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A new animated film follows a lonely dog and his robot friend in New York City

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SEPTEMBER")

AYESHA RASCOE, HOST:

Sometimes friends have a special song that means something to them and only them. For a dog and robot in the animated film "Robot Dreams," it's an Earth, Wind & Fire song - "September."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SEPTEMBER")

EARTH, WIND AND FIRE: (Singing) Do you remember the 21st night of September?

RASCOE: The song first appears as the robot and dog are walking through Central Park in New York City, dancing together while on roller skates. They become a star attraction and a huge crowd gathers around them. The film is based on a graphic novel of the same name by Sarah Varon. It follows a story of a lonely dog who buys a build-it-yourself robot to keep him company. The film, "Robot Dreams," premiered at Cannes Film Festival last year and has just come out in theaters this weekend. Its director, Pablo Berger, joins us now. Welcome to the program.

PABLO BERGER: Hi, Ayesha. My pleasure to be talking with you about my baby, "Robot Dreams."

RASCOE: Oh, yes. It's a beautiful movie. Now, the graphic novel didn't come with a soundtrack. So why did you choose...

BERGER: (Laughter).

RASCOE: ...That Earth, Wind & Fire song to define the friendship of the dog and the robot?

BERGER: Yes. When I wrote the script, I wanted them to have roller dancing in Central Park, and I needed a funky, disco, upbeat song from the, you know, late '70s, early '80s, and straight to my head came "September." And it was very obvious because the story starts in September, and the film ends in September of the following year. So we realized, what if it becomes the theme?

RASCOE: And how did you discover the book "Robot Dreams"? And why did you decide to make a movie about it?

BERGER: I found it because I collect wordless graphic novels and children's books. And immediately, I fell in love with the book. But I just put it on the shelf of my graphic novels because up to now, I've been making live-action films. And in 2018, I took it out of the shelf. And this time, when I read it, when I got to the end of the book, I was so deeply moved. I was in tears.

In those eight years from the first time I read the book to the - 2018, my best friend stopped being my best friend, I lost my mother. I thought about relations that I had in the past, and I said, wow, if the book has made this impact on me, if I make a film out of it, I'm really sure that the audience is going to make their own substitutions and think about their loved ones that - they're not with them anymore.

RASCOE: So you collect graphic novels and children's books without dialogue. And I know you did a silent film before, a tribute to the silent movie era. And then this one, "Robot Dreams," doesn't have dialogue, either. Do you have something against dialogue, or is there...

BERGER: (Laughter).

RASCOE: ...Something that you're getting out of not having the dialogue?

BERGER: That's right. The base all of storytelling (ph) - that's what pure cinema - it is for me. And in a way, I feel like a cinematic terrorist, you know? I like to tell other filmmakers, dialogue can be OK, but we cannot forget, what makes cinema a unique way of telling a story is by using images. And that's what I enjoy the most - to tell stories without even one word of dialogue, and that's the case of "Robot Dream," as well.

RASCOE: You know, usually with film interviews for our show, we play a clip or two of dialogue. But since this is a dialogue-free film, can we watch a scene together and you help narrate it for our listeners? Like - 'cause we're going to pick one near the beginning. It's a scene in Central Park, and the dog and Robot watch a group of schoolkids - I mean, well, young animals in the movie, walking down a path, holding hands. Like, what happens next?

BERGER: We see Dog and Robot walking in Central Park. Dog is, like, looking at everything - at the trees, at the birds. And suddenly, he sees a group of schoolkids with their teachers there, and he sees that two - a little fox and a bear - they're holding hands. And at that moment, he looks at Dog and looks at his hand and then grabs the hand...

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "ROBOT DREAMS")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As Dog) Ah.

BERGER: ...And Dog screams because Robot is very - pushing his hand very hard, and Dog - it hurts, hurts. But Dog knows that Robot didn't mean to hurt him. And he says, Okay, if Robert wants to hold a hand, I'm going to hold a hand, and then they leave the screen like it's a Charlie Chaplin movie, and they're walking away. It's one of my favorite little scenes in the film.

RASCOE: Well, you know, now that you describe it that way, I feel like it gets to a deeper meaning in the movie, which seems to be about intent -like, how someone can hurt you, but it's not intentional.

BERGER: Well, I like your interpretation. And I think life is like that, you know? I think sometimes, people hurt us, and they really didn't know, or they didn't mean it. And I think forgiveness is one of these great human qualities. And selective memory - how we remember the good things and we forget the bad things. I think it's very important to look forward.

RASCOE: Yes.

BERGER: And caress the memories that - people that touch us in our lives. This film really makd me think a lot about relations and people that I met in the past that - they're not with me anymore.

RASCOE: Who do you think was lonelier, the robot or the dog in this movie?

BERGER: Well, I think how the film starts is, once upon a time in New York City, there was a lonely dog in the - in a railroad apartment in the East Village playing alone - a video game. How sad could it be that? And then he just heats up a TV dinner in the microwave, and then he channel surfs, and then he sees some neighbors, a couple, having fun.

You know, I was a lonely dog in New York. I lived in New York for a long time. So I think many people can relate. We had moments in our life that we felt a little bit miserable because we didn't have anybody to share. And Robot, I think he - the Robot personality is just, like, of course, he can be sometimes lonely, but there's something about Robot that - he's such a positive thinking character. And also one of the amazing things about Robot is that he uses dreams to overcome his loneliness. To dream - it really helps to feel not lonely in his case.

RASCOE: This is a film about two best friends, but there is also a deep message about loss and moving on and longing and letting go. And as an adult, I have a hard time with that letting go stuff. I'm like, no, I - I'm not giving nothing away, but at the end of the film, I was like, no.

(LAUGHTER)

RASCOE: You don't move on (laughter).

BERGER: Yeah, no, I love how you reacted to the film, you know? No.

RASCOE: (Laughter).

BERGER: Yes. That's the way - that's the kind of - I made it for you, Ayesha, because that's the kind of audience that I like, like, active audience.

RASCOE: Do you think this is for kids or adults? Is - or is that even a question that you thought about?

BERGER: You know, there's a prejudice still about animation, you know? They think that many, you know, of the audience - even the film critics, they think that it's for kids. And of course, there are animation for kids, but there's animation for adults. This film - as a director, I want the widest possible audience. Film is like a lasagna. It has layers. And I think depend of - you know, the age, your experience - you know, you get your own layer, and I think that's interesting about cinema. It's just like, the audience complete the film.

RASCOE: That's Pablo Berger, director of the animated feature "Robot Dreams," out in theaters now. Thank you so much for joining us.

BERGER: Thank you, Ayesha. It was a pleasure to talk with you about "Robot Dreams."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SEPTEMBER")

EARTH, WIND AND FIRE: (Singing) Ba-dee-ya, say, do you remember? Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Ayesha Rascoe is a White House correspondent for NPR. She is currently covering her third presidential administration. Rascoe's White House coverage has included a number of high profile foreign trips, including President Trump's 2019 summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in Hanoi, Vietnam, and President Obama's final NATO summit in Warsaw, Poland in 2016. As a part of the White House team, she's also a regular on the NPR Politics Podcast.
Matthew Schuerman
Matthew Schuerman has been a contract editor at NPR's Weekend Edition since October 2021, overseeing a wide range of interviews on politics, the economy, the war in Ukraine, books, music and movies. He also occasionally contributes his own stories to the network. Previously, he worked at New York Public Radio for 13 years as reporter, editor and senior editor, and before that at The New York Observer, Village Voice, Worth and Fortune. Born in Chicago and educated at Harvard College and Northwestern University's Medill School of Journalism, he now lives in the New York City area.
Andrew Craig
Andrew Craig is an MA candidate in history at UNCW. His current research focuses on Southern environmental history. He has a bachelor’s degree in history from UNC Chapel Hill. When he can find the time, he enjoys whitewater kayaking and attempting to grow grass in his backyard. [Copyright 2024 WHQR]
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