Robot Overlords Panel at MCM Birmingham Comic Con

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The latest movie to emerge from the thriving indie science-fiction scene, Robot Overlords blends Spielberg-style coming-of-age fantasy with a Transformers-esque menace and the distinctive quirkiness of low-budget British sci-fi like Doctor Who. Joining us at this month’s MCM Birmingham Comic Con for a panel hosted by comic-writing legend Pat Mills were writer/director Jon Wright, co-writer Mark Stay and actor Ella Hunt, who stars as Alexandra.

The panel kicked off with an exclusive preview of the film, that showed its young leads running from a huge robot, following a fraught exchange between adult characters Kate Flynn (Gillian Anderson) and Robin Smythe (Ben Kingsley).

Wright and Stay then began by explaining that, despite being heavily inspired by Spielberg and other American movies, it was important to them to create something that young British viewers could relate to.

“We wanted to makes something for kids of about 10 or 11 years old – kids that age now have missed Harry Potter,” said Stay. “You don’t see many films set on streets like these that are familiar to them so when they see this, they really project onto the characters. There was one kid who said it was like Doctor Who but without the Doctor there to save you.”

The film aims for a naturalism that will feel real to younger British viewers, not only in its setting, but also in terms of dialogue and characterisation, and Mills and Hunt discussed how the actors often improvised, bringing their own styles and voices to the films.

“It’s quite sweary and irreverent, like the films I remember liking when I was younger,” said Wright. “Kids are often very earnest in films these days.”

DSC04093The story sees alien robots take control of the planet, imposing strict order by forcing people to remain inside their homes. Having lost her parents, Hunt’s character, Alex, finds herself stuck in a house with a group of teenage boys, growing increasingly frustrated with their habits.

“Preparing for that wasn’t hard,” said Hunt. “It was mainly just a case of spending as much time as possible with the boys!”

One thing that surprised her, however, was the maternal feelings she found naturally emerging from her interaction with Milo Parker, who plays the film’s youngest character, Connor. The development of this more motherly side to her character was entirely unscripted, and a great example of how the relationships between actors can alter a story’s dynamics. Mills described Robot Overlords as exploring family “without the soppiness” so often present in Hollywood movies. Hunt, whose character was originally written as male, was especially keen to avoid clichés.

“It was important to me to play the character with as much depth as any of the boys,” she said.

While the possibility of a budding romance between Alex and the film’s hero, Sean (Callan McAuliffe), is hinted at, much like the family relationships, this is done subtly, without the histrionics of a Hollywood blockbuster.

Of course, not all of the film’s child stars are good guys: Craig Garner takes on the role of The Mediator, an unsettling being created by the robots.

“When the robots come from space, they observe that adults tend not to be aggressive or violent towards children, so they decide to make one, but they don’t get it quite right,” Wright explained. “He’s sort of uncanny, with these perfect porcelain teeth, contact lens eyes and a straight, severe hair cut. He’s also got this strange voice that seems too young for him.”

“Craig does a great job of being a dead-eyed robot. I felt a bit sorry for him, actually,” Stay added.

Meanwhile, members of the adult cast will be instantly recognisable to any audience. Gillian Anderson plays Sean’s conflicted mother, Kate, while Ben Kingsley plays an embittered former headmaster who co-operates with the robots, seizing the opportunity to make himself important.

“I was so excited to work with Ben Kingsley,” said Hunt, “but he barely spoke to us the whole time. I was a bit scared of him, actually, but then on the last day, he was much friendlier, and we realised that he’d just been putting it on to help us with our performances.”

“There was one day when he came in to help with the improv and went into full-on Sexy Beast mode, shouting and swearing,” said Wright. “That was all off-screen: we couldn’t have put it in the film!”

DSC04448Despite being essentially a children’s film, Robot Overlords doesn’t flinch from tackling important issues. For example, social outsiders, from transvestites to bare-knuckle boxers, are contained together in a building described as a “Doss House for Troublemakers” to help the robots keep tabs on anyone likely to refuse to conform. Mills was enthusiastic about the portrayal of “colourful people”, as well as of ordinary, working class characters who are often absent from other productions.

Asked about the possibility of a sequel, Wright felt that a follow-up TV series might be a better way to explore the story further.

“The film is set in a little seaside town on the south coast of England, but we don’t really get much of a sense of what’s happening elsewhere. It would be great to dig into that more over the course of a series,” he said. “It’s an interesting time for television. TV is much better now then when I was growing up and there were only three channels. Then it was all about movies, but I think that balance is shifting now. Partly it’s because of things like Netflix that allow you to watch hours and hours of something as a kind of massive, cinematic epic.”

“There are a lot more channels now, which means there’s more diversity,” Stay added. “Things that used to be nerdy are becoming much more mainstream.”

Asked about whether, with a larger budget, they would have done anything differently, Wright replied that there were actually a lot of advantages to working on a smaller scale.

“Our robot designer worked with us one day a week, on Saturdays, and said that he enjoyed doing it because he got to work directly with us, and almost everything he produced went into the film. His week job was making concept art for Guardians of the Galaxy, with a team of 30 other artists, where the director probably didn’t even get to see everything they did.”

Unusually, the film’s CGI was all created by a single, London-based company, Nvizible.

“Often there are so many different companies working on a film like this that it’s difficult to say who created what,” said Wright, explaining that a film like this would act as a kind of “calling card” for the company.

The discussion drew to a close with a look at the trailer for the movie, as an exciting preview for its UK release this week.

Robot Overlords is now showing in British cinemas.

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Photographs by Caitlin Jenkins.

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  1. […] Birmingham MCM Comic Con was great fun, but because we filmed in Belfast I’m sure this will be an even bigger blast. I […]

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