Sundance: Finding the emotional connection of a robot (video)
Some 45,000 people will descend on Utah over the next eight days of the Sundance Film Festival, Gov. Gary Herbert said on Friday night, but most obvious at the Salt Lake City premiere were the no-shows.
Expected visitors, that is, like the cast of "Robot and Frank," actors Frank Langella, Susan Sarandon, James Marsden and Liv Tyler, who didn't walk a press line before the movie or attend a Q&A session afterward.
Before the screening, Herbert welcomed filmgoers, underscoring the festival's annual economic benefit to the state, estimated to be $90 million. The allure of Sundance puts Utah on the map, the governor said, bringing jobs and tourist dollars and giving visitors a reason to return.
The festival attracts not just starlets but also politicians, Herbert said, introducing Vermont Gov. Peter Shumlin in a Rose Wagner Performing Arts Center theater filled with local officials, including Salt Lake County Mayor Peter Corroon.
And speaking of economic benefits, two Sundance documentaries, "The Queen of Versailles" and "Searching for Sugar Man," had already received distribution deals after Thursday night's opening screenings, announced Trevor Goth, festival director of programming.
Without the glitz of celebrity, the evening's attention turned to "Robot and Frank," a deliberately paced, offbeat buddy comedy about a man, played with languid charm by Frank Langella, and his robot caretaker, foisted on him by his son.
After the credits rolled, an appreciative audience enthusiastically greeted director Jake Schreier and screenwriter Christopher Ford. Programmers considered the movie a "crowd-pleaser," and advance buzz had made it one of the most sought-after tickets of the entire festival, Goth said.
The feature, which grew out of a film-school short, was developed over three years, Schreier said, but shot in just 20 days last summer. "Every day since we stopped shooting we've been working to bring it here to you guys," he said.
One audience member asked about the character of the robot, which Schreier explained was portrayed by actor Rachael Ma just under 5 feet tall, and stuffed inside a robotic suit with the voice provided by Peter Sarsgaard. Filmmakers hoped to develop a machine that appeared regimented, but with some element of emotion, Schreier said.
And when the inevitable question about the film's overall budget came, it served as a reminder that this was a Sundance crowd, a room filled with both film lovers and wannabe filmmakers. If he revealed the number, the director said, well-served by delivering a cliche, "I'd have to kill you."
The idea for "Robot and Frank" was "ripped from the headlines," Ford said, based on an NPR radio story he heard some years back about a Japanese initiative attempting to build robots to care for the elderly. "That captured my imagination," he said, to which an enthusiastic filmgoer responded: "Good job!"
'Robot and Frank' screenings
Saturday, Jan. 21, 9:30 p.m. • Eccles Theatre, Park City
Sunday, Jan. 22, 8:30 a.m. • Library Center Theatre, Park City
Thursday, Jan. 26, 10 p.m. • Redstone Cinema 7, Park City
Friday, Jan. 27, 6:30 p.m. • Peery's Egyptian Theater, Ogden
Sunday, Jan. 29., 3:30 p.m. • Rose Wagner Performing Arts Center, Salt Lake City