Interview with The directors of RON’S GONE WRONG

From 20th Century Studios and Locksmith Animation, ‘Ron’s Gone Wrong’ is a charming new animated take on a classic 80’s movie about a boy & his malfunctioning robot best friend. We had a behind the scenes chat with the movie’s two directors Sarah Smith & Jean-Philippe Vine about social media & storytelling.

RON’S GONE WRONG is at Irish cinemas from October 15th

What can people expect from this movie?
Sarah Smith (director)  : The aspiration when we started the company was to make movies that were relevant to today’s kids and probably one thing that we argue with our kids most about today is screen time. Parents are terrified that kids are going into this digital playground where you don’t go with them and you’re worrying about what goes on in there. That’s what inspired the movie – the difficulties that kids have with friendship and the feeling that everyone else has got it down and they haven’t. They all go through those moments as we all do in life. And at the same time the online experience is making that even harder. We wanted to address that and talk about that experience. In a super fun, animationy way where your iPad has become a little robot friend that can follow you around and do tricks so it’s doubly appealing.

Jean-Philippe Vine (director) : We grew up with ‘ET’, ‘Stand by me’ and big friendship adventure type films. We wanted to stage a new one looking through the lens of this technological theme – really looking at big friendship and adventure themes and make it a nice cinematic chunky movie

The trailer has big eighties movies vibes – man and machine having a romp
Sarah : Yeah hopefully it’s that and also completely contemporary because it’s about the world of selfies and online profiles and what it feels like if you’re on the outside of that.

Is it difficult to make a film like this funny now that children are so overexposed to media and are so savvy?
Sarah : There are some things that children will perennially find funny. The point of our character Ron is that he’s this incompetent robot that can’t do the stairs even – he only knows things that begin with the letter A and when Barney first gets him as you see in the trailer the first thing that happens is that he gets the terrible pinwheel that says LOADING LOADING and everyone, children or adult, we’ve all been there with that frustration about technology that doesn’t work. And as well as that I think that Ron is a very universal lovable character – an innocent – who’s also a little bit rogue and out of control. He’s a bit naughty and slightly dangerous in a funny way. He disagrees and answers back and is braver than Barney. And I think there’s a lot of comedy in that. The other thing that surprised us when we showed the movie to kids was that one of their favourite characters was Barney’s grandmother Donka played by Olivia Coleman. She’s this great big big-hearted grandmother figure who’s growing vegetables in their front garden and keeping goats and chickens. She’s absolutely brilliant but also slightly embarrassing if you’re a teenage boy. There’s a scene in which she ends up dancing on the table with Ron the B*Bot and the kids said that that was their favourite scene. So there’s obviously some comedy there that they haven’t seen before

Jean-Philippe : Not only did we have to design a robot – we also had to design a social network to go with the robot as well as make the film. One of the things that was quite frightening was could we, as adults, make a social network that looked and felt plausible and that we could use as a storytelling device. So a lot of design and stress and development went into making it feel elegant and believable

Sarah : We’re terrified of being uncool to our kids

Jean-Philippe : It’s a painful process being the parents of teenagers (laughs)

I’m sure! So right now, kids often prefer to meet/play games online rather than in person and as ever, kids are excluded for being ‘losers’ when they don’t conform. It could be said, for those kids, machines and computers seem more empathetic than their peers in some cases. What prompted you to tell this story?
Sarah :  Everything you just said is exactly right. All of our observation as parents watching our kids getting lost in these devices – and originally I started thinking we had to do something like this when I saw the Spike Jonze movie Her and at the same time my kids kept quoting adverts at me off the internet saying ‘oh yes mummy you should buy this – it makes your clothes smell fresh!’ And you think… kids don’t understand that what’s on the screen might not be true and real. And then my friends who had older children were really seeing the more serious things – how kids can behave in a way that’s really mean and cruel to each other when they’re not face to face in a way that they wouldn’t if they were in the playground. And so it felt like it was something that we really had to talk about – all of those complicated things. And the pandemic condemning children to ONLY meet each other through screens hopefully makes it even more relevant because certainly my own kid is dying to get outside and actually meet other humans as we all are.

Jean-Philippe : When it comes to relationships that are organised in a way that you like the same stuff – the way an algorithm in social media pushes you towards things that you like – we’re really trying to say is that the basis of a fulfilling relationship / friendship? You know…. Because Ron and Barney don’t have any algorithm or filter they have to face each other’s weirdness and conflict. It’s a portrait of a healthy, messy relationship.

As you say, we are living in this period of time where we only see each other online really. Has releasing the movie at this period made a difference?
Sarah : I think the story became more relevant and hopefully children are even more open to the feeling that maybe the screen isn’t the only thing that they want. Maybe they’ve learned that more for themselves. The truth is that it’s a double edged sword because it’s allowing us to connect around the world – technology’s this incredible thing with this promise of connection but at the same time we all know how completely isolated it can make us feel because it doesn’t feel real or quite enough. And so I think all of those themes hopefully have become more self evident to kids really.

You have an incredible comedy cast – Zach Galifianakis, Ed Helms, Olivia Coleman. What was it like working with them on this project?
Sarah :  We had this fantastic cast of comedy heroes of ours. One of the joys of it was that when we were originally pitching this to Ed and Zach – my co-writer’s Pete Baynham and it turns out that they are actually fans of British comedy that we’ve worked on. So while you’re bowing down at your legends, they’re going ‘Wow this guy worked on Alan Partridge!’ So that was really nice and it helped to get off to a good start with them. I always find that the most talented people are the most delightful and charming. This cast was utterly delightful to work with to a man – or woman! They liked the film. They contributed. They were delightful and charming.

Jean-Philippe : I always remember that Zach (Ron) will say that he’s not an actor and we were amazed because he could give this naive simple performance to Ron that would just work beautifully. And he said one funny thing because we would always say that Ron was run by an algorithm, he wasn’t very emotional and he would say ‘I’ve never had directors ask me to give less emotion before!’ He worked so well with Jack (Barney) as well when we could record them together and we actually used quite a lot of that in our animation.

Sarah : Yes! Ed also. Ed is an amazing improviser. You give him the lines and he’ll do six versions of his own and he’s hilarious. The only problem is editing it – you’re listening to so much and it’s so delightful. He adds lots and lots of little touches. And Olivia is just so professional – you ask her to jump up and down like she’s dancing with a chicken in her arms and so… she does! Whilst also chuntering in Bulgarian. She’s an absolute joy. So all of our cast were delightful including Jack who I think is such a rising star. He really is an incredible young actor. He has so much range and he does it all in this delightful easygoing way. And you give him some emotional thing to talk about his family and he gives you this performance which makes you breathe in because it’s so touching and then he’s like ‘oh was that okay?’ And he’s off sending texts on his phone between takes. He’s an incredible professional (laughs).

The film shares some thematic and a slight Apple-y vibe to the robots with ‘The Mitchells Vs The Machines’ which came out earlier this year. They were being made at the same time so did you see ‘The Mitchells’ be released and go oh no! If only they’d come out after us!
Sarah  : No – we were worried about it earlier on but it’s so completely different to us. There’s only an apple-y vibe in the ‘Mitchell’s Vs The Machines’ in one little bit of it I think and the rest of the time it reminded me of other movies, other types of robots whereas ours really is in the Ipad/device realm. Obviously we’re jumping off from some of the same themes in terms of the prevalence of technology but I’m happy to say that they went off in a completely different brilliant Lord and Miller way whereas ours owes more to 80s classics like ‘ET’ and that sort of classic kid and his friend story I hope.

Short Circuit vibes! Malfunctioning robot friend…
Sarah : Yeah, that’s always the story isn’t it – one of them is ‘different’

The movie is getting a huge release by Disney now, though it wasn’t a Disney film when you started making it. What was that like? Was it exciting when you realised you were essentially making a Disney movie?
Sarah : It was totally terrifying. I first had to go and meet the chairman of Disney to tell them what we were doing and it felt like the British expression Carrying coals to Newcastle – to take animation into Disney and go ‘We’ve got some animation’ I mean… I didn’t even know what to say because it felt so superfluous but I have to say that the Disney team have been so amazing. Once you work with them you understand why they dominate the market – they’re just so brilliant at what they do. But also they’ve been incredibly kind and supportive to this film. They have really got behind it and loved it from the very beginning. We’ve had a really fantastic experience with them and we couldn’t be more happy

Jean-Philippe : It was a very different experience screening our movie for notes. Usually, at Pixar certainly, you’d have tonnes of people giving us notes. We have notes from Alan and Alan, the two heads at Disney. And it was great to have that direct response from them

Sarah : Yeah they’re really clear. Really big picture. Hear what you need to hear and then move on.

How late in the process did Disney come in?
Sarah : Halfway through. There were a lot of things in the air because we had a great relationship with the Fox team who were also hugely supportive of the film

Jean-Philippe : And many of them continued on with it

Sarah : Yes some of them did. It is an amazing thing to have your first baby delivered into the world by Disney

If you’re going to do it, that’s the way to do it
Sarah : Yes!

Animation has changed so much in the last few years. What do you think people are looking for where we are now?
Sarah : It’s really interesting you should ask that. We don’t really know because the cinemas haven’t been open and we can’t quite see what it is that kids are watching. I think with the advent of things like Netflix there’s a much wider range of material available to them and so they’re seeing different types of movies to what they’ve seen in the cinema before. I think what we are hoping is to tell stories that are very relevant to the kids in our audience – this issue of friendships and social media and screen time is what their lives are about and that was our choice. To tell stories that are about the modern kid audience, which we feel there are not that many of in the animation space

Jean-Philippe : There is also a classical feel to the movie – hopefully not in an old fashioned sense – but rather in the sense of the scope and the scale but also in a sense of.. not realism… but we really wanted to take the characters on a journey especially in the second half of the movie when they go off into the wilderness. One of the key things we really wanted to make sure that the look of the movie really celebrated was the landscape and the look of the architecture we created to give it that big cinematic feel.

I already love Ron. How was the character born from a visual point of view?
Sarah : Right at the very beginning I spoke to an artist friend of mine and talked about this friendship character, this little bot that would go with you anywhere and he sketched it. His thing had legs however. Then we spoke to another designer, a very talented German designer and he came up with this idea of this kind of thing to which all of the parts would fold in – it was very much an attempt to do something out of Apple. And then having designed the perfect B*Bot we had to design the slightly broken rubbish one whose magnetic arm keeps slipping and whose eyes are made just of digital pixels and that was Ron himself basically. Ultimately he’s just very simple and like a lot of the best animated character he has very little to express with. Often his mouth isn’t even visible it’s just his eyes and it’s just about the length of time that he sits there and stares at you. I always think about the penguin in the Wallace and Gromit films who just blinks and that makes him evil. So with Ron a lot of the time we were trying to calm it down just like less is more as he’s just processing. He’s just a robot sitting there looking and one blink does it. It’s about paring down really

Jean-Philippe :  The animators loved the brokenness. We grew up with Nintendo Gameboys and we thought he’s kinda like a broken gameboy. So the blocky pixel face was really fun for them to create new expressions with

Sarah : You have ideas like Ron having been bashed on one side by the car that you see in the trailer so one side of his wheel went a bit wobbly and one of his arms goes a bit wobbly and then bits of his face tend to drift around especially at the beginning before he’s got control of it.

So the brokenness of Ron reflects the flaws in ourselves and the conflict we have in relationships is echoed by him and Barney. It’s so important nowadays to represent diversity and inclusion – was this what you had in mind when you created them?
Sarah : 100 percent. A lot of the movie is about the echo chamber of social media saying – and this B*Bot promises what children think they want which is I will find you some friends who are exactly the same as you, who believe the same things and like the same things as you and you think ‘yay, I have an instant friendship group!’ But of course what that means is that you are excluding anyone who is in any different. And Barney is a kid – he’s a perfectly nice kid – but he’s a little bit different. He’s asthmatic and he’s also got a slightly eccentric family. He’s embarrassed of the goat that lives in the front garden. The sense of difference – he has become overwhelmed by this feeling of unworthiness and it’s him holding himself apart. He feels like no-one’s interested in him. It’s all about his self worth. And the whole point of this relationship between Barney and Ron is that they get to know everything about each other, including all the bad stuff and they make a real relationship. And Ron goes out collecting friends for Barney and goes up to people and brings this crazy group of them into school for him – an old lady, a biker, a parrot, a baby – and it’s like the ultimate anti-echo chamber. Ron will go up to literally anyone and be like ‘Hi! Be Barney’s friend!’ And they’re like ‘Okay…!’ So he brings people together. And that’s what you see at the end of the movie – the other B*Bots get that from Ron – they are going around making friend requests of everybody. Not just the characters and other kids that are like their owners

Jean-Philippe : One of the things that we are really concerned about is that how we present ourselves on social media is the idealised version of ourselves or what we want other people to think is the ideal version. And actually what makes people interesting is the stuff that we don’t share – the quirky stuff, the weird stuff – but it actually makes you real and it makes you a fun person to know. And that’s something that Barney actually discovers. He’s afraid of that and doesn’t show it to the world at the beginning but by the end through being a friend of Ron he really does.

Interview by AJ O’Neill

RON’S GONE WRONG will arrive in Irish cinemas on October 15th