You know when directors claim that their sci-fi film isn’t really about robots and spaceships and lasers, it’s about relationships. And then you see the film and it’s all robots and spaceships and lasers, and the laboured father/son (or whoever) heart-to-hearts are the dullest thing about it? (Yeah, Lost In Space , we’re looking at you). Well, Robot & Frank isn’t one of those. It is an SF film where relationships are the core, and even better, it’s the characters that make the film so charming, funny and thought-provoking.
This is the motion picture directorial debut of short film and music video director Jake Schreier, but as many critics have pointed out, it’s an uncommonly assured debut. Without resorting to tricksy editing, flashy camerawork or arty storytelling techniques, it quietly and effortlessly seduces with good acting, sparkling dialogue and a willingness to explore and play with its central conceit: the son of an aging jewel thief with an ailing memory gives his dad a robot aide to help around the house. Initially Frank isn’t keen on the mechanical busybody but when the robot discovers that helping Frank plan a jewel heist seems to help concentrate his mind, some unlikely partners in crime are born.
Back in 2013 SFX magazine awarded the movie four stars, and grabbed the chance to chat with director Jake Schreier about his acclaimed debut. You can read this below.
He’s charmingly modest about the film’s critical success (he sidesteps questions about his own contribution citing instead, “a brilliant cast”, “a wonderful script,” “producers who knew what they were doing”) and insists, “I know from my end that there’s a lot I could do better.” But when he admits, “There were a bunch of narrative reasons why it was okay for us not to spend money,” you sense he’s a director with his head screwed on, not just dealing with indie-film limitations, but making a bonus of them.
Do you have a science fiction background?
“I don’t, no. Christopher Ford who wrote the script does a lot more than I do. I felt like a bit of an impostor. Because I’ve made this I’m now always being asked what my favourite sci-fi films is and I am woefully unprepared to answer that.”
We only ask because there’s a refreshing unfettered-by-the-past feel to the film. If it had been directed by a sci-fan they may have become hung up on things that you just take in your stride.
“Well, I never really looked at it as a science fiction film. I suppose technically it is. But it’s also a buddy movie. It’s a very odd hotchpotch of genres. But you know, I loved Flight Of The Navigator when I was growing up, if that counts. But yeah, I just directed the script the way I felt it needed to be directed, intuitively.”
The film won the Alfred P Sloane Award for films that explore science and technology themes at the Sundance festival last year. Not being a geek, had you even heard of that award before you won it?
“Ha ha! Yes, actually. Because Robot And Frank is an adaptation of a short film that Chris wrote and directed at college, and that film was vying for the Alfred P Sloane award some years ago too. It was a very funny thing that it came back round. And because there’s a prize money involved, you get all these indie short film directors suddenly adding scientists into their plot in the hope they might win! It’s one way of raising money.”
The title of the film is curious.
“The title is meant to be a spin on the buddy movie genre – like Turner & Hooch . And also a joke on the fact that Frank never names the robot, you know. And if we’d called it Frank & Robot it would have sounded like Frankenrobot .”
How does a debut director land a cast that includes Frank Langella, Susan Sarandon and James Marsden?
“All credit to my producers. And Ford wrote a great script. When you have a great script, actors want to do it. I mean, there are some actors that it’s always going to be hard convincing to do an independent. There’s not real point chasing Tom Cruise. But I was thrilled with the people that I had in it, and they were all motivated by the material. You can’t offer them money, but you can offer them something that excites them.”
Another key performance was Rachael Ma as the robot. Did she being anything in the role or was being short the main criteria?
“She certainly brought being tortured to the role, acting in that suit in 100 degrees. It was no fun.
“That’s a funny story, actually. I have a friend called Rosemary in LA who is not very tall, and great actress and a dancer, and I thought she’d be perfect for it. We did a few rehearsals. But Rosemary hated it when she had to do the body mold for the suit; you know, when they put all that plaster over you. And then, when the suit was finally done a few days before the shoot, they did the final fitting, and she had an extreme claustrophobic reaction. So we had two days to find someone who was Rosemary’s proportions, and was in New York, and was willing to do this crazy thing.
“It was amazing how Rachael came in at the last minute and took over, but to be honest, it wan’t until the last scene that she’d really got it down and she had it all figured it out. She really needed more time. But we decided to keep the movements as small and limited as possible, sticking with what we knew would work.
“But so much of it came from Frank. His performance. The reactions he projected onto the robot.”
And you hadn’t actually cast Peter Sarsgaard as the robot’s voice during principle photography, had you? So who was performing the lines on set?
“At first I thought that Rachael would do it, but it was so hot and uncomfortable in the suit, and she had to concentrate on the movement. The PA read in a few lines. I would read the lines off camera too. But I had a misconception about how important it would be for the other actors to have to hear a voice coming from the robot. Sometimes, when we were doing close-ups we’d give Rachael a rest and just place the robot torso in front of him. It didn’t matter at all.”
There’s another robot in the film too, who deserves his own spin off.
“Mr Darcy! He’s my favourite. That moment where the two robots are told to have a conversation and they have nothing to say – it’s one of my favourite moments in the film.”
Robot & Frank was recently broadcast on the BBC and on the BBC iPlayer but is unavailable there as of Thursday 28th May 2015. Instead it's available on DVD or Blu-ray from Entertainment One.