A favorite at this January’s Sundance Film Festival, where it shared the Alfred P. Sloan Feature Film Prize, “Robot & Frank” represents Jake Schreier’s feature directorial debut. Set in the near future, the story centers on an increasingly memory-impaired septuagenarian living in upstate New York, Frank (Frank Langella), whose worried son (James Marsden) buys a walking, talking robotic caretaker to help tend to his needs and improve his mental and physical health. Frank is gruff and dismissive of the robot at first, but, somewhat unexpectedly, finds old impulses from his career as a cat burglar awakened. Shenanigans of a sort ensue. For ShockYa, Brent Simon had a chance recently to speak to Schreier one-on-one, about his movie, Langella, the Waverly Films collective, draining Peter Sarsgaard’s voice of emotion, and how technology is changing humankind. The conversation is excerpted below:
ShockYa: Feature films of course put directors on an entirely different radar, but you have many years of experience. How did all your commercial work leading up to this point influence your sense of style or vision for this film, if at all?
Jake Schreier: I went to New York University, which is where I met Chris Ford, who wrote the movie, and [we were] in this collective of guys called Waverly Films. We still work together and hang out and talk about movies all the time. I started directing commercials and for the last six years ended up at a place called Park Pictures, who produced this film. So forgetting the stylistic influences for a bit, just in terms of “How on Earth did I get a movie made?,” I was lucky that they were starting their feature division and brought (producer) Galt Niederhoffer on, along with Sam Bisbee, right when we were finishing the first draft of the movie. I don’t think commercials teach you how to make a movie. It’s such a different form. But I do think it’s like exercise, and you can kind of get a lot of stuff out of your system — you can try all the technological gizmos and you can try a bunch of different styles and do things in different ways so that you’ve kind of worked that out. I remember when I graduated from film school that there was this style war going on between all-hand-held movies and then these very composed movies following Wes Anderson and Jared Hess — and even Spike Jonze. I remember at the time thinking… that his stuff felt so unenforced, so intuitive. It was handheld, it was locked off, and it didn’t have that kind of enforced style on it. And (frequent Jonze cinematographer) Lance Acord owns Park Pictures, and was gracious enough to shoot B camera for three days on this movie, which was awesome. So by the time I got to make “Robot & Frank,” I’d worked that stuff out. It wasn’t such a paradigm anymore. I’d directed some commercials all hand-held, and I’d made some commercials in super-flat-framed tableau. You kind of work out all these issues and then you feel like your film doesn’t have to be such a statement in that way. I really hope that doesn’t get interpreted as me saying those styles are wrong.
ShockYa: No, I understand. There are plenty of movies where the story feels a bit overwhelmed by a debut director going out of their way to make some grand visual statement.
JS: Yeah. The films that we really ended up looking into were Gordon Willis-era Woody Allen, like “Manhattan” and “Stardust Memories.” I mean, my movie doesn’t quite hold up to “Manhattan,” which is one of the best visual-looking films of all time, but (I was drawn to) that idea that comedy could be presented in wide shots, with composition and ways of revealing information that way. When (director of photography) Matthew Lloyd and I first talked about the movie, we talked about how so much of the humor is in the image — this old man and this robot walking in these places. So you really want to have them both on camera as much as possible, because that contrast is really what the film, on a visual level, survives on. So we had longer takes, and barely any coverage, presented in wide shots. That’s really where (the idea for the look of the movie) comes from.
ShockYa: Tell me a bit more about Waverly. The Borderline guys made a big impression with “Martha Marcy May Marlene,” and there are other groups working in unison as well. The idea of cinematic collectives are, I don’t want to say en vogue, but they seem to be empowering younger filmmakers in a way that’s markedly different than from the indie film explosion of the 1990s.
JS: We’re a little different than Borderline — those guys produced their own work. Waverly didn’t make this movie; Park Pictures made it, and it was produced by producers who’ve done this (before), and been in the business. Waverly is almost a social club, almost. (laughs) We used to call it, just, “Guys Who Sat Around and Played ‘Halo’ Together Too Much.” We all met in film school and we found each other not because we necessarily had the same sensibility, but because we were anxious to get working. We were all the guys who really wanted to make stuff as soon as we could. So we all made stuff together. And I also feel like most of what I kn0w comes from that time in film school where we sat around and watched movies all the time and talked and argued about it. So when we make something, we send the script to everyone and everyone weighs in with their comments. This is probably different than most collectives, because we’re not actually all making the stuff together. A few of us may work on one project, and Ford is working with Jon (Watts) on an Eli Roth horror project called “Clown.” And we’ve made some Comedy Central pilots. There are different projects and different guys work on each of them, but what’s consistent is that we all weigh in and have comments on what the other is doing, and what’s nice is that if you’ve known people for that long you know where those comments are coming from. …I think that helps, because you’re always going to get a lot of comments when you make something, but it’s hard to know how to filter them. If you really form relationships with people and know their work and taste and what they’ve said before, you have a context for what they’re saying [that] can be really valuable. What Ben Dickinson — who made a film called “First Winter” that was at Tribeca this year, and is also in Waverly — said was one of the best comments about the first draft of the script. [He said] to try to work memory in more as a theme. And that became such a huge part of where the script ended up going.
ShockYa: What about that first germ of an idea for the script, though — was it a conversation with Chris, or an idea that originated solely from him?
JS: It’s actually his thesis film from NYU. He had been reading all these stories coming out of Japan because their baby boomer generation is reaching old age faster than ours and they have a crisis about how to take care of the elderly population. And so they’re developing robots for that purpose. I mean, they don’t have them yet, or they’re not on market, but it’s a real thing that’s being developed. He read that and thought it was fascinating. So it was his short film and then I think about four years ago when we were first looking for something to develop as an achievable film on an indie scale, but something that also had a hook, we came back to that idea and thought that there might be something in it to make into a longer piece of work.
ShockYa: So where do you stand on robot overlords?
JS: I’m not afraid. (laughs) That was one of the first things Ford and I talked about. He’s a really scientifically engaged guy, and he wanted to write something where it wasn’t about evil robots who are going to enslave us and it also isn’t — as much as I love “Wall-E” and “Short Circuit” — something where the robot turns out to have a heart magically at the end. It sticks to the rules of what a robot is throughout the movie — a series of logical decisions, expanded to a pretty advanced degree.
ShockYa: The film touches on mortality and political themes, but in a really spry and light way. Obviously Frank really grapples with the robot’s blasé attitude toward erasing its hard drive, because memory is so important to him. Did you ever want to explore those (macro) issues a bit more?
JS: Well, I think you always want it to be grounded and relatable, so the themes should be there. But I don’t think we ever wanted to make something that was a polemic. I think it’s hard to — look, as much as the film takes Frank’s perspective, and he looks askance at all this futuristic stuff, I don’t feel that way and I don’t think the film is ultimately advocating one position or another in that regard. This is the stuff we end up talking about anyway (in life) — I feel like half of my conversations are about how in the future technology is going to change us, talking about Facebook and cell phones and our level of interaction.
ShockYa: Sure. The normal points of hiccup in conversation can now be resolved by checking an answer to a question or detail on a smart phone.
JS: Yeah, so many things. Some people complain about it and think it’s ruining our interactions and some people aren’t afraid of it. I think that’s naturally going to become part of the script, but I think in the same way it didn’t make sense for it to be so dire or heavy-handed, because it rarely is (in life). We wanted to make it feel just a little bit down the road, and capture the way we all grumble about technology but when the future arrives it doesn’t feel like the future anymore, it’s just something we’re dealing with. Ford talked about how when he was writing the script he wanted the characters to have tablets, and he was going to call them Compu-Tabs, and by the time we make the movie the iPad is out and everyone has one on set.
ShockYa: So does Peter Sarsgaard (the voice of the robot) have just an inherently naïve voice?
JS: (laughs) He has such an empathetic voice, with so much caring built into it, that you can crush its emotion down to a tiny clip level and it still comes through, and that’s what was so great about having him do the film.
ShockYa: Well, there’s real meaning in the intonation of the robot’s lines, however slight. But you didn’t ever have him on set, did you?
JS: No, he didn’t come on until later, and the whole thing was recorded in I think two four-hour sessions. We just printed out all of the robot lines on one sheet without anyone else’s lines. It was better to have it be disconnected. He just read them in a row, and we’d maybe do a couple takes. Every now and then I would give him a line reading, because I had a sense of the intonation — which is fatal and criminal with an actor — but in this case he was nice enough to say, “No, that’s great. It’s like I’m being programmed!” Peter Sarsgaard is this incredibly wonderful, compelling and real actor, and to get his voice down to this very clipped, consistent tone was a challenge — going in reverse like that.
ShockYa: The look of the robot is also streamlined and kind of interesting. How much work went into the specifics of the design?
JS: The robot was built by a place called Alterian Effects. They do the Daft Punk helmets and a lot of the Farrelly brothers’ movies, so they get fabrication but also (understand) human performers have to work in a suit. So they have a really good combination of those two kinds of outlooks. It was an indie film, so they had to whip it together in two weeks. And then Rachael Ma was the girl in the suit in 100-degree heat in New York, which I do not recommend. It was no fun. Frank’s nephew would kind of just read the lines off-camera to give him a sense of the timing. We were going to have Rachael do it from the suit, because I thought it would be important to have it be as real as possible, but like I said, it was so hot and she was nearly passing out that we just had her focus on the (physical) motions. It didn’t really matter to Frank. Sometimes we’d give her a break and it would just be the robot body on an apple box for close-ups, and he’s just such an amazing that it didn’t matter or phase him. Maybe I should have already known that, but I just didn’t have the experience. I may very well have worked with people who are or may be as good as Frank some day — I don’t want to impugn anyone — but I had never seen anything like what I saw from Frank the first day on set. His level of talent is so amazing, but his ability to shape that — his level of craft — is also so fascinating. It was real and believable when he was in the moment, but then you could go to him with three notes on three different lines and then spend five minutes taking the robot helmet off Rachael and fixing all this other stuff and come back the next take would be just perfectly adjusted in each of those three areas, and everything else would be consistent. His control is completely amazing to watch.
Written by: Brent Simon