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Robot & Frank – Jake Schreier interview (exclusive)

Robot & Frank, Jake Schreier

Interview by Rob Carnevale

JAKE Schreier talks about the challenges of making his directorial debut Robot & Frank, working with Frank Langella and Susan Sarandon and getting to grips with the technical elements of working with the robot.

He also talks about his own career to date, what he learned along the way, why he wouldn’t mind a shot at making a blockbuster and why he wanted to become a filmmaker in the first place.

Q. Is this a dream come true for you in terms of the awareness the film has for a debut feature?
Jake Schreier: Yeah, I mean you couldn’t really imagine anything better. I mean just to get to make a movie at all, which I’ve wanted to do since I was 16, and then to have actors that good and to have it actually come out anywhere, let alone around the world, it’s really wonderful.

Q. This started off as a short film, didn’t it?
Jake Schreier: Yeah, in film school. So, it’s kind of funny that it’s hung around that long.

Q. So, where did the initial idea come from when you were at film school?
Jake Schreier: I’d been reading all these stories coming out of Japan about real robots being developed for this purpose… like the baby boom generation is reaching old age and they’re having sort of a crisis of how to take care of them, so they were thinking that maybe robots could get them out of it. And that just seemed like a fascinating subject matter – just that image of an old man and a robot in this rural environment.

Q. How did you go about getting your cast, especially Frank Langella? Did you approach him as a first choice? And was it a hard sell?
Jake Schreier: He loved the script. We had sent it to a few other people and then it got to him and he really responded and I had great producers that helped. It was actually my production company that produced the feature. It was their first feature. I started a feature division and brought on Galt Niederhoffer, who has done 20 movies in New York and knows all the agents that can get the script around. So, people actually take it seriously then. So, that was the first hurdle. And then Frank brought me and [co-writer] Christopher Ford up to his favourite restaurant on 105th Street and we sat down and he said: “I like it but I’m not doing a silly robot movie! So, I need to make sure that that’s not where you guys want to take it.” And that was great for us to hear as well because we had no interest in that either.

Q. I also heard that you were very specific on the design of the robot, so as not to give him a face…
Jake Schreier: Yeah. Well, because we’re just so good at projecting emotion onto objects that it felt like the only thing that could hurt that from happening was giving it a face or telegraphing too much of its own emotion. If it was just faceless then Frank’s performance would really dictate how we came to feel about it. And that’s how it worked out.

Q. But you do have a woman inside…
Jake Schreier: Yeah, yeah. Rachael Ma, who had suffer through a 100 degree heat in upstate New York. We’d have give her two minute breathing breaks between every take and take the helmet off and everything.

Q. How did she work with Frank because I gather Peter Sarsgaard [the voice of the robot] never actually shared any scenes with him?
Jake Schreier: Right. Honestly, she didn’t really say the lines because it was so hot that she just had to focus on getting the motions right…

Q. Wasn’t it Frank’s nephew that read the lines?
Jake Schreier: That’s right. He read the lines from off-camera. So, no one involved had any fun working with that robot [laughs], least of all Rachael who had to endure that thing. It’s nice that you don’t see that stuff on-screen.

Q. But the choice of robot movements were down to her?
Jake Schreier: Yeah. Unfortunately, we only ended up with something like two days from the time that the suit was done to being able to put together what the movements should be. It’s funny, I feel like by week three we had really gotten it down in terms of how the robot moves and all the timings and stuff. But we were kind of making it up on the fly in the first few weeks and just limiting it as much as we could so that we knew we had something we could be consistent with.

Q. So, she’s kind of the unsung hero of this…
Jake Schreier: It’s true! It was no fun to have to go through that.

Q. How close is the concept to being a reality? You mentioned Japan…
Jake Schreier: Well, people already have their own vacuuming robots! But as with all these things, we won’t notice it by the time it happens because we’ll be so primed for it by the development of little bit by little bit. I don’t know if it’ll take the form of what we represent, exactly… if it’ll be a humanoid robot like that. But I think there’s a chance.

Q. And what made you decide to put the real robot footage at the end of the movie?
Jake Schreier: I liked the idea of people sitting through the credits and absorbing the film a little bit, so if you give them a little something to watch it’s nice to have them sit there. But it’s also based on the idea that some people don’t know how real this is – that these robots exist and they are being developed. So, it’s kind of a way of expanding the film after it’s done as you go out to think about it as a real phenomenon. It puts you in a bit of a different mindset as opposed to just fantasy. It was fun to see all the different kind of models that are out there.

Q. I gather one of the things you liked most about doing the research was examining the psychology behind jewel thieves?
Jake Schreier: Yeah. For me, what was fun about that research was that it turns out they really can’t spend the money. When you’re pulling off these high-level heists with these famous jewels, you really can’t fence them and make a fortune. So, the people who do it, there’s a real craft to it. They look at it like an art. It’s very similar to the way an artist would talk about their various projects. There were a lot of them that had families and family lives that they obviously didn’t handle very well based on what they were up to [laughs]. So, it became a lot easier to relate it to the life of an artist, or someone working in the arts, and what that might do to your relationship and what devotion to craft could do to that. And that’s certainly something that Frank can relate to. It was a way in. It’s not like I know any jewel thieves personally but it was a way in to who that character is.

Robot & Frank, Frank Langella

Q. How was working with Susan Sarandon?
Jake Schreier: Given that she was doing our movie almost sort of in between another one and doing three days and then going back… when she showed up, she had thought about that character and she knew what was important and which lines worked and how we could make the scene better. The first two days it was Frank and Susan and the level of professionalism and how quickly they could create this whole relationship with no rehearsal or table read was amazing to watch.

Q. And where did Peter Sarsgaard fit into all this because I gather you only had eight hours with him?
Jake Schreier: Yeah and most of what you hear in the film only comes from one 30-minute session that we did. He didn’t come on board until after we had shot. But we just printed out the lines as a list, in sequence, and just kind of read down the list so that we could get the intonation consistent. It was like he was being programmed, so it was an interesting way to create the performance. He actually said: “It’s like I’m being programmed!” It made it easy. But he has such a level of empathy and warmth in his voice that even when you take it and make it robotic it all comes through, which is great.

Q. The film also works on a human level and examines old age in a sensitive manner. I gather you drew from your grandmother’s experience?
Jake Schreier: It was actually Ford’s grandmother. My grandmother is also going through Alzheimer’s. But most of the things in the script come from Ford watching his dad have to drive five hours to take care of his grandmother, who didn’t want to be put in a home and didn’t want to leave her house and what a complicated situation that was. So yes, there’s a lot of personal experiences in there.

Q. How much did Frank bring to that in terms of his performance and not going too far with it?
Jake Schreier: Well, his big thing was that he wanted to make sure what it was like to actually be that age – you don’t really feel any older but the world starts to kind of change around you and the way you’re treated starts to change. So, there’s a lot of that. He’s not losing his memory or his mind but he knows what it is to start being taken for granted or disregarded, so I think you see a lot of that subtlety in the movie.

Q. Do you think he perhaps responded to that as an actor, as it’s often been said it’s harder to get roles the older you get?
Jake Schreier: Sure. It’s funny, though, because he’s been on kind of a roll because he’s been willing to do little indie flicks. He’s found a lot of great parts for himself in movies like Starting Out In The Evening and stuff like that.

Q. There’s a push and pull going on throughout the movie in terms of the benefits of progress versus the traditions that come with old age and experience. The film doesn’t take a side. Do you have a view – where do you stand on that debate?
Jake Schreier: I stand right in the middle. I myself… I read on my iPad, so I think we’re all aware of the shitty version of the future where it’s gone a little too far and run roughshod over the past. But I think Jennifer [Susan Sarandon]’s character kind of represents the more moderate middle ground, where she has a love of old things but she also has her robot and she’s embraced that technology and named it and is getting along well with it. So, we tried to show the middle path as well as the more obvious, annoying version of it.

Robot & Frank, Jake Schreier

Q. Do you find people responding to that aspect of it a lot?
Jake Schreier: Yeah, it’s interesting to see. I think a lot of people would expect Ford and I to be a little bit more anti-future based on the perspective of the movie. But we were just kind of trying to tell the story from Frank’s perspective – and from his perspective this stuff is a bunch of bullshit until he has this relationship with his own robot.

Q. How daunting is it to walk on-set for the first day and see actors of the calibre of Frank Langella and Susan Sarandon waiting to be directed by you?
Jake Schreier: Well, I get star-struck but you kind of have to pretend that you know what you’re doing [laughs] for a few days and see how you do. But the nice thing is that they’re so good and they’re so prepared that it’s really quite easy. You just have to shape these great performances you’re being given almost from the first take. It’s easier than if they weren’t such great actors.

Q. Does it help that you have so little time in that you’re maybe limited to how many takes you can have, so can’t spend too long second guessing yourself?
Jake Schreier: I guess that’s possible. You kind of knew when you had it. And Frank wouldn’t have wanted to do a lot of takes. You get a sense of when you’ve got the freshest take and at some point they’re diminishing returns after that.

Q. So, what was the biggest challenge you faced?
Jake Schreier: Oh the robot. I mean working with that thing was just a nightmare. The people who designed it are wonderful but there’s just no way… you do those puppeteering things and trying to do it on our schedule. We were trying to move quickly but we were spending so much time focusing on these details that don’t have to do with the performances or the story or anything. So, it would be tucking the robot’s neck back into the helmet. It’s a tough thing to get through, for sure.

Q. So, what was the biggest lesson you took away from this?
Jake Schreier: I think… I don’t know it it’s a concrete lesson but what was most fun was to kind of engage with things on the level of these long sequences. I think that’s what short form directing doesn’t really prepare you for. There’s just no way to keep a handle on such a long… the way everything has to interface with everything else. I did my best to keep it in mind and I’m proud of what we did. But it would be fun to really throw yourself more into that with a little bit more time for each scene and really be more calculated about the sequences and the way they unfold.

Q. Do you think the success of Robot & Frank has already paved the way for you to be able to do that with your next project?
Jake Schreier: I hope so! Just a little more! Maybe it’s incremental. This was a 20-day shoot, so maybe we’ll get 30 on the next one [laughs].

Q. Have you noticed there’s more buzz surrounding you now?
Jake Schreier: Well, there was zero before, so yes. On that scale, then there’s 1,000% more. But it’s not really buzz. It’s just nice to have finally made something that Ford and I can kind of put out there as our work and stand behind it. Anytime you can do that it helps.

Robot & Frank

Q. Does the success add any pressure to your next project?
Jake Schreier: Yeah. You never know how you’re going to be perceived. But I look at it like this… there’s a lot that I could do better. What makes a good movie is such a mix of so many different people’s efforts and so much different work. It’s been thrilling to have this happen and it’s all a little bit surreal. I mean I’m not… whether we’re going to have quite the goodwill on the next one is hard to say. But I know that I at least personally have plenty to learn. So, I’m not like: “Oh God, I did such a great thing the first time, how could I ever top it?” I could certainly personally top it – whether the movie is liked as much is a different story.

Q. Are you working with Ford again?
Jake Schreier: We’re developing an idea and then there’s another idea that’s based on an article that I’m looking at. I think we’ve found a writer for that one. They’re both in very early stages. It’s not like this is the next movie. I wish I knew exactly what was happening next but we’re not quite there yet.

Q. How do you feel about the state of American independent cinema at the moment? Is it healthy?
Jake Schreier: I’m not the best judge. There have definitely been a bunch of movies this year that I’m interested to see and it seems that people are getting them made. There’s certainly an odd balance between this idea of properties that get made in Hollywood… but it seems like in the independent world people are really putting out a lot of interesting stuff and the means are there. It’s not easy by any stretch but if you can fight through it the means are there, which is great. I could be wrong but I always feel that this stuff works itself out. I don’t think the public wants any less entertainment even if they’re not necessarily going to the theatre as much.

So, even if the… there can be rough periods where the way we consume these things changes – it’s not always equitable and the money doesn’t always get around in the same way that it was. But I think that people tend to find a way because people want to tell stories and people want to watch stories. So, there are ways to work it out. Don’t get me wrong, I love seeing movies in the theatre and I’d love for people to see Robot & Frank in the theatre but I’m not going to complain about anyone watching it on their computer because it’s great just to have people watching it.

Q. Would a blockbuster beckon for you some time in the future?
Jake Schreier: Yeah, I would do it if I could. I mean it’s all about what you can put your stamp on. As long as you can stand behind it and feel like it’s yours, then absolutely. I think Robot & Frank in the end is a pretty conventional… it’s got a Hollywood structure but it just happens to have these very weird elements. But it’s not that out there when it comes to structure. It has a tight, almost adventure-buddy movie script.

Robot & Frank, Frank Langella

Q. But it’s not afraid to throw in the odd punch, whereas a lot of mainstream movies may be sweeter and more contrived…
Jake Schreier: Yeah but when it comes to a blockbuster you just need to make sure… I mean what do I know, I’ve never done one. But from my perspective, it seems that you can get away with a lot so long as you’re delivering what needs to be delivered. If you’re ,making the right sort of film… if you’re making a big action movie and you’ve got the action, then I think you see a lot of filmmakers out there who are actually able to make interesting films within that context as long as they deliver. If you want to be using millions upon millions of someone else’s dollars to tell stories, then you’re going to have to make movies that millions of people want to see and that requires a certain… you have to be alright with that and what that responsibility is. So, you have to be sure that you think it’s a story that would really work on that level. But if you can’t tell it the right way or you can’t deliver on those things then maybe it’s not a good place to go.

Q. What was the spark that wanted you to become a filmmaker in the first place?
Jake Schreier: I loved making things and I loved doing artistic projects and I just wasn’t very good at very many of them until I tried filmmaking in High School NYU had a summer filmmaking programme and I tried it out and what I made… I mean it’s not good now! If you go back and look at it, it’s pretty embarrassing! But I could do it at least. I had an idea in my head and I could make it look kind of like what was in my head and I could sort of put it together in the way I imagined things. And that sort of concept to execution is what I find most kind of exciting and satisfying about filmmaking.

Q. So, how do you view the path to this point? Has it been relatively easy or quite challenging along the way?
Jake Schreier: It’s been… if I said it was really challenging I think a lot of people would hate me because it took maybe a year to get the film made from the time we went out with the script – and that’s not a very long time. A lot of people spend a lot longer waiting, so I’ve had a pretty good run. I get frustrated personally but that’s different. All things considered, it’s been pretty great.

Read our review of Robot & Frank