Nate von Zumwalt, Editorial Coordinator
Our latest installment in the “Five Things You Should Know” series probes perhaps the most inventive storyline from last year’s Festival. Robot & Frank is an audacious undertaking from first-time director Jake Schreier, who details below just some of the hindrances stemming from casting a robot as a lead. Lucky for Schreier (and audiences), do-it-all veteran Frank Langella, who charms as an aging father and former burglar, effortlessly stars opposite his new mechanical companion. Schreier took time recently to guide us behind the curtain and share some stories from the set of Robot & Frank, which also stars James Marsden, Susan Sarandon, and Liv Tyler. In theatres this Friday, August 17.
1. Your greatest creative challenge followed by satisfying breakthrough during production.
Because we were an indie film, we ended up with only about two weeks of overall prep. That meant that the robot suit didn’t show up built in New York until about two days before the shoot. We had to develop a set of motions for it very quickly and then learn the rest as we went along. By the last week I remember we felt like we had finally gotten it down. Too bad you can’t re-shoot the first three weeks. I think we did a pretty good job of limiting the spectrum of motion in early shooting so that nothing feels too out of sorts once it’s all mixed together.
2. Fill us in on the origin of the robot and the man/woman who dons the suit.
The robot was based on real robots being developed in Japan for elder care. It was built by Alterian FX in LA. They make the Daft Punk helmets and lots of fat suits for Farrelly Brothers movies and the Chucky character and all kinds of other cool stuff. We picked them because they were great at fabrication but also had a real grasp about how a human performer would have to interact with the suit. Rachael Ma was cast as the robot three days before shooting when our original actress had an extreme claustrophobic reaction to donning the suit for the first time. We were very lucky to find her. She’s a dancer and actress, and thankfully for us, a trooper. It was humid enough on set without wearing a head-to-toe costume with a helmet that she could barely see through.
3. Song/CD in most heavy rotation on set.
Liv [Tyler] can be shy on set sometimes, so I had her listen to the song “Bossy” by Kelis to get her in the right mindset. She took it to heart far more than I expected, singing it before every scene. Her rendition sounds a lot more like a nursery rhyme, it was very sweet.
4. Did Frank Langella have any notable techniques for establishing a kinship with his co-star—the robot or the actor?
Sometimes to give Rachael a break, Frank would just be acting with the robot torso sitting on an apple box. The voice was always being read from off camera, nothing seemed to make any difference to him. He’s just amazing to watch. He’s since said he had something in his mind in place of the robot and that was all he needed, but he’s never wanted to reveal what it was.
5. Movie most often referenced on set.
Our DP Matthew Lloyd and I talked a lot about Gordon Willis-era Woody Allen for staging wide shots to bring out visual humor, but the movie we talked most directly about was Ronin. We have a ‘glass catch’ in our film that I had no idea how to shoot. Matt had the good memory to look up the one in Ronin. Turns out a 10 frame close-up on the face of the catcher is the key.