Jon Wright interview: Robot Overlords, reviews, the Don Logan moment

Jon Wright on directing Robot Overlords, working with Ben Kingsley and Gillian Anderson, and why he made an 80s-style family film.

Three films in, and Jon Wright is very much a director whose output is worth keeping an eye on. His first full feature, Tormented, was an effective horror with some strong moments, but it was Grabbers where he really struck gold. It remains, along with Tucker & Dale Vs Evil, our favourite horror comedy of recent times. Wright has taken a different turn for his new movie, Robot Overlords, a sci-fi movie aimed at a family audience. And he spared us some time to natter about it…

Can you put into words how you’re feeling, on the eve of your film’s release?

Well, I’m a bit nervous about the release, as you would be. Hoping it goes well. And I’m reading all the press that people are writing, which I actually think is very interesting. Sometimes it’s a bit deflating when it’s negative, and you feel shellshocked. But when it’s positive, which I’m pleased to say it’s mostly been, it’s just very interesting. You put all these thoughts and ideas into it, you get a subjective point of view on it, and then you see what somebody else thinks of it. It’s often quite refreshing and different to how you might think about it.

You’ve broken the first law of the interview there. You’re supposed to tell us that you never read reviews.

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No, I do. I read them all. But I prepare myself sometimes! They’re not always what you want them to be.

Do they matter to you?

Yes, they do actually. I’m of the opinion that the majority of film reviewers are being honest. Not all of them, but the majority. That it’s honestly what they think. The good ones get to the point where they pride themselves on being honest, being truthful, and not being swayed by the hoopla that goes with it. So yeah, when I read them I go okay, this is what somebody really thinks.

Also, with my films, what I’ve found all the way along is they divide people. You get people who love them, people who really don’t like them. That’s as it should be.

The thing that I don’t do, and I have to say this, is that I don’t scroll down and read the comments anymore. I can’t go there!

When you commit to a film, you’re investing years of your life to one story. So why did you want to in this case?

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It is a big commitment. I think this is where some filmmakers get stuck, and why they don’t sometimes make a film for years and years. They realise it is a big decision.

I love this kind of movie. The formative experience for me, the epiphany, was seeing Raiders Of The Lost Ark I think at the age of ten. It was a magical experience for me, that made me want to try and make a film. This film is very much aimed at a ten year old.

Ten year old you?

Very much. My memory of a ten year old. The ten year old me who lives on in my heart. The way it plays – we’ve tested it now, so I know statistically, or anecdotally, what people think… It plays really well with kids from seven or eight through to about 14 or 15. Older teenagers tend to turn their noses up at it. Then you’ve got a whole swathe of adults who come in above that.

This is something I’m getting from reading the critics I suppose, but it doesn’t have the kind of sophistication you might get in an ‘adult’ movie, to please an adult audience. There are certain things that the character of The Mediator said, for instance, that were quite complicated. We found that kids weren’t able to follow it. We reduced his dialogue to make these bold, simple statements.

The Mediator is a creepy creation…

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He is, yes! We talked a lot about the Child Catcher in Chitty Chitty Bang Bang. How he used to give us nightmares, but he didn’t overtly do anything massively evil. But he was an object of horror. We made him a character who on the surface of it doesn’t do anything especially nefarious. He’s quite passive really. But we very much tried to put him in that uncanny valley place, where you’re not sure what you’re looking at.

You described this project back to us in 2012 as like ‘Stand By Me vs robots’ or ‘Goonies vs robots’. What you didn’t say at the time was that it would be ‘Goonies vs robots at the British seaside’.

[Laughs] No!

But the locale is interesting. Was that a budgetary decision, or did you deliberately want to locate these events, that we saw generally in Middle America back in 80s films, in somewhere as quaint as the British seaside?

Definitely. I live by the seaside. I live in a town that’s similiar sized to the one in the movie, that’s no coincidence.

The first time I got excited was when we were in Northern Ireland, and we went to a seaside town called Portrush. A Victorian town, that’s quite picturesque, quite quaint, and in some ways, it’s seen better days. But I started picturing two storey high robots marching down the street, and that’s when I started to get a buzz. I thought I’d never seen that before. Usually in a seaside town you think of Emily Lloyd cycling down the street on her bicycle. You don’t generally have these kind of movies set there. It was to try and go to the diametric opposite of what we’re used to, which would be the dustbowl town in the middle of America. The Los Angeles suburb, something like that.

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Did you have the option to scale it up further?

I had a choice. We could have gone to America and financed it there, at which point it would have become an American movie, and taken on a very different character. Or to stay here, which is what we did. The budget has been reported at various levels, but it was a smaller budget, let’s say.

The closest thing tonally to this that we’ve seen anyone attempt in recent years was probably last summer’s Earth To Echo.

Oh yeah, yeah.

I thought it was a sweet film, but one that didn’t really have teeth to it. Robot Overlords bares its teeth more. A couple of the reviews, for instance, have picked up on the language of the film, and that it’s quite sweary. Could you touch on that, and how deliberately you’re looking to push the scare buttons?

The swearing was very conscious. It wasn’t a thoughtless thing, it was very intended. And for me it’s not that sweary. But obviously we all have our own standards. I remember when I got my first job, which was a runner for a facilities company. I was absolutely shocked by how much everybody swore! Particularly the creative people, the editors, and the filmmakers.

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Now I’ve obviously got used to that over the years, so it may be that my standards of what I consider sweary are much lower or higher than somebody else’s. But I always liked those films in the 80s because they were sweary, and the kids had a way of speaking to each other. It was quite irreverent and jokey, they saw the funny side of everything, and they weren’t terribly earnest or pious. This is part of that.

It’s not really intended for kids probably under the age of six, and more sensitive children say under the age of eight should stay away. But I wanted to make the kind of film which, when I was younger, I’d be begging my dad at the age of nine to take me to see the movie. Knowing it was a bit naughty, a bit sweary, a bit scary. And then I hope that the dad enjoys it too!

It’s often forgotten that The Goonies has a joke about hard drugs in it!

Yeah! The Goonies is very sweary. You think of the 80s as this more censored times. But I watched Harry And The Hendersons with my five year old son the other day, and there were quite a few times where swearwords were used.

The thing with scary movies is that it’s quite hard to predict what people will find frightening. It’s very subjective. I remember being utterly terrified by The Omen and The Exorcist. The thing that frightened me was the concept of the devil. But admittedly I did spend some of my time in Catholic Ireland. I wouldn’t have said I was especially religious as a child, or had an especially religious upbringing. But that just got under the skin. Whereas for some kids it’s someone hiding in the shadows in the corner of a room.

We have some scenes in our film that are pretty intense, and that was intentional.

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It’s the tone, though, that’s what really unsettling. I think of It Follows of late, which for a good 70 minutes sustained a tone that was far more unsettling to me than any individual moment I could put my finger on.

That’s interesting.

From your point of view, how do you manage and maintain the tone? And make sure the audience never jumps out of your film?

Tone is something that I had a baptism of fire on. I didn’t appreciate, coming from short films, how important it was. My first film, Tormented, I really mixed two tones unintentionally, without knowing I was doing it. I had certain characters in that film who were in a realistic film about teenagers. And then other characters who were in a broad comedy, who were mugging a little, and almost on the brink of panto. You find when you come to cut it together that they’re fighting with each other. They’re robbing the other tone of its pleasures, and you’re having to do weird things in the edit that aren’t very happy.

So when I came to Grabbers I was very conscious to that. I tried to make the tone as consistent as I could. Which meant that things that were funny, but not really believable, had to go. You set a certain type of realism. I wouldn’t say that Grabbers is realistic in any way.

But you have to buy it.

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Yeah. You lay out your ground rules and stick to them. The best example is a film like An American Werewolf In London. It’s a horror comedy, but the rules are quite strict, and it feels quite plausible. As a result, there are only a handful of jokes in there. They’re just really good jokes.

With Robot Overlords then, where did Gillian Anderson and Sir Ben Kingsley come in? Because both are casting coups really.

They are, yes.

With the best will in the world, as much as I like Tormented and particularly love Grabbers, your two films to date had lower profile casts to them. There’s not been a bona fide international star. So how does the mechanic change when these two walk on set?

We drew up a wishlist of who we wanted and they were both at the top. But we had time. In my previous films, we had the time to make slightly unrealistic offers, so we did, and you hope for the best. I was very pleasantly surprised that they both wanted to meet. And I think that they both saw something in the script that worked for them. Gillian gets to play a mother, an ordinary woman in an extraordinary situation. An English teacher who’s drawing on her resources. She doesn’t have any special powers, she’s just living on her wits, really. She really enjoyed that, and actually found it quite challenging. She wasn’t able to fall back on any of the habits that she might have acquired while doing The X-Files, or the other things she’s done. She’s often quite a specialist character.

Ben was really intrigued by the whole life under occupation kind of it. He’s a collaborator in an occupied country. He lives in a castle that remind you a bit of Colditz. So there was all that stuff, and he really connected with that. The backstory of the character. He had a lot of stuff worked out about his relationship with his mother, why he found robots attractive, their lack of emotion, why he was trying to rebuild this strange family. It was very interesting to talk to him on the set every day.

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That said, what happens the first time he tries something you don’t like? Does a little bit go through your head where you think, hmmm, that’s Don Logan?

[Laughs] Well we had our Don Logan moment on set! He got very interested in the work of the younger kids, and he used to come and watch Milo’s scenes without Milo knowing. He’d have a smile on his face, and he really enjoyed watching me directing Milo, and Milo learning how to act really. And so when it came to the scene where [redacted] and James Tarpey is [redacted], getting angrier and angrier, I asked Ben to help me. Would he give them something off camera? He knew the camera wasn’t on him, so he let loose. We got a very sweary, angry, aggressive version of Robert Smythe. The same accent, but he was using every word under the sun, and really, really trying to wind them up. James gets quite angry in the scene, and I think he actually forgot he was acting!

What Ben was doing was brilliant. He’s not an improviser. He doesn’t like improvisation particularly. He’s very particular about the script, and has a tight relationship with the continuity person. He’ll call them over and ask if he’d said one word wrong. And they might say, there’s some intonation or other. And he’d be quite cross. Then he’d go for another take and get it right.

I’m usually very sceptical about that Sexy Beast story, and the idea that it was all done to the script. That it was a word-perfect rendition of the script. I always thought that was rubbish. Having worked with him now, I think it was definitely to script!

He did an interview that ran in The Guardian earlier in the week where his answers to questions were familiar. But I wonder if that’s partly what comes when you dig so deeply into a role beforehand?

I read that interview. I think Ben is a sensitive character, extremely perceptive, and he thinks very deeply about everything. I think his way of dealing with that after years in the business where he’s got nothing to prove, where he’s done everything at the highest level and worked with the best directors in the world, he puts up a few walls. But I didn’t recognise Ben Kingsley in that interview at all.

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You’ve hinted anyway that there might be a Robot Overlords 2 in the offing?

Well, what I can tell you now, because we’ve done some signatures and stuff, is it’s looking very likely that we’re going to turn Robot Overlords into a high-end TV series. We’ve got a big company in the UK, who are going to produce it. And two big broadcasters: one in the UK, one in the US. So it’ll be a pretty big budget, exploring the world of occupied robot Earth.

It’s got a few hurdles to go. We’ve got a very experienced TV writer attached. It’s not going to me. We’ve got someone in to be the showrunner. I’m hoping to direct a lot of it. I think that’s the way to go in 2015 with this concept. For us it’s a character driven film first and foremost. The robots and the laser beams are secondary. Because it’s a movie, you have to keep the pace, move along and get to the next set piece. But there’s always lots more to explore. So what we’ve got is a blueprint for the world, but limited to a small part of the world.

And is the TV show dependent on the performance of the movie?

Not at all. Not at all. It will go irrespective to the performance of the movie. But it will be dependant on the quality of the script. I feel that’s very promising, given who we’ve got writing it. So yeah!

Jon Wright, thank you very much.

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Robot Overlords is out today.

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