Stories With Greg Pak
Chris Garcia Stalkee.
Greg Pak in 2002 when he was at Cinequest with a film called
All Amateur Ecstasy. It was brilliant and less than 3 minutes.
Ever since, I've been a big fan of his work, especially his
most recent feature Robot Stories, which plays April 16-22,
2004 in San Francisco and Berkeley.
was kind enough to agree to answer some questions on shorts,
sci-fi and film making in general.
Garcia- I first became aware of your work with
Po Mo Knock Knock. You've done a bunch of shorts, including
Mouse which is another of my personal faves. What draws you
to the short form? Now that you've done your feature, are
you going to continue doing the occasional short?
Greg Pak- I love shorts -- I think there are certain
kinds of stories or ideas which are perfect as shorts and
shouldn't be done any other way. Mouse, for example,
is about a guy avoiding a conversation about pregnancy with
his girlfriend by chasing a mouse around his apartment. That
could never sustain a feature, but it's a great little storyline
for a socky and satisfying ten minute short.
making short films has been the best way for me to keep working
as a filmmaker, to keep learning by doing, in between bigger
projects. I want to make a career out of writing and directing
feature films, but I'll absolutely keep making shorts -- in
fact, I just co-directed a goofy new short film with Susie
Lee called Ode to Margaret Cho which is playing in
festivals right now.
You worked with NYC Improv group the Pollyannas. I've also noticed
that you've acted in a couple of your own shorts. You an improv
guy? Any plans on more acting gigs?
from Pak's film with The Pollyannas.
Yeah, I've done improv for about fifteen years. I'd love to
act more on film, but I've foolishly failed to write myself
any new roles in any of the screenplays I'm now trying to
get made. Not so savvy...
You did Yale for Poli Sci and were a Rhodes Scholar. You studied
history at Oxford, yet it seems like you've stayed away from
documentary. Any plans on going that route?
Actually, for a while my best known film was a short documentary
called Fighting Grandpa, which won a Student Academy
Award in 1999 and later played on Cinemax and PBS. I love
documentary, but I've been concentrating on fiction filmmaking
for the past few years.
any film tends to be all-consuming at different points in
time, but documentaries in particular can take over your whole
life for years on end. I have an unfinished doc about people's
relationships with wolves which I've been struggling with
for five years now -- I need to get control of that project
before I can think about tackling another doc.
You worked with M. Butterfly writer David Henry Hwang on Asian
Pride Porn. What was it like working with one of the top commentators
on the Asian-American experience in the realm of comedy?
David was fantastic. He has a great, goofy sense of humor
and totally got the vibe of Asian Pride Porn. It was
a great experience for me as a director because we had to
shoot that film with no advance rehearsal time -- it forced
me to work quickly and efficiently with actors on set to get
solid results in almost no time at all.
was a great person to have that experience with -- he's a
playwright, of course, not a trained actor, but he was totally
game and plunged into the warm ups and work with real trust
and a completely open mind.
You're a favorite on the festival circuit, having
toured all over with your various films, and have won a stack
of awards. How has it changed you as a filmmaker? Has it affected
the way you look at your own work as well as those of others?
The best thing about going to film festivals is the chance
to see your films screen many times before many different
audiences. I've learned a huge deal just by seeing how audiences
react to my stuff -- I'm always making notes in my head about
how things work or don't work. Going to so many festivals
over the years also gave me confidence that there's an audience
out there for what I'm doing -- certainly the success of my
shorts at festivals gave me confidence in taking the plunge
to make Robot Stories, and the success of Robot
Stories on the festival circuit was a huge part of our
making the decision to take the film out for the city-by-city
theatrical run we're currently undertaking.
An actress friend of mine saw your feature Robot Stories in
LA and immediately mailed me to make sure that I saw it. I
had seen it last year at Cinequest, but she was so impressed
with it, she had to make sure everyone knew they must see
it. How has the reaction to Robot Stories meshed with your
That's so cool she emailed you. I've been blown away by the
audience reaction to the film. There's this kind of funny
transition in the life of a film, a moment where it stops
being this private creation and becomes this public thing
which you can't control; which audiences will make their own;
which people you've never met will experience for themselves.
And it's just an overwhelming experience when the film really
clicks, when folks respond on a real level, when you realize
that on some level, this film has become part of other people's
intellectual and emotional lives. There have been audience
members who stood up and cheered while the film is playing;
other folks who have come up to me afterwards in tears. It's
amazing and overwhelming.
Robot Stories is Science Fiction that doesn't forget that
there are real people at the heart of the story...even if
one of them is an android. It's a subtle SF film amid a genre
that is known for its over-the-topness. Did you ever find
yourself pulling back to keep things from going too Sci-Fi?
What where the challenges in keeping the line?
Garcia stay in touch with actresses.
In a strange way, I think my training in improv really helped
with this. One of the things I learned from improv was that
a scene only needs one crazy thing -- once someone brings
a penguin into the room, for example, you have plenty to work
with. Exploring that one idea, discovering the possibilities
and justifying the incongruities of that single thing, is
all you need for a successful scene -- you don't need to drag
in a watermelon and an elephant and a starship as well.
in Robot Stories, each story basically has one crazy
thing going on -- a robot baby, an android office worker,
the prospect of digital immortality... I tried to stay true
to exploring that one quirk, to finding some emotional truth
or moment at the heart of that one experience. Working in
improv taught me the validity of that approach -- I never
really found myself thinking, "Hey, how 'bout we wedge
in that alien airstrike here?" And, of course, the fact
that there's no way we could afford to shoot an alien airstrike
helped keep things focused.
I've heard folks say that there is a strong Asimov or Silverberg
influence on Robot Stories. Who do/did you read that brought
these ideas about? Any specific stories or novels or films?
seems to be the obvious match, but my literary influences
are actually more Ray Bradbury and Harlan Ellison, with maybe
a bit of Kurt Vonnegut tossed in. I loved these writers when
I was younger -- I read all of their science fiction short
stories and just kind of absorbed that particular style and
rhythm of storytelling. In particular, the pairing of fantastic
elements with emotionally compelling storytelling comes from
writers like these. In terms of actual story ideas, I was
inspired by a number of different things. For example, the
fact that kids in my high school health classes had to carry
around eggs in baskets to learn about how hard it is to take
care of a baby led to the egg shaped robot baby in "My
Robot Baby." And a few soul-blighting summer office jobs
no doubt led me to cast myself as the alienated android office
worker in the "Machine Love" segment of the film.
The Robot Fixer segment is one of the most heart-breaking
pieces I've seen in years. It's also the least Science fiction-y
of the segments. Tell me where it came from, and also, where
you got those great toys.
Cindy Cheung and Wai Ching Ho in a shot from
"The Robot Fixer," one of several Robot
"The Robot Fixer" tells the story of a mother whose
estranged son is in a coma; she becomes obsessed with completing
his robot toy collection, as if that will somehow help her
understand him or bring him back.
the stories in the movie are strictly autobiographical, but
some of my own experiences certainly inform the stories. I'd
lost a number of people very close to me during the time I
was writing the screenplay, so the characters' struggles to
deal with death were very close to me. And, of course, those
toys in "Robot Fixer" all come from my extensive
childhood collection - so I was very familiar and sympathetic
to that sometimes pathological collector mentality.
Robot Stories is still going strong around the country. Where
can we see it? Is there a DVD coming soon?
We're doing theatrical runs around the country city-by-city
-- it'll come to you soon, amigos! We've already hit New York,
DC, Boston, Los Angeles, St. Louis, and Pittsburgh, among
others. Here are some of our upcoming dates:
and Berkeley, starting April 16
Ithaca, NY, starting April 22
Portland, OR, starting April 23
Philadelphia, starting April 30
Austin, starting May 7
Dallas, starting May 14
latest, including locations, showtimes, and info about cast
and crew appearances, visit http://www.robotstories.net.
we'll absolutely come out with a DVD. I'm hoping it'll happen
in time for the Christmas season -- we'll see. In the meantime,
dear fans, please, please, please DON'T pirate it! We're a
genuinely independent movie, independently produced and distributed,
not some faceless corporation-- any damage from pirating will
hurt us little guys directly and personally.
What's next for Greg Pak?
In May, I'm going to the Tribeca Film Festival's All Access
program to try to get some bucks to make my newest screenplay,
The Dead Boy, a horror/romance about a kid who comes
back from the dead to keep a date with his dream girl. And,
as always, my producers and I are trying to raise money for
Rio Chino, my dream project for a decade, a Western
featuring a Chinese gunslinger and a Mexican heroine.
meantime, I'm paying rent through writing jobs. In a fanboy
dream come true (knock on wood), it looks like I may get a
chance to write a comic for Marvel. Wish me luck!
I'm still traveling a great deal with Robot Stories
-- I'll be in San Francisco and Berkeley, Ithaca, Austin,
and Dallas for our releases in those towns. Hope to see ya
at the movies!