With his remarkable feature directorial debut, “Robot and Frank”, Jake Schreier joins Benh Zeitlin and Craig Zobel as one of Hollywood’s most promising directors to break out this year.
After graduating from New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts, Schreier has gone on to direct music videos for bands like My Morning Jacket, along with commercials for big-time corporations like Absolut and Verizon.
Penned by Schreier’s NYU pal Christopher Ford, “Robot and Frank” is a dramedy about the most unlikely of heist teams starring Frank Langella, Susan Sarandon and Liv Tyler. In a recent chat with The East Valley Tribune, Schreier discussed the film’s sci-fi elements, the inspiration for the robots’ design and his experience working with an A-list cast.
How did you first get involved with “Robot and Frank” and what intrigued you about this project in particular?
The film is actually a feature-length version of Chris Ford, the writer’s thesis short at NYU. We went to NYU together and I was a producer on that film, and we shot it at my uncle’s cabin. So yeah, we kept working with each other since then and I think about four years ago when we were kind of looking for something to develop into a longer, feature film, we thought it’d be a really cool idea to return to.
What I found really fascinating about this film is how it’s futuristic but still quite reasonable; it seems like it could all be very possible in the near future. How did you go about finding a good balance between sci-fi and reality and can you tell me a little bit about the creation of the robots used in this movie?
I think the kind of sci-fi that works best in really any movies is when you want it to feel grounded or relatable to people. The truth is, robots are really being developed for this purpose right now – I don’t know exactly when they’ll go on the market, or if they’ll look or be as capable as our robot, but it’s a real thing that’s happening. So it always made sense to us to kind of present it in a world that’s very familiar and not all that far away from where we are now.
Also just conceptually, since the film takes place in a rural area, it was kind of always in the concept that it would be a rural, old house that an old man lives in, and then you have this very clean piece of technology that kind of encourages him into this world. It was built into it that you wouldn’t see a lot else of the future around it, you know, just a few hints here and there. Kind of like, making their way into this rural town.
For the robots, like I said, they are being developed and bought and by and large, the ones that are being made to take care of the elderly tend to have this kind of white spacemen motif, so we just kind of wanted to follow in that mold and keep going with that.
With the subplot concerning the library’s demise and Frank’s initial reluctance about having a robot, I thought the movie seemed to say a lot about clinging to the past but still embracing the future. Were there any messages in particular that you tried to convey with this film?
I don’t think there are necessarily any messages in it – certainly the film takes a bit more of Frank’s perspective and in the beginning of the movie especially, he’s very opposed to most of this technology, and you know, kind of the antagonist of the film is this future hipster that wants to get rid of the library. I certainly have great affection for libraries, but ultimately he learns to love a piece of new technology, and you see in the librarian character Jennifer, played by Susan Sarandon, that she loves the library but she’s learned to embrace her new robot, like a middle path. We’re more just raising questions about technology will do to our relationships in the future than necessarily trying to say any one thing.
One of the aspects of the movie that struck me most was the relationship between Frank and his family, particularly with his son Hunter (played by James Marsden). Why do you think these were such important relationships to establish and what was it like having such a distinguished group of actors in these roles?
I think the family is there to kind of show Frank’s past. Frank is now an old man and now maybe not being treated as much as a person, which is why the robot forms a real relationship with him. His kids are kind of a clue to the complicated man that he was and the damage that occurred in his family relationships, and show that it’s not just about an old man coming to life again, but that he is a real person learning to kind of deal with the issues and the problems that they’ve created for themselves. The cast was totally incredible, which I just have to thank my producers for it, because I mean when you have someone like Frank Langella, there’s such a depth that he brings to the material, even when you just have 20 days to shoot and you’re rushing through things. He brings that much to it, it’s just amazing.
Just for fun, if you could have a robot assist you with any everyday task, what would it be and why?
Oh man, I really get stumped on these ones. Probably laundry, I guess? That’s a really boring answer. I don’t know – everyone has a number of chores that I’m sure we’d like to have taken care of.
Why do you encourage audiences to check out “Robot and Frank” and what do you hope they walk away with after seeing it?
I don’t want to beg, but I hope we’ve made a movie that at least feels different – that at least, hopefully when the movie starts, you don’t know exactly where it’s going to go, and that it’s something that’s actually going to surprise you and be something different.