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Set in a near future where people can “lease” artificial organs, but run into big, bloody trouble if they can’t keep up their payments, Universal’s REPO MEN is the first feature by director Miguel Sapochnik. The filmmaker recently chatted with Fango about the experience, why he hates good movies with lousy third acts and how AVATAR blew him away.
Based on Eric Garcia’s novel, REPO MEN was adapted for the big screen by the author (who discussed the movie here and here) and noted TV scribe Garrett Lerner. “We had them on the set as much as possible,” Sapochnik tells us. “The problem was that we ran into the writers’ strike, which started like two days after we began shooting. So they weren’t allowed to be anywhere near the set, and they couldn’t talk about or do any writing. It was funny, because on the one hand the strike meant that Eric and Garrett couldn’t help when we got into trouble on set during production, but on the other hand it was great, because we shot the movie that was intended. Usually with films, if the writer is available, you keep working on the script as you go through the shoot, and that can have a discombobulating effect on the production. But after we wrapped, the strike was over, so Eric and Garrett helped me during postproduction, and we rewrote some of the voiceover.”
REPO MEN takes place in an unspecified time, but one that’s still recognizable. “When you’re making a SF movie for a price, you have to work with what you’ve got,” Sapochnik notes. “We never wanted REPO MEN to be another BLADE RUNNER, or too science-fictiony like MINORITY REPORT. We wanted to hold onto the future-past idea. The reference points were BRAZIL, A CLOCKWORK ORANGE, TRAINSPOTTING and CHILDREN OF MEN. TRAINSPOTTING aside, they’re all futuristic, but they [show recognizable new] technologies. It’s like the Rubik’s Cube that the kid plays with in CHILDREN OF MEN: It throws you slightly off-center, but you recognize it. It’s not like MINORITY REPORT, where you’ve moved into a completely different future.”
The film lensed in Toronto, but the Canadian city is never named in the film either. “It does take place there, but I’m probably the wrong person to ask,” the director admits. “I was very happy that it’s set in Toronto, because I love the idea of the Canadian culture, which is laid-back and friendly and lets you get away with all sorts of things—and here are these people legally ripping people open in the streets and taking their organs because of this loophole. In that kind of environment, you need a passive public; otherwise you would have an outcry and uproar. So I liked the idea of using Canada, which has a passive culture. But I’m not sure the studio would say it’s Toronto; it’s ‘an undisclosed North American location.’ ”
In the film, ace Repo Man Remy (Jude Law) ends up with a new heart that he can no longer afford, which forces him to go on the run from the company he once worked for. Although various artificial body parts exist today, Sapochnik and his crew needed to do “an enormous amount of research” in order to come up with scientifically believable organs of the future. “Dr. Robert Jarvik was the first guy to create an artificial heart,” he notes. “They’re getting smarter and smarter, but one of the biggest problems they’re having is how to power them. They usually have some sort of external battery. So we looked at all these hearts—because that plays a big role in the movie’s narrative—and we played around with the idea of, if this is where technology is now—the AbioCor is probably the best artificial heart you can get ahold of today—how would we like to see it develop in the future?
“We spoke to people in the industry, independent experts and futurists,” Sapochnik continues, “and what we came up with is that an internal battery would be the first step to making an artificial organ a reality. Then we had to figure out how you could do that and not have to operate every time you need to change the battery, and the answer was that you’d have to make them like those kinetic watches that are powered by your movements.
“So the heart would function the same way, and we slowly built this future for these artificial organs. For example, an artificial kidney nowadays is a dialysis machine. The kidney is one of the most complicated organs to artificially recreate, because of the size and how it fits into the body. Also, cleaning the blood is such an intricate process. It’s the same with the much simpler things like prosthetic limbs. With eyes, you can now get your corneas replaced synthetically, and there’s the promise of being able to connect the nerve endings from the brain to a new eye. That’s where we get into real science fiction. Artificial organs exist right now, and what we did was project those into the future and how these technologies would develop so that they’re sustainable and consumable and sold to the public.
“That said, I would put in front of this a big disclaimer that if I were to realistically project the future of medical advancements, I would put my money on stem cell research a lot quicker than artificial organs. The film is more allegorical than a realistic look at what the future holds. The idea is that we treat our bodies like cars and live beyond our means. The movie is about credit more than anything else, and the idea that we will all be walking around with metal artificial organs inside of us is unrealistic. But as an allegory, it has more potency than talking about glowing livers and stem cells to replenish dying organs.”
Speaking of potency, Sapochnik is tired of watching genre films that start off well but become diluted and debilitated by predictable and disappointing action-oriented third acts. He had to make certain concessions and compromises on his movie, of course, but the director is pleased with REPO MEN’s conclusion. “One of the problems we had in the editing process was that everyone was saying, ‘We want to get to the chase faster,’ but we were busy unloading an enormous amount of world and character into the film,” he recalls. “There’s a large subplot that got cut from the movie that will be in the DVD extras—it’s all stuff that has to do with character, world-building and rules of engagement. But it was ultimately decided that the movie was slowing up getting to the chase. I’m a huge fan of story-building, but there’s this tendency in movies, like with the first BATMAN [BATMAN BEGINS], to build up this good story and characters that engage you, and then in the third act it devolves into the standard explosion, FASTER, PUSSYCAT! KILL! KILL! thing. I find that disappointing.
“Unfortunately, I can’t tell you what we did in our movie to try and combat that, but I will say that’s a huge issue for me in third acts, and we did something very specific to overcome that problem narratively. I had to argue to do something more interesting with the ending conceptually, instead of simply killing more people and having a high body count. It’s the death of many a good film when the end of the movie is a bar brawl and a foregone conclusion. Some people are going to hate the end of this film, and some people are going to love it. In the test screenings, it has polarized audiences—and that’s a good thing.”
2009 was a good year for ambitious genre films, with both Neill Blomkamp’s DISTRICT 9 and James Cameron’s AVATAR becoming box-office hits and receiving multiple Oscar nominations, including Best Picture. “I thought DISTRICT 9 was great,” Sapochnik says. “Good science fiction is timeless. It has a fantastic, enduring quality, and it also serves, many years later, as a way to look at the real fears, paranoia and concerns of that time. If you go back and look at SOYLENT GREEN, LOGAN’S RUN and films like that, they may be corny now, but they address serious issues, and they find a way of doing that where it’s up to you to take from it. Nobody wants to be preached to. We’re all smart. We’re all adults. We should be able to decipher and interpret what we’re seeing and learn something new.
“AVATAR absolutely blew me away, and I didn’t expect it was going to do that. Interestingly, I thought the story was going to be the weakest thing. The story is LA JETÉE by Chris Marker, which is a fantastic short film told in still images. 12 MONKEYS was based on it. LA JETÉE is one of the best science fiction films ever made, done for nothing, just phenomenal. It’s about a guy who lives in an apocalyptic future where they’re trying to reverse the holocaust that happened. The only way to do that is by sending him back through time in his mind to try to understand and gather information and change the course of the future. In the process of doing that, he meets a girl whom he falls in love with, and the longer he stays back in time, the more he falls falls for this past and this girl, and the less he wants to exist in the future, in the reality that he’s actually in.
“It’s a very intriguing idea,” Sapochnik concludes, “because it’s really about the escapism of the movies and all the stuff that we’re dying to get away from, especially when times are hard. And from my point of view, AVATAR is essentially a version of that. It has a subtle social commentary, and interestingly it’s [the all-time box-office earner] during one of the hardest times people have been through financially. I wonder what’s going on.”
For more on Sapochnik, Garcia and REPO MEN, pick up FANGORIA #292 (on sale this month).
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