‘RoboCop’ at 30: Screenwriter Ed Neumeier Reflects on Comic-Con, Paul Verhoeven and the Future of Sci-Fi

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A still from the 1987 movie "RoboCop." Orion Pictures

There hadn’t been a movie quite like RoboCop when it opened on July 17, 1987.

Grossing over $50 million in its initial run, the sci-fi action thriller about a cop turned cyborg was an unlikely hit in an age before high-budget superhero flicks dominated the market. Its competitors that year were the Stanley Kubrick war movie Full Metal Jacket and the hokey Superman IV: The Quest for Peace. In many respects, RoboCop was a happy medium between the two.

“There is comedy in this movie, even slapstick comedy,” wrote Roger Ebert in his review. “There is romance. There is a certain amount of philosophy, centering on the question, What is a man?” And there is a fair amount of violence as well—off-putting to some viewers when paired with the film’s occasional goofiness.

ed_neumeier Screemriter Ed Neumeier, right, and director Paul Verhoeven speak during a screening of "Starship Troopers" at ArcLight Hollywood on August 25, 2016, in Hollywood. Matthew Simmons/Getty Images

But according to Ed Neumeier, who wrote RoboCop as well as the 1997 sci-fi military satire Starship Troopers (both directed by Dutch filmmaker Paul Verhoeven), that was what drove the film’s concept in the first place. Combining grotesque acts of police violence in a dystopian Detroit with pointed moments of comedy allowed Neumeier to comment on authoritarianism, privatization and corruption without turning RoboCop into a preachy slog.

“People were going to laugh at a movie called RoboCop anyways,” he says. So he wanted audiences to laugh with the film, not at it.

I talked with Neumeier on the phone recently about RoboCop’s 30th anniversary, how he views the sci-fi genre and what it was like reuniting with the film’s creative team at Comic-Con. (Full disclosure: I’ve known Neumeier personally for several years.) The following interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

A lot has changed in the film industry since RoboCop. Comic book movies are now the norm for blockbusters, but in 1987, when you looked to comic books like Judge Dredd for inspiration, it was still a pretty newfound idea. When you decided, “I’m going to write a film about this robot cop,” what made you decide to turn to comic books instead of Isaac Asimov or George Orwell or any of the sci-fi writers?
The comic book thing came to me because I was a reader at Columbia Pictures. My story editor, John Byers, gave me a stack of comic books one day. I think they were Green Arrow. I had had comic books in my childhood, but they were, like, Donald Duck and Huey, Dewey and Louie. I was not a superhero guy. But he gave me a bunch of comic books because someone had said, “Could we do a superhero movie about this?”

Now Superman had been a hit, but it had kind of faded. And comics were going through a bit of a second coming. Guys like Frank Miller were coming up. Suddenly comic books were getting serious cred. And I thought, There’s a style here. The way people act, the way they talk, the behavior.... It’s kind of dumb, but it’s fun in that way too.

[RoboCop] producer Jon Davison, unlike many others, understood that immediately. And then the director [Paul Verhoeven] came in, and at first said, “Well, why is this so dumb? Why is this so America?” And then he went and read some comic books, and he came back, and he said, “Oh, I see. I see what we’re doing.” And he really did. He recently said, in an interview, that nobody understands that the reason RoboCop works is because it’s funny. The humor, the tone, is what allows it to have this potent mix of entertainment and ideas.

I know you were also inspired by Blade Runner, which hits on similar themes, in a way, but is tonally very different.
I was on a set for Blade Runner. It was hundreds of people working in this whole enormous set. I was just hanging around, for about a week, working in the art department. At about 4 in the morning one night, I was sitting there, and the idea of a robot cop in that environment—the location really fired up my imagination. When I asked somebody, “So what’s this movie about, anyway?” they pointed to a girl in a tutu, the actress Sean Young, and said, “It’s a robot movie, and she’s a robot.” I was like, “That doesn’t look like a robot to me.” Then [they said], “Harrison Ford, he’s a robot too. He’s chasing other robots.”

That’s all I knew it was about. But the idea I had was, What would a robotic cop think of all these weird people that were extras in Ridley Scott’s movie? I was wondering how AI would react to human beings, criminals. Then the next idea, a few weeks or months later, was “Wouldn’t it be more interesting if he had been a man, a cop, who was turned into a robot?” There’s a bit of a horror idea in there that had not been in there initially.

Prior to that, I had been thinking a lot about the rise of the corporate world in the mid-’80s. Now it’s so ubiquitous, it’s hard to imagine a world where it was not that way. Prior to the ’80s, in the ’70s and certainly in the ’60s, Wall Street and money was pretty quiet. That was part of the aesthetic. But in the ’80s, it came out of the closet, as it were. I wanted to make a statement about that, about the coming of the corporate world, and everything being seen as a business problem, and being solved as a business problem, whether it’s schools or hospitals or education. I felt then, as I do now, that you can’t apply that kind of thing to everything.

robocop2 A still from "RoboCop." Orion Pictures

When you say “applying it to everything,” do you mean the greed of the business world?
I don’t think business is a good application to higher education. I don’t believe that really nice schools should be operating as hotels and with concierge services, because that justifies the reason to charge $70,000 a year. I don’t believe that every human problem should be solved based on economics and dollar value—it’s a very reductionist way of looking at things. It’s a one-size-fits-all way of looking at things, and I don’t think that’s good for human beings.

I’m not saying business isn’t important or “Hey, give all the money away.” I just think it doesn’t fix all the problems. There is a cost to everything, but saving money, making a good deal, isn’t the way to educate more people in the United States.

And there’s definitely all of that in the film—privatization, Wall Street growing bigger.... You have the death of the auto industry, because it’s set in Detroit. Did you ever feel like you were biting off more than you could chew?
Oh, absolutely. Everything I’ve ever done is more than I could chew. I’m always terrified. When I was younger, I was more ignorant, and I wasn’t aware of what I had bitten off. Writing is hard, fraught, terrifying. I just got off the phone with my old writing partner, Mike Miner, who I wrote RoboCop with, and we’re working on something again together. And it’s funny, 30 years later, and we’re still like, “Oh my God, we’re so fucked!”

But RoboCop came together somehow.
There’s that wonderful line in Shakespeare in Love, about the theater, where there’s one character—I think it’s Geoffrey Rush—who’s the owner of the theater. People keep coming to him, like, “We don’t have this! We don’t have that! It’s all falling apart! What’re we going to do?” And he says, “Don’t worry.” “What do you mean, ‘Don’t worry’?” He says, “It’ll work out.” “Well, how do you know?” And he says, “It’s a mystery!”

deltacity A still from "RoboCop," showing Detroit. Orion Pictures

Going back to all those themes, you even threw in something that was pretty new at the time. They’re trying to convert this rundown part of Detroit into a bunch of high-end developments. It’s this idea of gentrification that’s now becoming more prominent.
Absolutely. There’s almost a new feudalism coming, and if [I were writing RoboCop] now, 30 years later, Delta City would be an armored hamlet. It’d be a city, and there’d be walls around it, sort of like Singapore or any downtown of any major metropolis. If you go to New York City, it costs you money just to get into that place. Everything costs more. It’s economically walled off already. But I have a feeling that, depending on how it goes, you could see places where people with a lot of resources could live without having to worry about their safety, their security, or even looking at other people.

When it was released in 1987, RoboCop was supposed to be set in the “near future,” and rewatching it now, it feels more like it could be set in present-day 2017. If you were writing the movie today, would you change anything about it to reflect that? Would you set it farther in the future?
What I would really wanna know is, What’s gonna happen 30 years from now? We have automation coming in. It’s going to be such a game changer for the transportation industry. That’s a huge segment of the job market. In the ’90s, there were a bunch of people who lost their coal jobs. And the Clintons said, “OK, you’re gonna become software engineers.” And it didn’t work out. Very few of them became software engineers.

Some years later, another Clinton is running, and all of those former coal workers, who are sitting up there feeling kind of sore, betrayed, they feel like the Clintons are even saying they’re stupid! Because they couldn’t become software engineers! Or that they’re racist, because they’re stupid, that’s almost a code word. Those people, those voters, react in anger, and they vote against Clinton. Whatever the parties are, I think in the future you’re gonna have a lot of unhappy people who can’t be retrained. The bigger question I would want to look at is, What would you do with all these people?

A lot of RoboCop came out of a book called The Reckoning by David Halberstam, about Detroit going down and Japan going up in the auto world. The designer of RoboCop’s suit, Rob Bottin, and I were talking one day, and I said, “The more I look at RoboCop, the more I see hints of a big American car. That chest looks like the front of a Ram pickup truck or something.” And he laughed, and he said, “Yeah, that’s what I was doing!” He put the American car industry in that suit, in a way.

When I wrote RoboCop, there was the beginning of a digital age upon us. Technology changing very rapidly. But that’s just gonna keep happening. I went to a conference up in Santa Cruz last year, and they were talking about transhumanism. This notion that, if you’re rich, you could live longer. What are the very wealthy going to do if they think, If I play my cards right here, I can live 30 years longer than other people? That means people who have a lot of money and a lot of power will want to stay in power, and have the means to stay in power, much longer. So I would like to write something now about how we’re going to face these other problems.

robocop3 Nancy Allen and Peter Weller in "RoboCop." Orion Pictures

I think this gets at an interesting concept: What makes a story science fiction? I feel like you have a knack for taking technology as it is when you’re writing something, and taking it to an extreme. And in the case of RoboCop in particular, the extreme has sort of become true.
I often think it’s just a good educated guess. I used to say, “If you come to an extreme and you make a joke out of it, you can predict the future.” I grew up in a time when, in the movies, technology was often a monster. And I wanted to say, “Well, technology is [a monster], but we have to cope with it.” 

And maybe by taking it to extremes, that’s part of that deal. But I do think that was the premise of RoboCop, in a way, as the man who was turned into a robot was the center metaphor of that. And then everybody else [in the film] is, in different ways, coping with technology too.

One recurring motif in RoboCop is Murphy/RoboCop’s directives, the ones he’s given when he’s transformed into a cyborg. “Serve the public trust, protect the innocent, uphold the law.” Those are supposed to make him the perfect cop, but as we learn, there’s a fourth directive that’s preventing him from fighting against the very corporation that he’s controlled by.
That’s right. Directive 4 is “Don’t arrest us.” I’m sure every corporation would want that.

Were you thinking of police corruption specifically, or was it more of a general commentary on automation and privatization?
It was really a commentary on the idea that if a corporation makes something, they want to control it. If I go to work for a corporation, they can look at everything I do on my cellphone. They want to own me to the extent that they want to prevent me from being harmful to them. Corporations are [made up of] people, they’re self-protective. They want to make sure you’re not gonna hurt them. So therefore they’re going to insist on legal clauses, nondisclosure agreements. Or, if you happen to be a cyborg, they’re going to put a little thing in that says, “You can’t function in a way that would work against the company.”

Because RoboCop does focus on so much violence, specifically in the police force, I’ve heard it be described as a “fascist” film. Were you aware of those implications while you were making it?
A lot of my very liberal friends are afraid or suspect that I’m a secret Republican. I’m not. I’m interested in how people act. Obviously, it’s a violent world out there. I heard somebody say once, “We sleep peacefully at night because rough men are out there waiting to beat people up.” I’m interested in warrior culture. With Starship Troopers, that’s kind of the military version [of warrior culture]. And with cops, it’s interesting because these are the guys we elect to keep us safe or beat us up, depending on what we do.

Now, in the social media world, you’re just seeing what’s been going on out there all this time. It’s kind of what happened in the Vietnam War, where they had cameras there, and suddenly you’re seeing guys who look like they grew up down the street setting someone’s house on fire. And you’re horrified, and you don’t want to hear that that’s been going on in war forever. When cops go and take out a suspect, [we see that] they’ve been beating people over the head forever, and we don’t like it.

It isn’t fascistic to discuss these things. In fact, if you want to solve the problems you have with how your warriors act, or how your police act, you need to discuss it. And if you make a movie that deals with all these things, it’s almost inevitable, if the movie’s any good, that it reflect the truth of warrior culture, military society, and then it will be embraced by them. When Robert Altman made the great war satire M*A*S*H, it also became the Army’s greatest recruiting tool.

When I grew up in Northern California, people argued, “You shouldn’t even do those kinds of movies! They’re bad!” So of course, I went out and did as many as I could. It’s just that you’re talking about a situation, and to make it entertaining means the audience will sit around and think about it. RoboCop and Starship Troopers are both movies that show you it’s possible to have at least some sort of interesting or thoughtful exchange involved in a popular action movie.

robocop4 Peter Weller in "RoboCop." Orion Pictures

You were saying before how Verhoeven and other people involved were looking at the movie at first and being like, “Why is it funny?” But it sounds like that’s the point. Were you going for a satirical tone?
I’m always worried it won’t be entertaining enough. Or interesting enough. Almost everything good is funny sometimes. Shakespeare knew he could be funny. John Ford liked to use humor to really emphasize the serious. He liked to have a funny, stupid scene right before something really bad happened. That always made sense to me.

At Comic-Con, someone asked, “Why do you do this?” And I was trying to think of something punchy to say, and I said, “Well, I think that there’s a part of me that’s 10 years old and has never changed. And then I met Paul Verhoeven, who had a very sadistic 10-year-old part of himself, and it was a match made in heaven.” 

In some ways, we have to emphasize Paul here, because I think it’s all groovy for me to say, “Gee, I had all these great ideas.” But there were no other directors who got the material the way Paul got it.

What do you think Verhoeven brought out of your script?
He made it all sharper, and he realized it as completely as it could be realized, under the circumstances. The script didn’t change, the script just got really better and more pointed. He could stage a scene with the tone; he knew how to do the news broadcasts, he knew how to make them even sillier. Pointedly making a bad camera move or a bad cut. A lot of it comes down to tone, in this case, and I think that Paul was discovering a new tone that he then goes on to use in several more movies, including Total Recall and Starship.

We found the comedy side of Paul Verhoeven. Even though we’re totally different, we understood how violence is strangely compelling to watch in a certain way, but it is also horrible, and those two things can exist together. That human beings are terrible, and we’re in denial about how badly they act. And so it’s fun to show congruence behind that curtain too.

We had a lot of fun together, and I think that, had I been the normal American screenwriter who was gone from the project and having it rewritten by an anonymous, high-powered screenwriter during production, I’d be going to my own movie going, “Hmmm, I wonder what they used?”

But in this case, I was embraced by the director. I was there as a producer, and worked with the director. The other [producer], Jon Davison, got immediately what was interesting about the movie, encouraged me to write more that way. I went to him one point and said, “You know, is this OK? I really want this to be funny.” And he was like, “Oh, funny’s good.” He also knew these really great guys, like Rob Bottin and Phil Tippett, who won two Academy Awards for Jurassic Park, for the [Imperial] Walker scene in Star Wars. So again, lucky to be around these smart people, and it’s hard to know exactly how those things happen.

Are there any other thoughts you’ve had since RoboCop turned 30?
I’d just emphasize that you don’t know what’s going to happen. The idea that there’s a bunch of fans, two generations now, who like this movie—it doesn’t have anything to do with me. It has to do with the relationships they have about the movie, to the movie, with other people who like it. You don’t see that coming. You just hope that it’s not bad.

I was just at Comic-Con, and people come up to you and they say things like, “Oh man, this is my favorite movie, we bonded over this movie.” It’s a generational thing, particularly with guys. The thing I get from the girls is, “Oh, this is the movie my dad showed me.” There’s an interesting coming-of-age aspect to the movie for some fans that I was completely surprised by.

Verhoeven’s made many good movies now, but he once said that he felt like the ones people keep talking about are the science fiction movies. That’s the value of that genre, that it allows for an exchange of ideas about what’s gonna happen. We’re worried, because as a species, we’re coming up to this big crossroads. How will we survive? I think that’s why people are interested in science fiction.

But before we go, what are your favorite movies these days?
I just watched Valerian, which I don’t think is a science fiction movie in the way you described it. I saw one reviewer [A.O. Scott] describe it as “crushing a DVD of The Phantom Menace into fine powder,” mixing it with ecstasy and cumin powder and “snorting the resulting mixture,” all while wearing VR goggles to Vegas.

God bless Luc Besson, he’s trying. It sounds like a fantasy movie.

It’s definitely a fantasy. Definitely go see it in 3-D, if you do see it.
I will. I might have to leave the ecstasy out of it this time.