Robot Dreams interview

Pablo Berger, the director of Robot Dreams, has a cure for loneliness

The filmmaker behind the critically acclaimed, Oscar-nominated film spoke with Cult MTL about loneliness, music and animation.

Based on the 2007 graphic novel of the same name, Robot Dreams has been an improbable success. An animated film about the friendship between a robot and a dog, set in 1980s New York City, the movie has resonated with audiences of all ages. Wordless but injected with the sounds and rhythms of big city life, Robot Dreams is a bittersweet story of loneliness and connection that strikes a powerful chord. Animated using the Belgian ligne clair style, the film embraces a minimalist hand-drawn aesthetic — it’s bright, colourful and appealing, more illustrated than cartoony. Nominated at the Oscars for Best Animated Feature Film, Robot Dreams has been a critical and box-office success. It’s a movie that challenges aesthetically and ideologically the predominant cinematic style we’ve come to expect from animation and, as a result, has found an audience. 

Robot Dreams is director Pablo Berger’s fourth feature and his first animated project. Not unlike his previous film, Blancanieves, the film embraces a wordless style and draws inspiration from silent cinema as a pillar for visual storytelling. Robot Dreams is a cinephile’s delight, overflowing with cinematic references that the director affectionately calls “Easter eggs.” As much as the movie is a story of friendship and heartbreak, it also becomes the love story of a director for his medium of choice.

Pablo Berger spoke with Cult MTL on Zoom about adaptation, Easter eggs and the cure to loneliness.

Pablo Berger Robot Dreams interview

Justine Smith: I’m curious about the way you undertook your adaptation of Robot Dreams. I’m interested in your use of composition, in terms of using split screens, windows and different framing devices to box in characters — evoking the frames of a comic book. Can you discuss your use of framing and composition within the film?

Pablo Berger: Some people think having a graphic novel means you have a storyboard already made and you just have to translate it into animation. That’s not the case. The graphic story is more simple — not simplistic, but simple. We maintained the character design and the story but the script evolved immensely. The compositions are very different from the graphic novel. I come from live-action (filmmaking) and this is my fourth film, so the big difference here is that instead of moving the camera, I was drawing the compositions. But the film language is connected to my previous work and I think that the composition is a key element that the directors have to focus the attention of the audience on.

We like to find ways to give the illusion of depth. You have to play with the foreground, the background; you have reflections. It was a joy that I could put the camera anywhere I wanted. I really could think of shots that were very complex and make them happen. I was lucky to work with the art director from the pre-production until the film was finished. We worked together with the storyboard artists to be able to write with images because Robot Dreams is not written with words, it’s written with images. 

JS: Part of that composition is the fact you’re moving the camera — I don’t know how else to describe it, sorry. You have a lot of movement throughout the frame; characters but also the “camera.” With animation, you have an opportunity to place the camera in places that would be impossible, or near impossible, in live action. Did you find that liberating?

Pablo Berger: Completely. Making an animated film gave me so many possibilities. As a director, if I talk from a practical point of view — if I would have done this film in live-action, it would have cost $200-million, but the cost of the film was $6-million. If we’re talking about creatively, not in money, I would never have been able to do an homage to Busby Berkeley and Hollywood musicals. That’s one of my favourite scenes. I didn’t have a budget for 1,000 tap dancers. I put the camera in impossible places. 

Another favourite scene, there’s a sled race in the snow. It was my homage to Ben-Hur. I call it the James Bond scene. I couldn’t have done that in live-action. In that sense, for a director who loves the camera, who loves framing, it gave me so many possibilities. That’s the power of animation. If I do the metaphor of the painter, it gives you a new colour. It opened my mind. I feel that I can tell many more stories now that I am able to make a live-action or an animated film. 

JS: Robot Dreams is a co-production between Spain and France. Do you feel as though working in the European Union, within the European market, gives you different opportunities or changes your approach to a project than if you were working within the American system?

Pablo Berger: I would say yes. I lived in the States for 10 years, in New York. I was trained in the American system. I have friends that work for the studio and it’s very different from the way we work in Europe. I consider myself a European director. All my films are co-productions. My first one was with Denmark, and my second, third and fourth were with France. I have done four of them with my own scripts and I’ve done it with complete freedom. I had final cuts on all my films.

I think the situation in the United States would be very different. I was the reason behind all my projects. I wrote them and went to a producer to find and raise the money. I’m lucky; I’m a spoiled director. Honestly, I’ve made very few films, only 4 in 25 years. I’m not saying that it’s not possible in the studio system or in America, but it’s much more difficult. I think there are very few directors in America that work with the big production companies that can really have the freedom that European directors, or some European directors, have.

JS: You’ve touched on it a bit with your homage to Ben-Hur and Busby Berkeley, but what I love about Robot Dreams is that it really feels like a gift to cinephiles. You’re making all these little references, especially to the films of New York.

Pablo Berger: Before I’m a director, I’m the audience. The same thing with you, before you are a journalist, you are a film lover as well. Of course, the main thing is the story and the characters. That’s the cake. But I like cakes with a lot of whipped cream, and for me, the whipped cream is all the easter eggs — these little homages and surprises that you can have in a film. Robot Dreams is full of homages to cinema. I love to put cinephile references in my films but not references that get in the way of the story. Not obstacles for the people who know the film or reference, but a little pleasure, an easter egg. There are references to Busby Berkeley and Ben-Hur, as we spoke about, but there are references to Woody Allen, Jaws, Taxi Driver and Rear Window. There are many. 

There are people who have created on Instagram and Facebook pages to talk about the references. I like that idea. I don’t like to talk too much about them, but I prefer the idea that people find them and tell me they saw this or found that. Also, (references) to pop culture. I really like pop culture.

Robot Dreams

JS: I read online that you hired a choreographer for some of the dance sequences. How do you choreograph movement of characters while working in animation?

Pablo Berger: I could say that Robot Dreams is a musical. It’s not my first musical because Blanchieves is a musical as well, and a wordless film. Music is very present in all my films. My previous film to Robot Dreams was called Abracadabra and the main theme was a song by the Steve Miller Band. My family comes from the music business, so music is a big part of me. The first time I felt strong emotions, really intense emotions, was through music and not cinema. Even the way I write, I almost feel like a keyboard is really a keyboard — like a musical instrument. I feel the scenes. I find music in the change of shot, or length of a shot. I like the idea that my films are like music; a piece of music in the way they are edited and the way the story is told. It’s a big influence on me. When I write projects, I’m always playing music. I make playlists to inspire me and when I’m on set, I sometimes play the music. Of course, in this case we were in an animation studio so we were not on set, but I played music on set in some other films of mine. 

JS: When I studied film, we had a wonderful course on sound. For part of the semester, we studied music in silent films; not the soundtrack or synchronized sound, but the way filmmakers like Murnau created music through cutting and camera movement. Music wasn’t just about sound, but about feeling.

Pablo Berger: I feel it in that way. My favourite film period is the 1920s, with directors like Murnau, Dreyer, Lang or Sjöström… Abel Gance. They really advanced the film language and it’s very close to music. Even for writing, one of my favourite writers, Haruki Murakami, he always talks about how his biggest influences are music and rhythm. I think music is one of, if not the first art form; it influenced the rest.

JS: The film is set in the 1980s and, maybe I’m speaking for myself, but I’m going to guess the reason it has resonated is that for many people — especially over the past 4 or 5 years — they feel very isolated and lonely. The premise of the film lends itself to opening people up, to striking a nerve. People have always been lonely but would you say they are lonelier now?

Pablo Berger: Loneliness has always been a part of humankind, but we are now living in what we call an epidemic of loneliness. We live now in a time of the metaverse, avatars, remote work, ordering food online and watching films on streaming. We have all this technology, and I’m definitely not against it, but it is creating more isolated human beings. That’s what we portray in the film. Although it’s set in the 1980s, it resonates. I think people can identify with the lonely dog. Once upon a time in New York, there was a lonely dog… Everyone has been there. 

I like the idea of making films for the cinema because this film was made for the cinema. It will definitely play in streaming, but before that, it’s a good chance to experience the movie in a cinema. That’s what the cinema is: a bunch of people who don’t know each other, from different ages and cultural and social status, sharing the experience. It’s beautiful. There’s hope. I’m the glass half-full type, and I see light at the end of the tunnel; I think that’s the nature of most directors. We can change things, you know? But we have to make an effort, we have to get off our couch, leave the remote control and just go to the movies or a concert. Go to a play, or just go on a walk and see a friend. ■

Robot Dreams (directed by Pablo Berger)

Robot Dreams opens in Montreal theatres on Friday, June 7.

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