ReThink Interview: Jake Schreier and Christopher Ford, Director and Writer of Robot & Frank

Set in the not-too-distant future, the movie Robot & Frank (my review here) tells the story of an unlikely friendship between Frank, an aging former cat burglar with a failing memory (Frank Langella), and a nameless eldercare robot (voiced by Peter Sarsgaard and performed by Rachael Ma) who turns out to be a perfect accomplice.

But Robot & Frank is no hypothetical sci-fi flight of fancy. Screenwriter Christopher Ford wrote the short screenplay the film is based on after hearing an NPR story about how several companies are designing robots that will allow the elderly to live on their own longer by helping them with daily tasks, dispensing medication, and aiding communication with family and emergency services. As artificial intelligence improves, these nurse/servants could eventually end up being true friends and companions, helping stave off the isolation and loneliness that can be as dangerous to senior citizens as any physical ailment.

I contacted Robot & Frank's director, Jake Schreier, with some questions about the film, technology, and eldercare, and he was good enough to forward them on to Ford. I combined their responses below, some of which have been edited for length and grammar.

Jonathan Kim: I read that Robot & Frank was inspired by an article about how robots would be used for eldercare in the near future, but I was also wondering if either of you had any experience taking care of senior citizens.

Christopher Ford: I only have limited experience taking care of senior citizens myself. Mostly I helped my parents sometimes as they cared for their elderly parents. Both my grandfathers passed away while they were still mostly independent, but my grandmothers both lived longer and had live-in eldercare -- from humans, of course. The idea for the movie was first inspired by a piece I heard on NPR, actually. I connected that with what my parents were going through.

Jake Schreier: I've watched my mother and uncle go through similar things with my grandmother, and there are certainly elements of those experiences in the film.

JK: What did you relate to when you read the screenplay and what did you think you could bring to it?

JS: Well, I had been involved with the idea since Ford created the original short film it was based on. I think it was more the image of the robot and this old man walking through rural woodlands that always stayed in my mind. Ford had to do the heavy lifting of figuring out how that could be worked into an entire feature. I think there's obviously a very easy way in which the movie could go to a silly place, but Ford and I always saw something more serious at it's core, and I tried to bring that to the direction.

JK: What were the challenges you faced getting the tone of the robot's dialogue right, where it clearly sounded like programmed language, but also had enough emotion that a grumpy guy like Frank could also grow to have feelings for it?

JS: Yeah, that was a tricky balance. Paul Hsu, our wonderful sound designer, and I spent a lot of time trying to find the right balance. There's only so much you can do with filtration, it really has to come from the performance. Peter has such an amazing amount of caring and empathy in his voice that there's a lot of emotion that comes through even when his reads are clipped to a monotone. We ended up printing out all of the robot lines in sequence and just having him read them straight through without watching the scenes. It yielded the best balance and consistency. After that, Paul and I were able to adjust timings slightly or pull a syllable from a different take. If it ended up sounding a little inhuman, that was fine.

JK: I was wondering how you decided on the simple design of the robot, who looks a lot like Honda's walking ASIMO robot, and if you ever considered other designs that were more futuristic and high tech.

JS: The segment of robot design aimed at elder care seems to be oddly focused on these little white spacemen. It's not just the ASIMO, Toyota has a similar one too, and there are others. We just felt it made sense to stay in that vein. I think they benefit from their simplicity -- it allows us to project more emotion onto them.

CF: The robot always had that kind of design, even from the original short I did in film school. I was taken by the image of this tiny little space suit-looking man walking around through a dusty old cottage. I know Jake always liked that image and it was the kernel that we tried to stay true to when we expanded it into a feature.

JK: Most science fiction tends to have technology negatively affecting our lives. Do you share the film's optimism about how technology and artificial intelligence might not just help us physically, but also emotionally?

CF: One of the first pseudo-AI programs I ever saw was a therapy chat bot named "Eliza." In its role as a therapist, it was already aiming to help emotionally. Of course it was all just a trick -- the way a therapist sometimes talks to you is by rephrasing your statements as leading questions, creating the illusion of intelligence in the chat bot. But even still, I think there was something to it. It was incredibly fascinating to talk to.

I don't think science fiction has to show technology affecting us negatively. It's just that when you're trying to be dramatic, that sort of situation tends to work. But with Robot & Frank, I really wanted the technology issue to be more open-ended. I wanted people to have an argument outside the theater about what they thought instead of the movie telling them what we thought. So the robot does a lot of great things for Frank, including emotionally. Technology can be incredibly positive, especially for our emotional well-being, as long as it lets us understand ourselves better -- but we have to not overdo it and make it the center of our lives.

JS: I think I'd say I'm agnostic about technology and our relationship to it. I think it will inevitably change our interaction both for better and worse. Given the amount of knee-jerk negativity you find out there about "robot overlords" and the like, I guess I probably find myself more on the side of defending it than worrying about it. That said, I'm no expert -- just trying to keep up.

(Watch the trailer for Robot & Frank here and go here to find out if/when it's playing near you.)

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