In a world where technology has so much influence in the lives of children, there’s always going to be an underlying fear for parents that their kids will struggle to make real connections. As parents themselves, it was important for Ron’s Gone Wrong writer-director Sarah Smith (alongside director Jean-Philippe Vine) and writer Peter Baynham to demonstrate a balance between that fear and the reality that this technology is not inherently a bad thing.
The film follows Barney Pudowski (Jack Dylan Grazer), a lonely middle-schooler who has trouble connecting with his classmates who all have B*Bots, a robot companion that claims to be “your best friend out of the box.” After a disappointing birthday, his father surprises him with a B*Bot named Ron (Zach Galifianakis). Even though Ron turns out to be defective, the two quickly connect as Barney tries to teach Ron everything there is to know about how to be a friend.
Working from London during the pandemic, Smith, Baynham, and their crew brought together Locksmith Animation’s first theatrical release.
DEADLINE: Where did the idea for Ron’s Gone Wrong originate?
PETER BAYNHAM: Sarah came to me with this idea about exploring social media. We already had our own kids, but they were young at the time and they hadn’t started to go through the hellscape of social media yet. There was obviously a lot of talk about it, so to try and tell an entertaining movie that’s got a bit of satire along the way, felt immensely appealing. My other hat is to work with Sacha Baron Cohen on the Borat movies, and so I’d done that kind of edgy satire as well. And then she talked about the character of Ron as a device that doesn’t work properly, and how we can explore friendship through that.
SARAH SMITH: I really have a passion for making movies that are about the lives of the audience, and at the moment we’re all going through this with our kids because they’re growing up in an entirely different world of screens and online relationships. As parents, we’re trying to figure that out and it felt like the most important thing to make a movie about.
DEADLINE: Is this obsession with technology something that you both have to deal with at home with your children?
SMITH: A hundred percent. Literally. Like, it’s probably the most interaction that any of us have with our children, going, “Are you on your screen? How long have you been on? What are you looking at?” Because we just don’t know what we’re doing, do we? And we’re so aware, I think we do still have that radar for the politics of our day and what’s going on and what Facebook is doing and Google and Amazon… We are very aware of that stuff and we’re also living it with our children. Plus, we’re guilty ourselves, and we try to put that in the movie. There was a point very early on when I thought the end of the movie would be that all of the B*Bots would go away and the kids would look at each other and rekindle one-on-one relationships. Then someone pointed out, “that’s not going to happen.” Therefore, the question of our time is, how do we live with this stuff?
DEADLINE: And can you talk about the theme of a friendship through actual connection versus friendship through an algorithm?
BAYNHAM: Well, there’s no easy answer to any of this. You know, like Sarah said, we weren’t going to do a movie where you go and just ditch the device because it’s not going to happen. But also, it’s like the printing press. It’s not good or bad, it’s just that it’s open to abuse and we’ve tried to explore that a little in this movie.
Since we embarked on this movie, a lot of these big companies, not mentioning any names [cough] Facebook [cough]… it’s being revealed that they’ve got research into the effect that some of these platforms are having on kids, and they just carry on anyway. We’re not trying to lecture kids and say, “Get off your device,” but we are trying to highlight this issue in the form of entertainment.
SMITH: There’s an amazing dream of connection that your device gives you, that you can suddenly be part of a group that supposedly is exactly like you and has everything in common with you, and yet somehow people feel like you’re at the edge of the party. It’s as much a thing that excludes as includes. It is an amazing way to connect with other people that you have things in common with, but inevitably in doing that you’re excluding all of the rest of the world, and the movie’s trying to say, “Bump into some crazy people radically different from you, and see what happens because that may be the richest relationship of all.”
BAYNHAM: Being in the middle of the yard with all the cool kids around you, that really gave us a way into Barney because it’s very relatable and what we tried to do with this movie is also say, “Actually, maybe more people feel like that than let on, maybe the other kids in the yard are scared or anxious too.”
DEADLINE: I think you had an interesting contrast with Marc, the creator of the algorithm, and Andrew, the COO, that kind of balances how a child views this technology as just a wondrous thing with all these possibilities, and how parents view the technology as companies that only want data to sell you stuff.
SMITH: Oh, I think we all see both sides of it, and I think Pete and I have always struggled with conventional villains. We wrote Arthur Christmas together and the villain of that is not really a villain. He’s Steve who just really wants to be organized and he doesn’t mind the margin of error of missing one child’s present. It’s that kind of corporate-think which to me is the worst thing that we have in the world. We needed a villain for this movie, and in the end, we looked at Mark Zuckerberg and said there are two faces to him. I genuinely believe he is an idealist who wants to connect the world, but he also doesn’t see anything wrong with collecting people’s data to sell, so we divided that character up and it made it the two voices of Marc and Andrew.
DEADLINE: This movie came out after the COVID lockdowns, where children were forced to use that technology as a way to see their friends because of the inability to do so in-person. Has that changed your view on the technology?
SMITH: Well, I think it just left us more confused because it was undeniable. You could no longer say to your kid, “You can’t spend hours on the screen.” Because you were aware that that’s the only contact they had with their friends.
I allowed things that I never would’ve allowed before, because there was no other way, and you could see that it was this lifeline and yet at the same time, there’s an absolute explosion of anxiety among children, so I don’t think any of us really know what we’re doing. But what we did notice was how much our kids wanted to go outside and see each other when they were allowed again. They craved the actual, physical connection after lockdowns.
And the movie itself was made by an amazingly brave group of hundreds of people all working from home on Zoom. We have an extraordinary, resilient crew who were all divided into different Zoom rooms making bits of the same movie and trying to keep it as one thing.
It was a bizarre thing because I write and I direct. I directed with JP [Vine], but I started in a huddle with Pete for months and months and months, and then you take it in to production and in animation, unlike any other form of movie making, every artist has a potential contribution to make where they can move the film in a different direction.
It gets made in such slow motion detail, that there is room for so much enhancement and input and your job really is to pick your way through all of the brilliance that adds to your movie, while also trying to keep it on track so that it serves the story and doesn’t become a different story along the way, and when we went into lockdown and we were massively disconnected, that was one of the hardest things to do.
We had to connect animators and say, “You need to watch what he’s doing because that really works with this.” And you become the hub of it. It does need that personal interpretation to keep everything joined up.
BAYNHAM: I think that goes for the cast as well. They were having their voice performances sometimes from their broom cupboards, and just doing amazing things and especially Zach [Galifianakis] with what he pulled off with Ron…
We ultimately decided that Ron was like the annoying paper clip man that used to pop up on Microsoft documents and say, “It looks like you’re trying to write a document.” And Zach just down the line, through the internet, somehow managed to channel that and to come up with this character that was like weirdly like Borat. Borat and Ron are weirdly similar characters and kind of clownish characters with a four percent of their capacity downloaded, and he did great.
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