Jake Schreier is driving back to his home in New York from Canada when we speak about Robot & Frank, a hit at this year's Sundance Film Festival where it was awarded the science-based Alfred P. Sloan Prize. Originally a film school short produced by Schreier and written by long-time friend Christopher Ford, the pair returned to the idea four years ago.
there was always something in it that I thought was compelling
“We came back to it and thought there might be something more in it,” says Schreier. “I always loved the image of the older gentleman and a robot walking through the woods together—there's something so incongruous and yet natural about that. Ford had to do the hard parts of building a whole story around that idea, but there was always something in it that I thought was compelling.”
The film centres on Frank (Frank Langella), a retired cat burglar who lives alone in upstate New York. No longer able to manage his affairs to the extent his son Hunter (Marsden) or absent daughter Madison (Liv Tyler) deem suitable, a robot is introduced into Frank's modest life to serve as a housecleaner and chef, and gradually, a companion. While the presence of 'Robot' reveals cracks in the family unit, with Frank's children unable to agree on the type of care he needs, it's the relationship between the aging man and his new companion that becomes the heart of the film.
Set in the 'near future', the film intentionally doesn't stray too far from present-day technology. Schreier and Ford's original idea for Robot stemmed from modern robot developments in Japan where technology was being created to care for an aging population.
“In this world of robots being built there were a lot of them that tended to look like little white spacemen,” Schreier says. “We always thought that was cute but the most important thing to us was that it would be faceless so we could project as much emotion onto the robot as possible. The movie was always written to be relatable to us.
“Frank lives on the outskirts of society. Probably if you went to a big city at the time the movie is set, there would be a lot more flashy technology. In the film we just wanted to have hints of it and to make it so that Frank's robot was the most advanced piece of technology making an incursion into his world. To some degree we knew there wasn't going to be a lot of resources, so it's built into the narrative, but we didn't want to make it about the technology as much as this one relationship.”
When it came to producing the feature, Schreier turned to Park Pictures, a commercial production company where he had worked for several years directing advertisements. He credits producer Gait Niederhoffer, who runs the company's film division, with getting the script around to great talent and bringing them onboard.
“We were lucky to meet someone like Frank [Lagella] who responded to the script and wanted to add his own ideas to it, invest in the character and make it something special,” he says. “Being a first time director, it's almost necessary to have an actor of his calibre, with his level of talent. To have someone who can nail [the scene] in three takes and add nuance to the character—you're really watching something amazing happening in front of you.”
Lagella heads a stellar cast, including Marsden, Tyler, Susan Sarandon and the voice of Robot, Peter Sarsgaard.
Shot in just 20 days in upstate New York without time for rehearsals, Schreier relied heavily on the experience of his cast to build relationships that were “credible” on screen. Rachael Ma plays the role of Robot opposite Lagella.
“We shot in the middle of summer so it was really hot,” the director explains. “[Rachel] would need breathing breaks between every take. Sometimes she almost passed out so we would take her out of the robot suit and put the torso on an apple box when we were doing Frank's close ups. It really didn't matter to him what was there. Whether it was his nephew reading lines off camera while Rachel would do the motions or just a placeholder there. He had an image of the robot in his head and that was all he needed. It was really an amazing thing to watch.”