Interviews

Robot Stories - Greg Pak Interview

Posted 5 Jun 2004 at 00:05 UTC by steve Share This

Robot Stories is a low budget movie billed as "science fiction from the heart". The collection of four Bradbury-style short stories is making the rounds of art house theaters around the country. Robot Stories has proven so popular in Dallas, Texas, where it's showing right now that the run has been extended another week. I got a chance to talk to Greg Pak, the writer and director, after a recent screening and he agreed to answer a few questions for the robot geeks here at robots.net. Read on for the full interview.
Robots.net: I've found that robot builders, whether professionals or hobbyists, seem to enjoy arguing over the definition of the word "robot". By the most restrictive definition, "Robot Stories" included only one robot, in "My Robot Baby". We could call it three robots if we stretch the definition to include the two androids in "Machine Love". A further stretch to include toys brings in "The Robot Fixer". Including humanoid holograms would allow us to include the last story, "Clay". Can you provide a one sentence definition of what the word "robot" means to you? What part, if any, did a specific definition of the word play in your vision for "Robot Stories"?

Greg Pak: Excellent question. I'd define a robot as an artificially created entity which can make its way through the world without a human operator. Extra points for its being constructed of inorganic or non-biological elements. So yes, the mechanical robot baby fits the definition most literally. The robot toys in the second story are representations of such strictly defined robots, and they fly in a dream sequence, so we get away with that one. The android office workers in the third story are also robots according to my definition -- they may look organic, like the flesh-and-blood replicants of "Bladerunner," but I imagine them as constructed of chips and silicone and plastic and metal, and they're powered by the same G9 processor as the robot baby. The big cheat comes in "Clay," which features no real robots at all, but we get away with it thematically because the story involves artificial or inorganically-based intelligence.

RN: "Robot Stories" seems like it could have been inspired by Ray Bradbury's stories, in that it finds elements of science fiction in everyday events. Bradbury could make a story about a boy with a new pair of shoes read like science fiction. Did Bradbury influence your story telling style?

GP: Yes, Bradbury's a huge influence. He was my first literary hero -- I remember being totally thrilled as a kid when I found out he was born on August 22 -- because I was born on the 23rd.

What I think I got from writers like Bradbury is first, a sense of wonder, a love of the fantastic (Rockets! Robots! Mars!), and second, a commitment to finding the human connection in any story. Bradbury's stories work because he uses fantastic elements to illuminate some dark or strange or funny or moving corner of the human heart -- we dig 'em 'cause they're cool, but we love 'em 'cause they're emotionally true.

RN: What other science fiction writers who specialize in robots have influenced your work? Isaac Asimov, Clifford Simak, others?

GP: As a kid I read the Foundation series, but I actually only read the Asimov robot stories last year, after I'd already finished making "Robot Stories." I read a ton of science fiction as a kid -- in addition to Bradbury, Harlan Ellison and Kurt Vonnegut were particular faves. But I don't remember specifically seeking out novels or short stories about robots; I guess I got my robo-fix through my robot toy collection and the robot movies I'd watch.

RN: Both the East and West have a history of robots in their fiction, but the Japanese have become the unquestioned leaders in turning robots into reality. They are ahead of the US in both the technical and social aspects of robotics. This year, the World Robot Declaration was published in Japan, stating that robots should be partners of humans who coexist with them and assist them in developing a safe and peaceful society. As an Asian-American do you have any special insight into why Asian countries have become the leaders in this area? Is it a different world view or just the natural result of social pressures, such as the growing elderly population, particular to that part of the world?

GP: I'm no expert, so I hesitate to flap my yap too much about this. But I imagine historians and sociologists might point to the way Japan undertook a state policy of modernization from 1868 on; maybe the late industrialization of the country let it adopt new technology without some of the baggage other countries accumulated over long years of modernization. At the same time, Japan remains the only country in the world to have suffered nuclear attack. So there's something interesting about the way Japanese anime, for example, very often delves into apocalyptic themes. But simultaneously, Japanese pop culture has a way of imagining technological change with great optimism, or at least great humanity.

On a personal level, I never found myself thinking "Wow, the Japanese really think about robots differently." Instead, Japanese pop cultural depictions of robots always just made complete sense to me, the same way they've resonated with millions of American kids for generations now. One of the formative robot experiences for me as a kid was watching "Journey Into Space," with boy hero Johnny Sokko and his giant robot pal. And of course the toys in the "Robot Fixer" segment of "Robot Stories" all came from Japan. These were the incredibly cool toys I grew up with, wherein all the heroes were robots or cyborgs.

RN: "Robot Stories" has the unmistakable look of a low-budget movie. Sometimes these movies can be much more fun than a big Hollywood film because they contain ideas that would never make it past studio executives. As I watched "Robot Stories", I found myself reminded of other low budget movies I've enjoyed such as John Carpenter's "Dark Star". What were your low-budget sci-fi movie influences?

GP: We actually took a lot of inspiration (and solace) from relatively big budget science fiction shows and their behind-the-scenes production stories. When we were making our robot baby out of mixing bowls and Staples touch lights, we comforted ourselves with stories of the Star Wars costumers using garden gloves for the Sand People and Star Trek designers making tricorders (or was it phasers?) from ketchup bottles.

"Twilight Zone" episodes were the other big inspiration -- great stories which were able to work through smart writing and shooting with minimal effects and props.

RN: Do any robots live in your house? A roomba vaccuum cleaner, an AIBO?

GP: I really want a Furby. But alas, in real life, I am sadly robotless.

RN: In "Robot Stories", the fourth story, "Clay", is about the ethical questions raised by uploading a human mind into a machine in order to escape death. This idea has been addressed from many different angles in printed science fiction, but has only rarely been seen in the movies. "Clay" includes characters who are in favor of and opposed to the technology. What are your own views - would you want upload your mind and live forever?

GP: I fear death and would probably be greatly tempted to go through the scanning process. But I suspect there's something about human experience which is tied to our organic bodies, something essential to us which we'll never achieve or experience until we physically die. I mean, I want to live forever. But I also want to become what it is I'm supposed to become, and I think that physical death may well be necessary in order to do so. It's a metaphysical question, a religious question in the end, isn't it?

RN: Your movie seems to offer a very sympathetic view of geeks, particulary the scene in "The Robot Fixer" in which the mother interacts with a toy-collector-geek. Were (are) you a computer geek? A robot geek? A science fiction geek?

GP: I was always a geek in the obsessive-collector sense. Comic books, robot toys, Dungeons and Dragons lead figurines... And I was a big science fiction and fantasy reader, which of course is a fine signifier of geekdom. But I was a pretty big failure as a computer geek as a kid. I remember my mom signed me up for a programming class at a community center when I was ten or something; there were these kids creating Space Invaders games on these Radio Shack TRS-80s, and I had no idea what the heck was going on. I made up for it in later years, though -- I'm a big Macintosh and internet geek now.

RN: Aside from yourself, what filmmaker has given us the best picture of human-robot relations?

GP: I think "Bladerunner" is tremendous. I like the way the replicants have real emotional lives; they may do terrible things, but we understand their motivations and almost love them anyway. I actually prefer the way they're depicted in the movie to the way they're depicted in the original Philip K. Dick novel -- Dick makes them incapable of any real emotion, which strikes me as false. Ultimately, if a machine is able to think with as much complexity as a human and has the ability to learn, I'm guessing that an emotional life will inevitably follow.

RN: While "Robot Stories" may not seem that unusual to science fiction readers, movie-goers have become conditioned to confuse the science fiction and action genres. Has the lack of explosions, brain-sucking monsters, or atomic death ray battles disappointed anyone or do audiences seem to understand the movie?

GP: In the beginning, we'd occasionally have folks come in expecting "The Matrix," which, alas, we didn't quite have the budget to deliver. Several months into our festival run, we began to figure out how to really talk about the movie -- we came up with the tagline "science fiction from the heart," which really helped set the tone. What's been tremendous is the incredibly enthusiastic response we've gotten from hard core science fiction fans as well as from people who never go see science fiction movies. Ultimately, people have responded to the characters, the stories, the ideas, and emotions. And hey, we do have a a funky robot baby, an android love scene, and flying toy robots.

RN: What's next? Do you have any more robot films in the works or will you be moving on to other topics after this film?

GP: I actually do have a big robot movie idea -- a kid's movie. When I get some time, I'll start to seriously outline and write it... We'll see. In the meantime, I'm working on a horror/romance called "The Dead Boy," which my producers and I are trying to raise money to shoot this year. Cross your fingers for us!


Thanks!, posted 7 Jun 2004 at 17:45 UTC by gregpak » (Apprentice)

Steve, thanks for the interview and the support! So in our latest news, "Robot Stories" is finishing up its fourth and last week in Dallas and its second and last week in Houston this weekend -- and we open this Friday, June 11 in Seattle and Cleveland. Interested folks can find screening times and locations at robotstories.net.

See more of the latest robot news!

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