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Interview: More Than Robot producer Jason Sterman talks filming during COVID, working with Gillian Jacobs, and more [SXSW 2022]

production still from More Than Robots
More Than Robots follows four groups of teenagers competing in a robotics competition. Pic credit: Disney+

Directed by Gillian Jacobs, More Than Robots tells the story of four teams of teenagers from Los Angeles, Mexico City, and Chiba, Japan, and their preparation to compete in the 2020 FIRST Robotics Competition. It is a heartwarming story as the teenagers work together to overcome challenges, including resource limitations and the COVID-19 pandemic.

In a conversation with the Emmy-winning producer Jason Sterman, he opened up about how COVID-19 changed the direction of the movie. “The initial schedule and timeline was that they would go through their normal process, they would build their robots for six weeks, they’d go into competition, and it ultimately would end with the World Championships. That became a natural ending for the movie to a certain extent – it’s following the timeline that’s already laid out by the FIRST Robotics Competition?”

But due to the pandemic, things didn’t go according to plan. Sterman shared that kick-off for the competition began in January 2020, and the World Championships were slated for April. “The timeline ended early. We were put in a position where we were looking at having almost two-thirds of the movie shot without a natural ending. At the same time, we were all just humans living on Earth, experiencing everything that everyone else is experiencing.”

He began to question: What is the ending of this movie? “We couldn’t even leave our homes, let alone go and film with a group of kids to try and complete a storyline for a movie that we thought we knew where we were headed, but then all got thrown out the window.”

However, More Than Robots was saved by the very thing that makes it great: the kids. “Once they started mobilizing and doing what they were doing in their own communities, with their teams, and with their families, it was just about finding new techniques as filmmakers- which have now become normal, two and a half years later. At the time, it felt revolutionary.”

More Than Robots premiered at the South by Southwest festival on March 14, ahead of its March 18 Disney+ premiere. It is presented by Supper Club (co-founded by Sternman) and Disney+ and made in partnership with FIRST. Monsters and Critics spoke with Sterman about what drew him to the documentary, working with Gillian Jacobs, the potential of a sequel, and his favorite robot movie.

M&C: How was the in-person premiere at South by Southwest?

Sterman: It was my first time at South by Southwest. I’ve been to other festivals; that one was one that was always on my list. It was the best festival for the subject matter. Being able to have three of the FIRST robotics teams from Texas join the theater made it incredibly special. It became this very memorable thing that will stick with me for the rest of my life.

Monsters and Critics: What drew you to the story in the first place?

Sterman: There’s a handful of things. I had never heard about the competition before it was pitched as a subject of a film. That felt like an opportunity to share the story to others, which is a thing that documentary and film does so well. It’s about bringing this story to a broader audience. And then, it’s just the ability to work with our director, Gillian Jacobs, again. We had just finished working together on something else for Disney for Marvel [Marvel’s 616], where she did an amazing job directing an episode of the series. We became best friends. At that time, we were talking about what was going to be the next thing we wanted to do together. Gillian is such a huge supporter of STEM programming already; it just felt Kismet that this landed in our laps. Anytime that I can ever work with Gillian Jacobs, I will jump at that opportunity.

M&C: Do you and Gillian see yourselves doing a sequel to this? Or maybe a series?

Sterman: It’s interesting. That’s come up recently. Since the movie has come out, I think people now have a desire to see more. We hadn’t discussed it, quite honestly. It was such a journey just to get that film. I wouldn’t say it’s off the table. It’s worth contemplating like, what else could we do here?

M&C: Here’s a fun one – what’s your favorite robot movie?

Sterman: Maybe it’s showing my age. I feel like now I’m getting older and older, obviously, by the day. I just had such a nostalgic memory for the movie Short Circuit. I was a kid when that came out, I don’t remember what age I was, but it was a robot movie that stuck with me. I actually haven’t watched it in a long time, so this is a good refresher. A good reminder that I should go revisit it.

More Than Robots is currently streaming on Disney+.

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