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Based on a one hell of a gonzo idea with decidedly political implications, Repo Men doesn't just bleed on the screen, it smears it in your face.
For veteran actors Forest Whitaker and Jude Law, this demented buddy movie pulls on both their inner action heroes and tragic Shakespearean personae. As veterans of some meaningless conflict set in the future, the two come home, still pals, and try to find their place. Eventually that place turns out to be the Union, the company that has cornered the market on mechanical body parts ("artiforgs") to replace the many that are lost to the ills of this future world.
As repo men, Jake Freivald (Whitaker) and Remy (Law) are assigned to recover the artificial organs that are sold on an egregiously inflated installment plan that only the most financially secure can pay off. If you default on your loan, the repo men can come and cut out your body part after three months.
So Jake and Remy become master repossessors, bloodily slashing their way to corporate success. But Remy's wife wants him to quit — it's either she or the job — and Jake can't imagine life without his buddy at his side. When an accident occurs, Remy has his heart replaced, making the collector potentially collectable.
Placing such consummate actors as Whitaker and Law into roles where they are pitted against each other makes the gory action all the more delicious (and decidely different from Repo! The Genetic Opera — a rock musical with similar themes). And with a support cast that includes Alice Braga, Liev Schreiber and Carice van Houten, you easily overlook the film's over-the-top premise.
The two leads sat down in a mini-press conference, livers intact, to rewind their experience on this sci-fi action-thriller based on Eric Garcia's 2009 paperback novel The Repossession Mambo and directed by Miguel Sapochnick.
Q: In creating your characters' back stories, how much did you collaborate on developing your interactions?
FW: Jude worked on the script for a while with Miguel at the beginning of the film. I came on towards the end, and there was just little discussions about these markers: what scenes we were going to shoot, what scenes we weren’t going to shoot and what was necessary to make sure we told the simple backstory of our characters to bond us, to complete the world and to create this weird universe that we were going to live in.
Once we realized the bonds they had since they were children, and when they went into the army, and how these things would affect them in being able to be members of society…that was really important to the movement of our characters, and to the human part of the movie. [It's] about their friendship and separation, and about people who were growing in different directions. It was all a part of it in some way. We didn’t have a long, hour-long discussion…
JL: No, it's funny, we really didn't… [but] it's thrilling when people watch your performances and can say what worked and what didn’t. It's not something you sit around and create or orchestrate, because that’s like dissecting a friendship, which seems unhelpful or unhealthy. But a lot of it was on paper. We did both have our filmmaker hats on to fight for certain scenes, in flashbacks, but an awful lot did get cut in the end.Little bits like coming back and little bits that we knew were worth fighting for, rather than talking about — let’s see a little of those moments. We particularly thought it was important to see them in combat together. Another theme in this film is very much how to do with we have all these governments around the world who train men to kill, and then when they come home, that's not there anymore…
FW: …And where do they go?
JL: We have more war vets than ever before, and what’s interesting in this film is they’re given a place to go use their skills. And when that breaks down, what are they going to do? Go be normal citizens?
FW: You look at life a certain way — this is "right," this is "correct" — and then all of a sudden, this character looks at it a different way. Where do I fit in? What I’m doing every morning can’t be right; that's not me anymore — that’s something that’s explored.
Q: The violence in this film is so over the top it's almost balletic...
JL: The script was very descriptive in the violence, and we knew when we read it that it was going to be extreme. For my part, I constantly thought, how much are we going to be able to get away with? But again that's a question really more for Miguel because he really fought for it. I hope I answered the question directly but I’m going to be more sort of impressionistic about it.
The idea of these two men in a society that’s desensitized to violence, it was important to the theme of violence, that the graphic nature of the violence be very real. And then the rest of the film, the journey of the film broadens, especially towards the end, when it becomes almost unreal. This level of violence, this grotesque use of the body or dissemination of the body, you suddenly start to realize, you’ve been so brought into the world that you continue to believe in it.
We also hoped…I hoped, that it was a film that would make you close your eyes. Especially young people when they're watching that sort of stuff, it doesn't do anything to them. And I hope this one does, that’s it's shocking, because it should be. Violence is shocking.
FW: It’s part of the dilemma for your character, too. What he faces is the construction of violence and what it means, and it’s personal.
JL: How far do we go for it to be shocking? For us to wake up?
Q: Did you have to hide your director's hat to work on this?
FW: The whole thing was to create a universe, a world. Every great movie is its own universe, its own world, with its own rules and stuff. I can't say that I would do it that way, but what [Miguel] did was create a universe that allows you to fall into it, and believe and trust in what we’re doing. And we were committed to those motives. We would do anything, as far as we needed to, to get inside the truth of what this universe was.JL: One of the scenes I found the most important was when Beth [Remy's fellow artiforg fugitive and ex played by Alice Braga] and Remy repossess each other. To get that far there had to be a sort of embrace of the violence in a way — two people coming together physically like that, it could almost be lovemaking, a sharing of something, a sharing of agony rather than sharing pleasure.
FW: It was a bit bleak to do things that broadly, to go so far out, like A Clockwork Orange-y or Monty Python-y, because you have the chance to fall on your face.
JL: A Clockwork Orange was a big influence on Miguel.
Q: Did you do any research on the proper way to do the removal of organs?
JL: I worked with a surgeon in London. I bought a half side of a pig, because pig flesh is very like human flesh, and he taught me how to cut through that with scalpels, and then we worked with a guy in Toronto.
FW: A surgeon. For my character, though, my character is not a neat kind of guy. He just is into retrieval, so I watched that and discarded that and went with the knife and fork concept.
Q: Both you had training, so whose kung fu is stronger?
JL: We never really had it out.
FW: No. (makes a funny kung fu noise)
JL: The truth of the matter is we didn't do a lot of the fight sequences. The producers don't want you to pull a muscle or be injured, so they do these trainings to get you in good shape, so you don't call in and go, "Oh, I've wrenched my thigh yesterday kicking that guy down." But we had a quite bit of training and there was an awful lot of choreography.
FW: For my kung fu grip.
JL: I had to catch up with you.
Q: Did you know anyone who had to deal with an actual repossession?
FW: Oh, yeah, I've had friends who’ve had cars repossessed, I've known people who've had their homes taken.
JL: You said something really interesting earlier. To take it further, to lose your home, you should say it, to lose your home, people can lose belongings. You lose your car. You lose your job. You lose your home. But this idea of taking it further: I am myself, I own myself — the idea that they own you too, and they're coming to take it.
FW: They have emotional questions too. When you lose everything, when someone takes everything, your house, your home and then a part of yourself, you feel a loss. The emotional loss is so powerful.
Q: What was cut about your characters?
JL: There wasn’t a whole lot…
FW: There were scenes with the repos…
JL: They cut my favorite scene…. (laughs at the irony of the comment)
FW: It was Christmas…
JL: There was a Christmas scene we were filming in Toronto. The script kept changing. We had done a lot of stuff in the middle, which was trimmed down, the army stuff, to just us in the tank. But there was one scene in a bar, and we’re saying, "What are we going to do with ourselves?" Then we see a poster that says, "Be trained by the Repo Men;" and it had just snowed in Toronto, and there was this little house that was covered in lovely Santa lights, and we decided, we just covered each other in blood. And we come out of the house just laughing, having just done our first repo, and we walk down the street. It was my favorite scene. Anyway, little bits that just show the bond, layers and layers of brotherhood.
Q: Could there be a series in this for you guys, doing a prequel or sequel?
JL: Is there any saving Remy? He's there, but he’s not all there.
FW: He was always… well, we could get some more body parts.
JL: But at what cost?
Q: Do you think Jake is finally happy with brain-dead Remy?
JL: What, me in the corner?
FW: I always thought he was just happy with him. He’s not gone. And caring for him could be part of that relationship, and he’d be with him. I think there’s something a little twisted in that part of Jake, because that defined his life, his world, and now he can’t say he’s going to go away.
JL: That’s a very contemporary theme, too — the questions asked, keep the lie up, don’t question the lie, and you can pretend that everything’s alright. I was the one asking the questions, and Carol [Remy's wife, played by Carice van Houten].
Q: Did you make any notes on the script?
JL: You'll have to ask them. Oh, yeah, I remember one note: I wanted people to like Carol. Carol was just a bitch, and I was thinking, "It wasn't fair; it should be a balanced relationship." It’s more touching when see a relationship with two healthy, wholesome people — well, not wholesome — but two rounded people falling apart, then someone leaving someone because they’re a pain in the ass, you know?
I was just really taken by the characters and with the heart of the film, so going through it and working on it, I can't remember what I contributed. To be really honest, I think it became very much a part of what we then filmed and that process is very fluid. I should keep notes so I can claim ideas for myself.
Q: Since this movie touches on the health care debate, what's your perspective on it?
JL: I don’t talk politics. (Long pause, then laughs) First of all, let's talk about the film. What’s always interesting about dystopian films, or rather, good dystopian films, [is that they] only reference current themes. They don’t hit you over the head with them; they don’t make it the source of the story. Don’t forget, [when] we made this film, [it was] filmed this two and a half years ago. So it was an issue, but it wasn’t as current as it is now. It's just very fortuitous that the world is as messed up as it is and played right into the hands of our movie.
With what's going on here, I think everyone would agree that it's a side, an element of your society that needs addressing. The problem is that it’s a Gordian knot, in that everyone approaches it with a very different need, a very different design, a very different background. And everyone has a right to have their voice heard in that argument, but equally, one can’t hear all arguments and please all people all the time to reach a consent.
As far as how it references England, I think the more interesting theme in the film is how … there can be corporations who can sell you stuff and it’s bad for you because they know they’re the company that’s going to sell you stuff that’s good for you. That there’s a sort of umbrella holding it all together. That they can, they’ll cut off your nose with one hand and sell you a nose with another.
Q: So did you read the book?
JL: I did. This is like a cousin of the book. First cousin. Very close cousins.
Q: What do you enjoy about making genre films — sci-fi, fantasy, horror — and do you take them as seriously as drama, or is it a matter of real acting vs getting a paycheck?
FW: I didn't see [working on this film] as that … I saw it as an interesting character, a well-written script, the chance to work with someone who was really talented, a good director, something new. I’m always trying to challenge myself to do something new, to try to do something great, whether it’s sci-ii or comedy or whatever.
JL: There’s still a serious theme to it. It still required a lot of work and attention, even the physical side. I know the physical side of films, the action, the violence is considered thrill-seeking or what have you, but to make that kind of stuff, especially when you have something grounded in reality, it's not just gratuitous. It required a hell of a lot of work. I think we both, what Forest said, it’s fun to try new things.Q: Will you be doing a Sherlock Holmes sequel?
JL: We had such a blast making that film, and it was another very happy experience. I know you probably always sit in front of actors who say, "I had the best time." I haven't always had the best time but I did on these two films.
We were very aware that we had a lot more material to use. Arthur Conan Doyle wrote so many books and there’s so much to take from. And because of our enthusiasm for the project, once we knew it was doing well financially, we all started throwing in our ideas of where it should go and what should happen next. And of course mine involves Sherlock Holmes being locked in a box and Doctor Watson… I don't know for sure, but I think we probably are going to make another one.
Q: You'll have to grow the mustache again.
JL: So that's fine but it's not like next week. I think it's sometime next year.
Q: Is there more theater or independent films underway for you?
JL: Maybe later this year.
FW: I’m going to go very shortly to Shanghai to do this movie, Little Treasure, about adoption. My character, his friend and his wife go to adopt a child, and they start to question her sense of cultural identity. They start to question her sense of being able to raise a child, and issues like that. That’s the next film I'll do.
JL: I don't know actually what I'm going to do next. Hit a bump with a hammer? It's quite hard to read scripts after you've done Hamlet. So I'm not really sure, I don't know. I may be doing another Sherlock Holmes, but that's not certain.
I'm working with a wonderful writer/director team in London. They're going to do a play in summer or winter of next year, they're writing that now. And Contagion [directed by Steven Soderbergh] is not until the end of the year. I'm one of a large number of people in a big ensemble, so I'll be doing my 10 days in San Francisco.
The subject matter’s really very interesting, and again, very current. It's about a contagious disease spreading across the world and how it affects the public, the medical services, politicians, and I play an online blogger who is a fear-monger. I just liked the part. I really like the part.
For more by Brad Balfour: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/brad-balfour
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