Ingenuity + Langella Make Sundance's Indie Robot Film Succeed
On January 26th, for the first time ever, the Sundance Film Festival left Park City, Utah. As part of the inaugural Sundance Film Festival USA initiative, nine of the festival's films and filmmakers were sent to screen at nine cities around the country.
Frank Langella stars in Robot & Frank
It was a packed house at the screening of Robot & Frank at the Brooklyn Academy of Music and, by the end of the movie, it became pretty apparent that the audience was filled with a lot of the film's crew members. The indie movie was shot about 20 miles upstate of New York City.
The star-studded film is a quirky comedy set sometime in the near future in which an elderly ex-jewel thief named Frank (Frank Langella) gets saddled with a health aide robot at the behest of his son (James Marsden). Though at first resistant to the idea of the robot, soon Frank finds nefarious uses for the gadget and an oddball and wonderful buddy comedy ensues.
The screening of the film was followed with a Q&A session with first-time director Jake Schreier, who among other things explained how the film grew from the thesis project of screenwriter and Schreier NYU classmate, Christopher D. Ford.
Director Jake Schreier
"When he first wrote the script, it was set more than 50 years into the future and we couldn't afford that," Schreier explains. "We decided to set it five to ten years into the future." The budget also factored into the decision to re-locate the story to a quaint suburban town as opposed to the city. This allowed the filmmakers to get away with showcasing fewer futuristic gadgets and, therefore, allowed them to create fewer special effects.
"It also created layers of different stuff," Schreier says. "The juxtaposition of the shiny white robot and Frank's overrun home."
The titular robot is actually made up of a suit provided by Alterian Inc., the company also responsible for Daft Punk's helmets and the fat suit in the Farrelley Brothers' comedy Shallow Hal. While filming, the suit was inhabited by a dancer named Rachel Ma, who had to take two-minute breaks after every shot in order to combat the 100-degree heat.
Later on in post, Schreier and editor Jacob Craycroft brought in actor Peter Sarsgaard to dub in the voice of the robot. "There is a hearkening to HAL," Schreier admits in response to an audience question about the resemblance between Sarsgaard's robot voice and that of the villainous HAL 9000 computer from 2001: A Space Odyssey. "In some ways, you're bound to cinema history. Not only in terms of what a robot sounds like but also in what the audience will accept."
Robot & Frank was shot on the ARRI Alexa, with cinematographer Matthew J. Lloyd using lenses from the 1970s to, as Schreier puts it, "take the digital edge off." He continues, "There are parts of those lenses that can't be in focus and it made everything very soft. "
Susan Sarandon and Frank Langella
The film is one of Sundance's big success stories this year. It has been picked up for distribution by Sony Pictures in association with Samuel Goldwyn and was a co-winner of the festival's Alfred P. Sloan Feature Film Prize.
"So much of the relationship at the heart of the movie came from Frank Langella," Scheier says, happy to give credit where credit is due. "When I first met Frank with this script, he wanted to make sure we saw it the same way he did. He wanted it to connect emotionally rather than being just a silly robot movie.
"This movie only exists," the director concludes, "because Frank was able to walk out of his trailer and nail every shot in three takes."