Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Repo Men interview: Director Miguel Sapochnik

Last month, I teased my interview with Repo Men director Miguel Sapochnik. This week, with the premiere rapidly approaching, Universal Studios has cleared me to publish it here.  In case you can't tell from my questions, I REALLY liked the film, so it was a real thrill for me to be able to speak with Miguel.  Without further ado:

Ok, let’s start with your background.  Who is Miguel Sapochnik and what makes him tick?
That has numerous answers. Really depends who's asking. The short (ha) formal answer is Argentinean parents, Polish and Russian descent, born and bred in London. Art background, wanted to make movies since i was eleven. It took twice that long to actually make one. Was storyboard artist for some years. Used to paint murals in England, the states and do concept art for films. Went to Bournemouth film school for one year at 21 and then worked as commercials director for three years, then music videos for four years until i made the dreamer with Ivor Powell (one of Ridley Scotts line producers on alien, blade runner) and sold the pitch to Miramax for a feature version which never happened. Been working as director/writer ever since.

Repo men is one of the smartest films I’ve had the pleasure to see in quite some time.  How did you come to be involved with it?
I was sent the script in 2004 and met writers Eric Garcia and garret learner based on that. We got along but the story was one that was hard to imagine it ever being made. I put it into the 'nice idea' pile but after three months i realized i was still thinking about it and so asked to meet again and that's how i got involved. We developed the script for a few years mainly working on the ending and tightening until in 2006 Jude Law read and asked for a meeting and that's when the ball really got rolling.

The movie has been in post-production for quite a while.  What motivated that? How different will the film be from the version that i saw?
The film has evolved a fair bit i imagine from when you saw it but it's essentially the same story just a bit more Hollywoodized which in part is what kept it in post for so long. Our first cut was maybe more of a satire and the later cuts while more effective in many ways were more of the Hollywood version of the movie. That said, at its core it's an anti corporation movie and that has not been removed so it still feels quite different from the usual Hollywood fare.

It’s said that no battle plan survives contact with the enemy; what’s changed from when you first looked at the script until now?
Its not as funny or maybe the humor is more buried. The character of Remy is not quite as insane as he was. You sacrifice bits and pieces along the way to survive the experience of making a movie in Hollywood and hope that when all the dust settles you have kept enough to retain the integrity of the original idea. It seems this is the way of the world and at the end of the day, it's their money they're giving me to live out the most expensive therapy session you can imagine so i can hardly complain.... Actually i can, but I'm not going to.

The film had a number of extremely clever moments, but what really stood out in my mind were the advertisements.  Was that an element in the original script, or did it come about later?
Advertisements were always in the script in some form. They went through many iterations as advertising style is like a fickle fashion and quickly moves on.  We needed to update the ideas but a page was taken from robocop which i admire for many reasons. We worked with an advertising  company called goodness manufacturing who treated us as a regular client and wrote a number of great ad scripts to really identify the world in which our movie would take place, from union (the artiforg manufacturer) ads to local commercials for deodorant. It was about using the commercials to sometimes subtly and sometimes not so subtly reflect the state of this future world. Ultimately there was no place for them in the final film other than as background moments which i lament as i am very proud of what we did but as the cut changed and the tone became a little less humorous, they stood out as tonally wrong. Anyway just this last week we put together a union store website that has just gone up  ( It features most of the commercials we made. Some are well hidden in the site and require a bit of digging, but i'm very glad they are being used to help build the world as part of the marketing campaign.

I found the sequence at the airport to strain the reality of the film. It’s one thing to have the union hunting fugitives, it’s another to have them have a presence as part of the security force at an airport.  Any comment on that? 
Not really. In the final cut there is a clear distinction between the repo men and the TSA guards. The repo men are in plain clothes and just stand around at airport security pinging (scanning) anyone in the line. They are not part of the system but they are clearly exercising their right to focus their work on a place where their property may be being taken from them illegally. Not so dissimilar to military recruiting outside college campuses, don't you think? All that said, there were many many versions of that sequence and the question of how it works in the world was discussed and workshopped many times to try and make sure that it didn't take you out of the movie. Hopefully the final cut will be more successful in that but you definitely cannot win them all. There were some other last minute cuts that for me defy all logic in a film that originally had very few logic holes. But while to me they are gaping holes, others don't even notice them....

When a science-fiction movie has two strong male leads, the first instinct is to categorize it as a ‘buddy film.’  while there are some elements of that in repo men, it’s not how i would characterize the film.  Was it difficult, structurally, to balance Jude Law’s Remy with Forest Whitaker’s Jake?
Once we knew Forest was on board we rejigged the character of jake according to some of his thoughts and others that his presence just inspired. What was very apparent from the read-through was that forest's portrayal of Jake was a lot of fun and the onscreen chemistry between jude and forest really played well. Suddenly we looked at the film's structure and realized that there was a long portion of the film with Jake off screen and so we began to look at how we could incorporate him more, but in the end we realized that it's not jake's story (the sequel however is another matter entirely) and that by being sparse with jake made his moments on screen even more electric. To be honest, i would have a very hard time if we had had more footage of any of the main three guys. Jude, Liev and Forest really pulled rabbits from the hat with their performances. They were a pleasure to works with and a pleasure to watch.

Liev Schreiber’s character stole the show whenever he was on screen.  Was his part always intended to be as big as it was, or did that evolve in the course of making the film?
Frank was always as he was and Liev just nailed it. We talked about it a while before shooting but what was exceptional about him is that while I was lucky enough to get a fair bit of time to rehearse with Jude and Forest, Liev turned up in the middle of the shoot the weekend before he was meant to start and got stuck in straight away. The first scene he had was the hospital scene where Remy wakes to find his heart has been replaced by his best friend Jake, and Frank is there to give the 'good' news. Liev's little flash of genius was to bring a cuddly teddy into the room along with the get well card we had supplied. Watch out for it in the scene. Makes his character there and then.

Alice Braga’s Beth floated in and out of the movie in an almost ethereal fashion.  Was that done intentionally to emphasize her own transitory nature?
Alice's character probably had the hardest time in the edit room. This had nothing to do with the performance, which was wonderful to my mind, but more because of the role she played in Remy's life as his first wife. The character inhabited many flashbacks that at times derailed the momentum of the first act and confused the audience. Now, I have no problem with that, but as the pieces get chopped away the fat gets shredded. Pietro Scalia, one of the film's editors, saw the opportunity to tighten this part of the story by reinventing her as a character with no previous relationship to Remy, and it worked. So her back story hit the cutting room floor. We reworked the scenes we had to make this new version as tight as we could with the material we had and to minimize the bump. For the most part it worked. More important was that once her introduction is made, her character really fit into Remy's story. Interestingly it's worth pointing out that not only was the budget of this movie pretty low considering hollywood standards but while you're pretty much guaranteed a few days of reshoots on a film, especially in situations like this, we did not have a single day of reshoots. Everything was shot during principle photography of 64 days. And we had to find the performance we needed in the footage we had already shot. In the end, Alice's performance in final scenes are among what makes the film, I think... 

You had some big-name stars attached to this project.  What was it like working with them?
I know people say this shit all the time but I truly could not have done it without their trust, generosity and talent: Carice Van Hueton, John Leguisamo(although they cut him from the final theatrical cut, he's in the unrated version in his full glory), Alice Braga, Liev, Forest and especially Jude, who went the extra mile on this movie. I'm actually very excited to see how the audiences react to that. I don't have a bad word to say. They all worked hard, gave their all and I am proud to have had the chance to work with them. Sorry, no juicy gossip.

The film had some interesting things to say about the nature of perception and reality.  What kind of questions do you want moviegoers to leave the film asking?
That would be telling. While I am flattered that this is being posed as a question, I think it is wrong for me to tell anybody what they should think. Part of my job, as the storyteller is to frame the story in a way that lasts longer than the 90mins you spend in the theatre. If people come out wanting to talk about it more, whether negatively or positively, right or wrong, if it encourages debate, or communication which leads to a better understanding of even the simplest aspect of humanity, then my job is done.

The movie posters are just brilliant, teasing the audience with intriguing but somehow grotesque images of medical devices.  Where did that idea come from?
It's been an idea we've been keen on for a very long time. Again it's all part of selling the world to the audience and then letting the film come out and get on with telling one of the stories from that world.

There is a bit of a stir among fans of ‘Repo the Genetic Opera’ about the similarities between your film and their rock opera.  Would you care to respond?
RTGO is the Rocky Horror Picture Show version. Ours is more like the Pulp Fiction version. They are two films that have similar concepts but that's it. Jesus Christ Superstar vs Last Temptation Of Christ? Anyway, last week the writers of Repo Mambo and I met with the writers of RTGO and their director Darren Bousmann and had a good chinwag about it. They were good guys and I am glad I got to meet them and clear the air.
When i first saw this movie, the film that it most reminded me of was Brazil.  Are you a fan?
Huge. Brazil is one of my favorites and was a huge influence for Repo Mambo. Along with Clockwork Orange, Trainspotting, Robocop and Children of Men...

Anything else you’d like to share with my readers?
Go see the movie and make up your own mind. That's what it was made for. The simple truth is the more successful it is on opening weekend, the more chance of Hollywood studios letting people like us make smarter films. March 19th 2010.

No comments: