RoboCop Redux

February 19th, 2014
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Although I haven't seen the new RoboCop reboot/remake/re-imagining or whatever you want to call the latest incarnation -- or reincarnation, if you will -- I do have a personal connection to the original man-as-machine sci-fi action flick that came out in 1987. Since I frequently mention my failed screenwriting career as the impetus for becoming a local TV show producer, some of you may recall from past blog posts that a co-writer of the first RoboCop took a liking to an early script of mine and tried to get it produced through his contacts in the movie business. This was about 20 years ago, and after months of rewrites, nothing happened with the project.

Well, that's not entirely true -- stuff did happen. I learned a lot about how Hollywood works, and the reality of what it's like to be a screenwriter or producer from the phone calls and Fed Exed script notes I got over the next few months. Back then, writers weren't using email and Skype to communicate. There also wasn't a web-based cottage industry of script scouting services, screenwriting consultants, and dozens of contests that claim they can provide aspiring writers with access to top industry contacts if they win. Back when I banged out my first scripts on an electric typewriter, it was mostly about making personal connections in the business and finding a mentor who could help you get your foot in the door. To a certain degree, that's still true -- writing a great script is crucial, but you have to get it in the right hands. And that takes persistence, creativity or luck.

In my case, it was all three. I had written a dark comedy based on my 1988 stint in rehab for alcoholism, followed by a bizarre punk rock musical comedy about an aging loser who becomes the poster boy for the ultimate lifestyle makeover company... which is really a front for a global entertainment conglomerate that has designs on remaking entire cities and brainwashing residents into buying all their mass media products -- music, movies, TV, merchandise -- from the cradle to the grave. Yeah, like Disney or Comcast. This was around 1994 before merger mania and the internet giants started turning that fanciful notion into reality. Yet I didn't think the co-creator of RoboCop would be seriously interested in my script when I signed up for a University of Hawaii screenwriting workshop given by Michael Miner.

At best, I hoped he would give me professional feedback, which was part of the deal for participants. When each writer got up and pitched their script, he would listen, offer a comment or two on the scripts he had read, and work in some personal anecdotes about his experiences in Hollywood. I have a fear of public speaking and have blanked out in front of groups before, so unlike some of the others who got up and enthusiastically acted out parts of their script, I nervously tried to read a synopsis of the plot. After I finished, a young UH coed with short red hair held her hand up and asked in a bored tone, "Is it supposed to be funny?" Ugh.

But Miner quickly interjected, and told them it was very funny despite my terrible pitch, and tried to retell a scene from it. The other writers just sat there stone-faced. He shrugged and said you had to read it on the page to get it. Later, during a break, he walked over to the little classroom desk I was sitting at and said he liked my screenplay a lot, then added: "We should talk." That turned into a lunch meeting, and a subsequent offer to help me develop (i.e., rewrite) my script and shop it around. One reason he sparked to it was that before he wrote RoboCop, he was a cameraman and had worked on music videos -- my protagonist was a failed punk rocker, who winds up working a dead end job in a Hoboken record store before those became extinct too. He did take the finished rewrite to the president of MTV Films, who passed (they were making movies about singing cockroaches that were geared to their key demographic of 12 to 15-year-old boys) and another movie production company that had ties to the music biz. They passed too.

It was disappointing that the project never got off the ground. However, during that time period I continued writing new stuff that also got attention through big screenwriting contests and other personal referrals... and I've had at least half a dozen scripts get close to being sold or optioned for development, only to fall by the wayside as well. During the past 27 years since the original RoboCop came out, Miner has made a nice living writing a number of projects that weren't produced or got rewritten, but he's never had another movie that has gotten the same critical or popular acclaim of that iconic film. He still writes, has made smaller documentary films, and is an accomplished photographer with gallery showings of his work (some of his beautiful black and white landscapes were taken on the Big Island, in fact). We exchange Christmas cards, and I follow him on Facebook. For the record, he's posted favorable comments about the new take on RoboCop as a reflection of the times we live in now, not the world that existed in 1987.

In hindsight, it's easy to see why he took an interest in my script about recycling and repackaging old TV shows, music and movies for future generations of brain-dead consumers. At its heart, the original RoboCop was a smart satire about privatizing government services such as law enforcement, and mine was a satire about the lack of originality in the entertainment business. The irony is we never foresaw the entertainment powers-that-be taking a classic like his movie and giving it the makeover treatment. For better or worse, I suppose it's better than fading away and being forgotten.

If you've seen the new RoboCop, would love to know you're thoughts on it! Comments are open for now...

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Valentines Day is over, but you can still catch our segments about Watanabe Floral in the current Career Changers TV episode! Click here for daily viewing times and the link to our CCTV YouTube Channel. BTW, in the same show there's a segment about what's new at Waimea Valley... FYI, they have begun offering guided hikes by the Hawaiian Hiking Company and off-road expeditions through North Shore EcoTours. Both are great ways to experience the valley in exciting, new ways!

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