From 20th Century Studios and Locksmith Animation, Ron’s Gone Wrong tells the story of a socially awkward middle-schooler named Barney (voiced by Jack Dylan Grazer), who lives in a social media age that puts importance on which high-tech gadgets you can get your hands on, and what he really wants is a “Best Friend out of the Box” of his own. Instead, what he ends up with is Ron, a walking and talking digitally-connected device that hilariously malfunctions, but which ultimately can still teach Barney a thing or two about the meaning of true friendship. The film is directed by Pixar veteran Jean-Philippe Vine and Locksmith Animation co-founder Sarah Smith, with Octavio Rodriguez co-directing from a script written by Peter Baynham, and the voice cast also includes Zach Galifianakis, Olivia Colman, Ed Helms, Justice Smith, Rob Delaney, Kylie Cantrall, Ricardo Hurtado, Marcus Scribner and Thomas Barbusca.
During the press conference with members of the media, Smith, along with Locksmith Animation co-founder Julie Lockhart, Vine, Rodriguez and Baynham, talked about the inspiration for this story, highlighting a different kind of robot-human relationship, frustrations with technology, working with this voice cast, collaborating with such a big team during a pandemic, finding the sweet spot in the comedy, and what they would like their personal B*Bot to do.
Question: Sarah, what was your inspiration for the creation of this story?
SARAH SMITH: My passion as a movie-maker is wanting to do movies that actually talk to stuff that really matters to kids and that give them movie experiences that are about the lives of contemporary kids. I was very aware of my own daughter, as every parent is, coming home and saying, “They all had someone to play with at recess except me.” And then, you remember having that experience yourself. It’s a universal problem that we all have, of feeling like everyone else has it down except us. At the same time, I’m super aware of how technology made all of that even more complicated for kids. I remember sitting on a sofa with a glass of wine, watching Her by Spike Jonze and thinking, “We have to make that movie for kids because kids don’t understand that maybe what they’re experiencing online has different nuances to it. Maybe it’s not necessarily completely straightforward and truthful.” And so, then it became a journey to try to find how you could put the idea of our online relationships into a fun, animated format. The answer was the idea that there’s a device out there, which actually all of these companies are trying to create, that replaces your phone and your iPad, and it runs around and talks to you. That allowed us to dramatize what was going on.
Image via 20th Century Studios
Peter, you’re really well-known for writing films like Borat and working on Alan Partridge and Brass Eye. What was the adjustment like, writing for a family audience?
PETER BAYNHAM: I always joke to Sarah and JP and everyone, after doing one of those films, especially Borat, or any Sacha Baron Cohen movie, this is my chance to put something sweet out into the world. It’s obviously very different tonally and it’s very different in content, but with all of these things, you’re still trying to tell a good story. Even with something like that, five minutes in, if you don’t care about the characters, then you’re gonna stop laughing. You still need to love those characters, whether Ron or Borat. Ron and Borat are almost like classic clown characters anyway. You’ve got a naive idiot, who sees the world in a very simple way. I’ve always loved that kind of character, and that’s what we did with Ron. They’re very different tonally, but you’re still trying to tell a good story where you take people on a journey.
There have been so many films about the relationships between robots and humans. How did you aim to make sure this story would be different from what’s been created before?
SMITH: We all watched all of the robot movies that there are, and of those movies have one thing in common, which is that one of them is different and is either the evil baddie or the goodie. This movie is not really so much about the robot AI. It’s actually about something which kids have in their homes. It’s about the way their iPad talks to them. It’s really about social media and the online experience. It’s much more about that then it is about the idea of, “Does something have sentience?” I won’t quote which movie it is, but there was one that Pete and I watched and went, “Never do that.” There’s a moment when someone puts a chip in and it says, “Downloading consciousness,” and then suddenly the robot is alive. We’ve always played the game with Ron that he only learns by imitation. Everything that he does is based on things he sees and hears, and he gradually builds his own knowledge of the world.
BAYNHAM: Yeah, we deliberately made it hard for ourselves, in that we didn’t want the thing developing consciousness. We didn’t want something where it somehow has a personality that’s been programmed into it. It’s like the limitations of the chat box that you get online when you’re trying to get help and you’re sure it isn’t a person. It’s a bit like the Microsoft paperclip guy. He hasn’t got the answers. He’s got the, “How can I help?,” but he can’t help because he doesn’t know anything. Putting that weird limitation on it was what we thought would actually make you love him by the end. He just wants to help you and wants to learn, and that then teaches Barney about friendship. Barney sets out to teach this thing friendship, and in the end, Barney’s the one who gets the real lesson and Ron’s the one who teaches him. That was our overall aim.
OCTAVIO RODRIGUEZ: There’s something really great about a kid trying to define what friendship is. That’s the unique scenario about this story. He’s sitting there mimicking or taking information from people in society that this is how we’re supposed to be and is completely uninformed. It’s great to see that he’s learning with Ron about what friendship is and how to build relationships, which is awesome.
SMITH: We should give credit to Jack Dylan Grazer for that. He was only 12, when we started working with him, and we got him to improvise that. We were being Ron and we were like, “Barney, what is a friend?” And he was like, “Well, it’s . . .” And literally, exactly what he says is what Ron parrots back, and that’s what’s in the movie.
BAYNHAM: What was really important to us on this was that this takes place now. A lot of those films tend to be in some futuristic or imagined world. Even though these B*Bots don’t exist yet, we wanted it to feel like they might, in about a year and a half’s time. We wanted the world to like what the world looks like for most of the kids who see this movie. We wanted it to feel like life is now. We wanted it relatable.
SMITH: We wanted it to feel like we could make that device. So many people are trying to make exactly this, but most of them actually just look like an iPad for a face on a stalk, with a body that moves around, only on flat surfaces. They’re not exactly as impressive, but you can see that it’s the desire to have something that follows you around and interacts with you, and comes pre-loaded with all of your likes and knowledge about you. That’s where tech companies would like to go, and because we’re in animation, we could basically invent that.
BAYNHAM: Boston Dynamics are quietly inventing terrifying robot dogs.
Image via 20th Century Studios
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This film explores the frustration with technology, as well as the importance of friendship. Do you feel a personal connection to that, either having had an annoying incident with a piece of technology, or a close bond that you developed?
SMITH: Peter and I have been working together 30 years. We did our very, very first original show on radio, 30 years ago, and we’ve done lots of different jobs together. We went into animation together, we wrote a TV series, we wrote Arthur Christmas together, and now we’ve done this. The extent to which the relationship in the movie is annoyance, insult, frustration and huge amounts of affection and joy, I guess it comes from the fact that Pete is my best friend out of the box. Honestly, it is a joy and a pleasure and a privilege to have a writing partner on a movie because there’s the relationship and the fun and the joy that you share in creating a family of misfit characters, to go alongside our real characters. I hope that some of that comes from real friendships.
BAYNHAM: I can speak to the frustration with technology and how, on an hourly basis, I wanna smash something up. You get these things that make your life better, and I become instantly dependent on them and furious when they won’t work. It’s terrifying to depend on a device for friendship because the moment it doesn’t work, I’m melting down in a small pool somewhere.
JP and Octavio, do you think it’s important to really connect emotionally with the project, in order to devote as much time as you do, when you’re doing an animation project, since it takes a long time?
JEAN-PHILIPPE VINE: Yeah, it’s massively important, when you dive in for five years of your life to make a film. For our movie, which really talks about friendship and what is a good and healthy friendship and how messy that can be, I really connected to it, especially as a parent. My oldest son was really struggling with friendships in his pre-teen period and really struggling with which group he belonged to. That really helped me, as we worked with Barney, the main character. Thematically, this idea and this take-away of the movie that a good friendship has conflict and that’s okay, and that’s a good thing and a healthy friendship, is a beautiful idea. I connected with that.
RODRIGUEZ: Yeah, I totally agree. As storytellers, JP and I go way back to when we were over at Pixar. It’s about defining the heart of what the movie is in the storytelling. And also, it’s about the connection and the relationship. Hopefully, at the end, you’ll have the answer to the question of, what is a true friend? For us, it really is important for the relationships and the heart to guide us completely in.
Image via 20th Century Studios
You’re working with some incredibly funny actors here. What was it like to work with the great talent you got together on this film?
VINE: One of the massive highlights we all experienced was putting Zach Galifianakis and Jack Dylan Grazer together. We really wanted to see how an improvised argument between them would work out because they’s both brilliant improvisers. By that point, Zach had really nailed that naive, factual, quite rude and funny delivery that Ron can do. So much of that came straight into the animation and that was a real joy. Zach has said that he’s not an actor, but we couldn’t believe it because he just has such astonishing control. One of the highlights was when we went to Vancouver to record him and it was like trying to get him out of the woods. He arrived by sea plane to our recording. I think that was a first for me.
SMITH: The most terrifying moment for me was when we had Olivia [Colman] for the first time, and she’d literally just won the Oscar. We did a bit of try-out recording with her, and then we took the footage away and we realized that basically we’d steered her slightly in the wrong direction. It didn’t really quite fit what we wanted and we had to go back in and say to Olivia, “Oh, maybe not like that.” She was just unbelievably awesome. She actually started in British television comedy like us and she went, “Oh, was that wrong? What was it? Was it rubbish? What shall I do now?” She was the most delightfully easygoing and helpful and fun person to work with. We were very blessed with just how fun and kind and up for it the whole cast was.
JULIE LOCKHART: They were very kind, given the lockdown situation, because we were still recording cast. We would do things like deliver recording packages on their doorstep, and then give them instructions for how to put them together. Poor Jack Dylan Grazer, the second or third time we did him in lockdown, he’d gotten so used to it that he had a duvet over his head in a cupboard somewhere. Olivia was in her home and had to stop because the combine harvester was going down the road. They were wonderfully accommodating. A lot of the lines that they recorded were done in their own homes, under their own technical guidance.
Julie, you’re producing a film where everybody is in different places around the globe and you’ve got two co-directors. Was this a challenging film for you, as a producer, getting this together and in a pandemic?
LOCKHART: The film itself was a challenge. It was the first UK production for Locksmith. It was the first production, full stop, for Locksmith. We set up the pipeline in London with Double Negative, or D-Neg, and it was their first feature animation. That was a challenge in itself. And then, half-way through, we had to relocate about 350 people to their own homes, and a lot of people’s homes weren’t in the UK. We’d gathered this amazing amount of global talent, and they all had to go back to their respective homes. And then, the biggest challenge was actually trying to get everyone to work with technology, whether it was the animators or the crew. The most difficult thing was the creative communication with everyone on individual Zooms. That was the difficult part. But it worked out and I’m wonderfully proud of what we have managed to achieve, especially because it’s the first thing to come out from Locksmith in the UK. We’re really pleased to be promoting the UK industry. It’s got a great VFX industry and it’s great to cross over the border into animation. Long may it succeed.
Image via 20th Century Studios
Julie, how did you test this movie to see what was working and what wasn’t working, when you didn’t have the test audiences to do that? Was that a difficult experience?
LOCKHART: It was extremely difficult. In fact, we couldn’t really test the movie in front of an audience in the normal ways that we would do it. You get such an amazing gauge from an audience who hasn’t been involved in it for four years and who know every line and every joke. There comes a point when sometimes you don’t laugh, when you’ve heard it five or six hundred times, but when you hear the audience laughing, it completely inspires everyone again and gets everyone going. Not to have that was very difficult. Disney were very kind and we did actually do a semi-test screening on Zoom, but everyone was individually watching the movie in their own homes with their parents, and then we spoke to them afterwards. We got great feedback, but we didn’t get the actual experience of being in the cinema, so it was very, very difficult. As yet, we haven’t tested it properly. We’ve finished the film now, so there’s precious little we can do.
It seems like technology has taken over youth. Everyone is obsessed with their B*Bot in this movie. Will the film show the dangers and the disconnect that we have, in society’s relationship with technology?
SMITH: The company who make the B*Bot are like Apple, Google and Facebook. There’s Andrew, the management guy that runs it, and Marc, the inventor, and they’re like the two faces of the tech world. Marc is this incredible idealist, who wants to connect people, and he sees technology as this fantastic tool to enable friendships and enable kids, and Andrew is the guy who says, “But why can’t we just turn on the cameras and the microphones and collect all of the information, so we know what pizza to sell them?” The movie is the not saying that technology’s bad or even good. The thing is, it’s here to stay. There was a time, at the beginning, when I thought that I wanted the end of the movie to be that all the B*Bots were gone and the kids were back in the playground, looking at each other and relating again. Eventually, someone said to me, “You know that’s not gonna happen, right?” We realized that we needed to make a more challenging movie, which is about, “How do we, as parents, as children, as kids growing up in a world in which this is all they’ve ever known, learn to live with the tech and use what it’s great for, but not fall into those things?”
How did you come up with the personalities for the B*Bots?
RODRIGUEZ: We were trying to figure out this not total adult character, but maybe an in between version of it, like what we see with influencers on YouTube. Kids can react to them and they’re pretty peppy. For Ron, he’s asking questions, but it’s much more bumbling and he’s trying to figure things out, whereas they’re super slick in the way they have conversations and they’ve already been customized to the user. For the kids, it’s great, but at the same time, it’s a great question to pose, about what actually is a connection in relationships. If you have a kid who’s into tech, then here’s this thing that comes out. We have characters like that, but we also have characters who are into science. It’s all about the specific user and how we can cater to that, which goes back to the technology.
How did you find the sweet spot in the comedy?
BAYNHAM: By working insanely hard. Anything that looks easy, it tends to have gone for hundreds and thousands of hours with late night arguments. You just work hard. On the other hand, when you’ve heard a joke five hundred times, you can’t overdo it. You have to step back and be able to go with your first instinct. The nature of animation, beyond any other thing that I’ve ever worked in, has the danger of second guessing. Five years later, you’ve gotta somehow hang onto that. We’ve all fallen victim to, “I don’t think it’s funny anymore.” You have to hang onto it and go, “No, this was our instinct.”
SMITH: I’ve always found that the stuff that really made us laugh when we were thinking of it and writing it, is the stuff that gets a laugh with the audience, and the stuff that made us cry, is the stuff that genuinely affects people. You have to be totally truthful to your own spontaneous instinct, which is not to say that, in animation, there aren’t layers upon layers of detailed comedy added.
VINE: I have to also credit our awesome animation crew because of the incredible visual, rhythmic storytelling. Comedy is so much about leaving stuff out, and spaces between and funny pauses, excellent timing, and simplicity. It’s not easy because you need to withhold your desire to put stuff in and complicate things. It’s about trusting your instincts and pushing through.
SMITH: There are amazing bits of background animation, that don’t detract from that, but where you see extra comic details that animators have put in the background.
BAYNHAM: I have to credit the animators for Ron. Ron has such a simple face, and there were debates throughout this about how do make that not cutesy but not boring. He doesn’t have a face that you can do all of the classic things with, but somehow he does. His eye might slip a little bit. There are very, very simple things that speak to his simple clownishness. He’s a very, very simple character, but actually he’s also incredibly sophisticated. I’ve always marvelled at that comedy.
Image via 20th Century Studios
This film touches on some familiar themes in sci-fi and animation. What were the touchstones you were trying to capture and what beats were you looking to avoid?
SMITH: You follow the story where it wants to go. I would say there are definitely things that we had from the very beginning, that were the essential building blocks of the story, but whatever shape the detail takes and however you want to make each sequence play, you make sure those building blocks are still there. Those are the key points of the story. For us, it was, everyone else has one but him, he gets one, it’s terrible, it sticks up for him, and it turns out to be that he’s trying to teach it. Those were the big beats that we had. We knew that things would have to kick off and that people would come after him, and that they would run and have an adventure. We knew that, in the end, Barney would lose Ron, and then have to try and find him to get him back. The very big planks of story stay there, and then almost everything else is up for grabs, in terms of how you make that play. One of the things we were guarding against was really wanting emotion, but not wanting cute sentimentality.
VINE: In terms of it being a sci-fi movie, we really wanted it to feel like when you went out into the woods and it was a movie about being alone in the woods, and that sense of nature and freedom, and abandon. That’s why we love movies like Stand By Me. We certainly had very selective sci-fi elements. Our aim, throughout, was to keep this on the level of an 11-year-old kid adventure.
BAYNHAM: Another thing we wanted to avoid was that, even though we are adults and we have our concerns about this technology, we didn’t want it to be, “Let’s get rid of all of the B*Bots,” at the end. Whatever concerns we have, we didn’t want to be lecturing kids or saying “Kids, this is bad.” It’s a life they’re living. They have a relationship with this technology. It’s too easy to be patronizing and go, “Get off your device!” Adults are also just as bad with that, so we didn’t want to jump in and lecture.
SMITH: We had a great note early on that said, “If kids smell medicine, they won’t like it.” We then went in and put in things like his dad going, “Get off your device. Come on, Barney, you don’t wanna be relying on a device,” while looking at his own phone to admit our own failings and make it from a kid’s point of view.
If you had a B*Bot, what would it look like and what would it do for you?
LOCKHART: I love the disco-bot. Those flashing lights are great. And I’d like it to massage me, day and night, especially after long days in the office.
SMITH: I do not want Ron, unfortunately, because I already have a dog and a child, and that’s enough chaos. I would like a B*Bot that would get my child out of bed and make the packed lunch every day, to take away all the stress of the morning. That would do. And then, it could just go back in its box.
RODRIGUEZ: I would actually want one of those tech-bots with Wikipedia and have it go out into the world with one of those apps where you can scan things and it will tell you about all of the stuff around you. I would love for it to just be this little companion that would give me all of this insight because I would love the information. That’s my kind of B*Bot.
VINE: We put an Easter egg in the movie, which is an Akira movie Easter egg and that’s the bot that I’d be after. It’s a motorbike bot. That’s all I’ll say.
BAYNHAM: I lose everything, all the time. I bought those air tag things that Apple makes, and then I lost them. I need a B*Bot that can find me when I’m missing.
Ron’s Gone Wrong is in theaters on October 22nd.
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Christina Radish is a Senior Reporter at Collider. Having worked at Collider for over a decade (since 2009), her primary focus is on film and television interviews with talent both in front of and behind the camera. She is a theme park fanatic, which has lead to covering various land and ride openings, and a huge music fan, for which she judges life by the time before Pearl Jam and the time after. She is also a member of the Critics Choice Association and the Television Critics Association.
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