Director Miguel Sapochnik Discusses His 'Repo Men'

Based on the novel Repossession Mambo, the upcoming film Repo Men takes the premise of reclaiming artificial organs from their human renters and runs with it in a way that's both full of action and horror. And director Miguel Sapochnik wouldn't have it any other way. Reveling in the blood that's onscreen as much as he obsesses over the backstory motivating his characters, Sapochnik recently explained to a gathering of film journalists just why it's important his film keep the music happy and the lights bright even when the story reaches terrifying depths. But beware, spoilers lurk below.

I was wondering if you had been watching the news lately. There were some who women had to be rushed to the hospital for black market surgeries and how closely this mirrors your movie.

No that I didn't know. At some point along the line I did a search into organ harvesting and just how common it is and it was information I'd rather forget.

How deeply did you get into that research?

Well, on the one hand it was interesting to research, you couldn't help yourself, and it’s sort of morbidly fascinating. But at the same time, it's not really pertinent to the story. You have to think that the idea of organ harvesting is about taking one organ from another person rather than actually creating [an] artificial one. Our story is more allegorical I would say than scientifically likely.

What tone were you reaching for overall and were you trying to avoid falling into any action movie clichés along the way?

We were looking for generally just a fucked-up tone. We were trying to draw the line, walk the line between something that was entertaining, that had an element of satire in it. A good way of explaining this is by the movies that influenced it. And so A Clockwork Orange, Brazil, the sketch from Monty Python's Meaning of Life, and Monty Python in general. I think Trainspotting had a big influence on me. I worked on Trainspotting, it was kind of one of the first films I ever worked on, so it kind of affects me. Particularly, the character of Begbie who is, I think, akin to Jake, Forest Whitaker's character. And Paul Verhoeven, of Robocop, which is just the strange story of an arty Dutch filmmaker who goes over to the states and makes outrageous movies and got away with it.

I think that we were just trying to walk the line. It was always about being humorous and not taking yourself too seriously. Forest once said to me, "How do you want us to play these characters? Do you want us to play it straight? Do you want us to play it broad? Do you want us to play it slapstick?" Which for me, I didn't know that you could play characters in different ways. I thought you just acted it and that was it but he's right thinking about it. In the end, I thought about it a lot, I said, "Play it straight and let me do the broad." Which is somewhat what the music tries to do in the film, which is it juxtaposes what you're seeing in the same way it's not a post-apocalyptic movie and so you would make it colorful and kind of brash and garish. And the idea there was to not fall into the trap of making everything really dark and pessimistic because the subject matter is dark. We're not talking about a really bright future, we're talking about a corporate, fucked-up future.

One of the things I really like about this is you don't make any attempt to explain how we got to this point -- there's no explanation as to how this became legal, why it happened. Can you talk about that choice and the effect that it gives to the film?

It was a very specific choice. As a movie lover -- and I love all sorts of movies, I was brought up on Schwarzenegger -- I think the idea was I had seen too many movies where we have to explain that because of this terrible epidemic humans have been forced to live in this terrible society where we do these atrocious things, etc. etc. And, the fact is, I don't think anything terrible happened. I don't think anything more terrible than what's happening now. Greed still exists, capitalism, which has become something else than the original idea of capitalism, is rampant. [It wasn't] a topical subject when we first got the script and it's amazing how topical it became, even a year ago I was worried that we were going to miss our boat in holding back to release a year and actually it's even more topical now. So the decision was specific to say nothing happened, we just are who we are and that has brought us to this particular situation or could potentially bring us to that. It's a "What if?" story, more importantly, not a "It's happening; we're fucked." I like that word today.

Jude was talking about how you cut his favorite scene which was the first repo around Christmas where they're walking in the snow and covered in blood. Why did you cut it?

It's in the unrated version and not because it's particularly violent or anything, it was just one of the things about Remy's character is that he has a lot of tangential musings. He doesn't concentrate on anything for too long and throughout the first act originally there were many flashbacks where he would just [be] doing one thing and suddenly he would stop and the voiceover would start talking about another thing. It's a bit like The Informant where there's that great moment where the CIA guy goes, "What we're going to do is --" and suddenly this voice starts talking and that's very appropriate to Remy's character. So that was originally very much his character. But that kind of non-linear transgression became distracting when we were trying to streamline the movie and that's one of the few scenes that hit the cutting room floor.

Some people last night were screaming they loved the film so much and I saw a couple of walk-outs. Would you rather people have that extreme love it/hate it reaction than be wishy-washy?

I hate ambivalence. I mean, you can love it, you can hate it, if that provokes a reaction either one will do but ambivalence is the death of us all.

Can we hear about the process of structuring the film and deciding what stays and goes, and also a little bit about the casting?

We had a, I guess what I would call a very tight script, in that we had to lock stuff in there. It was a very ambitious thing right from the start. We were having company moves at least every night, if not in the middle of the day as well. So a lot of the time was spent in the truck going from one location to the other rather than actually getting to shoot. And the idea of how the finished piece compares to the script was very much in the process of editing, which sounds very boring on one hand but is true, it was a trial and error thing.

Basically, we had this idea of the tangential musings as I was mentioning before, we actually shot that, we pieced it altogether, we streamlined it, and then we had to step back and watch the movie and go, "But is it working? Does it actually make any sense what we're doing? When am I losing my interest?" Even as someone who's seen the movie 50 times, I've got to retain my interest in this movie. And then being brutal when you realize that it didn't matter how -- like there's this fantastic scene that we shot in a tank and a little bit of it is in the film, but basically we had this set of a tank, Forest and Jude show up and they begun fighting to keep this scene and I really wanted it but something had to give so it just made it off the skin of its teeth. They sit in this tank, we have two set cameras, and we didn't have a script and so I basically sat there and I put really loud music, "I've Just Got to Celebrate," on their headphones and I said, "OK, in this scene you want to kill people." And I went out and they start shooting. And these two guys just went at it, I can't tell you, it was so funny. "And in this scene, you're really fucking bored!" And there was this great moment in the middle of them sitting there, I think that's on the DVD, Forest is playing around with his fluffy dice really annoying Remy who is trying to write to Beth, who was originally his first wife, in the original cut of the film. So Jude turns around and goes, "You know, you're really fucking annoying me." Jake's like, "I'm sorry, I'm sorry." Jude goes, "Look, I've written something for Alice" and he pulls out a poem -- I didn't tell him to do this -- he pulls out a poem that he's obviously written, and he reads this poem to Forest which is about Jacke and Remy's characters. And I was sitting there amazed that he had actually thought about this before and that this was his idea. And if you look at the footage, Forest's reaction is the same, just for a moment his acting drops and he's kind of like, "..." And it's beautiful but it's too fucking long. And in a way, I guess that's why they have the Director's Edition, and the Collector's Edition, and the Director's Collector's Edition.

Were they always your first choice of casting?

I didn't necessarily choose Jude. Jude read the script and asked for a meeting. We hadn't quite reached that stage yet, in my mind we were still trying to find the finance. And he just, he was so smart about what he thought about it -- I know he says he didn't give any notes but what he said in the meetings that we had, had such value because he understood the character and wanted to embody it. And then, Forest, we were just really bloody lucky because he had just won an Oscar so I was like, "Why would you want to come do a genre movie with lots of dirty jokes?" But somehow, for some reason, that was enticing.

It sounds like there was a lot of material left on the cutting room floor. Can you elaborate on what we could see beyond a theatrical cut of the movie?

Well, I already did the kind of unrated cut which I guess I kind of hijacked and turned into the director's cut of the movie. The unrated cut really focuses on maybe, more than anything else, it goes into some detail of the relationship and lost relationship between Remy and Carol and Remy and his son Peter. It's got one of my favorite scenes in it, which we always called "Peter and the Romans," where, in a very down-to-earth way, Peter tells Remy about his day at school and then asks Remy casually, "Dad, why did the Romans stone people to death?" And Remy looks at him like, "Why? What a stupid question?" and says, "Because they didn't have guns."

It's always been for me that really got into the idea of the kind of desensitized world that they lived in. There's also a whole subplot that existed in the movie where Beth was originally Remy's first wife that he met on his weekend before going to war and marries kind of quite haphazardly and then loses touch with, goes in search of, never finds her. And there's that whole 35-minute sequence that exists in the movie and subsequently changes the focus of many scenes of the film. We took that out ultimately for the reasons I explained earlier of trying to streamline the project, and to better effect but it was very interesting to try and do that without reshooting anything to find within the existing scenes ways of getting 'round the elephant in the room, which is that these characters have known each other for 10 years rather than they've just met. So there's all of that. There's some footage of me dancing on tables when I got very drunk one night. That's about it.

Thinking of the archetype of the classic movie good guy and bad guy, I was wondering if beyond the son and the wife, do you think there are any good guys in this movie?

I don't know if I've ever met a really good guy or a really bad guy. They all seem to be a bit yin and yang, and that's what makes humans interesting -- the whitest heart and the darkest desires. And I think, no, I think they're all good for something, not necessarily for us. No, even Peter who I was going to say is a little boy and can be a good guy, he tasers his mom, doesn't he? So that doesn't make him very good. It might make him good for young kids around the world but that doesn't make him very good as far as his mom is concerned.

Do you have a next project lined up yet?

March 19th when I go out and get really drunk after the film. Yeah, I've got stuff to do. I've been very engaged in doing a motion comic, which is two motion comics. One is about Remy going to see a therapist about his job and the other is Frank's day in the life at the office. One of them we're projecting, we've done and finished in 3D, and is going to be premiered at SXSW and then going online. And they're marketing tools but they're also extensions of the story, they're spinning off the narrative. So it's been kind of like a full-time job.

You're working on a [unrelated] graphic novel right?

Yeah, there's a graphic novel called The Source which is something that I've been trying to do for awhile. I've just been getting into motion comic technology and how that allows you to essentially do the graphic novel artwork for a film and animate it at the same time and give you a template for shooting what would be a big-budget movie. The Source is ultimately a film I would love to make but I'm having to do as a graphic novel first because of its sheer size.


Did you have to fight for your ending?

Well, the ending came about because we, originally in the script, the ending was everybody on a beach happy as Larry and for me that didn't cut it. As I said, I've been influenced by the movie Brazil hugely and I realized that ultimately we were making a studio movie. At that point, we knew we're making a movie that would require a fair bit of filming so you have to give the audience what they want even if they don't really want that.

But the thing is you give it to them not in the way they're expecting. So it seemed important to give the audience an ending where the hero wins but the idea that he wins in his own mind is not necessarily in the reality that the story exists in, I actually think is a happy ending personally, because he's a lot happier there than he would be living with a psycho ex-mate and an almost-dead junkie girlfriend. It's like, he's in a good place. But yeah, there was a lot of resistance, I think simply because it's -- people would come to the screenings and they would walk out and split the audiences, they would be very polarized. That would make the live it/hate it situation and really brought it to the surface and I was trying to, I spent a lot of time saying, "It's all right if we lose half the audience as long as we gain half the audience."

Can you see like a Robocop-esque sequel to the film? As in, obviously, he's sort of brain-dead and has the implant and is going to go live the rest of his life, but with things always increasing can you see them bringing back this ultimate-killer guy and actually doing a sequel to the film?

I've got a really good idea for the sequel. In the book there are these repo men called Ghosts, and Ghosts go into neural nets and they get you when you won't, basically, give your own ego up. And it's quite an interesting idea. It's hard in a way because it's been done now. So you have to play around with, it's the Matrix idea, you know, the virtual world is created inside someone's head. I always like the idea that if that was ever to happen it would be more about Jake and Beth having to go into Remy's mind to persuade him to accept the fact that he is actually a vegetable and somehow give up some sort of information. In there, they would come face-to-face with the alter egos -- not the alter egos but his versions of them, so they would come face-to-face with the perfected versions of themselves but it all may sound too heavy and can be a graphic novel.