What’s most unique about Robot & Frank isn’t the stellar cast of Frank Langella, Susan Sarandon, and James Marsden, or that the emotionally adept and layered story is the first feature from the Brooklyn-based Waverley Films founders Jake Schreier and Christopher Ford—it’s that the tale of an old, senile crook and his robot helper takes place in the near-future. With the speed of technological advancement picking up at what feels like a quarterly rate these days, the “near-future” sub-genre is on the verge of a quiet boom in popularity, like sci-fi literature over the late 1950s and early 1960s or the wide variety of sci-fi films throughout the 1980s. It should be noted that the SyFy (it’s like Sci-Fi, only easier to Tweet!) Network ordered more pilots this year than any other television network and a number of other new television series are tackling “near-future” themes—in short, a number of top media players are banking on down-to-earth storylines colored with futuristic elements.
However, the “near-future” is rarely pulled-off when it comes to film—though when it is successful, it is rarely short of spectacular, epic or worth watching for years in the future. The remarkable Children of Men first comes to mind, or the slightly-dated but nevertheless classic Gattaca or Blade Runner of decades past. Robot & Frank is one of these types of films but on a stripped-down, indie budget, serving to make the story, direction and performances well thought-out and executed.
Schreier and Ford took a moment to talk to me about what could be this year’s indie sleeper and their thoughts on the near-future.
Where did the idea for Robot & Frank come from?
Christopher Ford: I combined some of the stories I had heard about how they were building robots to help elderly people with what I was observing with my parents trying to take care of my grandparents. My dad was having to drive many hours every week to take care of his Mom who lived way out in the boonies. She didn’t want to move to a home or have anyone take care of her, she wanted to be on her own. Then on the other side of my family there was some Alzheimers, so I saw my Mom dealing with that as well. It was on my mind and thought it would make a great science fiction film.
Where does the robot technology stand right now?
CF: Well, there are a lot of different opinions. Ray Kurzweil is the most positive, who thinks we’ll see some of this technology as soon as 2025, where we’ll see a human level of intelligence in computers. There are other people who think it will never happen. I think in the movie we say the “near-future” because we didn’t really want to pin it down. However, both myself and Jake [Shreier] think this type of technology isn’t possible for something like this to happen.
Really? Dammit, I’m a little disappointed now.
CF: Well, at least not in our lifetimes.
The near-future world is a fascinating, since it seems like we’re almost living in it already. Do you think there will be more films set in this time period?
Jake Schreier: Maybe it’s because other films have enough money to not be the near-future, so they don’t.
CD: We kept production in-mind to a certain extent.
JS: It was certainly written to be something that was achievable. But I love thematically the image of a rural setting with this older man and this one piece of technology encroaching on his lifestyle was great. There’s a real justification for keeping it grounded in something we could connect with. This only brings some of the themes in the film home. If you go up to the towns in upstate New York, where we shot this, they will have items from all different eras sort of sewn together in this wonderful fabric. There will be a bunch of layers of technology, from cars that were made 50 years ago to a lunch counter that is now a tchotchke shop to a flat screen television or two hanging on a few walls. I think these layers exist everywhere, we just don’t always notice them.
How did the cast come together? You guys are first time writers and directors. A cast like this doesn’t usually come together for first-timers.
JS: Park Pictures and [producer] Galt Niederhoffer made that happen. Galt really took it on and brought the cast together.
Did everyone in the cast spark to it when they first read it?
JS: Everyone who was in the film certainly fell for it on first read. But it’s not just that. Everyone wants to meet with you to make sure you really see what they see or just to see what you see in the project. Like Frank Langella met with both Ford and I to make sure we were taking the more emotional parts of the script seriously, that it wasn’t going to be light-hearted and comedic throughout. Which was great, because what he wanted was what we were going for as well.
Tell me about the robot. Clearly it was an actor in a robot costume, unless you actually built a robot, which means you should probably be selling that.
JS: What’s funny is that the South Korean distributor asked us if we could put on a live demonstration with the actual robot, timed with the release of the film.
CD: No, it’s a girl in a suit. We’d be rich otherwise.
JS: The actress is named Rachael Ma, who suffered through 100 plus degree heat in upstate New York. She’s 4’11 and a dancer but the physical skill she had was incredible—she had to buckle her knees the whole time to stand like the robot. I don’t know many actors who would go through what she went through. She was hot, sweaty and tired on set but she kept going, kind of like a robot, you could say.