Writer-director-actor Greg Pak grew up in Dallas, and though he later studied political science at Yale and history at Oxford, he returned to the Texas city to promote his first feature film, “Robot Stories,” when the self-distributed picture was booked for an engagement at the Angelica Film Center. In an interview, Pak discussed the making of the anthology, which consists of a quartet of tales involving robots and artificial intelligence.
Why four stories about robots? “I grew up with robots,” Pak explained. “I grew up playing with the toys you see in the movie and watching robot movies. I was a big fan of Ray Bradbury and ‘The Twilight Zone’ and science fiction in general. As an adult filmmaker and storyteller, as I started thinking about these stories, I realized robots are compelling for another reason, which is just that when you talk about robots seriously, or talk about artificial intelligence seriously, you end up asking the same kinds of questions which make for good drama in general, because if you’re talking about a thing becoming sentient, trying to understand what it’s doing in the world, the big questions are the questions we all ask: who am I, what am I doing here, what is this thing called love? And so it became a compelling way to tell stories, just to tell compelling stories.”
Pak originally had no intention of making a composite film of tales about robots, though. “I started writing the stories separately, actually,” he explained. “Over the years I was in film school and then afterwards, I just wrote all the time. Whenever I had an idea that I really cared about, that somehow moved me, I would work on it. So over the course of a few years I had written three of these stories that ended up in ‘Robot Stories,’ just because they’re ideas I’d had and I thought they were cool, without really knowing how I was going to produce them. At a certain point, I looked back over what I’d written and realized that these stories–I don’t know why I hadn’t realized it before–kind of fit together. They all had robots and artificial intelligence in one way or another, and they all dealt with the human heart. So I started working on them as a unit. The big challenge [was] to make it so that by the end of the picture the audience feels like it’s been somewhere, that each story [is] part of the progress of the whole, [that] they’re stronger together than on their own.”
Though the script dealt with some notions that might seem very distant–an android temp worker, a robot “baby” used to test potential adoptive parents, a medical procedure that allows a dying person’s consciousness to be implanted in a new body–the action was set in the near-future. “We had to make everything fairly soon, within a much narrower time frame,” Pak explained. “One, because I think it’s just much more powerful that way, to have the world be very normal and that one thing that’s out of synch. You have to suspend your disbelief about one thing, but you can totally identify with everything that’s happening [around it]. But,” he added with a knowing smile, “it was also, in terms of budget, easier for us to imagine the world of 2007, say, than of 2097.”
Another common element in the four stories was the presence of Asian-Americans in lead roles. “‘Robot Stories’ is very self-consciously cast with a very multi-ethnic cast,” Pak said. “Even though the stories don’t explicitly deal with race at all, I think it’s important sometimes to tell stories in which folks of different backgrounds are just people, and not just symbols in a racial allegory.” Pak himself is of mixed background and plays the android in the third episode of the anthology. “I’d done theatre for years–I’d done theatre in high school. Actually, when I was a senior at Hillcrest High School here in Dallas I played Macbeth, my crowning theatrical achievement. But for years after that, through college and the years after college, for about fifteen years, I did improv comedy and always was kind of hoping I could find something I could cast myself in. I always thought it would be fun to play something in one of my own films. But I held off for a very long time, because I wanted to make sure I knew what I was doing as a director before I plunged in there as an actor as well. And also I wanted to wait until there was a role that sort of demanded [it]. And for some reason while I was writing that character I just really responded to it. It just felt right. I felt like I really got that character. Because I am a robot.” Then turning serious, he added: “All kinds of people really get that story. Everybody’s felt like an outsider at some point in their lives.”
The actual shooting of “Robot Stories” was difficult, given not only the relatively small budget–well under a million dollars–and short schedule, but the fact that it occurred not long after the events of 9/11. Talking of the makeshift apparatus that played the baby robot in the first story, Pak said, “I took a lot of comfort from the stories about the making of ‘Jaws.’ Clearly we’re on a much smaller scale, but all these stories about Steven Spielberg and this shark–it just wouldn’t do all the things he wanted it to do, but as a result he had to find more suspenseful ways to shoot the picture, and it became more compelling.” Still, the strictures inherent in such a small production were actually helpful in some ways, he said. “The stories are really about these very human experiences, we had these great actors, and the kinds of limitations that we had in terms of budget and logistical chaos just helped me focus on the essential moments.” The timing of the shoot after the World Trade Center tragedy, Pak added, gave added meaning to the second story for him–“The Robot Fixer,” about an obsessed mother who tries to complete the action-figure collection of her son, who’s comatose after an accident. “On a personal level that one resonates with me a lot,” he said. “That story is really about a family coming to terms with loss–which is what we were all doing right then.”
Pak formed a partnership with others to distribute “Robot Stories” independently after offers from distribution companies proved inadequate, with little or no up-front payment. “I know personally every person who invested in the film,” he explained. “And even if I didn’t know people personally, I would feel a real obligation to do my very best to get a return.” The process has been demanding, however. The picture took about nine months to make, he said, “but then I’ve been on the road with this film, first at film festivals and now out theatrically, for almost two years.” He and cast members make a point of visiting theatres where the film is booked to do publicity and hold Q&A sessions with the audience. “It takes a special level of outreach to get people to pay attention,” he added. And thus an interview like this one.