Move over Robby, C-3PO and WALL-E. There's a new robot in town and he's stealing hearts.
That's what Jeremy Lutter and his collaborators on Joanna Makes a Friend have discovered since they started taking their metallic star EAP Edgar Allen Poe-Bot on the road to film festivals.
"Apparently, people really like cute robots," laughs Lutter, whose film is part of Beyond the Playground, a program of shorts being shown at Empire Capitol 6 tonight (9:45 p.m.) as the Victoria Film Festival approaches the halfway mark.
At the opening gala at the Atrium, dozens of filmgoers stopped to inspect and pose with the robot, which wears old headphones, has audiotape reels for eyes, roller-skates for feet and a Betamax VCR for a torso, among other moving parts.
"He's flirting again. Everyone loves him dearly," said producer Talitha Cummins, who kept a close eye on EAP while Lutter remote-controlled the robot, constructed with money raised through an IndieGoGo crowd-source funding campaign.
Joanna Makes a Friend, scripted by Ben Rollo, is a remarkably inventive and endearing take on childhood loneliness that works as an amusing kid-friendly lark, yet with literary references and darker stylistic touches that bring Tim Burton to mind.
Montreal-born actress Dalila Bela is a real find as an imaginative girl so desperate to make friends that she builds a robot, literally taking advice and spare parts from her dad (Fred Ewanuick), a VCR repairman, to make a friend.
Lutter strikingly contrasts the gloomy interior world of Joanna, who favours striped black-and-white leotards and dark tunics and fills her sketchbook with inky drawings, with a universe outside that grows so rainbow-coloured it verges on surreal.
There's genuine poignancy within the film's frames as EAP, which emits arcade-like sounds, develops a personality of its own.
When Lutter pitched his idea at the Whistler Film Festival just over a year ago, it included a pledge to build an actual robot. He won $15,000 plus $100,000 worth of in-kind production services from the Motion Picture Production Industry Association.
"I think people thought I was kidding," recalled Lutter, whose team hired Paxton Downard, props master for the 2010 Winter Olympics opening and closing ceremonies, and Derek Lewis to build a functioning robot. The process took three months.
"We were trying to make the robot out of found parts. I think that's what makes EAP unique."
Tonight's appearance is only the second festival screening since Joanna Makes a Friend made its world première last November at Whistler, where Lutter felt he had a lot to prove to the judges who green-lit the project a year earlier.
"I really took this award to heart and tried to make the best possible film I could, something with real merit," he said.
While the robot has attracted a lot of attention, having a gimmick wasn't his priority.
"My original intention was to tell a good story that would inspire people," said the Victoria native, who was something of a misfit and lonely child himself. "I also wanted to make it as visually interesting as I possibly could."
It helped immensely that as part of his prize he got free colour-processing time.
"The colour in this film really tells the story."
Lutter estimates he saw between 30 and 40 young girls before casting Bela, the film's trilingual young star. "I felt kind of mean because I had to make them cry," he confessed, recalling how he asked the pint-sized hopefuls to do a scene that calls for Joanna to get teary-eyed. "It was the scene that was going to make the movie work."
Lutter and Rollo have just completed a draft they're happy with for a feature-length version they're developing.
"The story's a lot longer and gets more of the dad in the feature," said Lutter. "They're both actually stuck in a rut. We're trying to make something like The Muppet Movie that would be funny to both kids and adults for different reasons."
Joanna is continuing to make new friends on the festival circuit, starting with a screening at TIFF Kids festival in April.
Meanwhile, Lutter and writer-producer Daniel Hogg just became one of four teams to win the 2012 National Screen Institute Drama Prize, which provides emerging filmmakers with $10,000 and up to $30,000 in services toward production of a short.
After the Victoria festival, Hogg will head to Winnipeg, where industry experts provide guidance and mentorship.
Lutter and Hogg's project is based on Floodplain, award-winning University of Victoria writing grad D. W. Wilson's short story about a teenager who rafts across floodplains in B.C. and learns his girlfriend is college bound. "It's a breakup story of two high school kids, a real Canadian story," says Lutter.
Watch the trailer at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KuEMr90GFk4
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