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A Conversation with Miguel Sapochnik

A Conversation with Miguel Sapochnik

by Jack Giroux

Repo Men is a lot fun. It's surprisingly hilarious, dark, and at times, aspires to be more than just a B-movie. It also happens to be Miguel Sapochnik's directorial debut. Sapochnik has delivered a sci-fi film that's distinct, entertaining, and filled with insanity. This is one of those films where you're in amazement that a studio financed this, it doesn't pull its punches and it isn't just a straight up action movie. There is of course action, which is handled quite excellently, but it's a well-crafted sci-fi satire first and foremost. I recently was lucky enough to talk to Miguel where we delved a bit into the trickiness of the film's tone, crafting a futuristic world subtlety, and the type of reaction this film draws not just from audiences, but also from studios. Here's what he had to say about his impressive feature debut, which is now in theaters:

DVD Talk: This is a project that I've been following for a while now, did it take a long time to come out because of finding a right release date? Or was it just a long postproduction?

Miguel Sapochnik: It was a combination. It was a long postproduction period and it was also [because of] Sherlock Holmes. That had Jude in it and it was coming out at Christmas, obviously one wanted to ride the coattails of Sherlock Holmes because we all knew it would be a good movie and it would help to have that under his belt for Repo to rise a bit further.

DVD Talk: Tonally the film is pretty out-there and crazy, but how do you keep it grounded in that sense especially when you have serious performances?

Miguel Sapochnik: There was a lot of thought that went into what the tone of the film should be and how we maintain the tone. That's right from the very beginning of the development phase where I knew it was a project that could go seriously wrong if you didn't stay true to the tone we intended with the film. When we were shooting it was very much about making sure the actors played it straight which gave me a lot of room to maneuver in the editing room. If I approached it in a slapstick way then I would've been limited, but by playing it straight it allowed me as the director and the editor to be able to tone it up and down. It was a very gradual and important process to keep measuring the intent with the film. I think what happened in the end is that when we got to the editing process we went through various iterations of the film with different tones until we found the best rounded one.

DVD Talk: It's handled well in the film, but was there ever a thought for the actors to go more over-the-top?

Miguel Sapochnik: This is something I've spoken about before, but when I first met Forest and Jude together one of the questions Forest asked me was, "how do you want us to play these roles?" Whether it should be broad or slapstick, but that was just something that I just never considered they could play any other way than what it [finally] is. It was a very good question, but it was something that I had to give a test and really think about. In the end, I just told them to play it straight and I'll do the broad. We kept to that all the way through. I'm getting the impression, obviously it hasn't come out yet, but I am getting the impression that that's not the case. However, I am also getting the impression that it's much to what I expected it to be. It really isn't a film that's to everyone's taste. You either like it or hate it. As long as you're not indifferent that's a good thing.

DVD Talk: This does feel a bit like a hybrid of a studio action movie and also a comedic satire, was it tough trying to blend those two together?

Miguel Sapochnik: Definitely. In the postproduction period there was a tough call for everyone to rap their heads around was how we could get the most out of its various kind of guiders. One of things, there was a fair amount of bumping of the heads as we tried to find what was the most effective film. You're making a movie that needs to reach an audience; do you try to reach the broadest audience? Or do you go for a niche audience? All those things become really important. Then you have to sit there and look through it all to see what's the best version of that. At the same time, in the end you gotta try to make the best film and sometimes the best film may not always pander specifically towards one or another audience. It may not pander or answer every question. Sometimes you have to leave questions unanswered and I think that's something we came up against quite often. At times, we were brave enough to go the whole way and sometimes we won. As the film probably shows.

DVD Talk: Your side of the story of having it be a comedic satire is what the film comes off more as, it doesn't come off at all as an action movie.

Miguel Sapochnik: I've never looked at it as an action movie. I mean, it's action packed. It gives you a sense of action and a feeling of action, but there isn't actually a great deal of action in the film. We didn't have a second unit on the film so it was the first unit that was shooting everything. That was kind of interesting because you usually have a second unit director come in and shoot all that stuff, but it was everybody and me. The first AD once said, "we gotta move over to this location quickly, but we first gotta shoot this close-up of this pen." (laughs) I was just thinking, "Why are we doing this?" It became quite guerilla style when we were shooting and I think that somewhat shows in the filmmaking as a whole. In a way, I'm quite pleased with that. I wanted it to be raw right from the start, but I think I have a tendency to over polish some of the stuff that I do and I felt that this had a more rawer and edgier quality to it. It wasn't over polished, but I guess that's just by my standard.

DVD Talk: Most films in the future nowadays are shown in a post-apocalyptic manor or are shot in a mundane way similar to Blade Runner. Here, you show the future in a different way with a very colorful aesthetic. Was that a conscious choice to make it stand apart from some of those other films?

Miguel Sapochnik: Very... There was a funny story I heard once, without naming any names, but somebody phoned up and said to someone in production, "I'm just checking in, what's the color pallet of this movie going to be?" The response was, "what do you mean?" and they said, "it's not going to be blues and browns is it? Because blues and browns usually cost us about six-million dollars internationally." I just thought that was weird, the fact that you could judge how well a movie is going to do based on blues and browns. That said, what I learned from hearing that story was there is actually some truth in that. I think with this movie it was that we never intended it be post-apocalyptic and that's why there's no explanation as to why people want artificial organs. It's simply that we've been continuing on a road and shit happens. That's how we end up there. By not being post-apocalyptic, it allowed us to be colorful with the film. I think you need that colorfulness, because you need to juxtapose the dark subject matter -- which is essentially murder. That was sort of the idea behind it.

DVD Talk: You do a very good job at creating this world with very subtle details. Throughout the movie you see Chinese symbols everywhere, which I presume is a sign of how much worse our economy has gotten and that China practically owns us. Can you talk about adding those tiny details instead of hitting us over-the-head with exposition about the state of the world?

Miguel Sapochnik: There was a lot of preparation. We developed the movie for three years and in that time I put together a huge amount of imagery, drawings, and concept work. Then we started getting into the movie and I started working with the production designer David Sandefur. We talked literally for three weeks, everyday, and eight hours a day about absolutely everything. A lot of things evolved through that. One of the big things, for me, was where the world is going and extrapolating the future based on today's events. The idea that China will own almost everything seemed absolutely natural. It wasn't taking from Blade Runner, it just simply is. It's already happening and we were just trying to confront that and see where it would take us. One of the ideas there was that by the end of the film no one was speaking English. We couldn't do that since we were making a studio movie. So what we ended up doing was trying to turn it into China. The architecture, the designs, and everything was all very Chinese. Those details were very important and I'm glad you noticed them. We didn't want to preach. The whole idea of this movie was not to preach. While we are encapsulating the future and trying to stay true to reality, we weren't rooting ourselves into it. The film is ultimately, while it's a terrible world, I don't think this is really what's going to happen in the future. I just think this is what we're capable of.

DVD Talk: One thing that's so refreshing is that you didn't start out the movie with a hammy narration or cliched text explaining everything about the world and how we got there. So many films do that. Was there ever any pressure about doing that?

Miguel Sapochnik: Oh, yeah. There was a lot of pressure, a lot of pressure. It's a long story... But I genuinely and firmly did not believe in that we needed to explain ourselves in this world. Just show the world. We're not trying to be reality; we're trying to be a version of it. It's a parallel universe rather than just twenty-five years into the future. There was a period of time where we had the "in the not too distant future" text slapped on at the beginning of the film, but I argued a lot to get rid of it. There was even a title sequence. At one point we kind of managed to get around the way of thinking that it just wasn't necessary. It wasn't an issue... All of this happens in the world of a group of people who are trying to make a film rather than through the concept of going to the movies to see it. Whether that actually translates, I don't now. I'll see on Monday.

DVD Talk: Speaking of pressure, I'm betting there was a lot about trying to make Remy more likable. At his core, he's a narcissistic psychopath. That's something I love, but was there any pressure to make him more likable?

Miguel Sapochnik: Yeah, absolutely. Lots of ideas were thrown around about trying to make him more likable and lots of me scratching my head wondering, "how do you make a fascist more likable?" Actually, it was Jude who came up with a very nice idea, which was making him really into music. By making Remy really into music it, whether it shows in the final movie or not, it was this idea that he was going to listen to soul music. That's his thing. He did his job, but he listened to soul music. It made him, in our minds, more likable. You also got to think of it like John Travolta and Samuel Jackson in Pulp Fiction, they're not likable characters. But we have morbid fascinations with characters who are assassins and killers in general which is something that's not often brought up. Mussolini, he's a fascinating guy, but he's not likable. I obviously don't known him personally but...

DVD Talk: You brought up earlier an alternate cut which I heard was more funnier and darker. What were the differences specifically?

Miguel Spochnik: It wasn't darker, but it was funnier. More satirical. It was just more of a satire and maybe more Monty Python-esque. It wasn't necessarily darker, but it just depends on how you take that kind of subject matter. If something dark is happening and you laugh, it's offensive to some people. I think that's how we often deal with some things we find terrifying, we laugh. I saw Man Bites Dog when I was eighteen or nineteen and I laughed my head off all the way through the movie, but people moved away from me in the theater (laughs). There was a scene in that movie that suddenly wiped a smile off my face where I realized what I had been laughing at the whole time and that movie really had a profound effect on me, because it made me realize for the first time that there's no such thing as a reserve to violence. I gotta say one thing, the reason the movie is so violent is because I was showing this movie from the point-of-view of a totally questionable and, as you said, narcissistic poor character and yet everyone just likes him too much. My friends and all these people I showed the movie to always say, "C ome on, let's see him kill someone." (laughs) They were waiting for that and it worries me that we've become so desensitized as a nation that we don't have a problem with liking the bad guy. That bothers me enormously. I think the violence began to go up in notches as I experienced it with each screening because what I wanted to do was for some people to re-sensitized. To feel something for what's onscreen rather than wanting to get past the domestic scenes so we could see him cut people up. That really bothers me (laughs). In the end, movies are definitely becoming violent because it's become harder to engage people. If you look at a film like Precious it's just a deeply distressing world that girl lives in. It's horrific. It's beyond horrific. She got screwed by her mom's boyfriend, she's got aids, a child with Downs Syndrome, and it's unbelievable. Now, all you had to do fifty-years ago was just to have the kid be black. That would be considered a difficult enough situation to grow up in, but now, we have to add all these things. That's really worrying and it's terrifying (laughs).

DVD Talk: The ending is something that just feels ballsy and it's probably going to split people similar to the rest of the film. Having not really talked to anyone about the ending yet, how have you seen people responding to it?

Miguel Sapochnik: It's kind of polarized audiences right from the start and I think it'll continue to do that. You either love it or hate it. It's either a huge disappointment or a huge surprise. There's no middle ground reaction to it and that's fine. The intent behind it was always give the people what they want and when they're expecting it... For me, as far as I'm concerned, it's a happy ending. But maybe that's just me. There's a lot of people who think it's the ultimate cliched thing the way we ended it. There are very strong arguments on both sides and it just depends on what your opinion is. I firmly believe that it's not about what other people think, but it's about how it made you feel. A movie experience, for me, stops being about analyzing the movie while I was in it about four or five years ago and it became, "how do I feel at the end of the film?" How I feel when I walk out of that movie is a measure of what my experience was. After that, then I can analyze and debate... It's great if you want to debate a film after it finishes, but how you feel when you walk out is very important. I can't say what we did was the right ending, but that felt like the way it should've ended. I don't feel like there's another choice.

DVD Talk: It's one of those endings where even you dislike it, you should at least admire it. It's something that sparks conversation and you don't get that from a lot of movies.

Miguel Sapochnik: Without a doubt, there seems to be very few movies that go beyond the theater. I remember going to see Mulholland Drive and I actually went to the theaters four times, but I never could get in. Eventually I saw it, my god, I didn't understand what the fuck was going on in it but I loved it. Then we all went off to argue and debate where we eventually agreed. Then we went online to read other people's interpretations and then we'd go back to see the movie again. It was fantastic. What a great experience. That was one of the most interactive movies I can think of. One of the things I've noticed about our film is that it's very interactive, people kind of shout and yell at the screen. I love that. That's the best result I could ask for.

DVD Talk: Since there is an alternate cut would you possibly consider doing a Director's Cut? Or is what's onscreen your final cut?

Miguel Sapochnik: (sigh) I really want to go on and just make something else...

DVD Talk: Well, do you have a Director's Cut ready to go? Or would you have to go back and recut it?

Miguel Sapochnik: Well, there's an unrated cut that is like my Director's Cut that was kind of hijacked. For me, to make a real Director's Cut of the movie it would take a lot of work to do that. It would have to incorporate all the adverts, the commercials from the website, and it would go much further into the RoboCop style of filmmaking. To be honest, I just want to make something else. I've been doing this for three years and I think I'm done with it. I'd never say never. There's a ten minute longer unrated version that's already done for the DVD. It has a scene of Jude and Forest doing their first repo job on Christmas, it's got John Leguizamo in it, and it's got one of my favorite scenes where Remy is tucking his son into bed at night. It's got a whole bunch of extra scenes and all the gore cuts that we made for theatrical version have been put back in. So it's even gorier.

DVD Talk: Speaking of Director's Cut, you did a Director's Cut of a trailer. Can you talk about why you did that?

Miguel Sapochnik: I love trailers and I wanted to do something that represented how I wanted to present the film. It was originally a longer, about three and a half minutes, and the producers saw it and really liked it. They asked me if I could get it down to a two and a half minute trailer length. I did some work on it, got it down to that length, and they put it out. It was great. I was kind of shock since it's not something that happens very often. It's a different mood compared to the other ones, it's truer to the movie itself. The first trailer presented it more so as a balls-to-the-wall action film. I like to think that it isn't that.

DVD Talk: Do you think the past trailers may possibly gave away too much? They definitely don't give away some of the bigger points.

Miguel Sapochnik: They seem like they give away too much, that was my feeling. They give you the impression that they're giving away too much even though they weren't, nut they'd still give that feeling to someone who hadn't seen the film. Obviously, it's a very complicated thing to market a movie since so much of it is chance and luck as much as it is... Imagine seven-years ago we came up with the idea that there was going to be a healthcare crisis and a global economic problem at the same then we'd just say, "Let's just write a script based around that, but let's not just make it seven-years from now." It's highly unlikely since it has a lot to do with chance.

DVD Talk: The original title Repossession Mambo, which I sort of prefer, ties in a bit better with the film since that's the book's title in the film and how there was music to some of the repossession scenes. Were you involved in that title change?

Miguel Sapochnik: I was told that it had been changed. It was a bums on seat thing, really. Repossession Mambo gives you this feeling and it's an odd name. Repo Men has instant appeal. You know what that movie is about. It's such a big thing nowadays; it's just like the idea of how the trailer shows everything. I'm not in agreement with that, but it makes sense why they did it. It's nice that the Repossession Mambo book is still in there and what he says about doing the Mambo to their great beyond is still in there.

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