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Updated Again! Mr. Beaks Evades The REPO MEN With Screenwriter Eric Garcia!

Like many of you, I had no real expectations for Miguel Sapochnik's REPO MEN prior to the debut of that rather impressive red-band trailer over Christmas break. Now, I find myself anticipating a fun little throwback to the kind of brainy, darkly comedic, and gory as hell sci-fi action flicks Paul Verhoeven used to make. In case you missed it...
To be fair to the makers of REPO MEN, I am not expecting anything on the indisputably classic level of ROBOCOP. That said, I think the notion of a future in which a ruthless corporation dangles the life-extending miracle of artificial organs, while wielding the life-snuffing threat of repossession if one falls too far behind on their payments, has all kinds of grisly potential. And judging from that trailer, it looks like Sapochnik and company are exploiting the premise to an ludicrously entertaining degree. Toss in Jude Law and Forest Whitaker as a pair of top-notch organ snatchers, and Liev Schreiber as a scenery-devouring baddie, and it's a helluva lot easier to see how REPO MEN could go right than wrong. Since the official green-band trailer is set to premiere in theaters this weekend, Universal checked in to see if I'd like to chat with Eric Garcia, the co-writer of the screenplay (with HOUSE M.D.'s Garrett Lerner) and the sole writer of the novel (REPOSSESSION MAMBO) on which the film is based. This is the second of Garcia's books to be turned into a film (the first being MATCHSTICK MEN), and while it seems like his career as a screenwriter is about to take off, he insists that he is a novelist first. Amazingly, I don't think he's full of shit. I also tend to believe him when he says that the experience of making REPO MEN was a positive one, and that there might be franchise potential in this material. Now there's where they might have a shot at surpassing the legacy of ROBOCOP. As we started our interview, I accidentally referred to the film by its original title, REPOSSESSION MAMBO. Garcia was thanking me for this right as I hit "record"...

Eric Garcia: I think the original title is going to be lost to the ages at some point. They're going to change the title of the book to match publicity. Which is fine. I'm fine with it. Can you hear the fine in my voice? I'm cool with it.

Mr. Beaks: Yeah. I know that "fine". Well, let's start with the title. REPOSSESSION MAMBO is kind of a cool title, although I can understand why a studio might have trouble selling a film called REPOSSESSION MAMBO.

Garcia: It's a weird title. I get that. I've gotten that from the very beginning. In fact, Miguel [Sapochnik], who's our director, later told me "When they sent me the script, I didn't read it. I didn't want to read it because of that title. But eventually I picked it up and read it." (Laughs) It's one of those things where once you've read it or once you've seen the movie, you get it. But, of course, from a marketing standpoint, I get that it's weird. My mother-in-law could never remember the [title]. It's been fucking ten years, and she can't remember the title of the thing. So the fact that it's now REPO MEN, and she can tell her friends? That's a good thing.

Beaks: Full disclosure: I forgot about it until earlier this afternoon, but your script has been sitting unread on my hard drive for a year.

Garcia: (Laughs) See?

Beaks: Someone sent it to me, and I think it was just such a wacky title. Also, just being honest, I was also like, "Well, I've never heard of this writer before, but I've got a couple of Coen Brothers scripts, so..."

Garcia: I would've done the exact same thing. I can't even complain. (Laughs) But it makes sense, and, from a marketing point of view, you've got to what you've got to do. And everything marketing has done so far... a) it's so not my job, and b) I've been just kind of impressed with what they've been able to do.

Beaks: That said, I think a certain segment of the moviegoing population - i.e. geeks - will see the title REPO MEN and immediately think REPO MAN.

Garcia: Sure. What film geek doesn't know that movie? I get that. And while I can't speak for Universal marketing, my guess is they went, "What percent of the worldwide population knows REPO MAN?" It's probably a very small percentage because it's a cult movie. So I assumed that they're cool with it. If it brings up positive connotations, that's cool. I happen to love REPO MAN.

Beaks: What's interesting to me, at least from the trailer, is that REPO MEN seems to be somewhat absurdist in tone, whereas REPO MAN is very absurdist. I'm not trying to keep the comparison going, but it does seem like REPO MEN has a sort of cult movie tone to it.

Garcia: I will say this: through the various iterations - and we're talking the short story, the book, and I can't even begin to tell you how many drafts of the screenplay - it has gotten slightly less absurdist. That said, our producer, Scott Stuber, is a really bright guy and has a really good sense of what works in an absurdist way that can also be somewhat populist - if that makes sense. Look, my favorite movie of all time is BRAZIL, so that gives you an idea of where my mind comes from. That's the kind of stuff that I dig: dark comedy, and a view of the world that is... not just sci-fi, but somewhat absurdist. That said, we've always had this kind of action thing going as well - which is not initially what the movie was. It certainly became slightly more action-oriented as we went along. But not in a bad way. What we didn't want to do is action for the sake of action, because we've all seen that and it's boring at the end of the day. Hopefully, the action and the absurdist view meld in some way.

Beaks: That's such a tricky balancing act. I think ROBOCOP did it best.

Garcia: We referenced ROBOCOP constantly when we were talking about the tone of the film. That's a great example. And you'll see in REPO MEN, there are commercials - which are mostly in the background of the final movie. I'm trying to remember the name of the commercial company that did them; we worked with them on the tone, and they did these great commercials that remind me of the ones in ROBOCOP. That sort of sensibility fit very much into our world. It's like any of Verhoeven's stuff. You're like, "Wow, there's a lot of violence here, but there's something comedic. The violence is actually integrated and trying to say something."

Beaks: When you go for something this particular in the writing, and then hand it off to a director, who's probably got his own very particular take on the material - one that doesn't completely mirror yours...

Garcia: Actually, my writing partner Garrett [Lerner] and I - and I should point out that Garrett has another writing partner and is an executive producer on HOUSE; I'm kind of the affair that he had. Garrett is one of my best friends, so I showed him the book, and he said, "We should do the script." That was in 2002. And when we first went out with the script, the silence was deafening. You've got a script where your protagonist is taking organs out of people, and he's the good guy; that's sort of odd. But there was one producer, Valerie Dean, who found it and championed it, and we did rewrites with her. She got it to Miguel, and showed us this short he had done called "The Dreamer", which I think you can probably find online. [Beaks note: I couldn't.] It blew us away. And we said, "Okay, this is the guy who, visually at least, we like." So we met him, and... Miguel had a very similar and odd viewpoint - which is a good thing. As you were saying, you don't often find directors who have the same way of looking at things. It was nice that we all just kind of agreed on things, so, from that point on, there was some push and pull, but it was good to know that he was going to bring new things to it in ways that we couldn't have anticipated. And make it better.

Beaks: Speaking of that push-pull, usually when a studio gets a movie like this, they're looking to add as much action as possible and attach the biggest movie star available. That's why this is an interesting project to me: it's got interesting actors instead of huge movie stars.

Garcia: The Jude thing... we could always get people interested, but we could never get them to the point where they would just throw down the money. We always thought we'd do the film independently because, as you said, it's absurdist dark comedy, but also sort of an action thing. Then, in March 2006, Jude was on a plane with his agent, who had been trying to get him to read [REPO MEN] for a while. So he said, "Look, we are on this plane for the next eight hours. Read the script." So he read the script, and said, "Okay, I'm in." Once he attached himself to act, he also came on board to help shape his character - because when you've done this for as long as he has, you start to get a sense of what works and what doesn't. And when you get a movie star attached, that speeds things up. Then when Universal got involved, we started looking for someone to match with Jude, and Forest Whitaker was at the top of everybody's list. He was just coming off THE LAST KING OF SCOTLAND, and everyone was [chasing him]. I'd loved Forest forever, since THE CRYING GAME. I mean, you can go way, way back to when I was a kid, but I think THE CRYING GAME was the first time where I was like, "Who is this guy?" And GHOST DOG; I fucking love GHOST DOG. So as soon as Forest came up, we were like, "If we can get him, let's get him." And we did. And then we got Liev Schreiber, who I also love. I have no idea how much marketing or publicity want me to talk about this, but John Leguizamo was in the movie. He had this great, amazing scene that he did that, because it didn't fit in the final cut, ended up on the cutting room floor. But I will say that Leguizamo was awesome, and I think he'll be on the DVD. And Alice Braga is really good in this as well. So, yeah, it was nice that they weren't like, "We've got to go after Tom Cruise." They just went for actors who were really right for the roles.

Beaks: Did you ever feel pressure to really action it up and make the film more accessible?

Garcia: I don't know if it was to specifically to "action it up". As you can see in the trailer, there are these scenes where they shoot these taser grenades. In the script, they fight in the tanker, and there's probably a half-page of action. But then they get [on set], and start shooting it, and it just gets bigger and bigger. It's not necessarily anything I did, but, at the end of the day, it works. I think if there was any pressure to change anything... you'll see that there's a love story between Jude's character and Alice's character. That shifted a lot. I would say that's the thing we played with the most. And that's because in the book, Jude's character has five wives and is working on his sixth. So that, of course, ended up getting narrowed down. I think in the first draft he had five wives, but in the next draft it was down to four; he just kept losing wives along the way. (Laughs) And he was finally down to one wife by the time the film was ready to go. In a way, it was the hardest thing to do, because we know our character and where he's going. And this relationship was so crucial, and, at the same time, tangential - but we needed to keep it as part of the thing. It was tough going, but I think it came together in a good way.

Beaks: In terms of the balance, I hate to ask percentages, but... (Laughs) what percentage of the film is action, satire, etc.?

Garcia: Yeah, percentages are tough. Let me think. (Laughs) It's probably a good thirty-thirty-thirty - with another ten thrown in there. It's thirty buddy-cop - because it does have that buddy-cop thing where they're going after people. And then thirty dark comedy; "absurdist" might be going too far, but definitely darkly comedic. Again, ROBOCOP is probably a great example, because it has amazing action sequences, but they're all set off against this world - and there's a love story as well. I'd be so fucking lucky if we're ever spoken in the same sentence as ROBOCOP. Or BRAZIL. You know, you go to these test screenings - and, fortunately, they all went well. But you sit around afterwards and listen to these people talk about your movie and try to compare it to other movies. They would compare it to really kick-ass action movies, which was nice, and usually ones that had just come out. But one guy said, "It kind of feels like BRAZIL." And I just turned to Miguel and said, "He's my new best friend, that guy!" That was also an earlier cut. It's probably less BRAZIL now, and... although, I don't know how I'd describe it now. But, yeah, let's go thirty-thirty-thirty, and another ten thrown in there for extra goodness!

Beaks: Obviously, I don't know how REPO MEN ends, but is this the kind of thing where Universal might be thinking franchise?

Garcia: We've talked about it. We've had discussions in terms of, "Okay, if we do a sequel, what is the next thing?" We kind of know where the next two movies would go, but, at the end of the day, that ain't our decision. If it does really well, that would be nice. I actually started a sequel book to this three years ago; it was actually less a sequel than another story set in the same world with a character who was mentioned in the first book. But we decided we could take elements from that story and use it in [a potential sequel]. There is a way and reason we did things the way we did at the end, so you can possibly continue things.

Beaks: Were you writing this as a franchise, or just as a one-off?

Garcia: As initially written long ago, it was very much written as a one-off thing. But as we started getting into the world, we were like, "Wow, this world is even bigger." So we ended up cutting out parts of the world that we'd love to show. Obviously, we're focusing on these artificial organs, these pieces of metal and silicone that go into you. But a lot of it is a question of... to what degree has this changed the world because it's now possible. It goes all across technology in terms of social order and entertainment, so you can touch on things, but you never really open it up to the full world. And I think that's where a franchise, at least from a creative level, could be really interesting.

Garcia then went on to tell me that he just sold Sony on a remake of a hit '80s film that, in my opinion, is the kind of material studios should be revisiting (i.e. it worked commercially, but not so much artistically). Perhaps we'll have an announcement of some sort within a week or so. REPO MEN opens theatrically on April 2nd, 2010. Looking forward to it. Faithfully submitted, Mr. Beaks

1/14/10 Update... I had hoped to avoid discussing to the ongoing "controversy" regarding the similarities between Garcia/Lerner/Sapochnik's REPO MEN and Darren Lynn Bousman/Terrance Zdunich's REPO! THE GENETIC OPERA (mostly because it seems to be strictly fan-generated at this point), but numerous emails and one full-scale talkback derailment have forced me to address what I consider to be a non-issue. Once you read the following, I'm pretty sure you'll agree that there's nothing but coincidence at play here. In 1997 (four years before the first public performance of REPO! on October 20, 2001), Eric Garcia wrote a short story called "The Telltale Pancreas." As Garcia told me this afternoon, "It's about a bio-repo guy who's on a gig, and it sets up the world in which this guy repossesses artificial organs." Basically, the character in Garcia's story is engaging in organ repossession to keep up the payments on his own artificial pancreas. Garcia showed the story to legendary f/x artist Robert Kurtzman, who thought it could be a movie. Garcia decided to turn it into a novel instead, the first draft of which was completed sometime around 2000. Garcia on the development of the THE REPOSSESSION MAMBO: "I wrote this story at a time when the country was doing okay. We had just entered the dot-com boom and the second term of Clinton. [Bousman and Zdunich] say they began writing their thing in 2000. So it's interesting that we both started writing about these things that are now coming to fruition, with massive interest rates and health care and all that. I understand why people would be making these movies now, but it's weird that both of these ideas came up at a time when you wouldn't expect for them to come up. That's fucking weird, but I have no answer for it." "As a sci-fi writer, I read everything... all the way back to JOHN CARTER OF MARS, and it's weird how our brains get filled with these archetypes, like harvesting bodies for organs. And all it takes is a little leap - and I very specifically remember my leap. I'm from Miami initially, and we used to go back a lot to see family. I was driving with my wife down by where my old high school was, and we passed a pawn store. It was around Valentine's Day, and they had a heart in the window. And I think I said something like, "Oh, look! You can buy hearts at the pawn store!" And that kind of turned into a story. You get fifty ideas like this a day, and forty-nine of them you let go. But that one turned into [a story]." In March 2001, Garcia did an interview with SF Site, in which he discussed a book he "wrote a while ago called THE REPOSSESSION MAMBO." At the time, he hoped it would become his fifth-published book. Again, the first production of REPO! was not until October 2001. Garcia began developing the screenplay of REPOSSESSION MAMBO after meeting television writer Garrett Lerner in 2001. While Lerner was on hiatus from either ROSWELL or JOHN DOE (Garcia couldn't recall which Lerner was working on at the time), the two mapped out the adaptation - which was tricky as Garcia's novel is laden with Vonnegut-esque shifts in time. They went out with their screenplay in summer of 2002, and that's when producer Valerie Dean came on board. As discussed in my initial article, there were many rewrites of what is now called REPO MEN, but if you're looking to allege that Universal molded the film to be more like REPO! THE GENETIC OPERA, well, Zdunich would disagree with that sentiment. From his 12/30/09 blog entry:
All that said, after watching the REPO MEN trailer, I feel that while the two films share a premise, there appears to be little else in common.  REPO! exists as a whacky art film, a sliver of cult cinema.  REPO MEN looks like a gigantically-budgeted Hollywood blockbuster.  And REPO MEN is NOT an opera.
Right after I got off the phone with Garcia, I noticed a talkback from "tensticks", which asserts that Garcia "was a regular audience member" at the live REPO! shows. So I called him right back. "Wholesale fiction," said Garcia. "I have not seen their show." As for the allegation that the novel and screenplay of REPOSSESSION MAMBO/REPO MEN was "developed in the very same building [REPO! THE GENETIC OPERA] was edited..." Garcia disputes this on the basis that the novel and screenplay were developed in his house, where, to the best of his knowledge, REPO! THE GENETIC OPERA was not edited. What's unfortunate is that, at the end of the day, it seems like everyone got what they wanted: Bousman and Zdunich got to make their rock opera (which is now something of a cult phenomenon), while Garcia and Lerner are the sole credited writers on a major Hollywood film. There's just no real conflict here, guys. Everything's good. Nothing was stolen. End of story.

Update 1/14/10 11:09 PM PST Just received this email from REPO! co-writer Terrance Zdunich...
I just read the update to your post - I hadn't when I initially responded to you. Thanks for citing my blog, btw. In terms of REPO! vs Repo Man: I know that Darren Bousman has some stories to share about odd coincidences involving our two studios, so I've cc'd him here. But from my end, as the co-creator of REPO!, all I can comment on is REPO!'s well documented history as a stageplay. You've read my blog, so you've seen some of the physical evidence for this in the form of promotional flyers and such. While I agree with the basic sentiment of your follow-up article - which is a sort of 'who cares?' to the bickering over who came up with the idea of organ repossession first - I think that fans of the two films do care. Their impassioned comments are evidence of this. I know that when REPO! was green-lit as a film, and Repossession Mambo was brought up to our producers, legal teams were paid a lot of money to research the very same question that fans are now asking. To my knowledge, no evidence of Eric Garcia's short story came up during this search. As a writer, I know that just because something isn't published doesn't mean that it doesn't exist, but Darren Smith (REPO!'s co-author) and I were forced to meticulously demonstrate the history of REPO! to our legal teams, which we did. Honestly, I think that "The Telltale Pancreas" is an awesome title, and I would very much love to read the work if it ever becomes available for public consumption. Bottom-line: as underdogs in the big world of Hollywood, REPO! fans can rest easy knowing that REPO!'s long-standing history is transparent and readily available to anyone who's interested in doing just a little research. Thanks again for shining a spotlight on our film, and for wanting to hear all sides of the argument. Best, ~Terrance

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