Jake Schreier Talks <strong><em>Robot and Frank</em></strong>

Jake Schreier Talks Robot and Frank, in New York August 17th, and expanding to Los Angeles on August 24th

As we hurry towards the end of summer, the studios seem intent on dumping all their last minute wares on our penniless heads, so it might be easy to overlook the smaller gem Robot and Frank, which opens in New York starting today, and will expand to select Los Angeles screens starting August 24th.

Frank Langella gives an outstanding performance as a career cat burglar struggling with memory loss and bouts of dementia. His son has grown tired of looking after the old man, so he saddles Frank with a helper robot. It's not long before Frank has this little white butler helping him stage a multi-million dollar heist.

Directed by Jake Schreier, the film is very funny and heartfelt, and a realistic look at what our future holds in store for the senior citizens of tomorrow. We loved the film, so we caught up with Jake to chat about it. Here is our conversation.

The young people in this movie aren't very likable. That actually made me feel a little bit better about my era in life, in that I think I'll be about Frank's age when this takes place. Robot and Frank made me glad I grew up when I did, if that makes any sense...

Jake Schreier: (Laughs) Right. Yeah...(Writer Christopher D.) Ford and I are probably around the age of the people in the movie you are talking about. We are about the age of Jake (Jeremy Strong). But the story really tries to take Frank's perspective. And from his perspective, all of this technology is an incursion on the life that he has come to know, and that he likes. We ultimately tried to set up the younger people as the antagonists...But I don't necessarily think that we were trying to present their ideas as negative, or something that needs to be fought against. We just have to stay with our main character's viewpoint, and that happens to be Frank.

What about yourself? Will you be about Frank's age in terms of the timeline of the movie? Or are you refusing to give any hints in terms of when this is actually taking place?

Jake Schreier: I think it's a little too far off...The cars look quite similar to the ones we have now, but we were purposely trying to be unspecific. Maybe ten years, twenty years, maybe even five years...Anything that seems soon enough, but that we can still connect it to today...

That's one of the great elements of the movie. If we look at the 50s or 60s and then we go fifty years into the future to today, not much has changed. Even the technology is pretty sparse. You manage to create a future world that isn't heightened or cartoonish. It's totally believable...

Jake Schreier: If you go to one of these towns in upstate New York that is like one of these towns in our film, you see that it was kind of a rural town, but now it's a weekender vacation spot. The pharmacy shop has become a chatchkey shop. You'll see an LCD TV on the wall, but you will also see a lot of old cars, and a lot of old buildings. There are always layers of history. That is true for any kind of period movie that you do. You never want to alter it just for the time period you are shooting. You also want to have the past that came before it. As part of that texture...

SPOILER

The end scene, where Frank is faced with erasing the robot's memory, is a pretty powerful statement on the fragility of the human mind, and Frank's own struggles with memory loss...

Jake Schreier: Yeah, that kind of becomes the crux of the story, not only thematically, but also on a plot level, which...I may be giving away too much...But, you know, Frank's memory is very important to him. And he doesn't want to lose it. It's very confusing for him to have this friend that doesn't care about his memory at all. Frank is always trying to grapple with that. He finds it hard to believe, because he has made this true, emotional connection with this robot. And the robot doesn't value the thing that Frank thinks makes him the most human.

Did you see Rise of the Planet of the Apes?

Jake Schreier: I haven't seen it. No. But I hear that it was really good.

It's a very entertaining movie. But I had a problem with the John Lithgow character, who is suffering from Alzheimer's. It is almost too heightened. It borders on being cartoonish. Watching Frank, and his struggle with memory loss, I realized that this is a challenging aspect to pull off, both in a performance and in the writing. There is a fine line there, where it's easy to take it over the top. How did you manage to find that right balance in Frank?

Jake Schreier: It is definitely a challenge, and we try to stay away from the term Alzheimer's...You know, having seen the movie, that the conceit of it, is that as he becomes friends with the robot, and he begins planning his heist, he becomes healthier. His memory is stronger. Which I think is true, but not in the direct, one way that we present it. Certainly, we tried to be respectful of that. It was a challenge to get it right. A lot of that comes from Frank, and what an incredible actor he is...I'm not putting down Rise of the Planet of the Apes, because I haven't seen it. Frank was just concerned with, at least, giving an honest portrayal of dementia. And how that would affect you. We have to give credit to Frank here. The guy just won't do something, other than Skeletor, that is too cartoonish. He was really going to take everything and make it as real as he could. If that comes off, that is a real credit to him.

Its funny that you bring up Skeletor...I hadn't thought of him in that movie until midway through this. He gave a look, and I thought in my head, "Oh, yeah...He was Skeletor..." It was just a certain look he gave...

Jake Schreier: Its one of his favorite roles. You can ask him about it. He doesn't try to play it down. He loves that movie. He did it for his kids. You can go back and watch him in Masters of the Universe...He had a grand old time playing that guy...

If we're going to talk about Masters of the Universe, I have to bring up your one Star Wars reference in the movie. I see Star Wars referenced in tons of movies all the time, but you guys pulled a great, very subtle nod off here...

Jake Schreier: Which line? I hope I don't get caught here...This may be something Ford put in that I don't know about...Which he may have done...

It's the scene were Robot and Frank are walking down the road, and Frank says, "She doesn't like you..." Then Frank turns to look at Robot, and he says, "I don't like you either..." You didn't pull that from Star Wars? The two scenes are almost identical...

Jake Schreier: (Laughs) You know what? I'm going to have to plead the fifth, here. If it is, it was on Ford's part. I'm pretty sure Frank wasn't aware of that either. (Laughs) That's really bad of me...

I thought it was brilliant. You hear people pull lines out of Star Wars all the time, but this was special...

Jake Schreier: That's funny. Now I have to go ask him about it. Maybe he did it on purpose, and he made me look bad in an interview. He is going to be very happy.

How old are you, if you don't me asking...

Jake Schreier: When I shot the movie, I was 29. I have since turned 30.}

Have you had your own struggles with growing older. Are we seeing some of your own personal concerns about the aging process coming across here?

Jake Schreier: I don't know that I have struggled with it. Certainly, it is interesting how quickly and easily it is to relate to being out of touch. How easy it is, when you have Twitter, and you have Pinterest, to have this knee-jerk negative reaction to new technology because you don't understand it. It's really something you don't want to fight against, because then you become old in that traditional way. It's not hard to relate to someone who is bewildered by all this stuff that is happening around him. It's not hard at all to be bewildered by all kinds of stuff.

Like I said before, the movie made me feel better about growing old...

Jake Schreier: (Laughs) That's great...That's good...

You may not want to answer this...But is there a person in the robot suit?

Jake Schreier: There is a person in the suit. I would love to keep that a secret. But I really can't. Because I have to give credit to Rachael Ma, who was in the suit. So, no matter how much I would love to convince everyone that it was a real robot, I can't get away with that. The suit was built by Alterian EFX, who do the Daft Punk helmets, a lot of the Farrelly brothers movies, they do a lot of fat suits, and things like that. They had a really great idea about fabrication, while also knowing how a human performer would interact with the suit. There are times when she is not in the suit, or its sitting stationary. There were a few different ways that we accomplished the look and feel of the robot throughout the film, but primarily, she is performing inside of it.

I bring this up, and I don't mean it as a slight on something you guys did, and it may be intentional, but that final moment between Frank and Robot, where he turns the knob to erase the memory...Robot's head goes back, and it's clearly a human movement...

Jake Schreier: That is just a mistake (laughs)...

Maybe that is just a mistake, but I think its one of the best things in the movie. Through the whole film, I never once thought about someone being inside the suit. Not until that moment. But at the same time, it brought this moment of humanity to the thing. There in its last moment of life, I felt the robot was real...It really worked for me, that tiny little mistake of a moment...

Jake Schreier: Yeah...We tried to do as much of a design...We built the upper torso out, making it bigger and boxier than it needed to be, so that the head would appear smaller than human proportions. And we built in physical restrictions to the way you could move, so that the movement would seem less human. We did a lot of subtle things. The rest comes from Rachael Ma giving a great performance. She is a dancer, as well as an actor. So she knows how to hold her positions. She made it convincing, so that is great to hear.

Who is doing the voice of the robot?

Jake Schreier: Peter Sarsgaard. The way we did it was, we printed up all of the robot's lines. There was never any interaction with the other actors. We just had him read through them all in a row. He tried to match the same cadence in each of them. He has the same level of caring and empathy naturally in his voice, that you can clip it down to such a low level of emotion, and it still comes through. You still get that sense. The rest is a certain processing that our sound designer Paul Hsu did on it. He would cut up syllables, or mix and match different syllables from different takes. That is what you can do with a robot voice and get away with it. There are other subtle things that we did to make it sound that way.

Did the Asimo Robot play into the look of your robot at all?

Jake Schreier: Yeah, yeah...That along with a bunch of others. There is this whole segment of the robot industry, in terms of elder care robots, that look like little white spacemen. That was always the jumping off point for the design...

And his decision to wear that little black cap when he's out casing joints...

Jake Schreier: (Laughs) Its funny that this came up. That is one of Frank's old sweatshirts. In the script it says that Frank has taped all kinds of black clothing to him. I said, there is no way I can do this nighttime sequence with the robot in all black clothing. Its just not going to happen, it won't come across. So it ended up being this black sweatshirt with one button, so it came across as looking like a cape. Because the robot had to move.

I love his little black cape. I also really like the scene where Frank is out in the woods by himself, after Liv Taylor has switched off the robot. You can truly feel the loneliness in that one moment in time for this old man...

Jake Schreier: That's great. That's certainly the point of that, so I am happy that it came across. It was definitely in the writing. It was written as though all the comforts Frank had, like the chairs they were sitting on, were removed from him. Those chairs are gone. The rest of it is in his performance, and we have that great location in the trees. It felt really empty and recognizable.

Robot and Frank is opening in New York theaters this weekend, starting today, Friday, August 17th, and will expand to Los Angeles theaters starting August 24th.