A few days ago, as I was walking from the convention center here in Austin back to my car, I ran into a friend on the street who was here with Miguel Sapochnik, director of "Repo Men." Because I had just interviewed Sapochnik, I felt comfortable insisting that he check out that night's screening of "A Serbian Film," still by far the most interesting thing I've seen at SXSW this year.
Sapochnik impresses me as a hearty movie fan, a guy with a keen taste for the outrageous, and I think his movie reflects those sensibilities quite strongly. I enjoyed our brief chat on the phone, which you can read in full below:
Drew McWeeny: I wanted to talk about where this film began for you, because I know what the novel is, but your film feels like it’s got its own voice, and I can’t help but feel that there is a touch of a Verhoven to it.
Miguel Sapochnik: That's a fair statement.
Drew: And I mean that in the best possible way. I think Verhoven is one of the few guys who really knows how to make extreme graphic material both funny and shocking at the same time. And it’s not a trick many people can pull off, and I think your film walks that line very well.
Miguel: Well, thank you. I was… listen, "Robocop" was a huge influence in my life when I was growing up watching movies, and it was a guilty pleasure in some respects. Interestingly, my upbringing was kind of Schwarzenegger and Tarkovsky. And my dad was the one who used to push Tarkovsky on me, so secretly I would watch Schwarzenegger. "Robocop" was a rare movie that he loved because it walked that line. And Monty Python was like that as well. You know... there was also Terry Gilliam and "Brazil" and "Clockwork Orange" and obviously "Blade Runner". All those are the kind of movies that influenced this film. But definitely the intent was to kind of entertain and at the same time have an underlying social comment that didn’t really hit people over the head with giving its point but was there if you choose to take a closer look.
Drew: Well, it’s an ambitious film and looking at your background, it seems like you must have had quite a pitch to get Universal to commit to you on a picture of this size. Can you talk about the process of how you chased the material and ended up in the director’s chair?
Miguel: Of course. I was originally given the script in 2004, and I met the writers Eric Garcia and Garrett Lerner on the strength of the script. And initially we met and as I walked away from the meeting I thought, "No one is ever going to make this movie. And I would really like to get involved in a project that’s going to get made." So it just went to the back-burner, bottom of the pile. But I guess a few months later I just couldn’t get the idea out of my head and there was something that spoke to me. As you mentioned before, it had that Verhoeven feeling. It was satire and I loved the mix of those things. I love things that make you kind of laugh and scare you at the same time. And so I kind of sat up, picked it back up and thought, "If we’re going to make this movie, how would we make it?" And that brought me into a process of development with the writers for about three years. In the process of development, I had a bunch of movies that were in pre-production and went down for one reason or another. So I’d had quite the ride from a director's point of view of nearly making a movie for a number of years but not quite. And I found that in the end, I sat down and looked myself in the mirror and said, "If I could make any movie I wanted to make right now if I had an opportunity, what on the slate of projects I was working on seemed to speak most directly to me?" And it was this one. "Repossession Mambo." So I thought, "Well, I’m just going to find a way." And luckily that coincided with Jude Law coming across the script and reading it in 2006... mid-2006. I think once he read it and we met and I found that we both shared the same kind of take on the material and especially on the character... because the character of Remy is a really vicious, fascist kind of bully, thug, and that was a very interesting character. You know, Malcolm McDowell’s character in "Clockwork Orange" is a good reference point.
In discovering that, that started to give the project legs. So then it was about finding a financier and producers that were genuinely interested in being provocative and in walking that line, because if you miss, you can drop into being a really bad B-movie, or you can be an ironic and satirical what-if film. And walking that line is quite a tough thing to do and it requires everybody to be on the same page, so there was a very lengthy and careful look for financiers and a producer that would really step up to the plate on this. And there was a guy at Universal called Jeff Kirschenbaum, who’s an executive who’d read the script, and we wanted to work together. And he liked the script but he was in the same mind as me which is how do you ever get this made at a studio, even though he was at a studio. So he suggested that I meet Scott Stuber, who’s the producer of the film. And I met Scott, and Scott kind of got it. He understood what the intention was and had just stopped being the head... one of the presidents of the studio... and he had gotten his own producing deal and wanted to make interesting movies and this kind of fit the bill. So then it was slowly a case of building up the confidence and interest of the studio to make the movie and I think adding Forest into the mix was a really huge bonus because he’d just won an Oscar and it gave credibility to the project and augmented our ability to raze the budget to a level where it was actually doable. Because it was still essentially a low budget movie by Hollywood standards and we had to make it look like a $70-80 million film. So it was kind of gradual, to be honest with you. There’s no one thing that suddenly made it all come to life. Everybody played their part. Everybody sort of fueled the fire and then we actually had the writers strike and because of the pending writers strike, they needed to get movies made, and our movie happened to be there at the right time and the right place and it’s something that... we rolled into it. Suddenly they sent us off to write a movie before the writers strike began.
Drew: I loved that you included the Monty Python clip [from "Monty Python's The Meaning Of Life"] in your film. It’s a sly little wink to the fact that they were the ones that first had that very subversive notion of repossessing an organ.
Miguel: Yeah. Actually that was a huge… again, I can't say enough about Terry Gilliam. I’ve always found him to be... I loved the brutality of their humor and that sketch in particular, I remember. Did you know "Monty Python's Meaning Of Life" was rated 18 in England? It was considered an adult movie. It was an 18-rated comedy. How could that possibly be? It was kind of violent and terrible but profound and funny and all these things. And that particular scene I loved and hopefully paid due credit and paid due homage to them in the movie.
Drew: Obviously there has been some controversy that has dogged you guys from the camp of the “other” repo movie ["Repo - The Genetic Opera"]. And I’ve seen both films now and can say that I don’t believe there’s any similarity. I really don’t. I think you guys have made films that are as unique as two movies with the same core kernel of an idea can be. When something like that is going on, how do you tune that out and keep your focus on your picture and not worry about that sort of noise? Do you think that when your film comes out, all those comparisons will go away?
Miguel: It wasn’t even relevant to my mind until about six or seven months ago when I first started hearing about it. Prior to that, the only knowledge I’d had is there’s another movie that was being made and they were shooting in the same place as us. And really, one is "The Rocky Horror Picture Show," the other is "Pulp Fiction". They’re completely different movies and so it was kind of irrelevant to be honest with you. The noise has only kind of come to my attention in the last six or seven months with the kind of Internet banter. And as I said, at the end of the day I’m very glad that you feel what you feel about the movie and I’m hoping that people will want to actually see the film rather than talk about something they haven’t seen and will reach the same conclusion.
Drew: That’s the thing. I really do think… look, the comparison you just made to "Rocky Horror Picture Show" and "Pulp Fiction" seems to me spot on in terms of the way the tones play. Your film has a sort of a sneering punk rough ethic to it and the first half of the picture and the second half of the picture, they’re different movies. And it’s kind of a great ride because you’re going along with this amiable "guys doing their job" movie, and then it takes that great left turn. The chemistry for me that is so important in the film is three-fold. It’s Jude Law, it’s Forest Whitaker, and it’s Liev Schreiber. I think the three of them together are really wonderful. Can you talk about how you ended up with those three guys in particular?
Miguel: Well, Jude got the material without me knowing anything about it and he also got the gig because he was the guy that really started it off, that really believed in the project and understood it. Forest was very kind of lucky for us. I don’t know how else to put it. It seemed like an odd coupling right from the start and that’s what made it kind of delicious. And the fact that Forest bonded so well to the script and it hit upon themes that Forest was interested in. Forest was very interested. He likes sci-fi. He’s... very interesting, with this political sensibility about him. Very progressive. And he’d just won an Oscar for playing an incredibly complicated character, and he’s very good at playing very complicated characters, and this was quite different. This was a somewhat humorous and simple character that he was being asked to play, so it was a departure for him and I think that he embraced that. I mean as you can see in the movie, we were very lucky. You don’t know about that chemistry until you get the two people on-set and they get into it, you know? The other one was just.... again I feel like I got lucky. Liev was... there's this movie based on the ten Commandments, just ten short stories..
Drew: "The Ten."
Miguel: I can’t remember who it was directed by, but in one of them...
Drew: David Wain.
Miguel: ... Liev starred in "Thou shall not... covet thy neighbor’s wife?" I can’t remember which one it was. It was about neighbors being greedy with each other and it was a small parable, and in it Liev played this guy who becomes jealous of his neighbor buying an MRI scanner. So he buys one for himself. The two just basically just go to war with each other in a very kind of jealous way. And the way that he played it, he had this mustache that he’d grown for the part. He was just so fucking funny. It was so quiet and dry but so funny. And I saw that and I was just like, "Oh, I have fucking got to have this guy!" And he read it and he liked it and I think he wanted to be in this movie because he saw the used car salesman in it and he found that kind of somewhat atrocious and at the same time interesting as an idea.
Drew: I think Liev is one of those guys who is still one of Hollywood’s great underrated weapons and you make beautiful use of him here. Carice Van Houten
, I love, and I really think she’s… she hasn’t been figured out yet. I’m surprised people didn’t go nuts trying to cast her after "Black Book", but in this movie she is the reality vs. the fantasy of Alice Braga
, another international actor who should be in a lot more than she has been so far. Can you talk about how you ended up casting all of them and how you worked with them?
Miguel: With Carice, I had a couple of interesting conversations with her but the most interesting thing was she talked to Jude and we all got on the phone together and basically what they said to me is, because there’s a limited amount you can do with that character, what was important about the character is that that relationship is real and that the fire is dying and the kid is what’s keeping them together. And no one is bad, no one is wrong, but they just are who they are. And that element of reality really struck a chord for me, and I think that was the basis upon which they built that character for her. That relationship, I should say. And Carice really worked hard to make sure that that was there, that that existed. Whereas with Alice, it was all about screen testing, meeting lots of different people, and then the chemistry onscreen between Alice and Jude was instantaneous. She’s... Alice is kind of a bundle of energy. And I think that it seemed important to not get stuck in the idea that we were having to cast movie stars. We needed the person to feel unique, not generic. I think Alice is kind of unique in that respect. She’s not your average Hollywood starlet, as it were. And that worked incredibly well for us. But it wasn’t an intentional choice to cast everybody from all different places in the world. It just kind of ended up that way, and I think at the same time reflected the general make-up of the world. So that was the process. Does that answer the question?
Drew: Absolutely. Love the soundtrack in the picture, so let me ask, who’s the William Bell fan?
Miguel: (laughs) Ah, William Bell. "Every Day Will Be Like A Holiday". You know what happened? We were shooting that night with the RZA, and I thought he was going to bring a track with him to play that we were going to listen to. And when he got there, he was like, "What song have you got?" And I sort of shat myself and said, "Oh, bloody hell." Me and Jude had been listening to a lot Stax music. Stax soul because we felt that it was very important for Remy to have a redeeming quality and that his quality was that he liked listening to soul music while he did his jobs. So I ran to a trailer and I had a bunch of Stax stuff and I started flipping through songs listening to the first four seconds and then moving on if it didn’t kind of have a hook. And I hit the William Bell track and it was just... "This is the one, this is the one." And I never listened to the whole track before. Then we played that song all through the night again and again and again. And luckily it was a really good song.
Drew: Oh, it’s a great tune. It’s one of those things where when I saw the film, I’m like, "I hope this is the kind of thing where now people go and they find him and they fall in love with his work." Because, man, talk about a song writer and a half...
Miguel: Yeah, fantastic. I got so into soul that the whole thing was covered in soul to begin with and bits of it got taken out but we held onto William Bell. The RZA actually did a remix which is on the soundtrack which is excellent as well. So he came through in the end just a couple of years later on. I’m getting a look that I have to get off the phone, but do you have one last question?
Drew: Obviously this film has an ambitious scope and you talk about it being a lower budget film. If this does well for you, is there something that you have hip-pocketed that you really want to try to get made next?
Miguel: Yeah. There’s a bunch of things I have. I think, to be honest with you, it’s been a very, very long road and just thinking about the next ten days... I want people to see this movie, you know? And then I’m going to deal with all my dirty laundry and everything I haven’t done in the last three years. So I’m kind of stuck in that but I do have a bunch of things brewing but to give anything away would be telling.
Drew: Well, sir, I hope people go see the movie, too. I really enjoyed it. I think it’s a brash film and it’s one of those that when you see that it’s got a studio logo in front of it, you do a double-take. It’s not the typical studio picture and I mean that in the best possible way.
Miguel: Well, thank you. That is taken as a great compliment. Thank you.
Drew: Take care, sir. Thank you. Good to speak with you.
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