RoboCop revisited: Paul Verhoeven on how a low-budget sci-fi satire spawned a fan-favorite franchise

Robocop Returns Neill Blomkamp
(Image credit: MGM)

Star Wars. The Avengers. Harry Potter. When we think of entertainment empires, an inexpensive, ultra-violent, sociopolitical satire from the late ’80s doesn’t immediately spring to mind. But, like its hero Alex Murphy, RoboCop has proved very hard to kill.

Screenwriters Ed Neumeier and Michael Miner’s story of a cybernetic cop built using the body of an officer slain on duty latched onto fears about runaway Reaganomics, the overturning of ideals about the common good and uncertainty about robots and computers.

As Neumeier tells SFX from his home in suburban Los Angeles, they were themes he was surprisingly knowledgeable about growing up. “1970s Northern California was pretty liberal. It was infused with those ideas, so I wanted to poke fun at them,” he says. “It was nice when audiences were in on the joke. Paul [Verhoeven, director] identified it in the script and made it even clearer.”

Working as a studio development executive at the time, Neumeier wrote RoboCop together with student filmmaker Michael Miner. The script found its way to producer Jon Davison, flying high at the time. “He’d had success with Airplane! so he wasn’t afraid of the humour,” Neumeier says. “Everybody was iffy about it, but not Jon. He understood you could make something funny, political, dramatic and exciting at the same time.”

Davison took it to iconic production stable Orion, and soon RoboCop had a green light. Some directors wanted it but couldn’t schedule it, others didn’t feel like a good fit to Davison, and a Dutch director known for very adult European dramas didn’t seem at all suited. Initially, Verhoeven agreed.

“I read about 15 pages and threw it away. It was so far away from the films I’d made. They were much more based in reality and certainly not science fiction,” the director says from his home in The Hague. “That subtitle, ‘the future of law enforcement’, seemed completely alien to me.”

So Verhoeven passed... until his wife caused him to reconsider. “She read it in a completely different way: she felt there were elements that weren’t so far away from me, like [Murphy] losing his past, and the philosophy of losing your memory.”

A quick phone call to his US agent and history was written. “Even my films in Holland, if they were about a war, none of them were action movies. I was more interested in the philosophical underpinnings of the script. I saw RoboCop a bit like a futuristic Jesus.”

Police Statements

Peter Weller in RoboCop (1987)

(Image credit: Orion Pictures)

The result is a seeming contradiction between brawny action and high-minded comment on social dangers. “I wanted a movie you could see at eight years old and think it was the greatest robot movie ever, then at 28 and see it was about other things,” Neumeier says.

He adds that he’s always “hidden behind” genre to comment on the world, something that’s easier to swallow with the genre tropes of action or laughs. “[Characters] are exhibiting certain behaviours that are amusing but can also be dangerous, evil and corrupt. It was a difficult tone to describe to people.” Neumeier says Verhoeven’s relaxed attitude towards the violence was another plus. “There’s a torture-murder on page 22; the script always had that edge. At first Paul wasn’t sure about it being funny, but I gave him a bunch of comic books by Frank Miller and
he was able to embrace the humour.”

Another unexpected motif which Neumeier and Verhoeven bonded over was the use of chapter-ending “Media Break” segments (visually inspired by the blocky geometries of Dutch artist Piet Mondrian), featuring the perky Casey Wong (Mario Machado) and Jess Perkins (Leeza Gibbons). “By the time we did them in Starship Troopers [in the form of the Federation announcements] it was something we knew how to do together,” Neumeier says.

Neumeier remembers how Starship Troopers’ satire of military fascism almost sneaked through the studio (Sony) unnoticed. But how did the Hollywood powers that be – drunk on the success of ghostbusting, time-travelling DeLoreans and cops in Beverly Hills – absorb RoboCop’s more cerebral politics? Thankfully, Orion had the habit of hiring interesting people and letting them work. “They had opinions, but they got it,” Neumeier says. “The other nice thing was they had big hopes for other movies, so it was an inexpensive, middle-range picture.”

Audiences lapped up the movie, which cost $13 million to make, to the tune of a box office of $53 million, plus a further $24 million from home video. While Verhoeven, Davison and Orion can take credit for gambling on it, the fact that RoboCop stuck to its original remit is mostly down to Neumeier. Realising it was his ticket to a movie career, the former script reader involved himself with every step of the production process.

“To be anything in this business, you have to be a producer,” he explains. “You have to work with other people and they have to look good so you look good. I’ve always tried to stay on set with the project, and the more I’ve done it, the more I’ve come to respect the different parts of the craft.”

Verhoeven confirms that Neumeier was on set throughout RoboCop and Starship Troopers – often right beside his director. “I think he protected me from my European principles and thinking! [Along with] Phil Tippett, who made all the animals for Starship Troopers, Ed was basically a co-director.”

A kid-friendly animated series aired in 1988, but owing to the film’s box office, a live-action movie sequel was a given. Neumeier and Miner couldn’t return because of the 1988 WGA writer’s strike, but Orion, in financial trouble after a strip of flops, needed to get moving.

They hired comic book legend Frank Miller (who would play drug scientist Frank), and then had veteran screenwriter Walon Green (The Wild Bunch) do a rewrite. In 1990 RoboCop 2, directed by The Empire Strikes Back’s Irvin Kershner, was fun, looked great and built on the mythology and characters, but barely doubled its $25 million budget in box office takings.

Miller and writer Fred Dekker tried again in 1993’s RoboCop 3 (Dekker directed), which jettisoned all the other characters and recast Murphy – Peter Weller was shooting William Burroughs adaptation Naked Lunch for David Cronenberg. It also shaved off all the hard edges thanks to Orion wanting a PG-rated RoboCop movie and (somewhat deservedly) didn’t even return half the budget.

But the RoboCop name wasn’t finished with yet. A family-friendly live-action series, shot in Toronto, was not renewed after one season, proving too expensive. A second animated series aired in 1998/1999; abandoning almost all the supporting characters, it was beset by laughable continuity errors. And in 2001 a four- part miniseries aired called RoboCop: Prime Directives. Set 10 years after the first film (it ignores the sequels), it deals with RoboCop having outlived his usefulness after cleaning up Detroit.

Apart from near-continual appearances in comics from publishers as varied as Marvel, BOOM! Studios and Dark Horse (and at least eight videogames), that seemed like the end of the franchise. That was until José Padilha, newly hot after Brazilian thriller Elite Squad 2: The Enemy Within, was called in to MGM, which acquired Orion’s library after the latter’s bankruptcy sale in 1997. “They asked him what he wanted to do and he pointed to a picture of RoboCop on a boardroom wall and said, ‘How about that?’,” Neumeier recalls.

Neumeier and Miner initially had nothing to do with the 2014 reboot, but the Writer’s Guild determined that the new script was sufficiently based on their original work, and awarded them shared credit with the new writer, Joshua Zetumer.

Fun but lightweight, merely nodding to themes of identity and technology, the reboot was slick but so-so. Audiences agreed, returning box office of $242 million (a lot of it in China) from a budget of $100 million. Fun side note: Joel Kinnaman, who played the new Murphy, told Neumeier how uncomfortable the suit was. “I said, ‘Yeah, but it’s the suit that makes the performance’.”

The Forsyth Saga

Peter Weller and Nancy Allen in RoboCop (1987)

(Image credit: Orion Pictures)

Several big names had flirted with RoboCop in years past. Darren Aronofksy signed on but left a year later, opting for Black Swan rather than deal with MGM’s precarious financial situation, which could see his RoboCop offer go up in smoke at any moment (although rumours also persist that it was over plans for 3D and the excessive use of CGI).

MGM’s chairman asked Neumeier what a new RoboCop might look like during a meeting and the result was RoboCop Returns, based on the sequel script he and Miner had written years back, after the first film. Then in July 2018, an official sequel was announced with Neill Blomkamp and writer Justin Rhodes (Terminator: Dark Fate) behind it.

Blomkamp made some tantalising promises, saying it would be like Verhoeven himself had directed the film. Even the iconic suit would be the same. Then, in August 2019, he abruptly tweeted that he was off the project to work on a horror movie. Neumeier is circumspect and tactful when asked what happened. “Neill’s a very robust talent, and everyone at MGM was very happy because the project had snared a big director. But he wanted to do his own version of our story. As producers, Michael and I read the script draft by draft. The first draft was promising enough but somehow got grimmer, more horrific and kind of exhausting for three more drafts, until even Neill thought we should start over.”

But with 30 years of fandom and such a strong premise, MGM seems determined to keep trying until it get its right, and the latest effort is now in the works with Aussie director Abe Forsythe (Little Monsters). Forsythe is doing his own pass on the script, a rewrite of the work done by Rhodes and Blomkamp, which is all building on Miner and Neumeier’s original 1988 sequel script.

That may sound like a tangle, but Neumeier has complete faith in his new director. He’s on board as a producer, and has approached Forsythe’s arrival with his philosophy of letting talented people do their best. “He has something really interesting, very relevant,” he says. “It’s nice to be able to tell him to do his own thing with confidence.”

He’s careful not to give anything away, but could his praise of Weller’s original performance and his floating the idea of the now 73-year-old actor making a return be a clue? What’s more, Weller’s not the only familiar face he mentions. “I’d love to see Nancy Allen in it,” he says. “It’d be lovely if you could do at least something for the original fans with those two characters. Nancy is one of the most popular female characters in those kind of movies.”

Allen herself tells SFX that RoboCop’s partner Anne Lewis was one of her favourite roles. “I fell in love with the script and character from the first read,” she says. “She’s a strong woman with passion and purpose. Playing Anne was a welcome change from the other kinds of women I’d played throughout my career.”

Because Allen’s own father was a policeman, she felt she understood the character and culture she’d be depicting, and the experience didn’t disappoint. “Every day was exciting,” she says. “Everyone was exceptional at their jobs.

The shooting moved at the same non-stop pace as the final product. There was never a doubt in my mind that it’d be a great film.”

As to the crucial question, Allen says that although she hasn’t been approached, she’d be very open to reprising her role for RoboCop Returns: “Many young women have expressed great admiration to me about Anne, and I think they’d be thrilled to see her on screen again.”

One person who won’t return, however, is Paul Verhoeven. The director hasn’t worked in the US since 2000’s Hollow Man, and even though he’s developing a new movie with Neumeier, he says any involvement with RoboCop would be “difficult”.

“I was not happy with Hollow Man,” he says. “I was making a studio movie under supervision. I wanted to do what I liked, not what the studio liked. I got to do that in Holland with Black Book and in France with my last two movies, Elle and Benedetta.”

So far, RoboCop’s fortunes have been as varied as those of the Detroit Police Department, but with Neumeier back and hope building, there’s only one thing left to say (with utmost respect): “Your move, creep!”

This article originally appeared in SFX Magazine – subscribe and never miss another exclusive feature. For more, check out our guide to the best sci-fi movies of all time.