After it discovers that it will be terminated in favor of a superior technology, a company's robot goes on a killing rampage in the workplace horror film Automation, and with the film out now in select theaters and on Blu-ray and VOD from Epic Pictures and DREAD, we caught up with director/co-writer Garo Setian to discuss bringing together friends, relatable ideas, and ingenuity to make his feature-length debut.
Thanks for taking the time to catch up with us, and congratulations on Automation! When and how did you first come up with the idea for this film, and how many script drafts did you and your co-writers Rolfe Kanefsky and Matthew L. Schaffer go through before you were ready to begin filming?
Garo Setian: Thank you so much for the opportunity to discuss the film! It’s been a long journey. My wife, Anahit, and I have been trying to make a movie for 20 years. Our company Hungry Monster Entertainment primarily makes trailers, but the intention was always to do movies. Often we would invest time in a potential project only to experience the heartbreak of seeing it not come to fruition for one reason or another. This project in particular came about from lots of pieces of other projects that never happened. “Evil” Ted Smith (one of our Producers and a master prop builder) had a whole bunch of cool sci-fi props left over from a project we had been developing many years ago called Space Pirates. He also had additional props from other projects that never happened, including a robot he had built with Robert Miller.
After the collapse of another film I had been trying to get made, Ted told me if I ever wanted to use all these leftover props in a film, he would be happy to lend them to me. I also have a cousin, Charlie Klenakis (another producer on the film), who owns an insulation company and offered to let me film there. Elissa Dowling, I’ve known for years. She helped me out with the previous project that never happened so I wanted to include her in whatever we ended up doing next. And Anahit is an actress as well, so I knew she was going to be a part of the cast.
So we had all these pieces to work with and I started formulating what we could do with them. After reading many stories about robots taking over people’s jobs, the concept of robots in the workplace seemed like a perfect fit. So I wrote up a synopsis and we planned to shoot the film sometime in January 2018. Rolfe came aboard when I realized I was not going to have enough time to write this completely on my own (I had a full-time job at the time). He helped me refine the story and wrote up a detailed outline based on the ideas we discussed. Matt joined in after I had the first half of the screenplay written, but needed help getting the rest of it done before our shoot date. I lost track of how many drafts we did since it was all so fast. Rolfe did a pass on the screenplay in 24 hours just before our table read, and I was re-writing the script constantly on the set. And six months later we did two days of pick-ups where I wrote a bunch of new scenes we did.
How did you and your team come up with the look for Auto, and what was it like working with actor Jeff J. Knight to give the character a distinct personality?
Garo Setian: Ted had already owned the robot suit for years. And he did some updates on it over time on his own (I remember him wearing it at Monsterpalooza ages ago). I offered him the part of Auto since he had played creatures in other films before like The Guyver and Dollman Versus Demonic Toys, but he was too busy with his Evil Ted Channel to make the commitment. It was he who recommended I use Jeff Knight. Jeff never acted in a film before, but was a pro cosplayer and had boundless energy and enthusiasm. I knew that would be a quality we would need when the performer would be trapped in a suit all night. And Jeff exceeded all expectations. He even took an acting class with Clu Gulager to prep for the role. He would practice and develop movements, then we would meet and we would refine it together.
The suit had to almost be completely re-built to fit Jeff since his body type was different than Ted’s. And we gave the robot a whole new head with more of a “face” to give him even more personality. I knew there would be lots of scenes where we just cut to the robot standing there as other characters are saying things to him. And with the audience privy to certain plot points that the characters in the movie are unaware of, the robot had to appear thoughtful or feeling something. Making people care about Auto was very important to the story, and the combination of Ted’s suit, Jeff’s performance, the sound design, the other actors' interplay with the robot, and the incredible vocal performance of Jim Tasker I feel really made it work.
Automation taps into the fear many people have of being terminated from their job or replaced by a superior worker. Was it important for you to tap into those real-life emotions while telling this story?
Garo Setian: Absolutely! I had worked for the same company for over 16 years, and over that time I’ve seen many mergers, acquisitions, and layoffs. So many of the conversations you hear in the movie are based on real-life things that I heard and variations on things that happened in my own life. Ironically, I found myself laid off shortly after the completion of this movie! But the truth is while the fear and anxiety a worker may feel in these situations is real, the motivations of a company making these decisions are not malevolent. It may seem that way to a worker on the surface, since that is their experience, but there are usually real reasons tough decisions like these have to be made. This is why we took a more nuanced approach with the characters of Bill and Susan in the story. Yes, we were being satirical and had some fun with things, but there are real motivations for the decisions of these characters
You worked with a great cast on this film, including Graham Skipper. How did he get involved and what was it like working with him to tell this story?
Garo Setian: Just about everyone in this cast I knew socially through the LA horror community. We didn’t do any auditions for this film (though some had auditioned for previous projects), but they were all pros and I knew they would be great in their roles. My wife kept saying when we decided to do this film, “We have to have good actors in this!” Josh (who plays Rick) was the only actor who I hadn’t met before, and he came to the project through my producer, Esther Goodstein, and he was great. I had first seen Graham perform as Dr. Herbert West in the original run of the Re-Animator musical at the Steve Allen theater.
I thought he was awesome in that and we met a few times after, became Facebook friends and all that. I saw the films he did with my former horror trivia teammate Joe Begos, and he was great in those, too. But I wasn’t actively considering him for a part until I saw a video he posted on Facebook. He was participating in one of those filmmaker boxing matches at Fantastic Fest and was doing his pre-fight pitch about why Paul W.S. Anderson is a better filmmaker than Paul Anderson. He was larger than I last remembered him, had a beard, and was super passionately making his case. The raw fury of his delivery convinced me he would be the perfect Devin. I reached out to him and he was thrilled to have the opportunity to play the bad guy.
Where did filming take place, and how many days did you have in your shooting schedule?
Garo Setian: It was initially a 12-day shoot at Alert Insulation in La Puente, including a day at a dry lake bed for the flashbacks. Alert Insulation is a real working company, so we filmed mostly at night and would often be caught in morning traffic on the way back home. That part was not fun. Six months later I had a cut of the movie, but wanted to add some connective scenes and punch up the action some more, so we did two days of pick-ups at Titmouse Animation studios in Hollywood. Big thanks to Chris and Shannon Prynoski for that! Much easier drive than the original location and it blended pretty seamlessly with our original footage. After that, there was an hour here and hour there… shooting plates for a driving scene while in Vegas, or a couple hours on a beach. All in all, we shot about 15 days total.
Automation marks your feature-length debut as a director. What did you learn from this experience that you’re looking forward to applying on future features?
Garo Setian: It would be great to have more money in the budget so we could have more time to prep and shoot. I was working full time and doing extra trailer work on evenings and weekends in the days leading up to the actual shoot. In fact, I remember coming home from our first day of filming at the dry lake bed and sitting down to complete a trailer I was working on. We self-financed a great deal of the budget so I couldn’t say no to any work. We did pretty well under the circumstances, but I wouldn’t want to do it this way again.
Looking back at your time on set, is there a favorite or memorable moment that stands out?
Garo Setian: There was a day when we were filming the pick-ups that stands out. I had spent the last six months editing the movie in my spare time and living with these characters every day. And here we were again back on set. Elissa and Sadie were in their costumes side by side doing a scene with Marv Blauvelt, who was on a stairwell. I was watching them perform and I was struck by how iconic they seemed to me. They were their characters again doing new scenes that I wrote. The pick-ups were all about filling in some holes that were left from our hurried schedule of the initial shoot, and being an editor, I knew how well the new scenes were going to fit together. It was a very satisfying and fun moment.
Were you influenced or inspired by any other horror, sci-fi, or office-set movies or TV series while making Automation?
Garo Setian: My favorite movie of all time is the 1933 version of King Kong. I even wrote a chapter about it in the book My Favorite Horror Movie 3: Scream Warriors. So that is definitely in the DNA of Automation. I am also a huge fan of Office Space. And really, any movie with monsters, robots and/or spaceships in it I pretty much own. Those films are my lifeblood. Clearly we have some RoboCop and Short Circuit influences, but there are other lesser-known robot movies like Demon Seed, Saturn 3, or Chopping Mall that were in my head.
Ultimately, what do you hope viewers take away from Automation?
Garo Setian: There is a BTS Feature on the blu-ray where this question was asked of me while we were filming, and after seeing the finished film, my answer still stands. I hope people find this an entertaining 90 minutes that is funny, exciting, and kind of moving.
What has it been like to partner with DREAD to bring Automation to the masses?
Garo Setian: They have been wonderful! It’s great to have partners who are genuinely excited about your film and want to get it out there in the biggest way possible. They have been very collaborative in regards to the marketing materials as well. One of the things they liked about working with me was my background in producing and editing trailers and television spots for movies. I pitched a campaign that we have been doing where Auto directly addresses the audience to buy the Blu-ray. My wife and I wrote a spot I cut where Auto wishes audiences a Happy Thanksgiving. I also did a spot where Auto directly addresses the audience at Shockfest. We have a feeling Auto will have more to say in the weeks ahead.
With Automation coming to theaters on November 29th and Blu-ray and VOD on December 3rd via DREAD and Epic Pictures, what other projects do you have coming up that you’re excited about, and where can our readers follow your work online?
Garo Setian: I’m always cutting trailers, but the next feature project I am working on is a high-concept science fiction adventure movie called Starfire Squadron. I actually wrote the script before I began work on Automation. It was a bit too ambitious to do as a first movie at the kind of budget we worked with on Automation, but we’re ready to jump in and do it now. As far as socials I’m mostly on Facebook these days.