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Interview with Director Jake Schreier (Robot & Frank)

Frank Langella & Jake Schreier on the set of Robot & Frank

Earlier we reviewed the wonderful new indie film Robot & Frank, which debuted last month and is now in theaters.  We were able to get in touch with director Jake Schreier and asked him a few questions about his views, his film, and (of course) robots.

Plastic Pals: Please introduce yourself to my readers.

Jake Schreier: Hi, my name is Jake Schreier.  I grew up in Berkeley, CA and went to NYU film school, where I met Christopher Ford, who wrote the script.

You mentioned in the Q & A that you did for io9 that prior to this you directed commercials for eight years, similar to directors like Ridley Scott and David Fincher.  Can you elaborate on your experience during this time, and maybe point us to some ads we might recognize?

Ha, well I don’t know if my commercial career quite resembled Fincher’s and Scott’s, but it’s definitely been a great way to hone skills over the years and get up to speed on all kinds of different technologies.  Also, in a more direct way, my commercial production company produced Robot & Frank, so there was a lot of serendipity there.

I’ve read that film shoots are usually about three weeks and the days are very long.  This is your first feature length film – how would you describe the shoot?

The shoot was a total of 20 days, spread over 4 weeks.  It’s definitely a lot to get done in a very short amount of time.  There isn’t room for being wrong very often, or covering yourself for mistakes.  On our set, the biggest issue was that we had a girl in a robot suit in 100 degrees, very humid conditions in upstate New York.

Yikes!  How did she feel about the suit?  I’m sure there’s a great blooper reel somewhere that you can put on the home release.

Rachael was a real trooper, but it’s a hard experience being in that thing, especially in the heat.  We’d have to take 2 minute breaks between almost every take to give her enough air.

Who designed the robot suit?

The robot was designed and built by a place called Alterian FX in Los Angeles.  They do the Daft Punk helmets, all the Farrelly Brothers movies, the Chucky doll, and all kinds of other cool stuff.

That’s a neat connection – I’m a big fan of Daft Punk.  As for the suit (I was willing to look beyond this of course, but) for me, looking at robots daily, I couldn’t help but see all the little technical details I would have liked to do differently with the costume.  You guys should have brought me on as a consultant!  

You mentioned that Plastic Pals was one of the resources you used.

Yeah, we did our own research, predominantly, and absolutely Plastic Pals was a great resource in watching a lot of different robots across the spectrum.  In our defense, because it’s an indie film, we ended up with about two weeks to build the actual suit, which is way less than you’d traditionally want.

So for both the Alterian guys and me, I’m sure there’s a lot we would have done differently if we had had the time to tinker around with the design for longer.  A lot of concessions also have to be made for putting a person in there.

Wow, ok, two weeks is definitely cutting it close.  You’ve stated that the idea for this film grew out of a short you guys did back in 2002.  That was a couple years after Honda’s ASIMO was shown off for the first time, and the SONY pet robots were popular in the media.  Is it safe to say, then, that they inspired the idea?  (And can you share a still from that film to show us what the robot looked like then?)

I don’t have a still on me, you’d have to ask Ford if he was comfortable showing one (he directed the short).  Certainly those robots were a part of the inspiration, but Ford was going off of articles coming out of Japan about their baby boom generation reaching old age, and lots of actual robots they were attempting to develop to help with the problem.

Speaking of Japan, given the higher public profile of robots there (and now in Korea), are you planning on doing anything special for the premieres there?  You should totally get ASIMO and HUBO to walk the red carpets with you in their respective countries, I’m sure Honda and the KAIST lab would be up for it.

Good question, I’ll check in with the international distributors.  I think the distributor in Korea wanted to put on a stage production, but then there was some confusion and it seemed like they might have been under the impression we had a real robot, so I’m not sure what’s going on with that now.

That is actually a really great idea.  They could use one of the real robots from local universities, and I’m sure the story could be adapted for the stage.  I liked the fact the story neither endorses nor demonizes the idea of personal robots but is refreshingly neutral.  But what are your own feelings?  Would you welcome one into your own home?  Do you own any robot vacuum cleaners or other devices?

I don’t have a roomba, but I would be happy to have any kind of robotic help around the home that I could get.  As you picked up in the film, I’m pretty neutral on the idea of technology overall.  It’s done some amazing things for us, and probably cost us a little bit in terms of human interaction as well.  Either way, I’m just curious to watch the ways it will change our interactions.

That’s the way it should be.  That’s what I loved about Terminator 2, you have this killer robot that has been reprogrammed to protect life rather than take it.  Technology is what we make it.  Did you consult with anyone working on real robots, or did you just do your own research?  And has anyone who  worked on real robots contacted you about the film?

We’ve been fortunate enough to show the film to a lot of different people in robotics.  We won the Sloan award at Sundance, and I did a panel with Robert Full.  We also were part of the Robot Film Festival in New York, which was really interesting.   A lot of people there worked in different parts of the robotics industry.

In general, people seem very pleased just to have a movie in which robots aren’t trying to kill everyone.  They obviously know our robot isn’t necessarily how these things are likely to end up, but I also hope it’s pretty clear that isn’t the main point.

It is really great to see that.  Even movies like Short Circuit feature robots that are essentially war machines.  I also thought it was a nice touch to include the current trend of traditional media like magazines and books losing ground to the popularity of e-readers and the internet.  But how do movies figure into this equation?

Everything is becoming so dense and all these different forms of media are competing for eyeballs.  How do you feel about Hollywood going the 3D route to draw people back to theaters, and 3D films in general?

I feel like a lot of the 3D has the effect of making things feel smaller, more like a diorama, which is the opposite of the intended effect.  But 3D is also being accomplished in a lot of different ways, some vastly better than others.  I though the Wim Wenders film ‘Pina’ was a great application of it.

I’ve never heard of that, I’ll check it out if I get the chance.  Is there anything you wanted to include in the film but couldn’t because of budget constraints or other reasons?

It was always designed to be a pretty contained idea, but with a little more money I probably would have gotten a few more concept cars to sell that part of the future a little better.  Otherwise if we had any more money, I would have spent it on more time with the scenes and the actors, but it’s always going to be tight on a first feature.

Who are some your heroes in the film industry and why?  Favorite films?  What made you want to get into film making / screen writing?

I don’t have a very exciting answer for this.

That’s ok, people just like to know where you’re coming from.

I like all the directors everyone likes, Scorcese, Coen Brothers, pretty much every movie Gordon Willis shot.  I also loved Michael Mann’s films growing up, mostly Heat and The Insider.

Also, I remember being in High School at an NYU summer filmmaking workshop, and out teacher took us to go see Truffaut’s ‘Day for Night‘ at the Paris theater.  It was hard not to fall in love with filmmaking after watching that in such a perfect setting.  It also made it feel extra special to open up at the Paris during our New York run.

Alright, now let’s get down to the robots.  What are some of your favorite examples of real robots out there?

I love the Carebot videos.  The Paro is a great example of probably the most direct current application of the phenomenon we explore in the film.  And all the Boston Dynamics stuff is pretty amazing to watch, if not all that pertinent to our film.

Mark Raibert (Boston Dynamics) is a rockstar inside and outside of the robot world!  What are your favorite sci-fi robots (besides your own, of course)?

Eve, from Wall-E.  Max from Flight of the Navigator (though I haven’t seen it in ages).  The Iron Giant.

And finally, what is your favorite scene in Robot & Frank and why?

There’s a shot towards the end where Hunter comes to visit Frank and it’s all played in one shot in silhouette.  We were trying to do a lot of single takes on the film, but that one wasn’t planned that way.  We were running out of time on our last day of shooting, and it all just came together very quickly because we had developed a language by that point.  It also is only possible with actors good enough to nail the timing on a scene like that in one shot with only a few takes to get it right.  We were very lucky.

Hopefully Robot & Frank is successful enough to open doors for you!  Thanks for taking the time to answer our silly questions and we look forward to seeing whatever new projects you work on.

all images courtesy Samuel Goldwyn Films

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