Robot Stories has been making quite a name for itself and its director, Greg Pak, on the worldwide festival circuit. No stranger to film festivals, Greg has been charming audiences everywhere with short films such as Asian Pride Porn. Now it’s Robot Stories, a collection of short love stories intertwining humans with robots, that is earning the filmmaker critical acclaim and awards all around the world.
Still touring with the film, Greg was kind enough to take some time out of his busy schedule to tell us some “Robot Stories.”
What brought about this whole study of human emotion mixed with robot technology theme in Robot Stories?
I’ve been a fan of Ray Bradbury’s short stories almost as long as I can remember — stories like All Summer in a Day and The Veldt absolutely blew my young mind. What I particularly appreciated was the way Bradbury always dealt with science fiction from position of emotional truth — his stories were first and foremost about human relationships. So when I started thinking of the stories, which would eventually become “Robot Stories,” there was never any question in my mind that the heart of the stories would be, well, the human heart.
So you’re a big sci-fi geek?
I can’t tell you the name of the dude who played the original Kirk and I don’t know the name of Chewbacca’s father and I haven’t read the latest David Brin. But I guess the fact that I know that I don’t know that stuff marks me as pretty darn geeky. I’ve loved science fiction all my life and while I haven’t kept up with the novels, to this day I’ll sit through just about any crummy science fiction movie. My biggest guilty pleasure movie of all time is a sci fi flick — “Blood of Heroes” with Rutger Hauer, Joan Chen, Delroy Lindo, and Adam Baldwin in the best post-apocalyptic sports movie you could ever hope to see.
Did you always plan for Robot Stories to be just that – separate stories?
Yep. I’d written the stories separately over the years and one day was looking back through my stuff and thought, “Hey, these three shorts kind of share certain themes…” I started working on them as an anthology, trying to figure out how they’d fit together as a feature. I never really considered breaking up the stories and intertwining them… I knew that each story worked on its own terms and eventually figured out that the stories also had a couple of natural progressions to them, from birth to death, and from less advanced to extremely advanced technology. Ultimately, I think the film works as a feature because the themes of love, death, and family deepen and reverberate with each story — in the end, the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.
How did you assemble such an impressive cast?
I’d met Tamlyn Tomita (whom fans of a certain age still remember vividly as the love interest in “Karate Kid II”) a number of times over the years — she’s the most down to earth famous person I’d ever met. We hung out a lot at the San Diego Asian Film Festival in 2000, where I half-jokingly asked her if she’d be in my first feature. She said sure, if schedules worked out. And it did indeed work out, and she ended up doing an incredible job as the mother in the “My Robot Baby” section of the film. I’d worked with some of the other actors before in shorts and in various workshops. But the real credit for pulling together the cast goes to my producer and casting director, Kim Ima. Kim’s also an actor, and she’d worked with many of the folks in our cast, including Sab Shimono, who did a tremendous job as the old sculptor in the last piece, “Clay.” Kim and I made a kind of deal with each other that we’d only cast people we were both extremely excited about. We tried very hard never to compromise, and I think it paid off. The other trick was that whenever we found someone we really loved, we’d go back to the office and Kim would sing a little song based on their name in order to charm/hex them into taking the role. For Sab, the song, of course, was “Saaaab Shimono!” sung to the tune of “My Sharona.”
What were some of the biggest problems in getting “Robot Stories” made?
We thought we were dealing with a big crisis on the first day of our shoot when a thunderstorm hit us during our exteriors in Central Park. Then the next day was September 11, 2001. So things got pretty insane. My producers Kim Ima and Karin Chien and my assistant director Curtis Smith deserve enormous credit for getting us through the logistical insanity of those days. And the entire cast and crew was incredible for sticking with the project. Tamlyn and Sab flew out to New York from Los Angeles just a couple of weeks later to be in the film, at a time when people were still very uncertain about flying at all. And Wai Ching Ho and Cindy Cheung, who played the mother and daughter in the “Robot Fixer” segment of the film, were just amazing to work with during the week right after 9-11. Their story’s about a mother coming to terms with the death of her son — it really meant a great deal to me to be able to work with those actors on that story at a time when all of us were grappling with this terrible feeling of loss and fear. So it was insane trying to make the film in the aftermath of 9-11, but making the film also really helped me begin to deal with the aftermath of 9-11 on a personal level.
What are some of your favorite Robot Stories festival screenings?
Oh, man, there has been a bunch… Every time I’m tired or cranky about anything in my life, I kick myself and remember that I’m living my dreams right now, taking my film around the world to amazing festivals. South by Southwest was tremendous because of the incredible audience response — we were in the enormous Paramount Theater, which was packed, and the audience just went nuts for the film — explosive laughter at the right points, sniffles at the right points, fantastic Q&A afterwards. I have a special warm place in my heart for that festival and that screening because it confirmed for me that we’d made a universal picture, that this primarily non-Asian audience in Austin, Texas, totally responded to this crazy hybrid Asian American science fiction movie from the heart. Other festivals I loved include the San Francisco International Asian American Film Festival, which made us their Closing Night Film, the Chicago Asian American Showcase, which made us their Opening Night Film, the Wisconsin Film Festival, where a woman in the audience loved the movie so much she kept jumping up out of her seat to cheer at key moments, and the Florida, Hamptons, New York Asian American, Dallas Asian, and Rhode Island film festivals, all of which gave us awards. Finally, the Puchon International Fantastic Film Festival in South Korea was incredible. The audience is primarily local college kids, and they treat visiting directors like rock stars. I was actually asked for my autograph — a hundred times. The festival’s also the best run fest I’ve ever attended, with a great filmmakers lounge, an incredible press office, free high speed internet access, and shuttle buses galore. And to top it off they gave me the Best Director Award and Wai Ching Ho their Best Actress Award. Like I said, it’s been a year of dreams coming true.
Upcoming, I’m hugely looking forward to Film Fest New Haven on the 19th, the first non-Asian American festival to make us an Opening Night Film, and the San Diego Asian Film Festival on October 5 and the DC Asian Pacific American Film Festival on October 18, both of which have programmed us as their Closing Night Films.
Get the rest of the interview in part two of GREG PAK DOES THE ROBOT>>>