays and stories for MTV, the Chicago Tribune, Maxim, Cracked, Mental_Floss, The Week, CNET and The Onion AV Club.