Robot Overlords’ Mark Stay on cutting out the infanticide

Mark Stay tells us about the novel and film of Robot Overlords and his sci-fi inspirations

Fleeing the Robot Overlords
Fleeing the Robot Overlords

Jon Wright’s film Robot Overlords hits UK cinemas this Friday, a YA adventure set in a world in which humans are kept inside by the titular rulers. The story was co-written with author Mark Stay, who also wrote the book, and we took the opportunity to talk to the writer about writing sci-fi for children, classic genre inspirations, and the best script note he had.

How did Robot Overlords come about? 

The director Jon Wright had a dream where he was stuck inside his home and there were robots patrolling the streets, threatening to shoot anyone who set foot outside. This might freak out lesser mortals, but instead he put together a pitch for a movie. We’d been working on other scripts at the time, but we dropped everything to do this as it just seemed so much fun (which it was!). After that it was simply a matter of some twenty-odd drafts and four years of development and production.

There was a lot of world-building: making sure the robots’ motives made sense, that the tech didn’t descend into babble. Then, once you have that, you have to sweep it under the carpet because that stuff can really bog down your script. However, a novel’s a little more forgiving when it comes to that kind of backstory, so I got to have fun with it there.

Was it always designed for a younger idea?

It was always about a son and his father and the moment that comes in a boy’s life when he realises his dad isn’t an invincible hero. One of our first inspirations was Roald Dahl’s book Danny Champion Of The World, which we both had enjoyed as kids and re-read, so it would always skew youngish.

That said, there was an early draft where we killed all the kids on page 35. A couple of our readers, the writing team Mark Huckerby and Nick Ostler, made it clear that we were making a kids’ movie when they said that the script needed “65% less infanticide”. That’s my favourite note from the entire development process.

Author and the film's co-writer Mark Stay
Author and the film’s co-writer Mark Stay

How did you settle on the idea of setting on the story after the invasion?

We’ve seen that alien invasion movie a million times, and there was no way we could compete with that level of high-budget mass destruction. And anyway Jon’s original pitch made the occupation so much more intriguing: why is everyone being kept inside? What’s the robots’ big secret? What side to you take: do you collaborate, or risk everything and fight back? Making that was so much more fun than the usual crash, bang, wallop tropes of an invasion story. But then the first thing we hear from kids who’ve seen the film is that they want a prequel featuring the invasion, so you never know… You do get a taste of it in the novel if you can’t wait that long.

How was the experience of being involved in the film and the novel? Did one give you greater opportunity to explore the world than the other?

There’s a lot more room to breathe in a novel. You can get inside the characters’ heads, you don’t have to worry about budget, and you’re not restricted by a 12a rating (the novel has an exploding head in the first few pages!). Film, on the other hand, is hugely collaborative and the contributions made by the producers, cinematographers, sound designers, composers, VFX, actors, designers, hair, make-up and costume departments all add to the richness of the environment, much of which I gleefully stole for the novel.

I remember visiting the set of Sean’s home and seeing old baked bean tins recycled as plant pots. A brilliant little touch that I don’t think we would have thought of in a million years. And, yes, I pinched it for the book.

I read that you love movie novelizations from the 1980s. What is it about them that you remember so fondly?

Those tie-ins were often the best way to experience the story while you waited an eternity for either a repeat on TV or a VHS release. I’m not sure how long it actually took for The Empire Strikes Back to make it to VHS, but it felt like half of my childhood. In the meantime, I had Donald F Glut’s novelization to keep me going.

I also loved the sense of an expanded universe. We take it for granted now, but reading a lot of those great Star Trek novels by the likes of Vonda McIntyre made it feel like a living, breathing place that you could get lost in, explore and catch-up with old friends. And don’t forget, Vonda McIntyre gave us Sulu’s first name. It was moments like that, thinking you’d stumbled upon a new secret that no one else had revealed before, that made the best novelizations worth reading. I’ve tried to do that with our book, and then when you go and re-watch the film there will be lines and moments that have a little added meaning and heft. Each one feeds the other.

Gillian Anderson and Sir Ben Kingsley in Robot Overlords
Gillian Anderson and Sir Ben Kingsley in Robot Overlords

The title makes no bones about what the story is about! Is it fun to tell a big, brash unashamedly sci-fi story?

The title always gets a laugh. We had explain it a lot to start with, but the term has become increasingly common as real world robotics becomes more and more advanced. It’s one of those phrases that journalists now use in any article about robots.

And fun is the key word there: it’s quite a grim situation our heroes are in, and it was important to find levity in amongst all the vaporisations. The story rockets along from one perilous situation to another. Jon and I live in fear of boring the audience.

Were there any writers you were particularly looking at for inspiration?

I remember being really impressed with Timothy Zahn’s first Star Wars novels. The way he advanced the characters beyond their Joseph Campbell archetypes. Like him, I couldn’t rely on dazzling visual effects to awe the reader, it had to be more about the characters and he was one of the best at that. Likewise Vonda McIntyre, Peter David, J.M. Dillard and let’s not forget the mighty Alan Dean Foster.

As a writer, how is it seeing such a talented cast bringing the characters to life?

We had a week of rehearsals with our gang of four before the shoot and it was pure joy watching them take ownership of these characters. I wrote a little back story for each of them and they ran with it, bringing their own personalities and experiences to the role. Jon would do at least three takes: one on the script, one completely improvised in the kids’ own words, and then a combination of the two. That really made the dialogue zing.

And Sir Ben and Geraldine James even concocted their own backstories, which I’ve woven into the novel. Stuff like this made my job far easier when writing the book.

One of my favourite moments in the film is watching Kingsley deliver one word, “Fecund.” I fought to keep that word in and it cracks me up every time. That’s the sign of a great actor. One single word wrung out for all its worth.

How was the experience of writing the film and the book?

I had all kinds of advantages that most tie-in novelists don’t have: I co-wrote the script, I was on-set, I was there during the edit and, more importantly, I had the time to do a proper job. Most tie-ins are written by some poor soul, who had nothing to do with the film’s development, in just a few weeks with only a script and maybe a rough cut to refer to. I had over a year and the benefit of the best science fiction publisher in the business, so the book should be as good as any stand-alone novel. My secret wish is that one day someone who has no idea that there’s a film will pick it up and love it.

Finally, do you have a favourite fictional robot? 

Marvin, no question. That’s where technology’s taking us: robots with AI who realise the futility of life and then do nothing but complain. That’s the real threat!

9781473204867_ROBOT OVERLORDS MMP_PFPRobot Overlords by Mark Stay is available from Gollancz now in paperback for £6.39 at Robot Overlords is released in UK cinemas on 27 March. Keep up with the latest genre news with the new issue of SciFiNow.