Indie Focus: ‘Robot & Frank’ faces old age with heart, technology

In the annals of buddy comedy caper flicks, “Robot & Frank” represents a new frontier, and not simply for its near-future, gently sci-fi setting.

The film, the first feature from director Jake Schreier and writer Christopher D. Ford, stars Frank Langella as an aging man who forms an unlikely bond with the diminutive home healthcare droid his adult children purchase for him. The duo pull off a series of ambitious and daring heists masterminded by former high-end jewel thief Frank, even as he struggles with slowly advancing dementia.

The film, which opens in Los Angeles on Friday, finds lightly comic moments as Frank, initially resistant to his robot companion, slowly comes to appreciate the machine’s skills in the kitchen and realizes he can teach the droid to do things — such as picking locks and casing a home to burgle. But there is an underlying melancholy too as Frank struggles with some of his life’s regrets, particularly about his family, and his discomfort over the young, tech-savvy nouveau riche who seem to be taking over his small town.

“It is a funny mix of tone and genre,” concedes Schreier, 30.

“Robot & Frank” dates to 2003, when Ford wrote and directed a short with the same title (that Schreier produced) as his thesis project when both were students enrolled in New York University’s film program.

In the intervening years, Schreier and Ford, both of whom hail from Northern California, were attempting to forge careers in the industry — Schreier directing commercials and music videos, Ford writing scripts, including a series of unproduced pilots for Comedy Central.

When the time came for the friends to try their hand at a feature, Schreier and Ford returned to the short. While it may seem unusual in hindsight for two relatively young men to make a film about the end of life, neither Schreier nor Ford thought much of it as they advanced the project.

“The idea for the story and the character jumped out at me,” said Ford, who concedes that he frequently hears from acquaintances “that I’m like a crotchety old man stuck in a 31-year-old body.”

For the full-length incarnation of the story, they invented the crime angle and fleshed out Frank’s family background, though they chose to maintain the robot’s objective distance from his fellow bandit.

“The robot doesn’t have a heart. It’s not alive, it doesn’t have a soul,” Schreier said recently in Los Angeles. “Frank projects those things onto it, and hopefully the audience does too ... but it’s not ‘Short Circuit,’ and it’s not ‘Robopocalypse.’ There’s a logic to what it’s doing.”

“I was really interested in the robot having conversations with Frank where he says ‘I’m not real, I’m just here to take care of you,’” added Ford, 31, in a separate interview. “The idea the robot would have this sort of opposite self-awareness, an awareness of his nonself, I felt was really important.”

A Tony Award-winning veteran of theater and film who was nominated for an Oscar for his portrayal of Richard Nixon in “Frost/Nixon,” Langella agreed to star in the film only after first meeting with Schreier and Ford to discuss the story’s take on aging, which includes a budding romance between Frank and a local librarian (Susan Sarandon).

“The fact that they chose to have it be about a man my age I thought was original, exciting and rare,” said Langella, 74. “You don’t get many films anymore in which if you are up in these years you’re playing the leading role.

“There are so many things that go into being in your 70s. Even if you’re not having Alzheimer’s, you are losing muscle mass, your memory slows, you feel vulnerable but have a resistance to being looked after, your defensiveness. Those are all just qualities of getting older.”

No buddy comedy can function with only half of a dynamic, and so crafting Frank’s partner, his intruder turned caretaker and erstwhile friend, a nuisance turned accomplice, was vital to the film’s success. Still, bringing the robot to life was one of the biggest challenges for the production, which was shot over 20 days last summer in upstate New York on a budget of roughly $2.5 million.

During filming, dancer Rachael Ma wore a suit designed by the effects house Alterian Inc. to reflect real-world likelihoods for service robots. Ma had difficulty speaking audibly from within the confines of the boxy, gleaming white outfit, so Langella’s nephew would often read the robot’s lines off-camera.

Actor Liev Schreiber was originally planned for the part of the robot’s voice, but his deep baritone seemed too commanding, the filmmakers realized; the reedier tenor of actor Peter Sarsgaard to their minds better conveyed the robot’s ambiguous demeanor. Sarsgaard, however, was not cast until filming had wrapped. He recorded his lines in only about eight hours.

“Robot & Frank” premiered to strong reviews at this year’s Sundance Film Festival, where it was awarded the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation prize given to films that explore themes of science and technology (previous winners include “Primer” and “Another Earth”).

Ford says he and Schreier wanted the gadgets to appear as forward-thinking extrapolations of current devices — a super-sleek TV, a phone that’s simply a small, clear screen, even the small service robots. In a subtle joke, Sarandon’s character, Jennifer, drives a dented and dilapidated Toyota Prius.

“If you actually were in the future, not everything will be made in the year 2037, you’d have a beat-up old car from 2010,” Ford said. “And that led us to something that was more interesting and realistic. The more you can miniaturize technology, the more it sinks into the background of our lives.”

Despite its futurist trappings, the film is really a study of the resonance of the human spirit in the face of change — either physical changes in the body itself or the evolution of society and culture represented by advances in technology. Both, Langella observes, are constant.

“This era is on its way out,” Langella said. “It’s not gone, you don’t find only houses that are sleek and perfunctory, you’re able to see Frank’s messed-up old house and inside is a robot walking around. It’s the beginning of what the future is going to be.

“I’d like to think that humanity is powerful and strong enough that it would resist being totally taken over by technological things. But it looks like that’s where we’re going.”

“Robot & Frank” will be the inaugural presentation in The Times’ Indie Focus screening series. The movie will be shown for free at 7:30 p.m. Wednesday at Laemmle’s NoHo 7 in North Hollywood. Admittance is first come, first served.

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