As the health care debate rages Repo Men feels strangely prescient. In the near future artificial organs have changed medicine, but not the economy. The organs are prohibitively expensive, and people finance the new body parts they need to keep on living. But The Union, the company that leases the organs, has a very strict policy – if you’re delinquent more than three months they will come and reclaim their property. And the result isn’t pretty. Or usually survivable.

Jude Law is Remy, the best repo man in the business. Forest Whitaker is Jake, his childhood best friend and sometime partner, and their relationship is tested when Remy ends up with an artificial heart and begins missing his payments. Soon Remy sees how the other half lives and things get incredibly juicy and blood splattered.

Miguel Sapochnik makes his directorial debut with Repo Men, and a couple of weeks ago I had the chance to get on the phone with him to discuss the movie’s influences, how you balance violence and humor, and the controversy that has brewed between Repo Men and Repo! The Genetic Opera.

Repo Men is in theaters this weekend.

You and Eric Garcia were working on this years and years ago, back when he was first writing the book. I’m curious how the book that was being written influenced the movie that was being written and vice versa. 

Originally it was a short story which I think he wrote back in 97, called The Tell-Tale Pancreas. Then he wrote the first draft of the book and finished that in 2000. He actually got together with Garrett Lerner, who is the co-writer on the movie, out of a friendship from their kids going to the same school together, and he gave Garrett the manuscript with and had done nothing with and Garrett said this would make a great movie. So they wrote a number of drafts independent of me. I met them in 2004 after reading the script. I remember meeting them, they’re pretty funny characters, and what I found fascinating about the script is that it felt like it had been written by someone English. It had a very dry, European sense of humor to it – very Monty Python-esque. I met them, read the script, thought it was great and figured no one would ever make it. After two or three months I was still thinking about it and became aware that if you’re still thinking about a script, which is a rare occurrence, there’s something to it and you should explore it further. So I got the script out again and I called him up and we met again and I said, ‘If we were going to make this movie how would we do it, and how would we change the script?’ And we began working from there on. We actually collaborated for about three years until we reached a point where we felt we had a script as close to the movie that we wanted to make as we were going to get.

That’s when we tried to attach cast, which is when Jude Law read the script, in about 2006. I met with him and he had very smart points about the character. He somehow embodied, in an unlikely way, the fascist bullyboy Remy is. Then we moved into finding a producer, getting Forrest, finding a financier and running off to make the finished film before the writer’s strike.

Can you talk about some of your influences? I think I might have caught a nod or a wink or two in the film. Towards the end there’s a big fight in a hallway and Jude Law has a hammer in his hand and I couldn’t help but think of Oldboy.

Tell me where to start. There are so many influences on this movie. When I was originally pitching the movie and wanted to get producers and studios interested, I cut together a series of scenes from films that I thought felt like they tonally captured the essence of the movie. They were A Clockwork Orange, the famous fight scene in Oldboy, Brazil because of that Monty Python quality, Monty Python’s The Meaning of Life, Trainspotting because there was a roughness to that movie that I had always been influenced by, Blade Runner to a certain extent – although lesser than I would have thought, because I was trying not to get stuck in the ‘Oh we’re making a movie about the future, let’s copy Blade Runner,’ - Children of Men was a reference. And Robocop was a huge reference. Paul Verhoeven was a huge influence on me when I was growing up because he was this essentially arthouse director who went to America and made the craziest fucking movies. He fit into both my father’s and my sensibilities – with me being the Schwarzenegger fan and my dad being a Tarkovsky fan, and us having to enjoy each other’s taste in films and finding that common ground in Robocop

I’m glad that you mentioned Verhoeven, because I got that from the film. It has that satirical, almost tongue in cheek thing where it’s commenting on what’s happening today while also being exciting and incredibly violent. How hard is it to juggle those two things?

Very tough. That was pretty much the paramount battle for the editors, for myself, for everybody that worked on the film – finding the right balance between violence and humor, satire and irony. Playing around with the graphic quality of the movie and how brutal do we want to go, and when do we want to let the audience off the hook? When do we want to leave them hanging? All of those questions, probably moreso than in a normal film experience, were important. It was so easy to make the bad B movie version of this film or to make the over important social commentary version. We wanted to make something that didn’t take itself too seriously but at the same time didn’t shy away from getting a reaction from the audience. And it wasn’t just about getting a reaction by shock value. One of the things we always said is that this is a scifi drama with action elements. Obviously once [the studio] saw the action they said, ‘Let’s have more of that,’ but we tried not to have action for action’s sake. All of the fight training, all of the choreography, was all about doing something where the fights were native to the narrative and were part of the story rather than being a diversion. I think we most successfully realized that in the fight between the two main characters in the latter part of the film, because they fight like children and that’s what it’s meant to reflect – the fighters as children, rather than the sleek, brutal style they had before. 

That was the most complicated thing, trying to find that balance. There’s the famous story in Robocop where ED-209 shoots that guy on the table in the office and the number of times [Verhoeven] cut back to it, and it kept going on and on and on. The studio was like, ‘No, cut it down, it’s too much,’ but they realized the shorter they made it the more violent it became and the more horrifying it became. The absurdity, the extremity of the fact that we keep cutting back to this guy getting shot god knows how many times is what lightens the tone. It’s such an interesting comment on the general psychology. 

Every single moment of violence in the movie we tried to think where it was coming in the narrative and what it was doing to the audience. In Jacob’s Ladder there’s an additional scene you can see on the DVD where Jacob finally is faced with the demon, the ultimate demon. It was a very important scene for Bruce Joel Rubin as a writer, but Adrian Lyne, after he cut the scene, felt that Jacob had been through too much. To push him through this extra moment of terror, for the audience who had been experiencing it all through Jacob’s eyes it was one step too far. That’s interesting for me, to know when to pull back and when to go for it. Believe it for not we pulled back on a bunch of stuff – and we went for it on a number of scenes where we didn’t expect to.

That’s interesting to me because one of the best scenes in the movie – without ruining it – happens behind the Pink Door, and you really go for it. Was there any discussion about how far to go? Did the studio think you were going too far?

I don’t think they knew what we were doing! I don’t think they knew. If I were to say that of the movie one of the things I feel proudest of, after all the fighting is said and done and if we call this an action genre movie, it climaxes in a love scene that I think feels like we had accomplished something. Hopefully if audiences respond to it in that way, I’ll be extremely proud of the attempt we’ve made to show that you don’t need bigger explosions. In fact that it’s a turn off. There was lots of discussion; at the same time me and Eric had to come up with a big ending, and we were thinking ‘How do we top this fight on the factory floor and the fight in the long corridor? It’s going to be Oldboy style, so what else can we do [after that] except blow everything up, which seems so absurdly boring.’ We came up with the idea over Thai food, while Eric was burning his mouth with the bloody ridiculous Thai chili he loves to eat. It seemed to fit perfectly at the time, so when it was written it’s actually in the script as a short scene – ‘To a beautiful love song we catch glimpses of these two characters doing what they do to each other’ – and then when we came to shoot it we thought how the bloody hell do we shoot this thing. I was lucky that the studio at the time were in the middle of the writer’s strike and they had forgotten about me. If executives had been on the set at the time, we may not have shot that scene.

This weekend I was at a party and it just happened, weirdly enough, to also include the director and the creator of Repo! The Genetic Opera. When they heard that I had seen your movie they rushed over to me to find out about it and I told them it couldn’t be any different from theirs – that besides the most basic conceptual aspect the two films bear no resemblance to another. I know that people will probably bring this up in the comments below the article, so I just wanted to get you on the record about the connection – or lack of one – between the two films.

There’s no influence whatsoever. I haven’t even seen it. I can’t be more emphatic than that. Hopefully once people see this movie they might stop talking about it.