The Movie Waffler Waffling With... <i>ROBOT OVERLORDS</i> writer Mark Stay | The Movie Waffler

Waffling With... ROBOT OVERLORDS writer Mark Stay

British sci-fi flick Robot Overlords is out on DVD/Blu-ray now, and we spoke to its writer Mark Stay.

Interview by Benjamin Poole

Robot Overlords depicts a dystopian society where humankind is enslaved by the totalitarian rule of enormous, murderous robots. People are under curfew, unable to step outdoors for more than a few minutes. However, our hero kids decide to rise up and escape. Now, if this situation actually happened, how would you fare? What would be your plan? Sit tight, or fight back?

Oh, I’d be a terrible freedom fighter. Like most people on Twitter, I’m very happy to complain about stuff, but you’ll never get me going to a march or a protest. Instead, I’d catch up on my DVD boxsets (I’ll still haven’t seen all of The Sopranos!), dive into all those unread books on my shelf, and finally lose some weight thanks to the strict rationing. Then probably kill myself when the DVD player inevitably goes kaput.
People are able to rationalise insidious change remarkably well, which is why malevolent forces are able to succeed. I’m sure few of the millions of ordinary Germans who joined the Nazi party thought they were doing anything wrong, just as Mr Smythe (Ben Kingsley’s character in the film) thinks he’s helping by ensuring that his fellow humans follow the robots’ rules. Some of the most enjoyable parts of writing the film and the book were coming up with Smythe’s justifications for his actions. He’s a genuine creep and a very dangerous man.

I felt there was something pleasingly nostalgic about the feel of Robot Overlords, a resolutely British charm (evidenced in the old 2000AD comics that the characters read at one point), it certainly gives the film its own identity. Was this a conscious decision, and if so, what was the aim in such an approach? 

Definitely a conscious decision; the characters, the language and slang they use, the setting - we wanted them to have a very British feel, simply because we’d never seen a film like that before. I guess the closest comparison might be Attack the Block, but we were aiming at a much younger audience, who haven’t had a widescreen British adventure story since the Harry Potter films, and if you’re 10 years old you’re too young to have seen them at the cinema. I was basically writing this for my own kids, who were 10 and 12 at the time, an age group who are very poorly served by the British film industry.
We were advised to set it in America a few times, but I think the second you start compromising to make it more American or international then you start to look like a pale imitation of those bigger films. Our trailers try to make us look like Transformers, but once you get into the film you realise we’re a very different beast.

Robot Overlords has a pretty impressive ensemble cast. As a writer was it a challenge to manage a larger group of characters and ensure that everyone had a distinctive voice/moment to shine?

The challenge is to make everyone distinct and that they have something to do! Jon and I did extensive character studies, and we would do specific passes for each of the lead characters, making sure that they had agency throughout. We talked a lot about those Joseph Campbell archetypes: the hero, the trickster, the mentor, etc. They’re all there if you go looking for them (and it’s one of the things that attracted Ben Kingsley to the script) and it helps to give your characters a direction and purpose, especially when you’re trying to get the ball rolling.
And those day-player/cameo characters we meet on the way are terrific fun as you can make them as weird as you want and not worry too much about paying them off. One of the great joys of the novelisation was fleshing out that ensemble a bit more.
Sadly, stuff does get cut: Alex, played by Ella Hunt, had a brilliant face-off with a robot in the final battle, but the location wasn’t right and we had to drop it. Real life gets in the way like that.

The film is very ambitious, in its variety of locations, the robots themselves, and the aerial battle that features in the climax; the film feels ‘big’. From your original ideas, how much did the plot and action alter throughout pre-production?

Not massively once we were in pre-production; the script was locked pretty solid by then, though we cut one major sequence that would have occurred near the end of the movie. As the kids are on the run in the woods they encounter a new kind of robot called Octobots*. It was an exciting sequence, but didn’t move the story any further forward, so it was dropped.
But looking back at old drafts, there are tons of changes: to start with it was Sean and his dad looking for Kate (Gillian Anderson), but we soon realised that no responsible parent would put their child in such jeopardy, and so we had Sean set off on the search with just his friends. You realise there’s a reason why so many children’s stories kill off the parents: they just get in the way of a good story.
There were characters who fell by the wayside, too. One of the original gang of kids was called Ajay, and he was a tech wizard who figured out the robots’ technology, but it just didn’t feel real and so poor Ajay was dropped.

In our review, I suggested that Robot Overlords is the perfect summer holiday film, even down to the seaside setting! From the extras, it is clear that you are film buff yourself, so, if I was to show Robot Overlords to younger relatives over the hols, what other films would you recommend I screened alongside it?

Well, we’ve been compared to everything from Transformers to The Railway Children to the entire oeuvre of the Children’s Film Foundation, but if you’re looking for a Summer double-bill then I’d pair us with Watership Down as both films have terrifying death scenes that will traumatise children for years to come. If that’s not the main purpose of a children’s film, then I don’t know what is.

I am quite the fan of Robot Overlords, but now it’s over to you; in your own words, explain why The Movie Waffler readers should take a chance on Robot Overlords?

A British kids’ sci-fi adventure movie with giant stompy robots, a great gang of kids, Gillian Anderson galloping into action, and Ben Kingsley as an evil collaborating Geography teacher… What’s not to love?

*Mark sent us the below exclusive never released piece of concept art by artist Jack Dudman, which illustrates how the Octobot would have appeared.


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