Director Jacke Schreier speaking at the Salt Lake City Gala premiere of Robot & Frank. Photo by Clayton Chase/Getty Images.
While the Sundance Film Festival officially kicked off Thursday evening in Park City, nearby Salt Lake City hosted its own opening weekend celebration on Friday in the form of the Salt Lake City Gala and Screening at the Rose Wagner Theater. The event had a decidedly local flavor (with locals sporting dinner jackets instead of snow parkas) as sponsors, dignitaries, and filmgoers attended screenings and mingled at VIP receptions.
Zions Bank CEO Scott Anderson and Utah Governor Gary Herbert kicked things off by thanking Sundance Institute and praising the community for being an excellent host to the Festival. Herbert also quipped that it was easy to welcome the world every year when it infused some $300 million over the past six years into the local economy.
The evening also featured a premiere screening of Jake Schreier’s Robot & Frank, which Sundance Program Director Trevor Groth described as a “perfect fit” for a Gala premier due to its widespread appeal and subject matter. Set in the “near future,” the film focuses on Frank (Frank Langella), a grouch of a man who lives by himself in relative quiet. He takes walks, clumsily flirts with the local librarian (Susan Sarandon), and shows furtive distrust of anything that offends his old-school sensibility. His grown children, played by Liv Tyler and James Marsden, check in every now and again. But, for the most part, Frank is on his own — and likes it that way.
When it becomes apparent that chronic forgetfulness is starting to pose a danger to Frank’s health, his son brings him a caretaker robot, which initially serves Frank only as an unwanted mechanical nuisance, but soon shows its worth as an expert cook, maid, and even gardener. Soon Robot gains Frank’s “trust” and becomes a true companion, even an accomplice in some shady dealings.
Langella brings a sweet vulnerability to the curmudgeonly Frank that serves as a perfect counterpart to Robot’s straightforward, deadpan approach to its existence as a helpmeet. The film, however, transcends your typical feel-good buddy movie by rooting the story’s myriad relationships in emotional authenticity and without forced invention. First-time director Schreier sets it all in an ambiguous future not so far removed from present-day sensibility that the true nature of humankind’s fascination with technology can’t play out in fascinating ways.
After the premiere, the audience was eager to ask Schreier, screenwriter Christopher Ford, and cinematographer Matthew Lloyd questions ranging from the logistics behind designing Robot to the time and setting of the story. While Schreier pleaded the fifth on budget and the actual year the story takes place, he was eager to share details about how Robot was constructed, the possibilities of such futuristic technology even existing someday, and the extraordinary challenges that came with directing a live actor in a small, constrictive robot suit. The filmmaker also discussed his decision to cast Peter Saarsgard as the voice of Robot and the challenges involved in creating character who transcends its mechanical nature and ascends to a convincing level of “humanity.”