The director of Robot & Frank says his new comedy found inspiration in real-life robotics.
Jake Schreier's debut feature Robot & Frank is a smart and funny look at serious issues: the ethics of caring for the elderly with robots, the dichotomy between nature and technology, and even the dangers of eliminating physical books in favor of digital media. Opening nationwide on August 24th, the indie sci-fi drama written by Christopher Ford is set in the near future and depicts a wily, aging con man (Frank Langella) who is given a domestic robot by his son (James Marsden) as a caregiver, only to use the robot to plan heists. The film also stars Susan Sarandon, Liv Tyler, and Peter Sarsgaard as the voice of the robot.
"Our desire to project emotion onto that which is not alive is a big basis for why our film—if it works at all—works."
At Sundance earlier this year, Robot & Frank charmed audiences and was honored by the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation for "raising profound questions about the role of technology in our collective future." I spoke with director Jake Schreier at the LA Film Festival this summer about some of those questions. The interview has been edited for length.
What appealed to you about the subject matter of a relationship between a human and a robot?
On the surface level, it was the image of this old man in a rural environment with this very clean, white piece of technology. There's a certain visual interest that this starts from that is pretty fascinating. Chris Ford, who wrote it, [got] the idea from this real technology that is being developed to deal with the Baby Boom generation that's aging in Japan, and they're looking to robots to take care of their elderly. That was the genesis of it, and Ford took it from there and really fleshed it out into the script.
And you mentioned that this was based on a short that you had produced back in film school with Ford.
[Laughs.] I used that term "produce" loosely because we shot it in my uncle's cabin. Ford made the movie and I helped him out. We were friends in film school. We put [the short] away, and Ford and I had kept working together along with some other friends. Then about four years ago we were looking for something to develop into a feature and I just thought if there was any way he could write it into something longer it would be a great thing to work with.
Frank Langella did a fantastic job and he's obviously the heart of the film. How did he work with the robot?
Frank doesn't need anything. He's such a pro. Not only does he have an amazing amount of talent, but he has the ability to shape that talent and modulate it. It was amazing to watch on set. And Rachael Ma—the girl who's in the robot suit—went through hell to do that thing, and was there for all of it, but there were times when she didn't need to be so he'd just be acting with the torso of the robot or an apple box in the foreground. It really didn't matter. He was locked in, one way or the other. He said to me that he just had a thing that he'd pictured in his mind and he didn't really want to say what it was but it was all that he needed to trigger the performance. So, I was very lucky to have that.
You had very poignant footage in the end credits of real robots. Some of them were caring for the elderly, or interacting with real people playing chess, or cleaning up and doing various tasks. And then there was a very interesting short that preceded the film called Robot about the Yale Social Robotics lab. It was poignant to see those real robots actually carrying out those tasks. You raised a lot of large ethical questions in the film.
Unintentionally, I assure you.
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Well, it was written in the script, so I'm sure you guys talked about it. You delve into a lot of major issues in the film. One of them would be: What is the ethical question of having robots take care of the elderly, and replace human caregivers?
Yeah, I don't have an answer for that. I mean, we certainly touch on it. I think the key for Ford and I was to sort of make it ... you could call it a "future agnostic" movie. This is in the sense that it's not saying that robots are going to kill us, and it's not saying that they're the answer to all our problems. I think there are some issues with them, and there are some amazing things that they can do—and the future is like that. I think it's important to not be reflexively afraid of the future, to try to take in what's coming and try to look at all sides of it and see what the positives and negatives are. Hopefully the film lets you have that distance and form an opinion or let you have your own ideas about it, but it isn't leading you too strongly down one path or the other.