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Rise of the Machines | Interview with Mark Stay

Written by  Published April 9, 2015 11:54
 “How long before we see a robot story on Coronation Street?” There was a wonderful sense of nostalgia that came with my first viewing of Robot Overlords. While very much its own beast, there was always the feeling that the minds behind the movie were fans of classic science fiction where the fantastic often took a back seat to the human interactions that existed in that universe. These were stories that looked at what it meant to be human that took us on the most weird and wonderful journeys as we made our way to the conclusion. What I found really distinctive about Robots Overlords was something else entirely – a feeling of hope at the close of the movie. Even the most family friendly science fiction shown at the cinema seems to have been invaded by a bleakness that, while appealing to some adults, can alienate some children. This is not the case with Robot Overlords. While it does not patronize its audience, it also proves that a movie can still entertain if the good guys win! I managed to find Mark Stay, script writer and author of the novel based on the movie, for a chat about Robot Overlords and what made it such a unique and special piece of cinema…

Hi and thanks for allowing yourself to be subjected to an interview from eXpert Comics! Can you tell us a little about yourself to our readers?

My life was ruined by Star Wars when I was five. I could have been a useful member of society, but since being knocked sideways by that film I’ve been making stuff up and writing it down ever since. I’ve worked in bookselling and publishing for over twenty years, and like many writers I juggle the writing with a day job.



Where did the concept for Robot Overlords come from? How did you go about distributing the script and how did you pitch it?

Jon Wright (director and co-writer of Robot Overlords) dreamed that he was stuck in his home with malevolent robots patrolling the streets outside. From that he put together a two-page pitch and asked if I would be interested in helping him write it (we had worked together on a number of projects by this time). We were very lucky in that one of the producers of Jon’s previous film Grabbers just happened to be looking for a family sci-fi movie.

He optioned it and we were up and running very quickly. It’s interesting looking back at that pitch now as some of it remains remarkably faithful to the finished film and other elements are completely different (Jon first imagined it having a handheld/documentary feel rather than the more polished film we ended up making).


 I thoroughly enjoyed the movie. Robot Overlords definitely reminds me of the classic era of British storytelling from the late 1960’s that lasted throughout the 1970’s. Why choose to go down the indie movie route rather than a traditional blockbuster?

Thanks! In the UK, the indie route is pretty much the only route. Unless you’re adapting a pre-existing property - a book or a comic book - the studios won’t come anywhere near you, especially if it’s a genre movie with a hefty VFX budget: far too risky. We were blessed with the support of the BFI as we wrote the script, they gave us the kind of development notes that a studio might supply, but without the huge financial pressures that might weigh upon a studio movie.

One of the most appealing aspects of Jon’s pitch was that I hadn’t seen a movie like this: an all-out kids’ science fiction adventure story set in the UK with its heart on its sleeve. Early on we were advised to set it in the US to attract a bigger budget and a studio, but we stuck to our guns as the setting, along with Brit kids as heroes, was what got us most excited about the story.



What sort of budget did you have to work with? How did you approach the special effects in the feature?

Never ask a writer about the budget! We haven’t got a clue, and whenever we ask a producer for a figure it changes depending on who you ask and what day of the week it is. It was probably somewhere between £7-9 million, and a sizeable chunk of it went on the VFX. 

From a writer’s point-of-view, the VFX knowledge that Jon brought from Grabbers is that interaction is expensive: epic shots of vast craft hovering over towns are relatively cheap, but robots picking things up is very costly. That’s where the idea of having our hero Sean control the robots via a network link came from: a budgetary constraint resulting in a cool story kink.


 How did you break into the science-fiction genre? What sort of support did you have?

I’ve always loved science fiction, fantasy and horror and most things I write have an element of these genres in them. I enjoy how they hold a slightly skewed mirror to the real world.

In terms of support, we had Jamie Wolpert at the BFI giving us notes. He’s a proper sci-fi geek and was very good at spotting tropes or plot holes. We also have the Tiny Tank Think Tank; a group of writers, actors, editors, directors, VFX people who will read our scripts and give us the kind of honest, brutal feedback that, if it doesn’t kill us, only makes us stronger.


What do you look for in a science-fiction movie? What elements make it a success or, equally, a failure?

Any genre tale has to be about people. That’s what we respond to in stories: seeing lives and dilemmas that we recognize and empathizing with the characters. The robots in our story have changed the world our hero Sean lives in and the thrill we get is seeing how he overcomes the challenges that this new order throws at him. At its heart, this is a father/son story, but adding the sci-fi element of the robots ups the stakes and makes it more engaging, especially for a younger audience. A film that’s just about robots beating the crap out of each other will get by on spectacle for only so long.


How has the approach to filmmaking changed over the last decade or so? Has it lent itself towards the indie director in a more favourable respect?

I’m not sure. In some ways it’s easier than ever to make the kind of indie genre movie you want to make: the tools are there to create incredible VFX for your story. Just look at Gareth Edwards’ Monsters. But the gap in distribution between indie movies and studio blockbusters is widening: the days of an indie movie breaking out into the mainstream on its theatrical release are over.

The costs of distribution are still huge, as are the financial risks. We tried, we really, really did. We had the best distributor screening you could ever wish for: 300 kids at the BFI Southbank, cheering and applauding all the way through. The major distributors told us they loved the film, but none of them bit. When they put us into their forecast spreadsheets, all they get back is a big question mark.

We’re an unknown quantity: a risk… and that (understandably) terrifies them. The most common path is to plough a furrow at the festivals and gather some good reviews, and then hope that your DVD/VOD release gains you a bigger audience. It’s not about the opening weekend for us. Our distributors, Signature, are small but bold and pioneering and they understand the indie market. I think we’re in good hands.


Robot Overlords is different to most other Young Adult fiction. Why choose to go with Robots rather than The Sparkly Undead?

There’s a vast market for the Sparkly Undead, but novelizations live in a strange nether-world that’s part YA and part grown-up SF, so my Robot Overlords novelization may take some time to find its readership. Word-of-mouth for this kind of book is really important. All I know is it’s the kind of novel that I would definitely have grabbed when visiting the library as a kid. The idea of having a child control a two-storey robot in battle against other robots really appeals to the kid in me.  I’ve tried to write a page-turner that will grab you from page one, but will also build on the world and the characters in the film. I read a lot of novelizations when I was growing-up and the best ones did exactly that.


The Young Adult market seems to be more susceptible to falling towards trends than some other genres. For instance, vampires seemed to dominate for a while, followed by the angels, zombies, etc – why do think this is? Do you see Robots picking up a similar following?

Trends are often dictated by sales and marketing: this thing is working, so let’s make more of the same. I think it’s a mistake for a writer to try and write for trends, as by the time you’ve finished writing, the latest one will have been and gone. To thine own self be true is the hardest lesson for a writer to learn.

But Robots are experiencing a kind of renaissance and I’m happy to surf that wave. Just recently we’ve had Big Hero 6, Ex-Machina, Chappie, Robot and Frank, and The Machine, we still have Age of Ultron to come, and we might yet see Spielberg adapt Daniel H Wilson’s Robopocalypse.

I do wonder if we’re seeing the last gasp for apocalyptic fictional robots. The real things are becoming more and more a part of our daily lives, and we might soon all have a Jibo in our homes, taking messages, controlling the heating and ordering our shopping. So will we be less interested in robot stories? Or will they simply become part of the fabric of life. How long before we see a robot story on Coronation Street?  



What’s your favourite sci-fi movie?

My knee-jerk reaction is to say Star Wars, but that is essentially a fantasy story in sci-fi dressing. Blade Runner is the one I come back to again and again. Every time I watch it I see something new, and those questions of identity and memory will never get old.


Do you read any comic books? If so, what’s your favourite and are you reading anything at the moment?

I love comic books and Saga by Brian K Vaughan and Fiona Staples is the pinnacle of storytelling for me. I think I’ve enjoyed it more than any movie or book in recent years. Its boldness is breathtaking and inspiring. It makes me want to be a better writer.


Do you have any other projects lined up for the near future?

Jon and I are working on a horror script currently called True Story. We would hope to get that up and running this year. I’ve also co-written a WWII adventure script called The Black Spitfire with Paddy Eason. It’s one of the best things I’ve ever done, but comes with an equally ambitious budget, but what the hell: why be coy?


And a deal has been done for a TV series based in the Robot Overlords universe. Very early days yet but potentially very, very exciting. Watch this space.

Rob Richardson

+++BEGINTRANSMISSION+++ ROBotiX is the fusion of columnist and comic book character. Join the machine and its master, Rob Richardson, as they begin their reboot of comic book history and industry as onlookers from the present analyzing the past and searching for the future. Constructed from an underground lair deep in the Moors, ROBotiX offers the UK perspective on the industry, relentless in it's mission to seek out Britains rising stars and industry greats. As ROBotiX evolves stay posted for a historical look into comic book characters, bios, reviews, news, interviews and much more... Standby for your upgrade and interface with ROBotiX... +++ENDTRANSMISSION+++

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