In the era robot dogs and beefy AI machines performing shiver-inducing feats of parkour, it’s sometimes nice to imagine a potential future in which bots are just warm, cuddly friends, or better yet, a future in which they all look like Charles from Brian and Charles.
Standing about 7 feet tall, with a square belly made from what looks like a washing machine, Charles prowls the Welsh countryside like a newborn foal, contenting himself with a bowl of boiled cabbage the way most of us would settle for a seven-course dinner. His creation comes when Brian (played by writer David Earle), having a bout of depression, decides to invent something new. Lightning strikes—perhaps literally—and Brian and Charles’ lives are changed forever.
As Brian and Charles hit theaters, WIRED sat down with Earl and co-creator Chris Hayward to talk about optimism, character comedy, and how the pair worked to find an intersection American film and AI.
WIRED: David, you’ve been playing the role of Brian for some time now, though it has gone through some changes and adjustments over the years. How would you describe his emotional and mental state in this film?
David Earl: He always came up with stupid ideas. When I did it live, he would come up with jokes, but the jokes were a little awkward and didn’t quite work. It is the same in that he builds inventions that are not entirely accurate and do not quite work. In this movie, he’s just a little more likeable and maybe a little more attractive. We have tried to make the film more accessible.
When I played him in comedy clubs, I was a little more edgy, a little more defensive. I hope he’s more likeable in the movie.
He is, and he is also a little sad. Not in a bad way, but in a way that viewers can understand because this loneliness is very real.
Earl: But it’s positive! He always looks on the bright side, all the time.
He has a level of confidence in his creations that I think anyone would admire. How do you feel about it?
Earl: While we were writing this, we were watching some documentaries like American film, My favorite film. At the same time, it is about [Mark Borchardt’s] determination to make films. Maybe they didn’t turn out very well, but he did it. So it definitely affected Brian.
There was another one called monster road about the hermit who made those little clay models.
I feel that if you ever create something, most of the things you do are not very good, or at least they can be terrible. So you always step on that fine line whenever you come up with something new.
Brian and Charles first appeared a few years ago like a short film. Where did Charles’ idea come from?
Chris Hayward: David portrayed Brian as a stand-up character and he had a little internet radio where people would call and talk to them. Our friend Rupert [Majendie] called but he didn’t speak. He used this computer software where he would type what he wanted to say and it would read it in all sorts of strange voices. One of the voices was that of Charles.
I listened to it – we were all friends back then – and their dialogue was so funny that we talked about doing it as a live show. I had no idea how to make a robot costume, but for a few years we did it as a live performance on comedy shows, where I was in the Charles costume and talked to Brian, and Rupert typed in the dialogue.
We just did it for fun, hoping it would take off somehow. It didn’t happen, so we ended up making a short film. This eventually led to a feature, but it was a long process.
How does it work on set? You are working on a script. Is Rupert still sitting there on the side with a keyboard and typing in lines?
Hayward: All of Charles’ dialogue in the script was pre-recorded. When we were filming indoor scenes, Rupert could bring up dialogue. He could also improvise if we did an impromptu scene.
If we were shooting outside, I would say dialogue because we couldn’t get the laptop to work outside. So I either had to memorize the dialogues or sometimes we improvised little scenes. Then, in the post, we could fiddle with Charles’ dialogue, which meant we could tweak all the lines or change them entirely. This gave us a lot of freedom to be creative.
How did you set up Charles for the film? He looks a little different than before. What’s new in Charles 2.0?
Hayward: For the original, I just bought one head on eBay and because we did a lot of live shows, after three years it looked a little beat up.
We needed to put together about four heads for his various incarnations in the film, so the first problem was to find these heads, because I got this head seven years ago. [Director] Jim [Archer] scoured the internet looking for those heads, which was crazy, but he eventually tracked them down.
However, when they appeared, they were indeed from America and looked a little different. They were prettier and more tanned, and they had pink lips. It looked like Charles, but it looked like the Hollywood version, so we chose that one.
So many things in the movie are never touched, which makes it a bit magical. Like, we don’t really know how Charles was born or how he eats his favorite cabbage. How did you decide not to explain anything?
Hayward: Well, for example, when we first see Charles come to life, we wanted the lightning to be some kind of red herring. There is also the idea that Mr. Williams, the mouse, got into Charles’s head.
We actually filmed the scene where the mouse came out of Charles’ mouth, but it looked so disgusting. It looks like In Search of the Lost Ark where the python comes out of the skull. It looked so grotesque that we thought, “Well, that’s not the comedic effect we’re after.” That’s why we asked Brian to explain what happened.
Earl: Brian has no idea how this is happening.
Hayward: It doesn’t matter if it’s a mouse. He’s not even sure how it happened.
Well, just because a mouse made electricity work doesn’t explain how Brian learned to program AI.
Earl: Yes, we do not want this thread to be pulled.
Why is Charles what Brian needs during the movie, and why is Brian what Charles needs?
Hayward: At first, Brian is a bit in denial about this, because he says that he is only building the robot to help around the house and lift things. We know, however, that he is clearly alone, but he will never admit it. He may not even know about it, but he obviously does. So he builds Charles as a friend.
It seems to help him grow up or become bolder.
Hayward: He becomes more responsible. If you have children, you become more responsible. It makes you grow. And I don’t want to get into spoilers, but it also makes him stand up for himself and talk to people with more confidence.
Working on Brian and Charles So many years have made you two think more about AI? Did you find out about it? Do you have thoughts of joys or dangers?
Hayward: I regularly look at things with AI, and for the most part it scares me. When I look at these robots… video these massive robots doing parkour, and I look at it and just think, “These critters might kick my door down at some point in the future and run us all through the streets.” Whenever I hear about robots, everyone says, “Oh, now we’re going to put weapons on drones,” and you say, “Oh, okay.”
I mean, if the AI culminates in Charles, we’ll be fine, because we can just push these robots. But I’m more worried about the robotic dogs I’ve seen in the video walking around trying to attack.
They are truly terrible. If they made them look like Charles, we’d all be on board, but instead they just look like war machines.
Hayward: Exactly. These are those strange dogs that walk with bent arms. It’s like “What? What is this? Why did you do it? What will it do?”
Earl: I just stuck my head in the sand. I don’t know anything about it.
Playing the same character for years is not something we often see in the States, although it does happen. The tradition is stronger in the UK, where a character can live on for multiple projects and decades.
What do you think keeps calling you back to Brian? Have you mastered it or are you still trying to understand it?
Earl: I think it’s just a project search. When we wrote this after life came at the same time and I didn’t really think about the future. Eighteen months later, both projects came out at the same time, and both have the same character. I didn’t really think ahead.
I’ve always just wanted to find a project to include Brian in. I wanted to find a story that he would immerse himself in. Also, it is now very easy for me to fall into these mannerisms and react to other characters and robots. It’s like a habit.
Does Brian have the germ of your character? Is Brian just an improved, simplified, or parallel version of you?
Earl: I don’t know who Brian is because there have been so many different incarnations. He went from shy to rude and aggressive to a jokester. I don’t know what he is.
So, I have to ask, how does Charles’ costume actually work? On the surface it seems obvious, but what is it like inside?
Hayward: So, a box made of reinforced cardboard. The mannequin’s head is on a stick with which you collect garbage, and the collection nozzle is the mouth. I control my head with one hand and the other hand sticks out to the side. So I have one arm that I can move and the other is fake.
I also put on a large set of shin armor, such as knightly leg armor, to give some joints to the knees. We are always trying to make the legs less human. So I had to put on big puffy pants and put pieces of metal everywhere I could to make them look less like my thin legs. Along with the blue eye, that’s Charles.
Earl: We’ve always wanted the public to say, “Well, it’s just a guy in a box.” It’s just about arrogance.
Credit: www.wired.com /