Robot Dreams: how we made our animated love letter to 1980s New York

Spanish filmmaker Pablo Berger tells us about his switch to animation to make a lovingly crafted adaptation of Sara Varon’s graphic novel Robot Dreams.

Robot Dreams (2023)

Robot Dreams is an animated adaptation of Sara Varon’s 2007 graphic novel about a lonely dog who purchases and befriends a mail-order robot. The pair have fun and live together in a lively version of 1980s New York City populated entirely by anthropomorphic animals, with Dog forgetting his sadness until Robot gets wet during a visit to the beach, threatening to derail the good times. 

His fourth overall feature, but first animated film, Spanish director Pablo Berger’s Robot Dreams is a joyous and moving story. Made without any spoken dialogue, the film’s emotive power comes instead from clear, expressive scenes brought to life by animation director Benoît Féroumont and art director José Luis Ágreda. That, and some excellent era-appropriate music. 

In person, Berger is as ebullient as his film. Speaking ahead of its UK debut at last year’s BFI London Film Festival, he was keen to explain how he came to adapt Varon’s work, what New York means to him, and why he loves Earth, Wind & Fire’s ‘September’.

When did you first come across the graphic novel?  

It was around 2010. I collect graphic novels, children’s books and illustrated books without words. I read that there was this graphic novel called Robot Dreams that had been a big success in the States. I got it, and I loved the drawings and the artwork. It was so full of surprises and dark humour. When I got to the end of the book, it really moved me. I think the end of graphic novels, like books, films or jokes, have to have great punchlines.

Around 2018, I’m in my office procrastinating on a coffee break; I pick up Robot Dreams, I go over it again. It makes me laugh and it surprises me… the end truly brings me to tears this time because I was imagining what would be in the film. I don’t know if it’s a superpower, but I close my eyes and I can imagine how the film is going to be. Up until now I was a live-action director, but I knew if I wanted to tell this particular story with anthropomorphic characters, I had to make an animation film and learn a new technique.

Did you speak to Sara Varon about the adaptation? 

Yes. We have become good friends. The first time we met in New York I told her that I wanted to make a film from her graphic novel. The good thing is that she had seen Blancanieves (2012) and she liked it very much. She gave me carte blanche. She was not in the creative process of making this film in any way, but I communicated with her constantly. She’s proud of the film. 

Robot Dreams has a very detailed and distinct setting of 1980s New York. Do you have much experience of the city? 

The first time I was in New York was in the 1970s. I went many times in the 80s and then lived there for 10 years. I met my wife Yuko Harami in New York. She is my closest collaborator in all my work, and in this film she was involved with the music editing as well being an associate producer. This film is Yuko’s and my love letter to New York. 

In the book, New York is not a protagonist. The protagonists are Robot and Dog. But when we made the film, one of the big changes we made was that we wanted the protagonists to be Robot, Dog and New York. 

For me it was important because it’s a New York that has disappeared. 80s New York was the cultural and economic capital of the world, but, due to globalisation, it’s not like that any more. The centre of the world is everywhere. Now everything is decentralised. You can be in a little town in the middle of nowhere and you can be more informed than if you are in New York. But in the 80s, you had to be there to know what was happening in the cultural world. 

As the New York that I lived in doesn’t exist anymore, there’s a nostalgia for me. I like the idea that when you go to the cinema, it’s like time travel. When people see this film, they will have a glimpse of the New York I lived in.

Robot Dreams (2023)

In Robot Dreams, there is quite a focus on the Twin Towers. Was that your tribute to 9/11? 

They were part of my daily life. I had a rooftop and would see the Twin Towers, and definitely there’s a homage element to it. They also represent the friendship of Robot and Dog, and we definitely do this with all respect.

What is it about Earth Wind & Fire’s ‘September’ that inspired you to make it a key part of the film? 

Everybody knows that music makes you remember times, friends, places. We all have a song. So I had to find the song of Robot and Dog. In the graphic novel, they have a song, but you only see some notes. Sarah Varon doesn’t know how to write music and so, when read, the notes don’t make any sense. But the graphic novel takes place over one year. It starts in September and ends in September. And the first three words are, “Do you remember?” 

That’s the theme of the film. It’s about memory. If you remember people that are not in your life anymore – it could be friends, lovers, family members that pass away – they’re with you. This film is in memory of all the people that have been an important part of my life that are not with me anymore. I would like to think that audiences can substitute Robot or Dog for somebody that they love.

That’s why the song ‘September’ is so important – it’s one of the best pop songs ever. I’ve listened to it a million times in the shower. I think about, for example, Casablanca (1942) – Humphrey Bogart, Bergman, “We’ll always have Paris,” and their song ‘As Time Goes By’. Robot and Dog will always have New York, and they will always have ‘September’. 

Robot Dreams is in cinemas, including BFI Southbank, from 22 March 2024.