With the rise of artificial intelligence (A.I.) technology offering to make our lives easier while potentially using its power to destroy the human race, the idea that someone could fall in love with an A.I.- either through an app or a life-like robot — has already become an incredible yet perplexing reality.
On film, that reality has been examined by such acclaimed filmmakers as Spike Jonze in 2013’s Oscar-winning sci-fi romance Her, and in more horrifying detail by director Alex Garland’s 2015 thriller Ex Machina. Now, writer/director Evan Pitt-Payne takes a funnier yet thoughtful look at this unusual new aspect of 21st century-era love in the award-winning short film comedy Guess What’s Coming To Dinner.
Set during the most stressful moment any young lover can endure — that of bringing their current main squeeze home to meet his/her parents — GWCTD stars Hannah Myers as Madison, who’s finally found the man (or, to be more exact, android) of her dreams: a kind, helpful and charming life-like robot named Tom (Ben Cockell — Disney+’s The Mysterious Benedict Society, the CW’s Superman and Lois).
While Tom’s already won over Madison’s more accepting mom (Mersiha Musovic), both he and his presence have aroused the tremendous ire of Madison’s closed-minded father (Nick Thorp), who can’t understand why his daughter would even want to spend the rest of her life with someone who isn’t human. As Madison’s attempts to level with her robot-phobic dad go nowhere, Tom tries to convince him that, despite their obvious differences, they’re more alike than he thinks.
Having been honored with an Award of Commendation at the 2021 Canada Shorts Fest following its appearance at that event, GWCTD will next screen in the U.K. at Bristol’s Data Week (from June 13–17th) and at the Bristol Science Film Festival this August. On September 18th, the film returns stateside as part of the Portland Comedy Film Festival’s shorts lineup, and will be available for streaming later this year on a platform to be announced.
With its title a play on that of the classic 1967 Sidney Poitier/Katharine Hepburn/Spencer Tracy interracial romance drama Guess Who’s Coming To Dinner, Pitt-Payne’s film also confronts how the dangerous prejudices of some “old-fashioned” types of parents can cause severe problems as their grown-up children try to convince them that their “non-traditional” significant others are not as threatening as they seem.
Pitt-Payne made his directorial debut on GWCTD, but before the 2019 graduate of Vancouver Film School could formally launch his filmmaking career, both he and his peers’ professional plans were temporarily stymied by the worldwide COVID-19 lockdown in March 2020.
While he and his girlfriend were quarantined, Pitt-Payne still kept his creative mind occupied on the projects he hoped to film during what would otherwise have been a normal late Winter/early Spring production period. One of those projects was GWCTD, and knowing that inspiration can happen anywhere and anytime, Pitt-Payne hit upon the concept for the film during a conversation with his respective “plus one”.
“One day my girlfriend, Alex, and I were talking about technology and how much it’s changed just in our lifetimes and how much more it will change by the time we have kids,” he says. “That led to me making a joke about how I wouldn’t accept our imaginary daughter dating a robot and we both sort of looked at each other like, ‘oh, there’s an idea!’”
In fact, Pitt-Payne — himself somewhat averse to popular modern household accoutrements like virtual assistants Siri and Alexa — sees much in common between his feelings of trepidation toward A.I. technology and those of the father in GWCTD. However, he feels that the fictional human-like A.I. he conceived for the film fulfills an important mission: that of improving our daily lives.
“…I do love technology and seeing how it develops and affects us, so Tom is probably my idealized version of A.I. He’s friendly and super helpful. Essentially, he just wants to make people happy, which is what I think should be the goal of any piece of technology. If everyone had a Tom in their life I think we’d all be a lot happier.”
When seen from Tom’s perspective in GWCTD, the heartbreak and discomfort of having to converse with someone unable to see past another’s differences is unavoidable — especially when that other person could soon become a member of their family upon marriage.
While audiences who’ve endured that painful experience will relate to Tom’s struggles on screen, Pitt-Payne says that the awkwardness of the real life rite of passage he and his cast portrays in GWCTD often drives people to make too much out of what’s already a tense milestone for couples and the parents they hope to impress.
“I’ve actually been very fortunate that I’ve never been in a situation like Tom in our film, although I think everyone can agree that meeting your significant other’s parents or introducing them to your own can be one of the most excruciating experiences ever. No one acts like themselves and everything suddenly feels much more stressful than it should,” he explains. “However, I think that we’ve all met people who are similar to the dad in this short. We eventually learn he’s all bluster, but you really hope that your in-laws are nothing like this guy at the start of the film.”
Prior to shooting GWCTD, Pitt-Payne’s involvement in filmmaking came solely with the first and most important phase of any cinematic project — the script. Yet as he formulated the concept for this film, he also saw in it an opportunity to grow his storytelling capabilities. “I’m a screenwriter by trade, but learning new skills in this industry is something I’m always interested in doing,” he responds. “Directing just felt like a natural next step.”
After only two months of pre-production, casting and painstaking design for Cockell’s robot character, the nine-minutes long GWCTD was shot and completed in November of 2020. Thanks to the hard work of assembling the film’s cast and crew by producer Eleanor Ward, and the funding contributed to GWCTD’s Kickstarter drive by its executive producer Lucas Ferrara, the comedy/sci-fi short was successfully made under COVID safety protocols.
Almost 2 years after “cut” was yelled for the last time on its set, Pitt-Payne recalls the experience of making GWCTD with both pride and astonishment. ”Looking back I’m amazed we did it, but Elly (Ward) is a fantastic producer and is a huge part of why this film even exists. Keep in mind, this was also during the pandemic so we were constantly concerned that we wouldn’t even be able to shoot the film since it seemed like new restrictions might come in to effect at any time. Thankfully, we pulled it off.”
When filmmakers work under both COVID safety guidelines and limited production budgets, having a strong sense of what kind of makeup design is needed for a futuristic-looking character in a sci-fi film or TV series is vital. Taking both under consideration on GWCTD was Pitt-Payne and stylist Lain Nicoll, who crafted a remarkable look for Cockell’s half-man/half-android co-protagonist — himself inspired by another iconic half-man/half-android character from one of sci-fi’s greatest staples.
“We’d always imagined that he would look like Data from Star Trek, and that helped us tremendously by keeping the look simple and effective. Essentially, we just needed him to look like he wasn’t quite human while also not breaking our tiny budget. Our makeup artist (Nicoll) did a great job of balancing that. Ben nailed the performance early on in the rehearsals and it helped that he was playing a similar character at the time on the Disney+ show The Mysterious Benedict Society.”
Like it was in Her, the romantic implications of a human-A.I. relationship are prominently addressed in Guess What’s Coming To Dinner, but Pitt-Payne says that the disbelief that some people would express if their son or daughter told them he or she was dating an A.I. — as portrayed through Thorp’s performance in GWCTD as the dad — is its primary center of conflict. In turn, Pitt-Payne adds, viewers will empathize with the feelings of confusion and fear expressed by Thorp’s character.
“I think that while people will certainly understand the metaphor behind the short, on the surface they might find themselves agreeing with the dad and his point of view. The idea of dating a robot is kind of weird, so how many people are actually okay with that concept, especially when you consider that it could be your child dating one? As a thought experiment, I find the whole concept pretty fun and interesting.”
Guess What’s Coming To Dinner is not your typical sci-fi film, nor is it your typical comedy or family drama. In fact, what makes Pitt-Payne’s movie work — and what he feels will make it popular with moviegoers — is its effective combination of all three story elements.
“…My aim with (GWCTD) to create a short that was accessible to a wide audience. I really do think (or hope) that you could show this to anyone and they’ll get a giggle out of it. Unlike a lot of shorts that cater to a very niche audience, I don’t think you have to be a typical sci-fi or rom/com fan to enjoy this piece.”
GWCTD is also a proudly Canadian film, right down to its dramatic incorporation of the Great White North’s national pastime — ice hockey — and the giant red and white Maple Leaf flag that adorns the downstairs “man cave” of its dad character. Says Pitt-Payne: “…We’ve got hockey as a key plot element and a Canadian flag is our main set (decoration). What else do you need?”
With GWCTD under his belt, Pitt-Payne now aims to take another turn in the director’s chair. “GWCTD was my first crack at directing and I’m looking forward to getting back at it. I’ve just finished co-writing a script with my friend (actor/producer) Srinivas Akella and we’re in the process of casting and crewing up to shoot it this summer. This one is quite a divergence from GWCTD, as it’s a Hitchcock-inspired thriller set in a barbershop.”
Even though short films are currently his main cinematic playground, Pitt-Payne also plans to tell bigger stories. “Eventually I’d like to direct a full feature, whether it be something to do with GWCTD or a totally new idea, but for now I’m happy honing my craft on shorts.”
As Pitt-Payne moves on to new projects, though, he believes that there’s already more life for the characters and world he introduced in GWCTD: “Originally I imagined it could make for a tidy 90-minute feature — allowing us to explore the characters much more deeply — but recently I’ve been entertaining the idea of a series,” he responds. “When I show it to people they often say that they imagine it being a half hour show, which I hadn’t considered but could be a lot of fun.”
GWCTD may be entertainment, but it preaches a message that’s sure to reach both the privileged and marginalized in today’s society: “It’s really about acceptance and dealing with one’s own prejudices,” Pitt-Payne notes. “Tom, the robot, can be a stand in for any group of people that is discriminated against, whether it’s the LGBTQ+ people, BIPOC communities, or anyone else. If this film can get people thinking about these issues a little bit while also entertaining them, then I am more than happy.”
See photos from Guess What’s Coming To Dinner on Instagram: