A talk With Ed Neumeier, Creator of RoboCop
A Detroit classic.
Published: February 5, 2014
“Wouldn’t you rather have fucking RoboCop?” asks Ed Neumeier, who created the character and co-wrote the hit 1987 film. “Nothing against Stallone, nice guy. Mr. Newhart, really funny man. But, I mean, come on!”
Much has been written about the RoboCop Statue Kickstarter campaign and, in many ways, the 1980s science fiction hero couldn’t be a more apt choice for Detroit. For one, the character’s armored suit practically screams Motor City.
“You look at that chest piece and it looks like the hood of a Dodge Ram truck,” Neumeier says. “I remember saying to Rob Bottin, who was the designer, that the more I looked at the design of the suit, the more I thought it was like American road iron.”
Even if you put the American auto industry influences aside, it’s RoboCop’s message of resurrection that speaks loudest for Detroit. Is there a better metaphor for our city’s next act than a murdered man being brought back to life with technology in order to uphold the causes of justice and liberty? Doesn’t RoboCop make a terrific cultural bookend to “The Spirit of Detroit,” with its inscription: “Now the Lord is that spirit. And where the spirit of the Lord is, there is liberty.”
Yes, “classic” RoboCop, as Neumeier has been taken to calling his satirical action film, offered a violently lawless image of Motown. But the heart of the story was the christlike rebirth of Officer Murphy (played by Peter Weller), who not only became a hero to the citizens of Detroit but also rebelled against the corporate masters who sought to use him for their own nefarious means.
And before you start get your knickers in a bind about the silliness of erecting a pop culture icon in a public space, consider how often various Greek gods have been the subject of public statues and friezes. Isn’t Hercules just RoboCop B.C.?
In a phone conversation with Neumeier we discuss RoboCop’s indelible connection to Detroit, the original film’s uncanny predictions about America’s future, the upcoming reboot and, of course, the RoboCop statue. The interview has been edited for length and clarity.
MT: So, let’s start things off with Detroit. When was the decision made to set RoboCop here?
Ed Neumeier: It was always Detroit. I had actually never been to Detroit. We even scouted Detroit for the movie. Nobody thought it was the right look for the picture. But we all believed it was the right city metaphorically.
Detroit was about where America was at in the 1980s. As a kid, I was really into American cars, and I got really upset as a teen, because the America car companies that I loved had started to make really crappy cars. This was a big thing for me. Later, I read a book by David Halberstam called The Reckoning, which affected me pretty profoundly. I realized, “Oh, this is what happened to Detroit and the automobile industry, and it’s what is going to happen to a lot of industries.” It was where the country was heading — there was going to be a big loss of manufacturing as new technologies started coming in. RoboCop was born out of that.
MT: The movie is pretty predictive — even cautionary — about where American policing and security was headed. You depict the privatization of law enforcement, the militarization of domestic security, even drones — though they didn’t fly.
Neumeier: Yeah, the ED-209 could be viewed as a drone of sorts. I used to kid people that if you want to predict the future you should predict how bad something could be, then make a joke about it, and you’ll be right. Really a lot of the film was saying, “OK, this happening now. What would it be like if it was worse?”
Sometimes people ask me, “What did you get wrong?” That would be South Africa. But there’s an asterisk. When we were joking that they had a neutron bomb, they actually had, I think, four nuclear devices. Or six. I can’t remember. But they had made them with Israel. So I always like to imagine that there was someone in South Africa watching RoboCop and freaking out, because they knew that we knew.
MT: RoboCop also had some pointed barbs about the media.
Neumeier: Yeah, I also did that in Starship Troopers. My parents were journalists, so I grew up in a media household. Mostly, it allowed us to be funny. At the time people were unsure of why we chose to make the movie comical. And I said that this is potentially so stupid that the audience should be laughing with us not at us. Humor has always been an important part of the design for me.
I also found you could really cover a lot of narrative ground with the news bits; it allowed us to jump forward in the story. It’s rather cheap to do it that way, but if it’s funny the audience will accept it.
MT: So when did action movies lose their sense of humor? RoboCop embraced satire to comment on American culture the absurdity of the action genre.
Neumeier: I have to blame Hollywood. The studios have this notion — especially post-Christopher Nolan — that everything should be so fucking deadly serious that the audience won’t accept anything else. My sense is that the studios aren’t comfortable with this kind of humor because they think it’s tricky or it’s hard. They don’t quite understand it. They want their comedy funny and they want their action tough, and the two will never meet. People used to mix these tones all the time. John Ford famously loved to put humor into his most serious movies. He understood that in doing so you were creating a dramatic dynamic. If you laugh before something really bad happens, it seems even worse.
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