Jon Wright talks Robot Overlords

Robot Overlords - SciFi London

Robot Overlords, a new family sci-fi action-adventure from the director of Grabbers, hits cinemas this weekend, after playing at the London Film Festival and the most recent SciFi Weekender. The director, Jon Wright, talked to us about the process of making the film. 

But first, here's the trailer: 

How did Robot Overlords come to be your next project after Grabbers?

It was a very strange evolution. I was in the middle of editing Grabbers and I had a dream where me and a little boy were in a house on a Victorian terrace street. He was playing with a toy gun and he hid in the window as a huge two-storey robot came stomping along the street and swung its laser-cannon down and said “Citizen, drop your weapon!” I rushed to the window, pulled the gun out of his hand, held it up and said, “It’s just a toy, it’s just a toy!”

I woke up and thought that was quite exciting and wondered what film it was from. I just kept telling people that I was bumping into about it and asking what movie it was. After a few days I thought, “Maybe that’s an original notion,” the idea of being trapped in your houses by these huge robots.

One of the producers of Grabbers came into the edit suite and said, “I really want to make a science-fiction film, have you got any ideas?” I said, “Well, funny you should mention that, but I had a dream about this.” It snowballed from there. That’s never happened to me before or since, will probably never happen again.

Films tend to be only for very young kids, only for teens, only for adults, but here there’s a mix of genres. I really enjoyed that there’s a sense of sci-fi action-adventure, there’s a bit of gangster movie in there, what was your approach to blending those ideas?

Broadly it’s aimed at me when I was ten years old, it’s me thinking back to the sort of film I loved when I was that age. There’s a lot of complicated ideas in the film, but none of them really impinge on the plot. The plot itself is actually quite simple and linear and drives forward pretty relentlessly. Essentially I was channelling influences from a lot of American movies that I absolutely loved when I was that age, they were my favourite films. Early Spielberg and Amblin, a film like Stand by Me for example, or The Goonies, the way the kids behaved, and the way that they swore and joked around with each other a lot. But then obviously if you channel that through 2015 and making a film on an indie British budget it changes into something else.

It’s more interesting to make an original movie than to do a remake or a reboot because someone who is film literate can pick up the Amblin side in the movie, but the actual experience for someone who is ten or even younger when they watch it is quite different. To them it’s something new. I know that from some of the test screenings we’ve had of various ages from 8 to 14/15, our core audience, and how much they enjoy the film.

Robot Overlords - SciFi London

You mentioned it’s not a remake or a reboot, and while it might be low budget by Hollywood standards it still has a lot of effects. Is it difficult to get that kind of film made?

It’s big-budget by British standards; it’s tiny, micro-budget, by Hollywood standards. That’s always the problem - we as a country are the 51st state when it comes to movies. British people, by and large, watch American movies and reject the home-grown stuff. When you try and make a film that impinges on the territory that’s covered by Americans, it’s tricky. You just don’t have even a fraction of the resources that they have. We tried to do something different, so there’s a reason to go see our film instead of Transformers or whatever the alternative might be, so our film is trying to occupy a different space, rather than go toe-to-toe with those kinds of films, where I don’t think we can really compete in terms of spectacle. But I hope we have a film that’s character-driven ultimately and that has people in it that you can believe in, who make decisions you can understand and everything in terms of the plot that’s in the foreground makes sense, and also that the kids are a bit sweary and a bit jokier than the more earnest kids you tend to get in the most recent Hollywood movies.

More like real kids, yeah.

Exactly, that’s what we were going for. I wanted to have ordinary British kids from an ordinary British place in an extraordinary situation, which is what I always felt the American movies that I was weaned on were all about. They’re very good at blue-collar workers, whether it’s Roy Neary in Close Encounters [of the Third Kind], whoever it might be.

Was that a challenge as a director, working with effects and kids? How do you keep the characters real and give them something to react to?

It’s tricky, we did a lot of rehearsal with the younger actors, rehearsed the script and the situation a hundred different ways, and that really helped them. When it came to seeing the robots, we tried to use as many tricks and techniques as possible to help them feel like there was a robot there. We had a lot of really detailed concept art which was very exciting to look at, depicting the robots doing different things, but rather than showing it to them during rehearsal I’d hold stuff back. Then before you go for a take I’d show them concept art and you get that moment of “oh wow yeah that’s what it looks like” and that would generally last maybe three, four minutes. So you try and go straight for a take and capture that sense of wonder.

Robot Overlords - SciFi London

In terms of the adult cast, how did Ben Kingsley and Gillian Anderson become involved in the film?

With Ben and Gillian we sent them the script and hoped for the best, and I’m very happy to say that they both reacted to it. They were my first choices, both heroes to me, really. You see what they both bring to the table, they’re extremely talented, fantastic actors to work with and they deliver. What’s interesting for me, they’re both doing something a little bit different. Some of the reviews that I don’t think are maybe as perceptive about the movie are seeing Ben as doing a kind of pantomime thing, in the tone of Thunderbirds or something like that, which I think is really missing the point of Robin Smythe. He went in a very detailed way into this guy’s backstory, and his history, his life, his upbringing, and worked out the psychology of what his problem was.

He’s quite a tragic character.

Yeah. If it wasn’t for the robot invasion Robin Smythe would have been a geography teacher who was very bitter about the fact that he’d been passed over for headmaster and couldn’t understand why that had happened. When the robots invade, he sees his chance for the little man to become something important, and he presents himself as a person who should be in charge of the Zone. The robots don’t understand distinctions like who’s a geography teacher and who’s a politician, so they allow him to do that, and he’s really out of his depth. He’s doing his best, he wants to make a family with Gillian Anderson’s character. I was very honoured to work with those two.

When we do see films like these made in the UK, they’re usually set in London, urban or metropolitan areas, but the seaside setting in this film did feel like something we’ve not seen before.

I live in a small seaside town, not unlike the one in the film, and they’re very visual places, they have a romance about them. The reason that we settled on a seaside town as a setting was obviously the streets are all empty, you have robots patrolling the streets but everyone’s confined to their houses, there aren’t people walking about. It chimed with the idea of a seaside town in winter where you get that feeling where the tourists aren’t there and on a cold windy day everyone’s inside and you get these desolate but very picturesque streets. When we went to look at seaside towns I got very excited because I started picturing two-storey robots and starships flying overhead, and I thought, “I haven’t seen this, I can’t think of another movie that does this.”

When people have come to write about the film they’ve actually really struggled finding points of comparison. They’re talking about really old TV series like The Tripods, and Doctor Who, and I think all of these things aren’t really good analogies, personally, and again they’re talking much bigger American movies like Transformers, and things like that, and again for me they’re not accurate either. Obviously there are things that connect them but I do think that we’re in a very different place, so it’s great to actually get the film out there and have the public see it and make their own minds up. It will be fun for me to see how the perception of the movie changes over the years.

Robot Overlords - SciFi London

Obviously the touchstones for you, like the Amblin films, are very rooted in the ‘80s. Any films in particular you looked to for inspiration?

We had a good look at The Goonies and Stand By Me. It’s something that I felt when I watched The Hunger Games where the kids are quite pious, earnest and serious, and they take themselves quite seriously. I just don’t remember school being like that. I remember being sweary and jokey and silly and mucking around a lot, and that sort of spirit is in those earlier films and I wanted to translate that into a modern-day context.

I love Stand By Me, so I did recognise that. And then some of ET.

I’d forgotten ET actually. I think the kids’ performances in that are better than any other film of that era. That’s what makes that movie, ultimately. Obviously ET himself was a kind of a technological marvel at the time, but what really makes the film is the kids and how relaxed and believable they are.

That would probably still be on my top 10 list of films. It was very formative for me. As a young boy, I didn’t like mushy stuff, I didn’t like sentimental films, it really opened me up a bit emotionally. So we’re in a similar place. We had a lot of debate about how often the characters could kiss, and how much. It was thinking back to how we were as kids, and not wanting to alienate a chunk of our audience.

Yeah, none of that mushy stuff.

Exactly. We’ve got a very minimal amount, and it was fun when we were screening it at the BFI Southbank. There were a lot of kids there and there was a big groan from all the boys when Ella Hunt’s character kisses Callan McAulifffe’s character. But they all laughed then when Connor (Milo Parker) said, “That’s not mouth-to-mouth.” So that line’s in there to undercut the romance of the moment. That was very much for the 10-year-old boys out there.

What are you working on next?

I have a film which I’m setting up in America about five teenagers who come into contact with a psychiatrist who believes that the solution to the world’s problems is to reintroduce the rite-of-passage ceremony into society, using virtual reality. So that’s pretty cool, quite exciting, much bigger budget than I’ve had before. In the UK Mark Stay and I, we co-wrote Robot Overlords, we’re rewriting a horror script which is called True Story, hardcore horror. Not in the sense of blood and guts but it’s very frightening. I’ve felt with the horror films I’ve done, they’re two horror-comedies really, I had to soft-pedal some of the elements because of the way the films have been targeted. Both Grabbers and Tormented tested really well with people too young to see the films, so they were very keen to get the certificate down and have it not too violent and frightening. I’ve always had a hankering to make a film that I’d call my Frightfest movie, that could have a big premiere at Frightfest. The kind of film my Mum and my girlfriend will probably never watch and hate me for it. That’s part of the fun!

Robot Overlords - SciFi London

Robot Overlords is out in cinemas this Friday, 27th March.

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