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Credit: Warner Bros.

Mellow greetings and musings from director Marco Brambilla on Demolition Man's 25th birthday

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Oct 8, 2018, 10:00 AM EDT

Today marks the 25th anniversary of Warner Bros.' Demolition Man, a quirky sci-fi actioner that matched Sly Stallone and Wesley Snipes in a testosterone-fueled romp through the near-future metropolis of San Angeles, where in 2032 swearing is illegal, Taco Bell is gourmet dining, and three seashells have replaced toilet paper.

Directed by TV commercial master Marco Brambilla and boasting some bombastic special effects, glossy cinematography, kinetic fight scenes, and a joy-joy hail of bullets, D-Man has gone on to become a beloved cult classic that still holds up in today's politically correct, plugged-in world.

Released on October 8, 1993, Demolition Man was produced for a whopping $70 million, a massive chunk of studio change at the time, and eventually went on to collect $159 million in box-office receipts. This rippin', R-rated thrill ride predicted many modern technological advances and societal changes, like self-driving cars, tablet computers, widespread surveillance cameras, biometric implants, and teleconferencing.

It was also the first major starring role for a young Sandra Bullock and Denis Leary, who both went on to star in a series of successful '90s films, like Speed and The Ref, respectively. Behind the camera, the legendary Alex Thomson (Excalibur, Legend, Alien3) gave the production a distinctive polish and professional sheen, while costumer Bob Ringwood (Dune, Batman) decked out its handsome stars with some fantastic future threads.

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SYFY WIRE spoke with director Marco Brambilla, now a successful digital artist, for the anniversary of this sci-fi classic to look back at the stellar cast and intense production, learn how that awesome opening explosion was triggered, why the movie still feels fresh, and possibly answer the agonizing question of just how to use those three seashells. Brambilla also shared several rare and never-seen BTS stills from his personal collection.

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How did you become involved in this Joel Silver project for Warner Brothers?

We were actually working on a different film together called Richie Rich, which Macaulay Culkin was supposed to star in. At the last minute we weren't able to get him for the budget. David Fincher suggest me as a director for Demolition Man, and it came together really quickly. I met with Stallone a few days after getting attached. Steven Seagal was originally lead actor in the film, but he was out and Stallone came in and Joel put it together. It was lucky for me to be involved, because the budget was considerably higher than Richie Rich. I started re-writing the script with Dan Waters immediately, and we went into production six to eight months after.

Demolition Man had some impressive names behind the camera, like editor Stuart Baird, cinematographer Alex Thomson, and costumer Bob Ringwood. How did you gather all that A-list talent?

Stuart came from Joel [Silver] and had worked with him before. He was interested in directing, and actually did Executive Decision after Demolition Man. Bob Ringwood I brought on because I really liked his work on Dune with David Lynch, and then I brought Alex Thomson on board because he'd just worked with Fincher on Alien3. He was quite old when I first met him, and with the schedule and night shooting and the physicality of it all, I had a slight concern. But once we started working together he had more energy than anyone.

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Can you comment on the colors, composition, and style of the film?

I made it very clear from the beginning, with all the concept art and production design, that except for the underworld, that the world should be devoid of any grit or textures and be sanitized. As much as the dialogue in the film is very politically correct and the people behave in a certain way, the world itself needed to be absent of variety.

So if the concept is to make everything sterile, how do you make it look interesting within that context? So we talked a lot about using hard light sources and giving pristine things an organic quality with color. We used a lot of cyan and blue and different color combinations to bring the visuals to life. The production design was obviously well integrated into the lighting concepts. A lot of the set design and props were done with real metal, and we worked with General Motors to provide us with the concept cars of the future. And all this had to be done practically. There are only two computer-generated effects, and those took forever.

When you look back 25 years, does your movie still look fresh or dated?

I saw it at a screening in Paris recently, which was maybe for the first time in 20 years on the big screen. It has this quirky, off-key sense of humor, and that's what keeps it fresh for me. There are certain elements I wish I'd done differently, but in general I think it holds up very well. Especially the predicting of this politically correct society that has largely happened. In that respect I think it's more topical today, since we're living in that world.

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Demolition Man includes spectacular explosions, car chases, fight scenes, and special effects. How did you wrangle all that chaos and keep the production rolling?

My background was in shooting elaborate set pieces for big-budget TV commercials. When I came to the movie I had already shot something like 200 commercials. The most challenging part was the logistics of shooting two or three units simultaneously. I was shooting at night, then we had a second unit doing inserts, and then we had a stunt unit as well. That was hard to keep up with, because I wanted to control everything and wanted everything to be exactly according to the storyboards.

With its curious blend of action, sci-fi, and comedy, this movie would be a tough sell today as an R-rated movie. Why didn't the studio market this as a summer tentpole PG-13 movie?

I don't know why Joel decided, and the studio eventually approved, to release it then as R-rated, because the studio definitely wanted it as a PG-13 film. One of the central concepts is that Stallone had to swear and he gets fined every time he swears in the film, and for a PG-13 rating you couldn't have that language.

Why doesn't this type of comic book-ish movie not based on an existing property appear anymore?

There are films that are pure science fiction, like Gattaca, and this kind of hybrid comedy science fiction doesn't really exist so much. I think this is way too quirky and hard to pin down for a studio to make it at that budget today. If you market research this film before you made it, I think it wouldn't do very well. And that's why we're talking about it today, because it did break certain rules and create a tone and a comedy that's not something we're used to.

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What do you remember about that incredible opening building explosion?

Well, it was scheduled for demolition anyway, and we rigged it a certain way to film it. I shot it with 13 cameras, and the safety check took the entire day with the stunt team and the health and safety team. When we finally got to do the demolition shot it was almost sunrise. I was very worried that we'd get to sunrise before we got to blow up the building.

There's a shot in which Stallone comes out and you can see daylight in the sky in the background, because it was early in the morning by that time. The heat flash was really intense, because in addition to the explosives used to blow up the building we added gasoline and pyrotechnics to make it look better on film. It was very exciting to do, because it was the first building to be demolished with controlled demolition in L.A. in 30 years. I believe it was the old Department of Water and Power Building.

You got Stallone and Snipes in their prime. What was it like with those two superstars on the set?

Stallone was already attached to the project when I joined. Snipes was more difficult. He was filming a movie called Rising Sun with director Philip Kaufman. He turned us down a few times, and I remember we drove to the set and we sat in his trailer. Joel put me on to talk about what I thought the movie could be. And I was very impassioned about the script we were writing. Then we got a call the day after and he agreed to do it. He brings so much to the film because his energy is so different from Stallone's.

Snipes is sort of out of control, and he works without rehearsing too much, and he improvises a lot. The two of them, that combination of energies and the way they interact, really did the movie a lot of favors. They completely respected each other and were really professional, and they did get along. There was no ego or any competition between the actors. It was my idea to put blond hair and different colored eyes on Wesley. Then Dennis Rodman copied that look. (laughs)

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How was it working with Sandra Bullock and Denis Leary, both in one of their earliest major roles?

This was basically Sandra Bullock's second film, and we were shooting right before Speed was released in '94. Denis was a little scared of acting, his background was as a comedian, and I needed to work with him quite a bit in terms of his performance.

Do you have a favorite scene, and what was the most difficult to shoot?

The toughest to shoot was in the cryo-prison with the frozen pucks being taken out of the cryogenic chamber and having to be swung around by the giant crane. I really wanted to get the time-jump shot to reveal Stallone frozen in the cryogenic chamber, and then pull back from that and then pull all the way back until we get to the center of the prison and introduce Warden Smithers. It was incredibly complicated with two cranes, and the technology was more primitive then, so it was very difficult.

I think it was also the most satisfying, because once we got this amazing transition from past to future, both the concept and execution felt like introducing a world, then introducing a character following that.

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Did you keep any memorabilia or props or merchandise for Demolition Man?

Yes, I have a wonderful Demolition Man pinball machine, a complete set of Demolition Man toys, and a small-scale collection of the vehicles. But the pinball machine is my favorite. No props or costumes, I didn't keep any of those. Stallone took a lot of them for his Planet Hollywood displays.

The Three Seashells have become a pop culture conundrum people love to debate. Where did that come from, and do you have suggestions for their use?

It comes from the mind of screenwriter Dan Waters, and there's absolutely no explanation for it at all. It was meant to capture people's attention. There's really no practical way of explaining it, and it was inserted as a practical joke and it really caught on. It was exactly what we needed. (laughs)