Money Changes Everything
Greg Pak's 'Robot Stories' is appealing to just about everyone, seven years after his appeal to the Texas Filmmakers' Production Fund launched his career
Director Greg Pak's Robot Stories is the most entertainingly humanistic robot film since Metropolis, and anyone who tells you otherwise is probably a replicant and not to be trusted around small animals and electrical outlets. It's also an anthology film four stories of "science fiction from the heart" that recall nothing so much as what you might get if Ray Bradbury met Rod Serling at Isaac Asimov's house for lunch, and too much cognac made the rounds.
At once sweet and futuristic, Pak's genuinely affecting film is that rarest of cinematic marvels, an independent quadrilogy that's breaking every rule in the book by being self-distributed by the filmmaker (with partner/publicist Sasha Berman of Shotwell Media); selling out theatres wherever it plays (it pulled in a highly respectable $50K during its New York run at Cinema Village); and attracting seemingly every niche market demographic in the book, from Asian-Americans (writer/director/co-star Pak and much of the cast, including Sab Shimono and The Joy Luck Club's Tamlyn Tomita are Asian-American) to members of the scientific and robotic communities to little old ladies whose last contact with anything approaching science fiction probably came when they attempted to program the clocks on their VCRs.
No less than former New York Times film critic Elvis Mitchell wrote of Pak's film that "it has a dexterous sense of wonder" and of Pak himself as "a talent with a future." In the world of indie cinema, in which only a small percentage of films that are actually completed go on to secure any sort of distribution deal (much less a lasting impact), Pak has beaten the odds time and again, first and foremost by having crafted a science fiction film that appeals, it would appear, to virtually everyone who sees it. Check your lightsaber at the door, geekboy: Robot Stories is the real thing and then some.
"I can't think of one single self-distributing independent filmmaker who's done a better job in quite a while," says John Pierson, indie film guru, Split Screen creator, impending Austinite, and member of the original 1997 Texas Filmmakers' Production Fund judging panel. "And he was literally the very first filmmaker I saw in New York City, standing on a street corner, after I returned from Fiji."
Pak, a Dallas native who attended NYU's prestigious film school in the Eighties before returning to Texas in 1990, is a recipient of a Texas Filmmakers' Production Fund grant for his 1997 short film "Mouse," which then went on to win the San Diego Asian Film Festival 2000's Best Narrative Short Jury Award. The TFPF which has awarded some $403,000 to more than 140 film and video projects helmed by Texans is routinely cited by Pak (and the other members of the TFPF class of '97 see below) as the desperately needed financial influx that got the ball rolling, not just for "Mouse," but also for his many other short film projects, including the nicely subversive SXSW favorite "Asian Pride Porn," which featured, in a hilarious, unexpected turn, playwright David Henry Hwang discussing the relative merits of Asian porn over any other kind.
In short, Pak's journey from "Mouse" to mandroid is a lesson in how to succeed on a microbudget and a dream. And one hell of a thick Rolodex.
Austin Chronicle: Can you talk a little bit about your relationship with the TFPF and how the '97 grant helped you out?
Greg Pak: I had the short film, "Mouse," that I was struggling to finish while up at NYU, which I then submitted to the TFPF, who ended up giving me about two grand. Later on, I spoke to one of the judges, [who] told me they had all been very amused by my submission, because I had asked for some very precise number like $1,929.34, while everybody else asked for round numbers.
It was a huge thing for me at the time, though it was the biggest grant I'd ever gotten from anybody, and it really gave me a leg up and helped me to finish that film and in a very real way get my entire career going. Frankly, it was invaluable.
AC: Robot Stories is something of a minor miracle, in the sense that anthology films are so often hard to sell, much less make with any sort of finesse, but you've clearly managed to avoid so many of the pitfalls entirely. How did the film come about?
GP: Well, after I graduated from film school, I was struggling to get funding for a feature film that I was planning on directing. I had written a number of screenplays, all of which were very traditional single-story narratives, but each one of those screenplays was a project that I'd need a couple of million dollars to actually make. And as a first-time feature filmmaker, I wasn't managing to find anyone willing to put up that kind of money.
Eventually, I began looking back over the stuff that I'd written over the years, and I realized that I had written three different short screenplays, which were sort of Twilight Zone kind of things and that all included robots they were also basically stories from the heart, as I call them. I was like, "Why didn't I ever realize these fit together before?" So I immediately began working on them as a group, wrote a fourth one, and that's how Robot Stories was born. I never set out from the beginning to try and write an anthology film. Because, like you said, they can be dangerous. They're tough to sell, partly because that's the way the industry works these days: You sell things with a two-line pitch: "The world of ..." or "One man ..." And then the other danger with them is just aesthetic. Lots of times anthology films kind of fall flat because they don't quite hold together or there's one story that's great and the others are weak or there's one that's weak or so forth. It's hard to have enough variety in there so that it's interesting and varied, but at the same time have it be cohesive, both emotionally and otherwise.
Ultimately I wasn't willing to do it until I felt like the whole thing was a complete experience, you know? It had to have a feature film feeling to it so that you felt as though you started in one place and then ended up in another, kind of a journey, but cumulatively I wanted those shorter stories to create a larger journey beyond just being individual stories.
AC: I think the most interesting thing about Robot Stories and the thing that a lot of young filmmakers are going to want to learn about is the nontraditional methods you've used to distribute the film. How did you come up with this plan to bypass the major distribution outfits and do all the legwork yourself?
GP: Well, we began by entering the film in over 60 festivals over the past year and a half. It was tremendous, actually, and we ended up winning 33 awards so far it's been successful beyond my wildest dreams. And what's particularly mind-blowing to me is all the audience awards we've won, in New York, Boston, Michigan, Sweden, Spain. It just really gave me a lot of confidence that this is a film that has an audience.
AC: Did you have any bites from distribution companies during the festival runs?
GP: We got a couple of offers from smaller distribution companies, but, in the end, we said no, because they really didn't make sense financially. And so I ended up forming a partnership with a woman named Sasha Berman, who's a great publicist based out in Los Angeles and who had a lot of experience booking films she used to work for some different art-house cinemas around the country so she became my co-distributor. And, yeah, we're basically doing it on our own.
AC: And more specifically?
GP: Our resources are pretty tight, so we've been doing it city by city and, frankly, we have very little money for advertising, so what it really comes down to for us is outreach, and by that I mean grassroots organizing for the film. I'm from Texas and I studied political science as an undergrad, and when I came home to Texas and worked for Ann Richards when she was running for governor in 1990, they put me out in West Texas doing field organizing. It's funny, because that experience is very, very similar to what we're doing now as Sasha and I sort of self-distribute Robot Stories. We're reaching out to groups that are sympathetic and trying to get them to spread the word about our film. And it's been just plain amazing. We've had some tremendous responses from different groups, clearly Asian-Americans, but also scientists and science fiction fans, and just people who love film.
AC: Do you consider yourself an Asian-American filmmaker, or do you try to avoid that kind of labeling?
GP: I'm very proud to be considered an Asian-American filmmaker, but at the same time, I don't think of that at all as a limiting term because I'm making movies for the whole world. First and foremost, I'm just a storyteller. Some of the stories I'm telling are coming from this very specific place, and so they become these Asian-American stories, but honestly, I really believe in Spike Lee's old adage that the more universal something is the more universal it can become. People go to the movies to experience something real a bit of emotional reality that's grounded in a real experience and the fact that Robot Stories has these Asian-American characters in it that are sort of grounded in a very specific reality and circumstances gives the film an emotional reality that everybody, no matter who they are, can understand. And, ultimately, I think that that kind of inclusiveness the film has has really been the key to its success.
Robot Stories opens in Austin on Friday, May 7. See Film listings for a review and showtimes. Greg Pak will be at Regal Arbor Cinema (9828 Great Hills Trail) tonight, Thursday, May 6, 7pm, for a special Austin Film Society screening of Robot Stories followed by a Q&A with the director. For ticket information, see www.austinfilm.org/premieres/robotstories.asp. For more on Robot Stories, see www.robotstories.net.