Director Robert Longo Ruefully Recalls 'Johnny Mnemonic': "I Had Post-Traumatic Stress From That Movie"

Robert Longo - Getty - H 2016
Getty Images

Robert Longo - Getty - H 2016

In a conversation with Henry Rollins at L.A.'s Orpheum Theatre a little more than 20 years after the sci-fi bomb, the artist-director and the rocker remember Dolph Lundgren's real punch and scribe William Gibson's stress.

During a discussion between artist Robert Longo and Henry Rollins as part of the Broad museum's series of talks, Un-Private Collection, on May 17, the punk rocker heard the audience laugh at the mention of the 1995 box-office bomb Johnny Mnemonic. Rollins had been in the movie, Longo was the director, and this being Los Angeles (specifically, the Orpheum Theatre), the discussion had inevitably veered from art into cinema.

Based on writer William Gibson's cyberpunk novel of the same name, Johnny Mnemonic starred Keanu Reeves as a futuristic courier with a gold mine of information wired into his brain. If he didn't reach the intended recipient and download in time, he would die. The movie, which cost $28 million, made about $20 million at the box office and received a 14 percent fresh rating on Rotten Tomatoes.

"My wrap shot was a fight scene with Dolph Lundgren, who took a break from his career and put down his plastic sword and whatever pelt he was wearing in his previous work," recalled former Black Flag singer Rollins, who was fronting Rollins Band at the time. "I go bounding up to Dolph Lundgren, 'I'm Henry!' And, like, nothing. 'I give you nothing.' And he's impossibly big, so you can't kick his ass."

In their climactic confrontation, a miscue landed Lundgren's fist square in Rollins' mug, "like a UPS delivery truck," he recalled. "My DNA uncoiled. I found a new religion. He hit me so hard and it just stopped. My head took the entirety of the weight. I was like, 'Wow, my thinking is 20 percent slower. I'm running for office!'"

Lundgren's response was only, "Don't worry. You're tough."

Coming off a decade when his black-and-white "Men in the City" series of chic urban types starkly photographed with limbs akimbo became a hallmark of the '80s (even featured in American Psycho), Longo signed on without ever having actually made a movie before. "Originally I wanted to make a black-and-white film like Alphaville," he told the audience, referring to Jean-Luc Godard's low-budget sci-fi from 1965. "Instead I made [a movie] for $28 million. When people give you money, they think they can tell you what to do. It was f—ing horrible. Johnny Mnemonic is about 65 percent of what I hoped it would be."

Reeves was a rising star at the time, with his action movie, Speed, one of the top 10 titles of 1994. In addition to Rollins and Lundgren, joining him in his follow-up film were Ice-T and Japanese filmmaker Takeshi Kitano, as well as German actress Barbara Sukowa, who was wedded to Longo during production.

"Each week, they came back and told me I had to have a new actor. To sell the movie in the Middle East, we have to have Dolph Lundgren. Oh f—! No!" Longo recalled was his reaction. "Dolph shows up with his acting coach, a guy with a cape and a cane. We said, 'Get the f— out of here!'" Longo and author Gibson, who wrote the screenplay, didn't know what to do with Lundgren so they dressed him in robes and long hair and sent him out into the street as a doomsday prophet.

"It was torturous. We tried to make the best move we could. It was really hard. I talked to William recently. William and I had post-traumatic stress from that movie. I said, 'Y'know what, I'm going to turn it black and white for the 25th anniversary and rerelease it on the web. Actually, right now we're in the process of trying to figure out how to do it, the 45-minute version of it without Dolph."