“Robot & Frank”
Roger Durling with Director Jake Schreier
Roger Durling: Jake, this is your very first film. What attracted you to this material?
Jake Schreier: Ummm yeah my first movie. So I went to Chris Ford who wrote the screenplay, we went to college together. And this was a feature of his thesis at NYU. And he was reading this story that in Japan the “baby boom generation” is reaching old age faster than us so they have a health care crisis to figure out how they’re going to take care of their aging population and in Japan they tend to solve things with robots, or they’re at least trying to. They’re actually a lot of these things being developed, at the end those are some real robot prototypes. You know there are a lot of robots being developed, but a lot of them are for this purpose of elder care and more human interaction robots. It was a fascinating story and he made a movie in college; I was their producer, which meant that we shot it at my uncle’s house. That was about all I brought to it. And then we’ve stayed friends, me and a bunch of people from NYU, and I’ve been directing commercials and about four years ago we were looking for something that was achievable on a relatively small scale but still had a hook and we went back to the idea. Then he wrote it into a feature.
Durling: You know the movie is part science fiction, but I don’t think it’s fair just to call it that. It’s got a buddy flick genre to it. It’s also a heist film. It’s hard to grasp the genre. Was that something you were worried about or did you always think of it as this mix of genres?
Shreier: Yeah, I was never really concerned. It’s interesting the number of different genres it ends up referencing. I’ve always liked genre-less films because you never really know how they’re going to end, and so I always wanted to do something like that. But Ford is so much better at writing spinoffs of other genres. I always thought I was making Five Easy Pieces with a robot the whole time, and I was wrong. I got into the editing room and I was like, “Oh geez!” There were moments on set, I remember when Frank sees the surveillance van across the street and turns and says, “We need to get inside!” And I remember thinking to myself, “Oh this looks like a movie moment.” It was kind of daft of me not to realize this sooner when we had to deliver this on set. And you have someone like Frank to deliver it! Then in the editing room we ended up going much more filmic with the score. We used much more music then we thought we would use, because we needed to pay off all these moments. Because it is a buddy movie and a caper movie and this script kind of references all of that. In the end you have to deliver and hopefully spin off from there and end up with something that’s bigger than all of its parts.
Durling: Speaking of references, one of the most moving things I found about the film was how you keep going back to the Don Quixote. Yes there is a book that ties into the plot, but the parallels with the Don Quixote/Sancho Panza story, as a few of you might know Don Quixote lives in a world of delusion and it’s so beautifully woven into the story. Was the story of Robot and Frank meant to draw parallels?
Shreier: Yeah, it’s not exactly our most subtle reference. I mean it’s definitely intentional. I’m glad you found it so beautiful. We were always on the line on that one, we were like, “it’s kind of obvious.” But if you have to have a book in there then it sort of makes sense.
Durling: No it’s not in your head. And even the big reveal with Susan Sarandon, there’s that Dulcinea aspect with Frank wanting to hold onto that fantasy. How did it come about casting the great Frank Langella into this role?
Shreier: Yeah, we were very fortunate. And he’s gone on record too for saying this so I’m allowed to say this too I guess, but Christopher Walken was originally attached to the role, but then he passed. And Frank had just signed with Chris’s agent and she asked him about it and he instantly connected to the material. He called me and Ford up to Henry’s on 110th Street. But he just wanted to…he said, “There’s a lot in this script and I like it. I just want to make sure you guys aren’t making a silly robot movie. Cause I’m not interested in it if that’s what you want to do.” And that was such a great thing to hear because we didn’t want to do that. So he went on and became a great partner and he had great script notes.
That’s one of the great things about getting actors in your movie because there’s this whole system I really didn’t know about. Where they go to their agents to see if they’re interested, and if they’re actually interested you go to have a meeting them to make sure you’re not crazy or a lunatic, and then they will give you notes. Like an actor will read the script from the perspective of the actor they’ve been asked to play. And so you’ve been working on this project for a year and been trying to get the mechanics of it to work, but then they come from a very distinct perspective. Maybe there will be a part where you have a character do something that isn’t honest just because you needed it to happen. They’re really valuable, the notes you get. And what Frank told us that day and, just trying to impart to us what it feels like to all of the sudden feel just as alive, just as young, and people start to talk to you like a child or people ask you if you need help walking across the street or whatever and he doesn’t feel any different. That was a big part of what we wanted to have in Frank’s character, was that at some point (partly because of his own making) he’s damaged his whole family relationships, but people aren’t relating to him on a very interesting level anymore. And so there’s this conceit of wondering if a robot could come along and actually be a better friend to someone in that position. I kind of rambled on that one, sorry.
Durling: No, it was very interesting. The character Frank is somebody that’s hard to love and embrace completely. Was that something that you and Langella worked on?
Shreier: I don’t know if we…well he’s certainly made a lot of mistakes; he’s far from the perfect person. I think that the notion of the sympathetic character is often misconstrued when people talk about film. You know if you remember a film like MATCHPOINT, the guy is truly a sociopathic killer, yet you are oddly rooting for him not to get caught for a large portion of the movie. Someone like Frank does so much less and I figured he’s just robbing some jewels. I felt we could get away with it.
Durling: And what was it like working with this robot? Peter Sarsgaard, if you couldn’t tell Peter Sarsgaard was the voice of the robot, but Frank didn’t have Peter Sarsgaard on set, and so he was the whole time he was working on set with this machine? This robot?
Shreier: Yeah it was a real machine! No it was a girl in a suit, the robot is played by Rachael Ma, who was a trooper because it was one hundred degrees in upstate New York wearing that thing. We would have to take two minute breaks between takes just to get the helmet off so that she could breathe. And then every now and then because she was nearly passing out, if it was a close up of Frank, we would just put the robot torso on an apple box and just sort of shoot through that.
You know I had this idea that it would be really important to have the person in the suit say the lines as well and be an actor so everything could be as real as it could be for Frank, or whoever ended up playing it, and it ended up being totally unnecessary. It didn’t matter who was there. I mean his nephew ended up reading lines off camera. He would just say, “Leave me enough space to do my thing.” And he’s since said that he just pictured something else in place of the robot, but he won’t tell me what it was.
Durling: When was the choice made, and could you expand, why (which is brilliant) the fact that the robot has no face. I’m going to geek out on you, you know the coolest shot or effect is the Kuleshov Effect; that we’re actually projecting to the face of this robot.
(The Kuleshov Effect is an early editing technique developed by Russian filmmaker Lev Kuleshov in where he would give emotional attachment to a blank face by showing something that has emotion immediately after. For example, cutting from the blank face to a coffin would lead his audience believe the man is sadly looking at the coffin, though there is no indication that he is doing so.)
Shreier: Yeah it’s one of the big tricks in your toolbox when it comes to filmmaking. And in this case it was the first thing that I said when we went to the robot designers, that it should be faceless. And it’s because a lot of the robots that are coming out, the ones I find the cutest are the ones that are don’t have faces. And I think that…we didn’t have a big budget so couldn’t have this big CGI robot that could do everything and I just kept on thinking, “less is more, less is more, less is more.”The less we have this thing do, the less it telegraphs emotion, the more we can put onto it and the more it can really put onto Frank’s performance. So that when it first shows up we can hopefully find it creepy and off-putting and as he grows to love it we can too. And I think too…I don’t know if anyone here has a Roomba you know it’s that little robot vacuum cleaner that moves around on its own. Some people talk about their Roombas as if they have emotion. We have such a desire to project emotion on inanimate objects or animate objects without brains. That was never really a concern, that people could do that. We just had to limit it enough to where we would. There’s this other thing called the uncanny valley…
(The uncanny valley is a hypothesis within robotics and 3D animation in where humans will attach to a robot/3D cartoon the more human it looks like. However there is a massive drop in attachment near the end of the spectrum where a robot/3D cartoon is very humanoid, but there are clear flaws that make it eerie as if the subject is trying to be human. An example of this would be how people react differently to the robots from “WALL-E” [which have human characteristics, but are discernibly different] and the robots from “Terminator” series [which are very human like, but the slight differences make one feel uncomfortable])
Schreier (cont): …there are robots that…there’s one that has the face of Einstein, and it’s extraordinarily creepy. So we wanted to stay away from that as much as I could.
Durling: One of the points I found most touching is when I realized that he’s projecting…that the robot is Frank. That he’s projected all these things to it. And you do it so well visually. And maybe you didn’t find this subtle, but the fact that the reflection of Frank is on the visor, is on the face. It’s pretty poignant when you realize its Franks reflection to the robot. That he’s projected all of his personalities to the robot.
Schreier: Yeah, thanks.
Durling: Was that an intentional choice, to keep all of the science fiction…all the technology so simple? Did you find that liberating because of budget or were you all along trying to keep it streamlined with the technology in the future?
Schreier: Well its half budget, but the script is also written to be believable. You know it’s kind of baked in different concepts. You know I like to do things that, I’ve done this with music videos and commercials…I mean you always want to limit your work so that doesn’t feel compromised. Like I feel the way to define the word “crappy,” is something that defines is own goals and simply doesn’t meet them. We’re right on the edge here, but we always wrote it to be limited so that whatever is in the movie would be convincing enough. But also from a symbolic perspective, the film is meant to be in Frank’s world. I wanted to make this because visually the most interesting thing to me, before Chris even told me about the heist plot, was this image of an old man and his rural surroundings on the outskirts of this town and the onset of this very clean piece of technology. It’s just a fun thing to think about. So the more futuristic doo-dads you put in this make it makes it less striking, so there was some artistic justification for making it kind of subtle. You know if you go up to these kind of places, we shot in Rye, New York and Pearl River, New York, but there these kind of places that used to be rural towns but are now these weekender location spots. And you’ll find layers of history there. There’ll be the old pharmacy and soda corner, but maybe one of those has been turned into a tchotchke shop like the one you see here. And then there’ll be an LCD TV on the wall, but there will also be these old cars and houses there too. You never want to art direct for one time period, but also the time periods that came before it.
Durling: Do you plan your shots? Like do you storyboard and compose? One of the most beautiful shots in the two of them are walking on the trail and they’re just trees surrounding them. Could you elaborate?
Schreier: Yeah, I planned the best I could. I tried until I got to the cop scene where, like in an indie movie, we shot this in twenty days, so you get to a scene with five people in a house and have a half day to shoot it and you don’t have the time to (compose), We just had to have two cameras rolling and cover it from a bunch of different angles. With the party scene, we had a whole day to do that, and I could…there are no amazing shots in it, but I could plan exactly what we were going to do. And I prefer it to go that way; certainly one of the visual references that I and Matt Lloyd (the DP) looked at was that whole era of Woody Allen movies, where Gordon Lewis was his cinematographer. He also shot the Godfather One and the Godfather II, he’s in my opinion the best cinematographer of all time. He had such an impact on not only the light and the look, but the visual storytelling of the way information is revealed. And if you go back and look at Manhattan, there are these amazing ways that the scenes are presented where you can get a scale of the thing and see how people enter and exit frame and aren’t always followed. I mean this film doesn’t live up to that in anyway, but that was certainly what we were aiming for. That was kind of the influence.
Durling: A wonderful scene was the shot of the woods and once in awhile there is like a broken branch and stuff. Was that something you always had in mind?
Schreier: Yeah there was always the shot of the two of them even in the short film that we made at NYU. They were walking in the woods and it was like one of those trailer moments in action movies when you shoot the trailer first and you just know you have to have this car blowing up or whatever it is. Both of them walking in the woods, we were always like, that is going to be in the film in some way or another.
Durling: Now, let’s talk a little about Peter Sarsgaard. He wasn’t involved with the shooting but he did the voice after. How did he get involved?
Schreier: Yeah, we did in what I think were two, four hour sessions. Really all the lines in the movie come from one half hour of those sessions from one take. What we did was we just printed all of the robot lines in order on about three pages and he just read straight through with no interaction. It just worked better. Sometimes I would give him line readings because he actually has this amazing character, his voice your getting the quality of that but you have to make it robotic. It’s kind of why we picked him because he has that level of caring and empathy so when you squash that down hopefully some of that caring will still come through. It was like he was being programmed. It was like the opposite of what you want to do with a good actor. Not giving them line readings and let them experiment. In this case it was going in the opposite direction.
Durling: Were you at all concerned about the voice comparisons to HAL 9000 from 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY?
Schreier: A little bit, maybe. Ford and I talked about it a lot. Ford made the point that the level of reasoning that this robot has is so advanced he probably could talk a little bit more casually or human like. We tried that but it just didn’t fit. We look at the film MOON that has a robot character and he sounds a lot like HAL and I’m guessing they went through a similar process where you’re not only beholding what would be true but also what an audience will accept. At a point you either buy it or you don’t. The first series of takes that we did where it was a little more human, I didn’t feel like it was coming out of that robot on the screen. It just didn’t feel that way. So we ended up in this place and maybe they did to on those movies. What is interesting is we’ve shown it to a bunch of roboticists at this robot film festival in New York and these people found this much more interesting than I did and had much more smarter things to say. The conversation turned to this very interesting thing where they talked about to some degree that they may need to put in those sounds too because we come to expect it. The thing that robot designers are doing and the thing we are doing in the movie is the same basic thing. We are trying to create a relatable character. For example, I don’t know if you guys have been in the new Chevy Volt, the new electric car? Well when you press start it makes a sound like the engine is turning on but it’s just creating that sound because we expect it but it is fake. Maybe these things will go away but for now there are certain triggers that we need in order to accept these things.
Durling: One of the things I find so refreshing about you movie is that normally when you have these computers and robots like in 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY it’s normal that the machine leads the humans astray and harms them. But, with your film, the human character Frank is leading the robot into havoc. Please talk a little about this.
Schreier: Yeah, that was another thing that Ford and I really talked about in the beginning that we wanted to do. There are so many robot movies and we are used to seeing that the robots are going to take us over, they are evil and they will enslave us. I did a tumblr project recently where I did some fake ads for the robot and put them online and the comments are hilarious. There is one where the robot is helping two young children feed crumbs to ducks in a pond and its sweet and silly, it’s the joke. Someone was like, “Owe it’s happening already. He’s going to push those kids in the pond I can tell.” So, people bring a lot of that with it. Or we have movies that the robot has a heart at the end. Like if you look at SHORT CIRCUIT or even WALL-E which I love. But we wanted to make a movie where neither of these things was true and it played with that. The robot kind of uses the ideas of manipulation to trick Frank into thinking that he does care about his own mortality. But in the end it’s a series of logical steps and it’s about what we bring to it. That was very important to us.
Durling: You deal so tenderly with the subject of Alzheimer’s and Dementia aspect of the film. Did you research this? Also, have you shown it to Alzheimer’s associations?
Schreier: Well we stayed away a little bit from saying Alzheimer’s just because it probably doesn’t hold up. I mean we are obviously playing a little bit with the idea. My Grandmother has Alzheimer’s and unfortunately at this point it’s too far gone. I would visit her in Palm Beach when we were at the Palm Beach Film Festival and that was the much more depressing true face of the disease. She’s not out there robbing a bank; she is sitting there watching TV not knowing what’s on it. It was a much sadder version. I don’t think we can carry the burden of truly representing the disease in a way that people would find credible. Watching my parents go through what they went through with my grandmother and still are going through play apart in the film. As far as the disease, my dad’s a child psychiatrist so I tried to get a sign off and read a little of Oliver Sacks. It was possible that if there was a long break between developing Dementia and you end up seeing somebody that you haven’t seen in twenty years, that you could re meet them and know them as someone else and not recognize them as your wife. That is at least plausible, I am told by my father. He doesn’t sound much like an authority but it is at least plausible. I hope people buy the twist. Some have questioned it.