As a recent film-school graduate looking to break into the movies, Ed Neumeier wound up going directly to the source, working as a script reader and junior executive on the MCA studio lot. After getting the idea for RoboCop, he and another young screenwriter, Michael Miner, worked on the script during off hours and weekends, and finally passed a first draft around. Neumeier tells the whole story in the interview below, but suffice to say the film, which he also co-produced, became such a sensation that’s it’s been spun off into two sequels, multiple TV series, and now a remake, directed by José Padilha (Elite Squad). Though Neumeier wasn’t involved with the sequels—a situation he also details below—he collaborated again with RoboCop director Paul Verhoeven a decade later on the brilliant action/science-fiction satire Starship Troopers. Neumeier continued his engagement with that franchise as it hit the direct-to-video market, writing Starship Troopers 2: Hero Of The Federation and writing and directing Starship Troopers 3: Marauder. He and Miner also share a screenplay credit with John Claflin and Daniel Zelman on Anacondas: The Hunt For The Blood Orchid.
Fresh off winning an unexpected screen credit for the new RoboCop in arbitration, Neumeier talked to The Dissolve about his original inspiration for RoboCop, his collaboration with Verhoeven, the film’s prescient themes, and how the remake overcame his skepticism.
The Dissolve: How did you get the idea for RoboCop?
Ed Neumeier: I was a young man in the development side of Hollywood. I had come out of UCLA Film School, and I wanted to write—for some reason. [Laughs.] And I was very scared about what the business was like. So I studied the development side of the business. I liked the world of the executive and the power of just being at a studio, and I was studying it. During that time, I had been thinking about an idea, sort of making fun of what was going on in the world of business in the 1980s. At that time, the hot books about Wall Street were stuff like The Book Of Five Rings, which was a book by a samurai warrior in 17th-century Japan about how to kill more effectively.
There was this whole notion on Wall Street of Japan rising and America becoming more aggressive in business. I liked the idea of this sort of James Bond world of business. At that time, in the wake of Star Wars, science fiction was not high again; it was considered hard to do and expensive. So one of the things young screenwriters who wanted to prove themselves when they wrote a spec screenplay were not supposed to do was to write a science-fiction movie. But I had always been interested in science fiction—and in particular, robots and action. So I began to play with this idea of building a science-fiction world. At the same moment, I was 25 years old, and my office was a trailer on the Warner Bros. lot where I read scripts. And next door was this giant street they built, suddenly, which is a lovely thing to behold in and of itself. It was for a big science-fiction movie called Blade Runner, and I never had seen anything like it.
They started shooting at night, and I would go over at the end of my day, and I literally just started working on the movie just because you could do something—there were so many people, they didn’t know whether you were working or not. In doing so—because I just wanted to make movies and be on sets and stuff like that—I watched Ridley Scott direct four nights of Blade Runner, and it was astounding to be able to do. I made garbage for the street with the art department. One night they brought out that car, which they called a “Spinner”—it just had me at first sight, because I really like cars. At that moment, I was in a very refined location. I was in the atmosphere created by Ridley Scott, looking at a prop he had designed. After four nights—and maybe not enough sleep, because I was doing double shifts—I had this astounding idea: RoboCop came into my head as a title, and I saw the character in this kind of bluish armored thing. He was a policeman who was also a robot, and he was looking at this strange human race. It was an A.I. idea, like, “Why are people the way they are?” And that was the most science-fiction notion of it.
So I walked away from that experience with a title and suddenly a conviction [that] it was going to be a science-fiction movie, but still with that business idea in the backdrop, because I strangely went into a year of wearing a suit at MCA. One day I get into the elevator on the 11th floor of the Black Tower at Universal, and my God, it’s [MCA head] Lew Wasserman—the person that scared the shit out of ya! [Laughs.] And he’s there with John Landis. John Landis is a really cool guy, but he doesn’t know me from God. He’s talking to Lew Wasserman, and he’s nervous. He’s like, "Oh! Mr. Wasserman, you know this Thriller video—I've made more money from that than anything I’ve ever done!” And Lew Wasserman doesn’t say two words, because you know, he’s The God. He’s like, “Hmm, isn’t that funny?” So “the old man,” as he’s called in the script for RoboCop, is Lew Wasserman. And these were life experiences that informed this story as it was being formed.
I had written an outline of RoboCop, and it really had all the major moves in it. All the main characters were named, but I was still working as an executive, and trying to figure out how to write a script at night. I started seeing people from film schools because I was doing my job at a film studio—people who had made little films in that world—and one of the guys who had gone to school at my film school, UCLA, who I had not known then who was kind of a star because he was a cinematographer, came in. He was trying to make it as a director, and he was directing rock videos. He said, “Oh, I’m directing a movie about a robot. [It’s] a rock video with a robot in it.” I said, “Oh, you know, I got an idea about a robot.” So that’s how [my collaboration with co-screenwriter Michael Miner] started.
We started talking about it, and Mike had a lot of energy. and we started working on it nights and weekends. I had gone away and written about 40 pages of a first act based on the outline I mentioned, and then we sat down and kind of finished it. It took a long time, but it was fun. It was pretty rough, but it was more or less a rough version of the movie. We decided to give it to a couple of people that we knew in the business to get some reactions. I gave it to somebody I had known who knew of a producer named Jon Davison, who I thought was a pretty interesting guy. We had two offers on the line for it. I thought we were going to do some more work on it. One of the first great pieces of luck that happened on this movie was that Jon Davison knew the people he knew, who got the script, who encouraged me to do whatever I wanted—to make it funny when I wanted to.
So Jon Davison said he wanted to produce it. He had produced Airplane! and some other interesting things, so he was certainly cool with it being funny. Because one of the first things people said to me was “Well, it’s really good, but why is it funny?” Mike and I were not in agreement about humor and tone at the beginning, because I was pushing it at the beginning to be funnier. I was always pushing these news things in, and I think there was a little dissonance between us—not in a bad way—until the second draft. So Jon Davison is aboard, we’ve actually got a script in development at Orion, which is a cool place to be for people who had never had a script before, and he encourages us to write a second draft based on whatever we thought. [There was] a notion, like I had Clarence Boddicker [Kurtwood Smith’s character] in my story and [he and ] Dick Jones [Ronny Cox] were not really connected. So the studio said, “Why don't you connect them?” and that was a very good note. So we did things like that.
And we also discovered that if it’s funny, we could get so much out of that. We could make fun of everything. Because I really wanted to write a satire. And you know what they say about satire in the movie business? They use a Broadway line: “Satire closes on Saturday night.” That’s what George Kaufman said.
So this was a stealth satire. Finally, everybody was on board, and we wrote the second draft, pretty much the movie as you see it. There were improvements, but everything was in place there. And then we went about the task of finding a director. Another nice thing of Mr. Davison: He asked us what we wanted to do. Mike wanted to direct it, and I said I wanted to produce it. And he said to me, “Okay, you can be the co-producer.” And he said to Mike eventually, “You can be on the second unit.” Now, Mike went off and made another movie, so he wasn’t really there, but [Davison] really put up with me and whatever I wanted on that movie. I mean, really, everything.
For instance, [that chase scene] in the beginning, when Clarence is in the back of the van, and he’s throwing burnt money at his gang members—I was the guy on the loading dock with a torch, burning money. I wanted to work on this movie so badly, so everybody could know what we were doing, and understand what it was. It was really a great experience in that way—a hard one, but very interesting.
Anyway, we were now looking for a director, and we couldn’t get one. And pretty soon, it looked like the movie wasn’t gonna go. We couldn’t get anybody to do it. People wanted to do it, but they weren’t able to. We had a number of different people who wanted to do it, because they thought it was interesting, but they couldn’t for one reason or another. Then, Jon Davison was talking to an old friend from his New World days, when they had both worked for Roger Corman, a woman named Barbara Boyle, who is now head of business affairs for Orion. And she said, “Why not give it to Paul Verhoeven?” They had tried to do a movie called Flesh + Blood with him, and it didn't work as well as they wanted—it was kind of an uneven movie. So it was sent by Barbara Boyle to Paul, and Paul allegedly said— he told me this once—“Well, I looked at the cover, and I read RoboCop: The Future Of Law Enforcement, and threw it in a pile on the floor.” [Laughs.] And I think it was Barbara Boyle who actually said “No, let’s send it again”—and it was suggested he read it for the subtext. Now, remember, he hadn’t read it, so it came again, and his wife Martine volunteered to read it. She read it, and she said, “You know, I think you should read this, because I think you’re gonna like it.” And so—this is the way I like to tell the story, it’s probably not completely true, but allow me—he read to the scene where Murphy’s hand gets blown off, and he gets shot to pieces, and he gets killed. So he read the script, liked it, and got on a plane, and we had a very interesting series of meetings when he got there. We were sitting up in Mansion House, at Culver Studios, which was then kind of abandoned, and Davison had a nice enough office there. We just had all these conversations about it.
At first, I think Paul was also not clear that it should be funny, or why it was funny. In fact, he said “I think if I do it, it has to be serious.” And we tried a bunch of ideas, and when he left, I gave him a stack of comic books that were mostly British comic books, and among them was the comic book Judge Dredd, which had a very dry sense of humor. I agreed I would write this kind of serious version. We didn't say it that way, but I did a draft for him—or we did a draft, Mike and I. It was one of these weird drafts. Mike and I were working together. It wasn’t much fun—he was trying to get a movie going on the outside, and then he went off skiing one day and broke his leg, and so now he’s got a broken leg and we’re writing this thing for Paul, and it’s hard. It was like, “All this stuff we had so much fun with, we have to leave on the floor.” It was really dreadful. I worked and worked and worked, and Mike just said “Fuck it,” and at one point, we couldn’t finish it. We were at like page 78. I remember staying up all night and sleeping in the office and getting to page like 92 or something, and Verhoeven shows up. I don’t think he caught me sleeping in the office.
He sits down and reads the script. We all sit around nervously. He looks up from it, and he just says, “Okay. We go back to the second draft.” He had gone out and looked at some comics and thought about it, and he suddenly realized, “Oh, this is like a comic book. Okay, great!” [Laughs.] And so we went right into doing the script and making that better, working that out to a more precise version, and I wrote a couple more drafts. Mike, at this point, had gone off to shoot a movie for Charles Band called Deadly Weapon, about a kid with a ray gun, and he was directing, which was what he wanted to do. So I went on the movie as the writer/co-producer and the long story—most of it whining about how hard it was—I will leave out of this. But it was quite an adventure that way, and I was allowed to participate as much as I could stand, or as much as anybody could stand me. Paul and I became very good friends and collaborators out of it. We worked well together in that situation, and then later. that led to us working together on Starship Troopers. One of the things I really think now is that I always knew Paul was good, but as I look at it now, and as I get more distance from the work I’ve seen him do—not only on stuff he’s done with me, but other movies, like Basic Instinct and Soldier Of Orange—he’s just a magnificent talent. He has an ability to stage things on such a granular level that most people don’t even understand what he’s doing. The more I think about it, the more I know about my own aspirations to direct and to use film and visual grammar… This guy, he was born to it. It’s really quite astounding.
We got along so well. We both like these vulgar tones of violence and hyper-drama, and stuff like that. That's the palate he understands, and I understand a part of it, too. You know, the B-movie palate. The kind of thing where it’s like, “Hey, this is really stupid, it’s kind of fun, it’s for kids! Ha ha.” But then we’re also doing something else, and we always knew that’s what we were doing. I always used to say, “Hey, we’re writing a cool robot movie for 8-year-olds, but we’re also writing something for the older crowd.” That’s the real achievement of RoboCop. It balances a lot of things really well. Again, I’m proud of what I was able to conceive and pull off, but I know it’s so dependent on, first and foremost, Paul’s astounding ability to display it, to show it, to realize it, as the French would say.
And then on top of that, you have to talk about people like Rob Bottin, who designed the most amazing suit you could think of, and Phil Tippett and ED-209. And that’s because Jon Davison knew them all and brought them together. Those were their own stories. If the suit had not been right, the movie wouldn’t have worked.
Incidentally, there’s also the little thing for Detroit: The movie is really also grounded in my interests, and the despair of the American automobile industry at that time. I had read a book by David Halberstam called The Reckoning, which was about how the Ford Motor Company lost its lunch, or got its lunch eaten by Nissan in the marketplace. It’s a fascinating story, and I realized it at the time I read it, “Oh this is going to happen everywhere.” It’s the corporatization of America. This is what’s gonna happen to my business, and it has, the growth of the bureaucracies—all this kind of stuff. The notion that this was about Detroit was very important to me, and I actually had fights with people and producers. “No, it has to be Detroit! No, it’s gonna be Detroit!” And thank God people like Jon Davison said “All right, it’s Detroit.” Because he understood the metaphor. The metaphor was about technology changing and leaving something behind. Part of my despair about the K-car came out in that movie, you know?
So I was talking to Rob Bottin recently, and I said, “You know, the amazing thing more and more when I look at your design of the suit, which has come under scrutiny now with the new one, is that it’s American road iron. It’s got this big chest, it’s like a big fuckin’ truck in your face, you know!?” And he laughed, he was like “Yeah, that’s right!” He’s an artist, and at the core of this pretty artistic movie as realized by Paul Verhoeven is the very artistic creation by Rob Bottin, and that’s the only way to talk about it.
And then you have Phil Tippett’s ED-209, which is the greatest comic, scary thriller character I could ever want to see in a movie. Whenever he shows up—and this is true now in the new one, too—you go “Oh my God, something’s gonna happen! Shit! What’s gonna happen?!”
The Dissolve: Just the fact that ED-209 is stop-motion is so charming.
Neumeier: Phil and I have spoken of this a couple times. You’re talking about maybe one of the last great pieces of stop motion. And Phil Tippett is a really, really good actor. He was able to carry that notion of acting into the digital age in Jurassic Park, and on he goes. But that’s why he’s good. And he’s obviously a great maker of pictures, of imagery.
Just think about that talent base. It’s very lovely that we had all that working together.
The Dissolve: What’s the difference between the finished RoboCop and the one you and Miner envisioned?
Neumeier: Not much. Now remember, I have a problem, because I’m there every day, so I’m the frog in the boiling water. [Laughs.] I’m used to the temperature. I don’t know it’s boiling. But I was in a position of collaboration with Verhoeven and the production. Davison actually continued to tell me, “Okay, your responsibility is to get this script to match the budget.” And that’s what we did. We didn’t always get along, and after a while, the production kind of hated me, but I was actually a very responsible writer. I learned a great deal under fire—how to write. Writers aren’t usually on the set. But I was involved in all the decisions, and I was able to say, “Hey, I want to write another gag for the media break about the Star Wars peace platform,” and they said “Okay.” And I wrote it and they did.
One day I was on the set. A big bunch of props show up—among them are party hats and shit. So I wrote a New Year’s Eve party scene for RoboCop. We were at Mary Kay factory in Texas outside of Dallas, and there was a typewriter down the hall. I had pitched the scene to Paul and handed him the pages, and they did it in the movie. The idea of actually being able to write something and you see it shot in that moment, and see it on the screen to this day, is sort of… Wow, it’s very unusual.
I thought the movie was actually 120 percent. A lot of writers go to a movie [they’ve written] and say, “Let’s see what’s left of what I did.” That’s a normal experience, I’m afraid. And I think my first experience, which may have ruined me for life, was going in thinking, “Well if it’s 85 percent, I’ll have to be happy. I should be astoundingly happy.” And it was like 120 percent. And with Starship Troopers, it was the same.
The Dissolve: You can see that as a viewer. Both RoboCop and Starship Troopers seem cohesive and fully realized. There’s never a sense that anything was compromised.
Neumeier: No. They’re fully realized, and uncompromising is the word. Paul Verhoeven is uncompromising. I’ve noticed there’s a trait about good directors, the ones that do interesting work. I’ve only seen two or three of them, but Paul's one of the best. And these guys, once they decide they need to do something, they never let it go. And I mean they never let it go. And if you get between them and the last three shots they need, they’ll fucking kill you. They will. And they’ll kill all your children and your family, and they’ll burn down your house. And that’s why the movies are good. That’s just one aspect of it. They will get what they need to get. I think part of that is because they know what they need to get. I think a lot of directors don’t know what they need to get. A lot of writers, too. But the really good directors know exactly what they need, and they’ll fight tooth and nail for it.
The Dissolve: RoboCop takes place in an unspecified near-future, but since it’s been more than 25 since the film came out, maybe that future is now. What sorts of resonances of RoboCop do you see in the world today?
Neumeier: This was another big battle. You’d be surprised how many times people wanted me to say what year this was, and I just felt… “Well, this is stupid. It’s the future. That’s it.” In any event, that turned out to be our aesthetic, because we couldn’t afford much future on RoboCop. It was a really, really tightly budgeted movie. I heard Paul talking the other day about how he sat down with Jon Davison and said, “I think it should look like Blade Runner.” And Jon Davison said, according to Paul, “Well, you can do that. Or you can have the robot. Which one do you want?” [Laughs.] And that was the way the movie was made. That is like a vintage Jon Davison moment. That movie, by the way, was made for half of what it would have been if it were made by anybody else. One of the things that would probably make Jon happy is that it was a very cost-effective, very profitable movie.
In both of the movies I’ve written for Paul, they both seem—and I would say this is mostly my fault—they are often called prescient, in that they seem to predict things that are coming. Certainly Detroit’s decline seems to be predicted very well, but that was already happening.
I got to a metric, if you want to call it that, wherein I would say, “If you want to predict the future, just think about how bad it could be and make a joke out of it, and there you go.” And if you look at Starship Troopers that way too, it may be a bit of an exaggeration, but it was a projection of what’s already happening, and where things were going. I had a feeling that the real root of why this was interesting in other movies is because we’re dealing with technology here. We’re trying to figure out—and I don’t mean to get too big on this, but [on some level], this was a movie about people coping with technology. And it’s not like the world’s gonna kill you, or technology’s gonna kill you. It might, but it’s more about how will you survive, and how will you let technology become part of you, and you part of it. So that’s an interesting metaphor if you think about it now, particularly now, where we sit. Because it’s actually happening. This ongoing kind of lacing up with technology is what is occurring.
What I find interesting now, looking back on RoboCop, is when Murphy wakes up as RoboCop after he’s killed—and we’re waking up in subjective POV—the first thing we see of him being alive is a digital image—technically, in that we took it and put lines and scans on it to make it look like it was electronic. So this is really a nice digital-age metaphor. I think people will continue to be interested in that issue, and how that gets played out—the notion of coping with technology as it becomes more and more part of our lives.
The Dissolve: The RoboCop character is nothing if not an embodiment of the struggle between being human and giving over to technology.
Neumeier: Well, if you recall, I said my first image of him was as a robot on this Blade Runner-esque street in a far-flung future, which is certainly what Blade Runner is playing. The next big discovery in writing for me right after that was, “Oh, but what if it was a man who had been made into a machine?” And I think that’s much more interesting. That’s when I think the movie locked in for me and I was able to go, “Oh, that’s what it’s going to be.” I had never seen the movie Psycho before, but I had heard Hitchcock killed off the heroine [in the first act], and I thought, “Oh that’s cool. Let’s try that.” And when you thought about it that way, suddenly you realized, “They’ve taken a man like in Frankenstein, and they’ve made him into something else.” And the resurrection thing comes into it, and all that.
So to me, it becomes very rich and textured at that point, which is, I think, one of the reasons the ideas are potent, and why Verhoeven, once he read the script, said, “Oh! Let's go.” There’s a lot you can see in it.
The Dissolve: About your involvement in the new RoboCop—
Neumeier: I have to go back a little further first. So suddenly, this thing I’ve worked very hard on [the original RoboCop] actually has to come out. This is always a frightening moment, because you don’t know what’s going to happen, and you’ve seen it 400 times. You hope it works. I could tell people were amused by it. I wasn’t ready for the fact that it was a bit of a sensation. It was a sleeper hit of 1987, and people really liked it. That was kind of a big deal. And it was also, as Mr. Kipling warns us, you meet with triumph and disaster, and you have to learn to treat those two impostors alike, as it were. So it’s unnerving, and the expectations that go with it are hard on the young man who’s not sure what he did and doesn't know that that’s part of it too, yet. Also, Orion, I didn’t know that they were actually in financial trouble, and they needed this franchise. They needed another hit movie as soon as possible. They turned around and said, “Okay, let’s do it again. Let’s go fast, and if you don’t go fast enough, you’re fired.” That was my first experience with studio politics, and these were people who were pleased with what I’d done.
It was a lot of fighting over success, too. I hadn’t heard about that. I hadn’t experienced it yet. And so here we were, and then there’s a writers’ strike. In 1987, there was a writers’ strike that lasted for five months. We were high-profile writers, obviously, and I just had a child, and was thankful for the health insurance. Orion was telling me I had to work and turn in stuff, and we said, “We can’t, because we’re on strike, and we don’t want to scab.” They said, “Okay then, you’re fired.” And we were off the project.
So they signed waivers with WGA, which people did, and they signed a waiver to hire Frank Miller—who I had actually recommended to Jon for another project. Jon wanted to do a movie called Mars Attacks, later made by Tim Burton. I said, “You should have either Frank Miller or the guy who’s done Watchmen.” And so he called up Frank, and Frank said “yes.” So Frank came in and did a draft of RoboCop, and the first draft he did became Robocop 3, and the second draft he did became Robocop 2… But that’s a whole other story.
That, unfortunately, ended my relationship for many years with RoboCop, until the remake happened. And of course it’s now owned by MGM, and MGM is financing it in a co-production with Sony Pictures, and they don’t want to know anything about me, of course, which I understand now is normal treatment when you do these things.
So they make the movie, and we have seen some scripts go by, and some of us are a little worried at earlier scripts. Then there’s going to be an arbitration of all the writers who worked on the new one at the Writers Guild. And the script is based on our original screenplay and not on anything else, not an underlying character or a book or anything. We were arbitrated against. In other words, our [script] was thrown into the mix. As a result, the three arbiters decided to assign Michael and I full screen credit. They gave us second-position screen credit on the new one. So the new one is written by a writer who I have yet to meet named Josh Zetumer, and us: Edward Neumeier and Michael Miner. [This was because] they felt the script, without intention perhaps even, was so closely based on the work we had done. And for that, I am truly grateful. I didn’t expect that at all. And I didn’t expect to have that kind of role. But as a result, we actually have what they called creative rights on the movie now. I’ve seen the movie. I’ve met the director. I’ve talked to the heads of state at MGM, and they’re all very nice. Of course they want me to like the movie because, you know, I don’t think they’d want me out there saying, “Well, you know, it’s terrible! Look what they did to it!”
I have to say, I watched it with some trepidation. I also want to say that before any of this happened, I started to think that people really like [the original RoboCop] so much, and it means so much to people, it really doesn't even have anything to do with me. It has to do with their lives. This was the first R-rated movie they ever saw, and they saw it with their brother, or they saw it next door, and they weren’t supposed to see it. More and more, I get, “I saw that movie with my dad!”
So I realized this is an emotional experience for people, and far be it from me to tell them they should like the new one or not. The only good news I had was, I watched a lot of RoboCop things being made, all of which were very disappointing for me personally. So I sit down and watch [the new RoboCop], and I realize pretty quickly, “Oh, this is not the same movie,” even though it is very similar. It’s really a different movie. It’s got its own point of view, and there are things in it that I probably wouldn’t have done this way or that way. But this guy, Mr. José Padilha, the filmmaker, is a very, very talented director in his own right. He’s doing different things than Paul Verhoeven did, and it’s a different movie.
I must say, there’s blood on the floor. Everybody really worked hard, and got their asses kicked, which is sometimes the case. And yet somebody’s made a movie, and brought all these ideas in their own way to a new show, and I think that’s kind of cool. I believe the two movies sit well side by side. The first one is much more violent, really. It’s much more satirical. It’s much more overtly poking fun, and it has a tone. But I don’t think you could achieve that as a PG-13 movie. This movie is more epic in scale, and maybe it’s built for the global market.
The Dissolve: That’s interesting to even think about, because RoboCop is such a distinctly American film.
Ed Neumeier: Yeah, but the thing I like about RoboCop is that I can go all over the world and find RoboCop. I was taking my kids to the Colosseum some years after the film came out. Here’s the harried, upper-middle-class father taking his kids to Europe. And around the Colosseum were little stands, and they’re selling knock-off RoboCops. I was like, “That’s okay by me!” [Laughs.]
This concludes our Movie Of The Week discussion on the original 1987 RoboCop. Don’t miss Tuesday’s Keynote on the deep-running links between RoboCop and his Detroit home, and Wednesday’s staff Forum discussion on the film’s dark humor, graphic violence, and unusual take on exposition. And Monday, we’ll return with a Conversation feature comparing the original RoboCop with the freshly released 2014 version. See you then.