How A Mime Saved Paul Verhoeven’s ROBOCOP
Actor Peter Weller and mime artist Moni Yakim recall the time when production on Robocop came grinding to a halt, and it took the help of a mime to overcome a major obstacle.
SFX Magazine recently put out a great article about the making of the 80’s classic Robocop. They spoke with the director Paul Verhoeven who at the time was incredibly nervous to be making his first big American film. They also spoke with stars Peter Weller, and Miguel Ferrer, who played the creator of Robocop. Miguel admits that he was extremely worried that the film wouldn’t be any good, but took the role out of desperation. The gamble paid off and Robocop is one of the few films that he is very happy to look back upon.
What really caught my eye was the tale of how Peter Weller’s struggles with the physical movements for Robocop almost shutdown filming. And the only one that was capable of solving this issue was mime artist and choreographer, Moni Yakim.
WELLER: I’d taken mime. I was a mediocre one. I had taken a lot of dance, but I said, “This is going to take athleticism.” And I’d met with a lot of mimes who just wanted to do the usual pantomime. But I’d met with Moni Yakim, who also had studied with the greats. He knew the work of Etienne De Croux and Jean-Louis Barrault, and was with Marceau. And he said, “What we want to do here, I think, is have some sort of liquid movement with a staccato on the end of it, so it’s like butter, but then with a big, hard definition at the end of the movement.” And we started working on it, and I said, “This is the guy for me.” And he designed it, and I just worked on it for four hours a day, that stuff. It was tough, man, but fun.
But after four months of training with Moni, Peter Weller was having difficulties with the movements once he put on the Robocop costume.
YAKIM: It was not the hero that they had in mind. They didn’t know what to do, and, basically, they stopped the shooting. And Peter told them, “Call Moni and he might find a solution for us.” Of course, they rejected the idea because they thought that they were very smart, and if they can’t find the solution, how would I find the solution? So they resisted, like, for a day, but they couldn’t go on shooting, and they were desperate. So the producer called me and asked me to come over to the set. Which I couldn’t because I had a commitment here (in New York). And another day went by in which they did not shoot, and they were losing a lot of money every day. Finally Peter got on the phone, because he felt that this was something that would launch him into stardom, and he didn’t want to give up on it. So he called me and tried to get me to delay the job that I had here and to come over to the set. And since I’d become extremely friendly with Peter, I couldn’t resist him.
So I went, they flew me over there. A car came and took me over to the set. Nothing was happening. Everybody was depressed, especially Paul Verhoeven, who was going absolutely crazy. It was his first chance at doing a big American movie. I came to an extremely depressed place. I had met Paul before that, because we discussed the character, but he hardly looked it to me when I arrived there. And I saw Peter, and Peter said, “How do we go about it?” I said, “I can’t do anything unless you put on the costume.” So he went and they worked on him, again, for a few hours, to put on this costume that was not easy to deal with. He appeared with the costume, and I laughed, because he did indeed look like a huge toad. So I asked him to walk a little bit, and then I realized that it needed just a small adjustment. I asked everybody to leave the set and to give me about an hour to work with Peter.
And I worked with Peter and found out that all was in the rhythm, that we had to throw away everything that we’d done, rhythmically, over the four months, and to create the rhythm that would fit that costume. That, instead of having the bulk as a negative thing, to use it as an asset. So we started to move slower, and to walk slower, the motions were slower. And we worked Peter’s body into the weight of the costume, rhythmically. And, after about an hour, I called Peter, Verhoeven, and the guys, and told them to look at what he can do. And everybody got excited, and they started shooting. That’s the real story. And it was in the papers because Peter Weller actually said it that if I hadn’t come to the set that day, there wouldn’t be a RoboCop.