Making independent movies is never easy. The long days. The extremely quick turnarounds. And of course, the crappy catering.
So for filmmaker Jake Schreier, it was somewhat of a surprise and a blessing to at least land Oscar-nominated acting legend Frank Langella for his first low-budget feature film, Robot & Frank.
“It’s incredible,” says the Brooklyn-based director during a recent phone interview. “When you’re on an indie film and you only have 20 days to shoot and maybe six takes per scene, to have someone who can nail it so quickly — I mean it’s an incredible advantage.”
The fact that the 74-year old star of such recent hits as Frost/Nixon and the psychological thriller Unknown is still willing to take on independent projects speaks to the thespian’s humility. After all, this is an actor who earlier this year released a memoir not about himself, but about many of the talented people he’s worked alongside over the years.
“He wrote that memoir on our set in fact,” admits Schreier of Langella’s book Dropped Names: Famous Men and Women As I Knew Them. “He was kind of editing and rewriting and he would call me (into) his little dressing room and I’d come in and he’d read me a passage before we went out to shoot.”
Surreal as it was for Schreier to share such intimacies with a master of stage and screen, he admits he heard a lot of juicy inside stories but “none of which are printable.” Instead, Schreier prefers to discuss how the role was truly ideal for Mr. Langella — even if the lead character’s given name was merely a coincidence.
Robot & Frank began its life as a thesis project back in 2003 when Schreier was attending NYU with writer C.D. Ford. A futuristic short film about an elderly man saddled with a caretaking robot by his estranged kids, the quirky project was quickly forgotten once the pair graduated.
Years later, however, after he had established a career directing commercials and working with musical act Francis and the Lights (who also scores the film), Schreier reteamed with Ford and the duo revisited their old premise — bent on bringing it to the big-screen.
“It certainly evolved a lot,” says Schreier about the once simple fable. “There’s a lot that needed to be added in terms of broadening the family relationship (so) it’s pretty different.”
Another plot expansion that excited Schreier was the addition of a criminal element. A former burglar, the character of Frank is reluctant to accept the robot into his life, until he realizes the android’s objectivity interns it to be the ideal accomplice for a jewel heist.
But crafting a believable relationship between a robot and a thief proved to be problematic beyond just plot. Originally, actor Liev Schreiber (Goon) was cast for the robot’s soothing voice, but after filming wrapped, the director made a bold move and turned to Peter Sarsgaard (An Education, Garden State) to replace the tracks.
“In the end, it was the depth of (Liev’s) voice — it just didn’t play well enough off of Frank,” says Schreier. “With Peter, he just has this innate sense of empathy and caring in his voice that even when you make it robotic it still comes through. If you’re programming a caretaker robot, that’s something you’d really look for.”
Don’t be deceived by the drama’s wild array of thematic elements, however. While the film does immerse itself in science-fiction leanings (it’s partly about an android after all), Schreier’s aim with Robot & Frank is less a critique about the future and more about facing the onset of change.
“I don’t think in the end the movie is particularly trying to abdicate a position,” says Schreier. “Technology will certainly change the way we interact with each other and I think absolutely something will be lost, but also things are gained and, in the movie… all (Frank) can see is what’s being lost and by the end he actually has gained something through this relationship. We’re just trying to show both sides of it.”