Robots Caring for the Elderly? A Sci-Fi Film Idea That's Not So Far-Fetched

The director of Robot & Frank says his new comedy found inspiration in real-life robotics.

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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.

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.

Is it possible to go back to human beings [taking care of people]—rather than have this inexorable march of robots and technology taking over so many of our daily life tasks?

Well, I think there can be a mixture, and maybe in the future the idea of a robot doesn't sound so inhuman or inhumane. I don't have any large-scale predictions about what the future itself will bring. I think it's pretty clear that technology will be some kind of part of it and I don't know if that's something we necessarily need to be afraid of.

Well, we already have Siri on iPhones playing more of a role in people's lives. Were you thinking of other famous movie robots for the film?

I mean, it's impossible not to.

For example, Star Wars, or Metropolis with the robot Maria?

2001, or Moon more recently—that I thought was really excellent. Certainly it informs, but you also try to do your own thing. The robot itself is based much more on real robots than on film history, but there's no way to make it without being inspired by these films, obviously. Like in learning how to get the voice right.

How much research did you do or time did you spend with the people who are developing these real robotics? How did that inform the film as you were developing it?

Interestingly enough, the people who built our robot at Alterian [practical effects house] were also working on robots for hospitals. So we were kind of lucky in that the people we were working with already had experience in that, and were talking with the people who were developing these things for exactly the purpose we explore in the film.

So there was a real-world connection to the research there, and I think that comes through in the film. Marshall McLuhan's Understanding Media, which was written almost 50 years ago, predicted so much of what was going to happen in terms of our relationship with technology and media. He says that all of these things—whether they're robots, or phones, or cameras, or the Internet—are ultimately projections of ourselves. They're all "extensions of man," as he puts it. So the robot, and other animated figures going back through history—the Golem, Frankenstein, even the animated statues Daedalus created in Greek myth—these are all ultimately human projections. What are your thoughts on that in thinking of the robot?

I don't know, I went to film school—I don't know about all this stuff! The best I can say is that 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. I mean, we tried to design the robot to be as faceless and kind of neutral as possible so you could perceive it as creepy in the beginning, and then as Frank comes to love it, hopefully you love it as well. So much of that emotion that you associate with the robot comes from Frank's performance, comes from the emotion that people are projecting onto it, and hopefully the audience does that as well.