by Luke Hickman
Ever since attending NYU Film School a few years back, Christopher Ford has written a slew of features and shorts, but 'Robot and Frank,' this year's Salt Lake City opening night gala film, is his first to ever be made and seen by the masses. This is also his first time at Sundance. If this is what he's capable of pulling off as a newbie, it will be fun to see what he does as he becomes a more seasoned writer.
'Robot and Frank' is the story of a senile old man (Frank Langella) whose son (James Marsden) buys him a robotic caretaker. Before long, Frank learns that he can manipulate his robot, so the two head off on a heist-filled adventure.
HDD – Luke Hickman: Alright. First time at Sundance and -
Christopher Ford: Yes!
HDD: - how is it?
Christopher Ford: It's amazing! This is my first fully produced movie script, so it crazy to me. I haven't gotten to see any movies.
HDD: Are you going to see any?
Christopher Ford: I want to – uh – but it's kinda too crazy. But it's cool because I have other friends that I went to school with that have movies here. It's weird. My friends are here so it seems like "it's happening."
HDD: Where did you all go to school?
Christopher Ford: NYU.
HDD: What are some of the movies that your friends have here?
Christopher Ford: There's 'Bachelorette,' which has an awesome cast - a lot of fun people to work with. There's the Mike Birbiglia one – 'Sleepwalk with Me' – with one of my producers from film school. And a lot of short films. There are so many people here that I know.
HDD: Being your first film produced, this has to be extremely surreal.
Christopher Ford: Oh, yeah. And it all happened really fast. We obviously had the right content, but then we shot it this summer, [director] Jake Schreier started editing in September, and we had to get it ready for January. It's kinda crazy, right?
HDD: Yeah. I was at the premiere when you guys were talking about this at the Q&A after the movie. Wasn't it a 21-day shoot?
Christopher Ford: 20. We wanted one more day, but … . Yeah, it was during the summer too, so it sucked.
HDD: When did you find out that you were accepted to Sundance?
Christopher Ford: Ummm. About Thanksgiving.
HDD: From your position, how did the whole application process go?
Christopher Ford: Our producers did. That was their job. Galt Niederhoffer put together our cast, our application to Sundance and made it happen. So, I wrote a script, got notes for everybody, was there when they shot it, and they made all of this happen. It felt really good to be in their hands.
HDD: Good producers!
Christopher Ford: Yeah!
HDD: Do they include you on all of the business aspects of it from here - like any bites you've received about distribution?
Christopher Ford: Oh, yeah. We're definitely buzzing with that stuff right now. But that's kinda their business. They keep me informed though. It's involves Jake more in the actual decision, but they let me know. To me, this is all a bonus from having it made.
HDD: How long ago did you write the script?
Christopher Ford: I guess I started writing the feature script in 2010, or maybe the end of 2009. But it's funny, it was short before from back in film school, so the idea is from 2002.
HDD: Was it one of the first shorts you ever made?
Christopher Ford: No, it was actually the last one – my senior thesis film that I directed and Jake produced. I basically learned from it that I wanted to be a writer over a director.
HDD: Is it hard handing you scripts over to a director, to Jake?
Christopher Ford: No. No. I trust him. I'm really lucky because I'm really good friends with the director. I was on set the whole time. He wanted me there for my writer's viewpoint on what we were shooting.
HDD: Seeing the final product, is it how you imagined it?
Christopher Ford: Yeah. Pretty much. It's actually better. It's collaborative. Everyone brings something with them. Like Frank Langella – he brought so much to the character of Frank, even when I was still in the writing phase. Actors, they read the script and see everything from their character's point of view. That could be bad, but because they were experts, they were like, "No way. Why would the character do this?" And that's actually really helpful.
HDD: So it's a learning process at the same time?
Christopher Ford: Oh, yeah. Absolutely.
HDD: How did you get this cast?
Christopher Ford: It was Galt. It helped that we got Frank interested first. Maybe there's not a lot of parts for older guys – and it's playful. We met him at some restaurant. He wanted to see if we were passionate about the script. And he said, "Sure I'll do your movie … if it happens." And when it all came together, he was like, "Oh! Ok. Here we are." And he was great.
HDD: What about the rest of the cast? How did you land Susan Sarandon, James Marsden and Liv Tyler?
Christopher Ford: I think once we landed Frank, it peaked their interest in the script. I think they wanted to work with him. It's funny how James Marsden has been in two other movies with him – not as his son, but as his nephew. And again in 'The Box.' Marsden was also Susan Sarandon's kid in two movies. I think there's a family resemblance here.
HDD: It's an awesome cast. I'll tell you, part of the fun for me when watching the movie was that I had no idea that it was turning into a heist film, that Frank would coax this robot in breaking and entering.
Christopher Ford: (laughs) We originally did not have that part. In the short, the son drops the robot off. It's all sad. Frank dies in the end.
HDD: Do Frank and Robot become buddies like they do in the feature?
Christopher Ford: Yeah-yeah-yeah. There was also the whole library plot, but it was more focused on reading.
HDD: Well, with books disappearing and everything going digital, it looks like things might be going the way of the movie. It's applicable.
Christopher Ford: Oh, yeah. What's crazy is that in 2009, when I was thinking all this up, I thought, 'What would they have? Maybe a little tablet computer? What would I call it?' At the time there was no iPad, but now it's all happening. I swear! My thought of tablet computers became totally real. We caught up to reality.
HDD: Now we just need them to be see-through like yours in the film.
Christopher Ford: Exactly! Maybe the robot is next.
HDD: I was laughing at the Q&A after the premiere when someone in the audience asked you how far away we are from this technology. Jake plead the fifth and you said 2025.
Christopher Ford: (laughs)
HDD: How have the Q&As been? You get your handful of good questions and the occasional weirdo one.
Christopher Ford: Oh, it's fun! It's crazy because I went to a lot of Q&As in film school and it's odd to be conducting one. It's funny because Jake it is kinda shy. When he comes out to introduce the film in the beginning, he's quiet and small. It isn't until they begin asking questions that he warms up.
HDD: So, what's next? Have you written anything? Are you writing anything?
Christopher Ford: I think the biggest thing right now is that I'm writing a horror movie for Eli Roth that he's producing. Another friend from film school is going to direct. It's called 'Clown.'
HDD: Oh, you know what? I saw this on IMDb, right?
Christopher Ford: Yeah. It's a cool story. Me and my other friend John made a fake trailer for a horror movie called 'Clown' as a joke, we put it on YouTube and it got some attention. We put in as part of trailer – to make it seems real – that it was directed by Eli Roth. It was the perfect note to make this really horrible movie about a clown killer. And then [Roth] saw it because someone sent it to him and he called us up and said, "This is a really good idea. Let's do it!"
HDD: He loves that viral stuff, doesn't he?
Christopher Ford: Yeah – and it's awesome!
HDD: So, first you're working with your buddies, now you're working with Eli Roth.
Christopher Ford: And my buddies! And [Eli Roth] is a really nice guy.
HDD: Which part of the process are guys in with 'Clown?'
Christopher Ford: Right now we're just locking up the script, pre-production stuff. I'm not exactly sure when we're shooting – probably in the summer again, which I'm kinda dreading because of the whole 'Robot' thing. We were shooting in upstate New York and we were in almost record-setting heat. Humid times. The woman in the robot suit, Rachel – it was dangerous. We had to stop every once in a while so she wouldn't pass out. That was not fun. There are parts on the suit that you can kinda see through, so she had to wear this black suit. If you saw it, it was supposed to resemble circuits. And she was just sweating it up in that thing the whole time. She's short - like 4'11" - but she's a dancer – a sexy go-go dancer.
HDD: Go figure. She had the robotic movement down. There's not a time in the movie where she doesn't seem robotic.
Christopher Ford: Exactly. It was weird. There was this zen sort of things she had to do to focus on standing still while Frank was yelling at her. It was kinda bizarre.
HDD: I've got to tell you, I enjoy the typical Sundance movies, but it's always fun to see something like this here – like a PG-13 heartfelt dramatic comedy - because it unexpected. We need more of it.
Christopher Ford: It's got a lot of genres mixed together, so it's unique in the end.