Set in the near future, Robot & Frank tells the story of an elderly man named Frank (Frank Langella) who is persuaded into having a Robot (Peter Sarsgaard) come and look after and assist him. Although initially against the idea completely, soon Frank comes round to his new friend when he realises that this tool can be manipulated into helping him conduct some ambitious robberies…
Schreier discusses his delight at getting Langella on board and the wonderful performance he puts in, as well collaborating with screenwriter Christopher Ford – an old school friend. He also tells us about constructing the “near future” depicted within the movie, and what he believes his very own near future holds for him as a director.
Robot & Frank is of course your debut feature film – it must be very exciting to finally be presenting this to the world?
Yeah it’s a crazy experience to be working on this thing in such a fast environment. I mean, we shot in July and August and had the film done by January, so it’s a real rushed process, and then all of a sudden you’re showing it to a thousand people at Sundance. It’s been very exciting.
Has it been quite enjoyable taking this across different festivals? As you almost get to relive the whole experience of showing it to people for the first time.
It is nice, and it’s nice to see the way different people in different countries react. Certainly in some points you start to feel a little distanced from it because you haven’t done any creative work on the film for ten months or whatever, so there is a bit of a disconnect, but really it’s just an honour. You know, when you’re working on it you don’t think anybody is going to watch it so the fact it’s been making its way around the world has been really fun.
So how did Robot & Frank first come about?
Well it was written by a friend of mine Christopher Ford, we went to college together. He had been reading all these articles coming out of Japan about how the elderly are actually developing these robots to take care of them, which is such a fascinating jumping off point.
You first started collaborating with Christopher at school, did you ever envisage that one day you’d get to a point where you were making a feature film together?
Oh absolutely, we wanted to be doing it sooner [laughs]. I can’t believe its taken this long. Obviously me and a few other friends all met each other and found each other because we were the guys who wanted to be doing this, we all thought we were ready then, we weren’t, but we thought we were.
How important do you think this long-standing friendship with Christopher is, in regards to collaborating so closely on the film?
Very, you know, it helps a ton. What’s great about it, is when you know someone that well, you know where they’re coming from. So Ford was on set for every shot, and he had a little list of story beats for each scene, and it was like a checklist. So I’d have to worry about the acting and shots and lighting and stuff, and obviously it’s my job to worry about the story beats as well, but to have someone myopically focused on that, and to know where his opinion is coming from as you’ve worked together for ten years, there’s a rapport that develops from that which is a huge advantage.
Compared to when you first read over the script he provided, how different is the actual finished product?
Well in the first draft memory wasn’t quite the major theme that it became in the finished product. We got some really good help from another school friend called Ben Dickinson, who suggested that memory was one of the most interesting things about the film and forwarded on a brilliant second draft where memory became not just a background theme, but a real crux of the plot, that Frank’s memory and the Robot’s memory, and how one values it and the other doesn’t became a big part of the film after that. Otherwise, after that second draft, you know, we tightened it up, we didn’t have much time, so the finished film resembles that script pretty directly.
You must have been absolutely thrilled when you got the likes of Frank Langella and Susan Saradon on board? That’s Hollywood royalty.
Yeah I’m completely fortunate. I had great producers who I knew from doing commercials and who believed in me because of that, and they went out and got an amazing cast, I was absolutely thrilled.
Even Peter Sarsgaard doing the voice of the robot, he brings a wonderful humanistic side to the role. How important is it that the audience view the robot as a person?
It’s important, but it’s not hard. Every decision we made was actually to make it less human than more, it has very limited motion and is faceless, which is very important. The way we recorded his voice too, we just printed out a list of lines and he didn’t interact with the scenes at all, he just read through them in order, so the intonation was always exactly the same. Then you just drop them in and it works.
Did you have much say in the design of the robot as well?
It was built and designed by Alterian Effects in Los Angeles, and although I had a say, what we didn’t have was time. There wasn’t time to throw out anything or put a lot of stuff on the drawing board, we knew that we wanted to resemble these prototypes in Japan.
As the film is set in the not too distant future, it must have been quite fun to tweak reality a little?
It was, and if we had more money we could have tweaked it a little bit more. But yeah it was fun to think of little things we could do to hint at the future without pushing it too far.
How far into the future is it?
We just like to say the near future. On set we would discuss it, and we thought perhaps somewhere between 5-15 years, in that range. Some of the cars are pretty current, you know, Audi gave us a model that hadn’t been released yet, that they said would be around in about seven years, so somewhere in that range.
It’s funny because I actually felt we were seeing the future through Frank, as he makes it accessible as he’s representing us in the future…
Well it’s funny because in Ford’s first draft we played it that, where Frank would have been our age, like he’s 30 today. But I just felt that there was no way we could sell 45 years in the future with our budget, you know, the cars would have had to be completely different and I wanted to keep it in a place that we could manage it within our budget.
Frank Langella is fantastic in the film, you can really see the devious side to him, while the touching scenes regarding the memory theme is wonderfully portrayed. When you watch the film back, you must be so thrilled with his performance?
It’s a pleasure. It’s funny when I watch the movie because I laugh at so much more than the regular person because I can just see what he’s doing, he’s just creating so much. The film was really done in as few takes as possible, in as few shots as possible, the rhythm really comes from his performance, he has such a wealth of experience of knowing what the pace has to be and where the pause has to be in moments, and he can make it seem all fluid and natural but it’s quite calculated, there is such a high level of craft involved in it, and there is no way to plan for that, you just watch it happen and you’re lucky to have it.
As for yourself, what genres do you see yourself covering in the future? This is a rather subtle science fiction film, but can you see yourself doing a full blown sci-fi one day?
I don’t know, but yeah I like movies that are hard to put in a box, so I don’t know exactly where it’s going to go next. Ford and I have an idea that is similarly sci-fi without being overly in that genre. I think it’s nice not to fit so obviously into a genre, it’s hard for people to know where the film is going to go and I think that’s a nice place for the audience to be, to be surprised at the turns it takes.
As this is your first film, I imagine it’s almost like a band’s first album, the one you spend the most time on as it’s been brewing for so long. As for your second, third, fourth movie and so on, do you think you’ll always maintain that same level of passion for every project?
I certainly hope so. I mean, it is an interesting thing about the way the business works, and it’s true that when you make your first movie, or your first record, chances are you’ve had a lot of time to develop it and because you want to keep working and the pace accelerates, it’s hard to maybe invest so much time to each project, but I certainly hope so. The one nice thing about movies is that it’s not like there is anything so directly personal to me from Robot & Frank to me, except that I love the story. As long as there is some form of connection, a way into any story, if you can find something personal to you, like for me in Robot & Frank, when we were doing our research about jewel thieves what I thought was fascinating was that they approached their work like an artist and even though I’m not seven years old and I certainly don’t know any criminals nor get involved in many crimes, it’s easy to relate to the idea of devotion in your work and what that can do to your personal relationships, that was my way in on the story and the character of Frank. The rest, you know, craft can be personal too, trying to express yourself visually through shots and through music, all that stuff, that is always going to be personal to me, so hopefully that will be consistent.
So what does the immediate future hold for you? Anything lined up?
I’m back to doing some commercials and then yeah, developing new stuff. I’m eager to do new stuff, although I won’t get started on a new project until it’s right, something I can stand behind.