When news of drones urging people to maintain social distancing made the online rounds earlier this month, a certain comparison kept cropping up: This looks like something out of Demolition Man. The sci-fi movie, which features Sylvester Stallone and Wesley Snipes shooting and quipping their way through a scandalized, sanitized 2032 Los Angeles, has been a cultural touchpoint ever since it came out in 1993 — particularly for the right, who’ve seized on its restrictive utopia as a metaphor for government overreach. But the ongoing pandemic has a funny way of creating new resonance for familiar fare, and that’s been especially true for the 27-year-old action comedy. It’s set, after all, in a near future in which handshakes have been replaced by an absurd no-contact alternative, the only surviving restaurant is Taco Bell, and people use a mysterious trio of seashells instead of toilet paper.
Demolition Man may have been intended as a goof about restrictions on behavior and language, but it plays differently from a sheltering-in-place 2020 perspective. What stands out are the indications that its futuristic society is one still recovering from the shock of its own near-collapse. Sandra Bullock’s character springing VR sex on an unprepared Stallone is funny, but her subsequent rant about the perils of fluid transfer is filled with real distress — an artifact of AIDS trauma that now feels COVID-applicable. It’s a portrayal of how normalcy can change, and of people who are uptight because upheaval is still a close enough memory that they have trouble bringing themselves to relax, no matter what the oblivious ’90s action hero in their midst might urge. And so, in the light of Demolition Man’s accidental coronavirus relevance, Vulture spoke to the movie’s writer, Daniel Waters — also of Heathers, Hudson Hawk, and Batman Returns fame — about being back in the news.
I appreciate you taking a break from working on your novel to talk. When I’ve had too much to drink, I tend to go on the internet and look up “Daniel Waters Underrated,” then go to all my movies and “underrated.” But, if you look up “Demolition Man Underrated,” you really hit the jackpot. Its reputation has gotten so much better. Any time anything politically correct goes a little too far … When Bloomberg did the [soda ban], even then, people were saying, “This is the slippery slope to Demolition Man!”
This was definitely a rewrite job. It was kind of a regular action movie. There was no attempt at comedy in the first drafts of the script. I basically pitched them the full Sleeper version. There’s this place in Universal City called CityWalk, and the initial instinct was like, what if all of L.A. became CityWalk? It just snowballed from there. I only worked on it for two and a half weeks. Then I ended up getting first credit on the screenplay because I had changed it [so much].
Did you see that, the other week, Dr. Fauci said the coronavirus could, and maybe should, bring about an end to handshakes?
It’s funny, a friend of mine introduced me to her boyfriend at the New Beverly theater, just as the last few theaters were open, and as we did it we were like, “This could be the last handshake we ever give.” Two total strangers, we had a look in our eyes like, “That could be it, huh? That felt weird.” I loved seeing the quote-unquote handshake Rob Schneider and Benjamin Bratt give each other in this. I can totally see it. Once you get into, “We don’t want anything icky in the future,” then it’s funny how it just happens. You wouldn’t touch. You wouldn’t have sex, oh, God, no.
Sandra Bullock is so good in the movie. The line, “They used handfuls of wadded-up paper” — the way she says it, like, that is kind of primitive, isn’t it? Why would we use handfuls of wadded-up paper? And, “I was wondering if you’d like to have sex?” I don’t think I would have dared to go as far with it if I didn’t know Stallone was going to be the star. Knowing I’ve got the great caveman as my lead actor, I could lean even more into it.
The mini-monologue she gives, about the different pandemics that led to this point—
That speech, it seems so reasonable now. Slowly but surely, we’re getting them all. When that movie came out, there was still smoking in bars. Now you can’t even smoke outside. Coffee’s got its lovers, but it’s not great for you.
The film came out at a time when there were wars about the concept of political correctness, which have shifted but hardly gone away. I’m curious about how you see that aspect of the film now.
Somebody linked me to this die-hard — I’ll put it charitably — libertarian guy who wrote “Actually, Demolition Man is the great thesis statement of the ’90s.” It’s like, whoa, whoa. What, am I going to be Mr. Anti-Politically-Correct now? No, just having a little fun. Remember, Stallone says that Denis Leary’s going to have to clean up again, and they’re both going to have to mess up. I am in the middle.
Wesley Snipes has a line that’s like, “You can’t take away people’s right to be assholes,” which feels like it sums up the fight we’re having right now over people wanting to, say, still go on spring break.
Yeah. That was one of my favorite lines to write, but now it’s like, “Less assholes isn’t that bad.”
Are you actually a Taco Bell person? I know the European version of the film had Pizza Hut as the only surviving restaurant.
I am a Taco Bell person. We have great Mexican food out here in L.A. People are like, “Oh, Taco Bell is not real Mexican food.” I’m going, “Yes, we know. Much like Demolition Man, it’s its own genre.” To be quite honest, my original draft was Burger King, and then Burger King scoffed and McDonald’s scoffed. When Taco Bell came around, it was like, “Of course! Taco Bell! The greatest thing that’s ever happened to this movie.” There’s a meme that’s like, “Demolition Man predicted the future … There’d be no more toilet paper, Taco Bell would run the world, and Wesley Snipes would be let out of prison.”
There’s a great teleconferencing scene where they’re literally sitting in the conference room on all these different monitors, which I thought was pretty funny.
It’s basically Zoom.
Yeah, exactly. But every screen’s got its own seat at the conference table.
Then there’s a scene early on, where Wesley Snipes looks at who is in the prison with him, and the second name on the list is Scott Peterson — before he killed his wife. So, this guy [online] was saying, “Look at this! This movie predicted Scott Peterson was going to prison!” Like, Jesus, let’s keep it down. Come on, now.
Have you looked up internet theories as to how people think the three seashells would be used?
Actually, as we speak, I’m wearing my T-shirt that says “Ask Me How To Use The Three Seashells.” I was doing jury duty, and this bailiff comes up to me after we’re dismissed, and she’s like, “I have a theory for the three seashells,” and goes into this elaborate thing about how you use one seashell to pinch apart your bottom, the other seashell to pull out the excrement, and then the third seashell has a hose that washes off the remains. I’m like, “Sure. Does this mean I’m out of jury duty?”
My favorite joke of the script got cut. After Stallone tries to deal with the seashells in the bathroom, he washes his hands, and when he tries to dry them, it’s the same shitty hand dryer that we have today. He’s like, “What the fuck? You guys have done all this and you still haven’t come up with a good hand dryer?”
There’s also that mention of the Schwarzenegger presidential library — and Stallone’s character is shocked that an action star became president, though, of course, now we have a reality star as president.
To think I almost picked Van Damme — we wouldn’t be having this conversation. Schwarzenegger’s a national institution, and I thought, well, why not? If we can do Reagan, we can do Schwarzenegger, and if we can do Schwarzenegger, I guess we can do the host of The Apprentice. But I wasn’t thinking that far ahead. If I only knew I helped enable that …
It must have been weird when Schwarzenegger became governor of California a decade later.
I had a really anal friend read the script and he was like, “Schwarzenegger could never be president because he wasn’t born in this country.” So I added that line about the amendment, and I thought, “Boy, that really ruins it.” But it actually makes it funnier. We had to come up with a whole amendment just to get Schwarzenegger president. And then people actually started talking about Schwarzenegger running for president, and they talked about that amendment like, “Oh, they can get that changed.”
The microchips, the virtual wallet … obviously I can’t say I made that stuff up. That was on everybody’s horizon. It was a good thing I did it for laughs, though.
People don’t do all that much fiction about utopias.
Yeah. Utopias always scare me because everybody can’t be having a good time. I know I wouldn’t be. If everybody else was having a good time, there’s no way I could have a good time. Utopias actually scare me more than dystopias.
You brought up on a podcast once that there was a moment when [producer] Joel Silver thought there could be a sequel.
Well, it’s a very funny thing. In the movie … [John Spartan, the character played by] Stallone brings up that he had a daughter.
Yeah, and then you never see her! He never reconnects with her.
Oh, my God. Okay. Let me just lay it all out for you.
First of all, nobody seems to do the math that the daughter would be older than Stallone. We filmed a scene where … an actress that I like — Elizabeth Ruscio — she was in this great miniseries with Juliette Lewis called Home Fires. Nobody’s ever heard of it, but it’s brilliant. Anyway, she ends up playing Stallone’s daughter. It’s a tender scene, [and it] just stopped the movie dead. So, Joel’s like, “Cut it. Just cut it.” And so we cut the scene out. And then I tell you, all our first test screenings … everyone thought Sandra Bullock was the daughter. So, when they’re about to have sex, the whole audience is, “Oh, no.”
Very Old Boy.
Yeah, exactly. And we thought, “Maybe we should cut out all mentions of the daughter.” Can’t do it. We can’t do it. We need something. And then Joel Silver’s like, “Meryl Streep is the daughter [for the sequel]. She needs a big box office action movie.” I go, “No, she doesn’t.” But he was like, “If I get her to do it, will you come on?” Which is funny, because to get Winona Ryder off my back, I had told her the story of her character in Heathers, going to Washington and working for a senator named Heather — played by Meryl Streep. She was like, “I pitched to Meryl, she’s excited.” So, I’m doomed, for no Meryl Streep sequels are happening. But yes, Joel did talk about a sequel.
Do you know if Streep was ever asked?
I’m pretty sure she wasn’t. I wasn’t going to call in every week for a follow-up. Jesus, now you’ve got me thinking about a sequel. I’d have to “come clean” with the three seashells and just have a graphic … I mean, that’d be the trailer. I wouldn’t even need to show action, just a teaser of Stallone walking into a stall. He sees the three seashells, and he turns to the camera, “Do you want to find out, or what?”
If we make movies again, maybe I can do this.
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book.” Bullock’s character, a 20th-century nostalgist named Lieutenant Lenina Huxley, has to explain to a smug 2032 crowd that Stallone’s character, Sergeant John Spartan, has no clue how to use the three seashells — the use of which is never explained. Non-virtual sexual contact has been banned in the future, as well as smoking, alcohol, caffeine, contact sports, meat, bad language, chocolate, gasoline, noneducational toys, and anything spicy. Whenever someone swears in Demolition Man, a nearby machine doles out a ticket and
fine for violations of the “verbal morality statute.” At the end of the film, John Spartan advises the local leadership and Leary’s character Edgar Friendly, the leader of the rebellious underground, to figure out a middle ground. Snipes plays Simon Phoenix, a dangerous career criminal who, after having been incarcerated in California Cryo-Penitentiary, is thawed for a parole hearing and mysteriously released, prompting the San Angeles police to release John Spartan in an effort to thwart Phoenix’s evil plans. John Spartan is bemused when a local bigwig invites him out to dinner at Taco Bell, only to learn that it “was the only restaurant to survive the Franchise Wars” and “now all restaurants are Taco Bell.” Everyone in 2032 has a microchip embedded in their skin that makes them traceable, and money is no more — “All transactions are through codes.”