As Sundance deals slowly start to pile up, one U.S. Dramatic Competition title still searching for distribution is Sam and Andy Zuchero’s “Love Me.”
Starring Kristen Stewart and Steven Yeun in both voice and live-action form, the sci-fi romance centers on a satellite and an ocean-bound buoy who become increasingly sentient and fall in love over the course of billions of years. Sam and Andy, for their feature debut, constructed an actual satellite and buoy to scale before the film morphs into “The Sims”-style animation using motion capture with the actors who, finally, performed as their real selves, unadorned by technology, on a soundstage. This earnest and innovative love story — which in part tells a hopeful story of artificial intelligence at a cultural moment where it feels very much like an existential threat — should find an appreciative audience, especially given the compelling chemistry of the leads. The filmmakers describe “Love Me” in press notes as “Kubrick meets YouTube. Or a live-action version of ‘WALL-E.'”
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The buoy, voiced by Kristen Stewart, acquires the identity of an influencer named Deja before dubbing itself “Me” and the satellite, voiced by Steven Yeun, calls itself “Iam.” An extinction-level event wipes humanity off the Earth in 2027, leaving the capsule and the orbital spacecraft totally alone. Eventually, they evolve into Memojis until their animated avatars, living out the same day on repeat as influencers in a sterile apartment, become real people. Or at least AI’s construct of what real people look, sound, and feel like.
Sam & Andy, as the married filmmakers are known, worked with Laird FX to build an actual buoy and satellite, the former of which they took to a frozen lake in Alberta, Canada for less than a week of filming in subzero temperatures. Shooting the buoy also took the directors to Vancouver and the Dumont Dunes of California before filming the satellite on a soundstage, backdropped by NASA-generated images of the cosmos. After then filming Stewart and Yeun in motion-capture suits for the film’s midsection, the final sequences were shot with the actors in 35mm like, as the directors explain, a play.
IndieWire spoke with Sam & Andy after the film’s Sundance premiere. This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
IndieWire: “Love Me” takes a hopeful approach to the concept of artificial intelligence. But you’ve said that’s not what this movie is really about.
Andy: This ultimately isn’t about AI. It’s about us seeing through the lens of AI, of course. It gave us an opportunity as artists to look at who we are right now without all the baggage that we normally bring to it. We’re looking at the internet and humanity with innocent eyes. But as far as how we wanted to depict AI, obviously we agree that there need to be guardrails. However, we have a great hope for this next chapter of technology. The lowest best-case scenario [for AI] is that it’s just a new tool that helps shape humanity for the future.
Sam: It cures illnesses, it helps us with efficiency … it’s also helping people who lose loved ones. We sat on an AI panel [at Sundance], and there were a couple scientists and people who really study AI. In entertainment, we often look at AI as an Other, something that will murder us, kill us. That’s a very standard approach to AI for entertainment, at least. It could be something where we could look at ourselves through it because it recreates it, it’s like a mirror for us. How we treat AI is how we treat others. If we want this thing we’ve created to be a benefit to us, then we should be looking at it in a positive light and treating it kindly.
In what ways was AI used in the production?
Andy: There’s a dream sequence in the film where the buoy floats up to space and has a conversation with the satellite. We actually tried to have that produced via AI, but it produced a yellow coffee mug.
“Love Me” is filmed across oceans, deserts, and soundstages. How long was the production?
Sam: We shot the actors first. We shot Kristen and Steven first for a month on a soundstage, and then we had to take a break until March while the buoy and satellite were being built at Laird FX. Then, we started shooting in March, and it was for another month that we went around. We first went to Alberta to the frozen lake, and major props to our entire crew for standing out there, and especially to [cinematographer] Germain [McMicking] for being able to work the camera because it was so cold. And then we went to Vancouver and shot on the ocean and also a soundstage because, at a certain point, when the waves were too big, we couldn’t control how the buoy reacted to things. And so sometimes she would get really aggressive and headbutt. It was a different character. When it was too choppy, we took her to the soundstage, where we also shot the satellite, and then we went to Dumont Dunes in Dead Valley.
Andy: A big inspiration or reason to make this film for us was the adventure of it. We are both huge “Planet Earth” and Herzog fans. We just wanted to get out in the world and have grand adventures.
Why choose a buoy and a satellite as your main characters?
Sam: Buoys and satellites communicate all the time. We’re using the internet of things to monitor our ocean temperatures, how much the waters are rising, it’s something that’s actually happening. But to have them have the internet and no humans around and communicate with each other, we just thought it was funny.
Andy: Just the fact that they’re so distant from one another, somehow that image of a satellite and a buoy speaking then became a metaphor for us connecting in a time when everyone feels pretty far apart.
Tell us about the set you built, the condo that Kristen Stewart and Steven Yeun first inhabit as animated avatars and then as real people.
Andy: [With] our production designer Zazu Myers, we decided to build a circular set, an impossible condo that was based on a being who might not have ever been in a room before. Their view of what a room would be. The buoy’s entire world is a circle as it turns and turns, and Earth is a circle as it turns and turns. The condo itself we built and, for the animated section, we put Steven and Kristen in motion capture suits. Everything is spontaneous like a play. Everything we were shooting was rendered in a game engine, so you could see these lo-fi Kristen and Steven walking through this game engine.
Sam: You didn’t have to deal with the technicalities so much of shooting a movie. Then we moved into the live-action part, where we had to adjust our expectations.
Andy: We were inspired by the process of “Where the Wild Things Are” by Spike Jonze. All of that stuff, with James Gandolfini and Paul Dano, they were just all in basically a tiny padded gymnasium room with props that wouldn’t make any sound. They were just acting the entire film of “Where the Wild Things Are” like a dress rehearsal for the movie. It gives a completely different performance because it’s not two people standing across from each other talking into microphones.
Was “The Sims” a reference point for the animation?
Andy: “Sims” was our reference, but as we were making the film, Mark Zuckerberg gave this keynote for Meta, and all of a sudden it seemed like it was “The Sims 2.0,” an evolution of “The Sims.” We began to model our creations on Mark Zuckerberg’s Metaverse, and this was an homage to the future of that.
The film features a beautiful piano score by David Longstreth, the lead singer and guitarist for The Dirty Projectors. It’s a score that stands on its own as a piece of great music outside of the film.
Sam: It was so cool watching it be recorded. It was these two pianists from the LA Philharmonic, with just the keyboards lined up. The way their hands work, it’s like they’re aliens.
Andy: Dave [Longstreth] had a really great idea to mirror the buoy and the satellite. He wanted to write a four-hand piano score, which means that there’s two pianists in conversation with each other. It just ends up becoming less of perhaps an individual expression and becomes a conversation.
Sam: They were like two little girls on a playground.
“Love Me” premiered at the 2024 Sundance Film Festival and is available to watch on the virtual festival platform through January 28. It is currently seeking U.S. distribution.
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