Greg Pak's Festival Hit "Robot Stories" Blends Technology and Heart
by Jason Guerrasio
[EDITORS NOTE: indieWIRE spoke with Greg Pak in February of 2004, "Robot Stories" will be released on DVD this week (February 8, 2005).]
After years of developing his filmmaking style by making dozens of shorts, Greg Pak unveiled his first feature-length film, "Robot Stories," which went on to win many accolades at a variety of film festivals. Mending futuristic technology and the human heart, Pak's storytelling resembles the science-fiction novels he read throughout his youth in Dallas.
"Robot Stories" delves into the human emotion with a quartet of short films set in a futuristic world. "My Robot Baby" explores adoption in the future as a couple must first care for a pint-sized robot before they are considered for a real-life child. "The Robot Fixer" finds a mother caring for her son who's in a coma after a car accident. Regretting all the things she didn't tell him in his youth, she finds solace in repairing his toy robot collection. "Machine Love" is set in a future where artificial intelligence is commonly found in the workplace. These walking, talking robots fit seamlessly into any environment by learning the tendencies of its human co-workers. We follow one as it learns the need for love. The finale, "Clay," leaves the deepest impression of the four as it examines the issue of memory scanning. Before people die there memories are scanned into a computer -- giving their minds eternal life. An elderly sculptor, on the cusp of death, must decide if he wants to go through with the now-common procedure or accept his end.
indieWIRE contributor Jason Guerrasio visited Pak at his Lower Manhattan office (cluttered with toy robots, old computers, and dozens of festival badges) to talk about his incredible journey on the festival circuit this past year, the sudden career change from politics to filmmaking, and his determination to get "Robot Stories" in theaters on his own terms. "Robot Stories" opens today at Cinema Village in New York City.
indieWIRE: How did you go from being a political science major at Yale and Rhodes Scholar at Oxford to enrolling in NYU film school?
Greg Pak: It's funny because I grew up always writing. The first thing I ever thought I wanted to be was a writer. But when I got into high school I started to think seriously about what I was going to end up doing and I never seriously considered perusing the arts as a profession. I went into political science because it's all the things I desperately cared about. My first entrée in all that was growing up as a minority (half Korean, half white) in north Dallas, which was a great place to grow up but at the same time I was aware of race at a very young age. I ended up going to England on a Rhodes Scholarship to study history, essentially to make myself a better politician; while I was there I had the chance for the first time to get involved in filmmaking. I realized this is what I need to be doing with my life.
iW: Was there a moment when you knew you wanted to change careers and devote all your time to filmmaking?
Pak: The first year I was at Oxford the student film group I was in did a video competition and I got to co-direct one of those videos. I still thought of it as extra curricular but the more I did it the more I realized this is what I wanted to do. The second year I got to direct a 16mm short film and I applied to NYU film school after that.
iW: Has science fiction always interested you?
Pak: That's what I grew up with. When I was a kid I read tons of Ray Bradbury, I read every Ray Bradbury short story, as I got older I was a big fan of [Kurt] Vonnegut so that stuff was always in my mind. When I started seriously working in film a lot of the storytelling that I was thinking about always came from the sort of storytelling that I was compelled with as a young person. What I loved about Bradbury was that he took these crazy, fantastic elements and put totally believably characters in them. He'd look at the way technological changes would work with real people in the real world. I think that comes out in "Robot Stories."
iW: How did you come up with the idea of "Robot Stories"?
Pak: I found this group that had a deal with the Lifetime Network to produce a few stories which would end up being this anthology that would be shown on mother's day. I thought I could come up with some ideas. I pitched them and the ideas that I came up with ended up being the first two stories in "Robot Stories" -- "My Robot Baby" and "The Robot Fixer." Those were my notion of mother's day stories; they're both a little twisted. The group passed on them but I was compelled by the idea and wrote them as screenplays.
iW: Did you always think of them as shorts?
Pak: Definitely. Certain kinds of stories need to be the length they are and both of these were stories that clocked in at 20-25 pages and that's what they needed to be. If I tried to force them into a feature length it just wouldn't have worked. But at the same time I was like, "What am I doing!?" because I can't scrape together the money to do a short film on this scale. I was doing tons of short films but I was doing knock-off digital comedies for $100 apiece. This required a certain amount of preparation. I had no idea how to make it but I really felt compassionate about the stories and I knew I had to do it. Subsequently I had written other stories and realized that they shared these themes of robots and technology and had this similar sort of heart to it, so I started working on them together as a feature.
iW: How difficult is it to write a script about the future and in the back of your mind know it has to be kept in line with your budget?
Pak: I figured that each one of the stories could have one crazy thing that we would try to do. The robot baby [in the first story], the digital effects in the last story, the robots flying in the second story, so we had certain elements which were going to be a challenge to do and I was able to do that within the budget. If I had tons of money I would have had the air ship in the background, you know, it would be like "A.I." or "Minority Report." Movies like that are so much fun to watch because every corner of the screen has information; "Blade Runner" is a classic example of that. With "Robot Stories" we didn't have the money to go and recreate everything, our solution was to come up with clever solutions. In the third story ("Machine Love") it's set in an office in the near future, and we had this discussion, what are the computers going to look like? We thought to get the latest Apple computers but by the time the movie comes out that stuff's going to be old hat so we just went retro. We found the oldest, crappiest looking computers we could find and it becomes a little stylized, subliminally stylized. It also helps focus in on the emotional story.
iW: What kind of technological research did you do?
Pak: I did a lot of reading. Over the years I've just read a lot of science magazines, I have a subscription to Scientific American; I've just been an interested layman. The thing is just about everything in the film is something that could happen. I didn't try to explain exactly how the technology works. The film isn't concerned with exactly how; it's really about "here's the technology, now how are we going to deal with it?" All the great science fiction is like that. That's why I think the movie has reached such diverse audiences.
iW: How important was it to have had your shorts play previously at festivals?
Pak: It was really huge, both in terms of being familiar with the festivals and knowing how they work. I had relationships with most of the festivals we wanted to play at. Some of them had played three or four of them through the years and they remembered me.
iW: Talk about your past year on the festival circuit.
Pak: It started at the Hamptons International Film Festival. That was a great experience; it was a really amazing catapult to get the film out there. From there we went to Hawaii and then we did Slamdance. Then we got into South by Southwest and after that we played all these amazing top regional festivals and we won awards at a lot of them. At the same time we were playing the Asian-American film festivals. For 10 years these film festivals had been playing my shorts. We got invited to the Puchon International Fantastic Film Festival in South Korea. That was huge for me. I had never been to Korea and it was always a dream of mine that I would go to Korea with a film. Doing that festival got us on the radar of a bunch of other international film festivals. We played in Sweden, we played in Spain, in Portugal, and we played in Athens, Greece.
iW: Did foreign audiences have differing views on the film as apposed to ones in the states?
Pak: Not really. Certain crowds respond to certain stories more than others. The gratifying thing about the whole experience is that the movie translates; people are amused by it and moved by it regardless where it plays in whatever country. That's been my guiding principle as a filmmaker and a storyteller. I've made movies for years which have these Asian or Asian American characters and I've done them believing in my heart that if I'm honest and true to the emotional stories that I'm telling that anybody will be able to enjoy it, it doesn't matter what background you're from.
iW: How often is race mentioned when you screen the film?
Pak: It comes up all the time. Sometimes they're very direct by asking, "What was the motivation for that?" Or sometimes they'd say, "Can you talk about casting?" [Laughs.] It's interesting because I get that in the United States, I got that in Europe, I even got that in Korea. People are totally compelled by the movie, they get it, but at the same time they want to ask this question and I understand that, but my answer is it was important to me to present this world in which you have all these people with different races in it but that's just an accepted part of their lives. Lots of times there are roles that are given to non-white actors because the characters are of a certain race in order to tell a certain moral story. There are a million movies where the judge is a black women and that's great, but there's something a little species about that kind of casting because what it's doing is it's a small part of a movie that plays lip service to this notion of a multi-cultural world in this eminently safe and uninteresting way. That's much less interesting to me than just starting from the ground up and having your main characters being people from other backgrounds just because and letting that be an essential part of the story and an essential subtext of the story. It's not there because you're using people symbolically for what they culturally represent but because you're telling a story about people who are real.
iW: You went to 44 film festivals (winning 22 awards). Looking back did the film lose its "buzz" by going to that many festivals?
Pak: There are other ways we could have taken the film out. If you have a shot you wait for those huge film festivals because the honest truth is, and people told me this beforehand, it's incredibly difficult to sell your film on the regional festival circuit. This was all an education for me. These kinds of things don't come up with short films. With my shorts I never thought one second about where it would premiere, with a feature it's really important to think about that. I felt redeemed that our strategy was working out because we got into Slamdance and then we got into South by Southwest. I had a duel strategy. One was to get into festivals where we could get it seen by distributors; two was to play strategically in festivals so we could build groundwork for a theatrical release if we were going to do it on our own. I feel really good how we used the festivals to set ourselves up for the theatrical [release].
iW: Why did you inevitably decide to self-distribute it?
Pak: We had a couple of offers from distributors and I really liked the people but the offers on a dollar scale was just hard for us to knuckle down and do. It's incredibly exciting when a distributor makes an offer and you're going to sign with them, that's the dream, but there's a lot of no-advance offers being made by theatrical distributors to smaller scale movies and I've just got tons of friends who made those kinds of deals and never saw a dime. For me, with this film, and for most first time filmmakers, you've got to get [the film] out there no matter what because if you don't it's going to be hard for you to get funding for the next feature. But I have a responsibility to my friends and family members who helped me fund this movie and I can't just give it away, I've got to really do my best to make the dollars back. And our budget is such that I think we can. Basically my business decision ended up being that unless somebody was going to give us enough money to make it really worthwhile we were going to hold on to the rights as long as we could and take it out theatrically ourselves.
iW: What are your next projects "Rio Chino" (currently in pre-production) and "MVP" about?
Pak: "Rio Chino" has been in my head for 12 years. The first day of film school I was like, "I'm going to make a feature film and it's going to be a western with a Chinese gunslinger." I always believed this would be a project I would do and I wrote many different versions of the screenplay over the years. The version that we've got is totally doable for $3-$4 million. Frankly that was another objective in our whole ["Robot Stories"] festival run, to meet people who'd be helpful making "Rio Chino."
"MVP" was a work for hire and actually Karin Chien ("Robot Stories" producer) hired me to do [the screenplay] because after we did "Robot Stories," Karen got this job producing "MVP." Shortly after shooting "Robot Stories," while we were editing, I was writing the screenplay. It's essentially a courtroom drama/drug movie thriller. It is by director Harry Davis and it premiered at Sundance.
iW: So it's been quite a good year for you?
Pak: Absolutely. It paid off in many other ways too. Every time we played at a festival I'd meet somebody who'd be helpful, either in my own career or getting the film out there. And that's essential to us because we're a scrappy, skin of your teeth, shoestring and chewing gum operation and we don't have a lot of money. We won't be able to buy that full page New York Times ad, we can't even buy a quarter page, we can't even buy an eighth page, probably not a sixteenth but we will be able to move the grassroots, that's out plan.
[ For more information on "Robot Stories, go to: http://www.robotstories.net. ]