Movies & TV / Columns

Director Garo Setian On His Debut Film Automation, Movie-Making Heroes, More

August 28, 2020 | Posted by Bryan Kristopowitz

The 411 Interview: Garo Setian


Garo Setian is a writer, producer, editor, and director who, according to imdb, has been making movies since at least 1994. Setian has directed such short films as The Blob Cupid, Partners in Crime, and The Drifter. His feature film debut as a director, the terrific sci-fi horror comedy Automation, is now available on a special features laden Blu-ray available from Epic Pictures. In this interview, Setian talks with this writer about the process of making Automation, how long it took to actually complete the movie, and more.



Bryan Kristopowitz: Why did you want Automation to be your first feature length film as a director?

Garo Setian: It was a combination of things, both practical and passion based. I have tried to get various movies made over the last 25 years only to see those projects not come to fruition for various reasons. So, my wife Anahit and I took inventory of what we had and what we could pull off on a limited budget. My friend “Evil” Ted Smith (a prop builder & producer on Automation) who I previously attempted to get a film made with, had a bunch of cool sci-fi props he built including a robot he made with Robert Miller that he said I could use. Also, my cousin Charlie Klinakis (another producer on Automation) had an insulation company, Alert Insulation, he said I could film at. Elissa Dowling was a friend who helped on a previous project and was game to work with us. And I knew there would be a part for Anahit in the movie as she has been acting for years. So those elements were already in place when we began the screenwriting process. That was the practical, but on a passion level, I always liked movies where the audience is called upon to empathize with a fictional creation. Movies like E.T., King Kong, 20 Million Miles to Earth, or Godzilla and Gamera movies. I also love science fiction and have a lifelong love of robots in movies. Everything from Robby the Robot in Forbidden Planet, to Star Wars, Short Circuit, The Black Hole, Saturn 3, Robocop and Chopping Mall. So, this was not only a creation of sheer practicality, it was a true labor of love.

BK: What was your inspiration for the story used for Automation? How did you collaborate on the story with Rolfe Kanefsky and screenwriter Matthew L. Schaffer?

GS: I had read a lot of articles about the potential of robots replacing humans in the workforce. So, taking into account what we had to work with, (Alert Insulation, the robot) we had the opportunity to make a fun sci-fi story that could comment on current events. Having worked in a corporate environment and survived many layoffs I had a lot of experience in dealing with the anxiety of potentially losing your job. So, I knew I could tap into that. Also, the idea of the robot who was brought in to replace human workers having to confront the reality that he, too, is about to be replaced seemed like a really fun concept. Rolfe, who I have known a long time and is one of the fastest and most prolific writers I know, loved the idea and helped me pair it down. He did a treatment based on my ideas and then I wrote the first half of the script. Time was running out, though, and I needed help finishing the script, so I brought in Matt who had written some wonderful character-oriented action movie screenplays. He used to work with me at a previous corporate job, so he totally got what I was going for. He wrote the rest of the screenplay. After that, Rolfe did a polish of the script in 24 hours just before our table read. I did do some rewriting of the script while we were working on the film, and the actors adlibbed some fun bits. It was a truly collaborative effort.

BK: Just how far in the future is Automation? There’s a really cool
mix of future architecture and technology and more modern/”today” stuff throughout the movie. How did you come up with the balance of future and today as seen throughout the movie?

GS: When we were filming we always talked about how it was set about 10 years into the future. Far enough where tech we are witnessing now like delivery drones and robots would be in greater use, but people would still be driving around in cars. The office in our story has been going through rough times, so their tech wouldn’t be as elevated as some of the things we hint at going on in the world around them, and this robot is their attempt to catch up. We actually put a date of 2026 on the rejection letter Jenny receives from the record company.

BK: Where was Automation filmed? Where were the “future war” scenes filmed?

GS: The movie was mostly shot at the actual Alert Insulation in La Puente, California. It’s my cousin Charlie Klinakis’ business and he was super generous in allowing us to film there. We would shoot at night after they closed and leave just as the workers arrived and did a couple day shoots on the weekends. 6 months after the initial 12-day shoot, we did pick up scenes at my friends’ Chris and Shannon Prynoski’s company, Titmouse Animation Studios, in Hollywood. It all cut together pretty seamlessly to appear as one place. The future war scenes were shot in a dry lake bed that our resourceful producer Esther Goodstein found.


BK: How did you cast Automation?

GS: Just about everyone in this movie was a friend whose work I was familiar with. The LA horror movie scene is a pretty tight knit group. Elissa and Anahit were cast before the script was written. I had known Graham Skipper since his live performance as Dr. Herbert West in Stuart Gordon’s Re-Animator Musical. When I saw him fight at Fantastic Fest and do a passionate defense of the work of Paul W.S. Anderson, I knew he would be perfect as Devin. One of my producers, Dan Bowen, recommended Sarah French, and since Elissa worked with her before, Elissa reached out to her and she immediately jumped on board. Elissa also brought in Marv Blauvelt who helped out a lot. Parry Shen I knew from doing the trailers to a few films he was involved with, namely the Hatchet films and Unidentified. Rolfe introduced me to Sadie Katz. Her role was originally written for my friend Sean Keller who is a tremendous actor but because of a schedule conflict was unable to do it. So, I asked Sadie if she would be willing to step in and she was thrilled to do it. She even helped create the arc for her character which I thought really elevated that part of the movie. The only person who I hadn’t met before production began was Josh Fallon who Esther Goodstein brought in. She worked with him before and he was just right for his part.

BK: How long did it take to make Automation, from finishing the script to completing post-production?

GS: I was working full time as a trailer editor so finding moments to write was a challenge, but after about five months we had a screenplay, and we were shooting just weeks later. The shoot itself was 12 days. After that I took 4 months to cut the film together (again, I would do it in my spare time), then we did two days of pick-ups, and a few more hours here and there. In the end, from the moment we decided to do this, to the actual release of the movie it was about two years.

BK: How did you settle on the design of the robot character Auto? How did you pick Jim Tasker as the voice of Auto?

GS: The initial robot “Evil” Ted Smith and Robert Miller built already existed but it was Ted who did all the updates and redesigns. Jim Tasker is a master VO artist who I worked with on countless movie trailers and TV Spots. I knew right from the beginning he was going to be the voice of Auto. He needed to have a deep, rich voice that could be friendly, but also frightening. And Jim knocked it out of the park!

BK: What sort of direction did you give Jeff J. Knight, who plays the physical Auto?

GS: Jeff was incredible! He spent so much time in that suit and never complained once! Some of my biggest directions were about keeping still and the movements subtle. Little head turns and stuff like that. It is all about context. Like the scene where Sarah French’s character Linda is confiding something to Auto. At that point, a lot has happened that Linda is unaware of. And we are left wondering what is going on in Auto’s mind. Or earlier scenes where Devin is being mean to Auto. And we just cut to Auto as Devin laughs at him. Auto’s face is incapable of emotion, but we in the audience feel something is going on in his head. Jeff understood this, and really made it work. In addition, so much of that performance was Jeff practicing things on his own (Like Auto’s walk) and then showing me what he came up with for approval. We wanted Auto to be an old school style robot, a big, heavy piece of machinery with a kind soul, but when pushed, could become deadly.

BK: How difficult was it to find the balance between the drama, the comedy, and the horror moments in the story for Automation?

GS: We had a good grip on the tone while we were making the movie but there was a brief moment during the writing process where we had to make some adjustments. When Matt came in to finish the script, the second half became a bit too grim. It was always intended to start light and then become a thriller in the second half. We wanted to get people to care about our characters before we started any carnage. But it was going too far in the second half, so we needed to add a bit more humor and keep the tone consistent.

BK: You also edited Automation. Why?

GS: Again, passion and practicality. I love editing. It’s my chosen profession. And while I was shooting, I was always thinking about how things would cut together. And practically, it was a cost saving issue. I didn’t need to pay myself to edit the film.

BK: How was the experience of making Automation different from the various short films that you’ve directed over the years? How was it the same?

GS: The actual process is the same, but there are just a lot more people involved and moving parts to keep track of. It’s kind of funny, Anahit and I worked together back in 1994 on my USC thesis film project, Partners in Crime. And we shot that film at Alert Insulation as well! Same location, 24 years later!

BK: Any moviemaking heroes?

GS: Yes. Ray Harryhausen, Steven Spielberg, and George Lucas.

BK: Any upcoming projects you can reveal?

GS: I have two sci-fi movies in various stages of development. We’ll see which happens first.

BK: What do you hope audiences get out of Automation?

GS: An entertaining 91 minutes that’s funny, exciting and ultimately kind of moving.

BK: Is there a possibility of an Automation 2?

GS: We have thought about it and have a couple ideas, but I really do like the way this story ends. It just feels right.

BK: Would you want to live/work with a robot like Auto in real life?

GS: I love robots in movies or theme parks, but not so sure I’d want one clomping around my house or workplace. But who knows? In a few more years, we might not have much of a choice.



A very special thanks to Garo Setian for agreeing to participate in this interview and to david j. moore for setting it up.

You can purchase the brand new Automation Blu-ray here.

Check out the official Epic Pictures website here and official Facebook page here.

Check out my review of Automation here.

Check out Garo Setian’s official trailer pages here and here.

Garo Setian image courtesy of Garo Setian. All other images courtesy of Epic Pictures.