A popular favorite on the film festival circuit, Robot & Frank is about to steal its way into a theater near you (our review, from the Los Angeles Film Festival, can be found here). “Frank” is Frank Langella, playing a former master thief with encroaching senile dementia. The robot, voiced by Peter Sarsgaard, is his high-tech caregiver, programmed to support any activities which will improve Frank’s mental health – even if such activities turn out to be illegal. What may sound like a sci-fi heist movie also has a surprising amount of heart, and marks an auspicious feature-directing debut from Jake Schreier. We’ve pegged him as one to watch, and thus jumped at the opportunity to speak to him as well.
Nerdist: How did you get such a heavyweight cast for your feature debut?
Jake Schreier: It’s crazy, right? It’s a shocker. That’s really thanks to my producers. I’ve been directing commercials for about eight years, six of them at Park Pictures, and this is their first feature. So they brought Galt Niederhoffer on to run their feature division along with Sam Bisbee, and she has this great track record of getting amazing casts into indie movies, like over 20 of them in New York, so when she calls, the agents listen. She got those meetings and she got them to read it.
N: And then you also have Jeremy Strong, whom we’re not as familiar with, but he’s absolutely the equal of all the rest. Did she find him, or did you?
JS: Yeah, he’s actually a friend of Galt’s and he was in her movie (The Romantics) and he’s coming up in a ton of – he’s about to blow up this year; he’s in Kathryn Bigelow’s Zero Dark Thirty. He was great, and again, this all came together at the last minute: he came in and just nailed it.
N: What was it like working with all the other actors? Did you have to direct them at all?
JS: You do in the sense that you shape the performance, but no, I think for the first day and a half it was Frank and Susan, and I just forgot to direct. I was just, “That was… great… I guess… do it again?” They’re just so locked in so quickly. It’s like you have these beautiful instruments to play; they’re just so finely tuned.
N: There’s an emotional moment late in the movie that really puts you in Frank’s shoes in a way you weren’t before.
JS: Yeah, it kinda brings him back down to earth. He’s on his run and everything, and it’s a way to remind you of where he’s actually at.
N: It must have taken a lot of thought to get that moment just right.
JS: A lot of thought went into it, but it’s funny: because it’s an indie film we had four takes total. But that’s the thing – when you have Frank Langella and you have Susan Sarandon, you can get away with having that little time for those kinds of moments, because they can just turn it on [snaps fingers], you know?
N: Do you have the emotional connection of knowing someone with dementia, like Frank?
JS: Yeah, my grandmother – it’s a little sad, because we played at the Palm Beach Film Festival, and she lives down there, but she’s too far gone at this point. I didn’t finish the movie in time for her to get to see it. But yeah, certainly in [writer] Chris Ford’s family, his parents, a lot of the relationships with their parents, his grandparents, a lot of those moments are written into the script, about his dad having to go up and visit his grandmother, who was living and didn’t want anyone to come take care of her. It’s hard not to find someone who has dealt with this in some way or another.
N: But the idea also that bad behavior can keep you mentally healthy – does that come from anything in real life?
JS: Well, I think when [Chris] Ford was figuring out how to turn it into a feature, we knew that it is important, keeping people active and engaged in their life; it’s a big part of keeping healthy on a mental level. He just said, “Look, it could be painting…but robbery’s gonna be a lot more fun.” You know, as far as a project for them to do together.
N: There’s a lot of debate in nerdy circles about what is or isn’t “pure” sci-fi, versus space fantasy, or futuristic action. By most definitions this is really pure science fiction, with big ideas and commentary on humanity in a plausible futuristic setting….
JS: Which is funny, because I am not a sci-fi guy, if I can confess, like, I feel bad. Ford would be able to answer these questions better. I never really looked at it as sci-fi, and I even cut a little mood piece when we were going out with the script, just with a bunch of robots – some of which you see at the end of the movie now, in the credits. And the tagline was, “Robots are not science fiction.” Because they’re building these things, they’re real, and it is sci-fi because they don’t exist in this form yet, but we tried to treat it as grounded as we could, which I guess any good sci-fi movie does.
N: It feels like it’s in a literary sci-fi tradition, though. Have you read a lot of Asimov, Bradbury, stuff like that?
JS: Yes. Certainly I’ve read that, and Ford has an even better grasp of it. He wanted to do something in the Asimov lineage, where there’s a logic to everything. The robot doesn’t magically develop a soul, they’re not evil and out to kill us because it just doesn’t make sense. Whether you buy the logic or not, there is a series of logical decisions that the robot is making, that guide the things that he does in the film.
N: Did it take a while to come up with the perfect design for the robot? The blank face looks really sinister at first, and you sort of hope for bright blue eyes like Eve in Wall-E.
JS: Right. I knew from the beginning that that’s what we wanted. The face should be blank because we should feel that it’s creepy at first; we as an audience should take on Frank’s perspective. So when the robot first shows up and he doesn’t want it there, we should think it is a little creepy to have this thing in his house, and as he grows to love it, hopefully we grow to love it too. And, I mean, people care about their Roombas – it’s not hard for us to ascribe emotion to inanimate objects. So I just told the designers less is more, less is more, less is more, with the design. Frank’s performance really brings that emotion to it.
N: Was the robot puppetry, or was there someone inside?
JS: There’s someone inside. Every now and then it’s puppeted, and sometimes if we’re doing Frank’s close-up we just put a torso there, but predominantly Rachael Ma had to suffer through 100-degree heat in upstate New York in that suit. Rachael did 18 of the 20 days and Dana Morgan came in for two, just because it was such a hard thing to go through. It’s built by Alterian FX, in the Valley – they built the Daft Punk helmets, they do all the Farrelly brothers movies, they do animatronic Chucky dolls and all that stuff.
N: When you shot the scenes with the robot, was anyone reading the lines on-set, or did Frank have to memorize the pauses?
JS: For a while, we tried to have Rachael do it from the suit, but it was just so hot and she was nearly passing out; it was better to focus on the motions. But yeah, Frank’s nephew was a PA on our set and he would read the lines off-camera.
N: Is Rachael an experienced dancer? How was that physicality for her?
JS: She’s an actress and dancer. It was funny, because the girl who was supposed to play the robot – my friend Rosalie – we built the suit for her out here, and then two days before we were going to ship it to New York she put it on for the first time and had an extreme claustrophobic reaction: she just couldn’t do it. So we had to find someone in New York with her proportions who could step in two days and do the whole robot thing, so we were very lucky to find her.
N: So, two days to get the body language down? Was that a process you left to her?
JS: No, we were all just trying to figure it out as quickly as we could. We ended up limiting it a lot; I think probably the last day of shooting, we felt that we had really locked it in.
N: And Peter Sarsgaard’s voice is in the great tradition not just of HAL in 2001, but also of Kevin Spacey in Moon.
JS: Yep. The funny thing is we weren’t trying to do that, but you just end up there. It’s just one of those things. Ford was saying that if it can reason this well, it probably would be able to talk in a much more naturalistic way, but in a weird way you’re not just beholden to what would be true but also to what an audience will accept. And we were talking to roboticists about this, because we showed it at the Robot Film Festival in New York, and they were saying they’re going to have to do some of the same things, like they may have to build robots with sounds that are more “traditionally robotic” than is necessary, because that’s what we want from a robot. That’s what we accept. In the same way that, like, the Chevy Volt, when you turn it on and you press the button, it just makes a sound like an engine, but there’s no engine. They just do that because we want that to be there. So when we tried it more human and more natural, it just didn’t line up – you didn’t feel the sound was coming from that robot onscreen. It’s a balance of figuring that out.
N: So how many tests did you do before you got the voice perfect?
JS: Well, we only had eight hours with Peter.
N: For the whole movie?
JS: It was two four-hour sessions. I think actually all the lines come from one half-hour sequence. It was on the afternoon of the second day and we just printed out every robot line, in sequence, without interaction and he just read them straight through. That ended up being the best way to make it sound detached enough. And the nice thing with Peter is he has such an emotive, caring voice that you get all that even without him doing an emotional performance.
N: When you talked to the roboticists about this movie, how far off did they say we are from something like this?
JS: People have different opinions, because some of them think what we’re likely to see won’t take a real humanoid form at all; it’s more likely to be kind of a “smart” house. Right now there are those seal-bots, the stuffed animatronic things they give to old people, where they form a connection with it and find an improvement in their health. I don’t know what answer to go on-record with.
N: In the LAFF catalog, they said the movie’s set far enough in the future that Langella’s character talks with modern youth slang so you know he’s from our generation now – but I didn’t notice any of that in the movie. Was it there?
JS: It’s not, really. That was something that was in an early draft, because that would have been something really cool – that was something Ford wanted to do. I just felt that Frank’s in his seventies, and I just couldn’t support forty years in the future on our budget. I just felt there’d be too much different about it, that we couldn’t sell it. I think about it more as 10-20 years; we intentionally keep it nebulous, because we don’t want to get into too many questions of this would be there, this wouldn’t, you know, it should feel familiar. Ford was saying he wanted them to have some kind of tablets and he didn’t know what to write, but then by the time we shot, the iPad had come out, so it was like things were catching up.
N: What’s next for you after this?
JS: Ford and I are talking about another idea, also set in the near-future, but otherwise I’m just reading stuff. There’s no “next movie” yet. It’s been enough to get this one out there.
N: So you’re risking getting pigeonholed as a sci-fi guy?
JS: It could happen. But that’s okay. As long as it’s relatable enough and it’s different. Hopefully if the film works out, it’s going to reach a bunch of different audiences: not just the sci-fi one but also the older folks who like Frank Langella and Susan Sarandon. Hopefully it won’t be pigeonholed.
Robot & Frank opens Friday in many theaters, with further expansion dates scheduled.