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The Strange Case of Señor Computer
An interview with writer and director Tom Sawyer
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By roaming indie correspondent Beck Finley

L.A.-based writer, director, and editor Tom Sawyer made a movie that asks, "If you translate a knock-knock joke into blue cubes, will it still be funny?" Drawing on the styles of 1950s sci-fi, the art films of Andy Warhol and Bruce Conner, and cinema verite of French filmmakers like Godard, Sawyer spent his inheritance and used his credit cards to make The Strange Case of Señor Computer.

Señor Computer depicts the dysfunctional relationship between a robot and its creator by drawing on Tom's two real loves: artificial intelligence and overcoming human mortality. The film premiered at the Slamdance 2000 Film Festival.

Filmed in black-and-white with a soundtrack of white noise combined with house music, the film draws natural comparisons to the popular film Pi, although Sawyer's film was the first to go into production. Plus, Señor Computer is much funnier. The robot, learning about life from the housekeeper, is endearing and charming, as well as a bit diabolical. The way he tries to save his creator, the repressed scientist (Rick Ziegler), is nothing but true pathos.

A scene from The Strange Case of Senor Computer

Most of Sawyer's professional life has been spent as a computer programmer, primarily in medical research with people suffering from pulmonary diseases, such as lung cancer and emphysema. While majoring in chemistry at UCLA, Sawyer realized "how silly it was to think that we would overcome our genetic flaws for cancer and aging and death without computer intelligence."

But Sawyer, who had attended film school, just couldn't shake the film bug. "This, to me, was my art film," the black-clad Tom Sawyer explained to an attentive Kansas City audience. He wanted to try to make a non-commercial film. "To hell with what the hive thinks, because in the end, if you make your choices ad populum, you will be unhappy as an artist. With time, the hive embraces the original thinkers."

All told, the actual shooting took two weeks ("The worst two weeks of my life," Sawyer explained.), five to six months for pick-up, and two years of post-production shots. Sawyer himself ran the electric car that made up the body of the robot. Asked what changes he would make if he were to reshoot the film, Sawyer answered, "If I could redo any one thing, it would be to make the robot voice more understandable."

Currently, a San Francisco-based company is looking to either redo the film with a bigger budget or fund Sawyer's next project, which he claims will be another story of scientific epiphany.

Beck Finley is a freelance writer and critic. She lives on the Missouri side of Kansas City with her husband, Ryan Kegley, and dog, Tummy.

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