Katie Robbins Introduces A New World Of AI Capability With Apple TV+'s "Sunny"

Katie Robbins Photo. Photo Credit to Rebecca Fishman.
Katie Robbins Photo. Photo Credit to Rebecca Fishman. /

Between her roles as a writer and a producer, Katie Robbins has moved her way through the entertainment industry before becoming the lead on Apple TV+'s new series, Sunny, which follows leading star Rashida Jones as Suzie, a woman trying to come to terms with the mysterious and devastating loss of her husband and son. But, it is not as simple as dealing with loss when there are so many questions that arise surrounding Suzie's husband, who she begins to discover she may not have known so well, after a new home bot, Sunny, arrives after his death.

Culturess: What inspired you to create Sunny?

Katie Robbins: It's loosely based on a novel called, "The Dark Manual," by an Irish author Colin O'Sullivan, in Japan, and it was sent to me by my agents. The novel is very different from the show. The plot is quite different and it's much darker, and in that book, the robot is a male robot. But there was a kernel in the storytelling there about a woman who has just suffered a great loss and is trying to figure out what to do next with her life that really sparked for me. I've always been drawn to stories about what comes after, how people sort of keep themselves going in the wake of horrible things. I was really intrigued by the idea of how AI might play into that. There's been a lot of research in recent years about the human-robot interaction or HRI, which is about the ways that humans and robots interact and a piece of that is the ways in which robots can be these transitional objects for people who are having trouble connecting with other people and I thought there was a kernel there, something interesting. At the same time, I had been really wanting to write about female friendship in something because I have a big job and I have two little kids, and in having this really full life, which is great and I'm really lucky, I have a lot less time to connect with my female friends and I sort of ache for those relationships. So I wanted to find a way to talk about that as well.

Culturess: How much research did you do into Japanese culture?

Katie Robbins: A lot of research. I did spend time there before I dove into working on the show. Then I took another trip once I was able to start writing the show. So then, while I was there, I did research for writing the pilot. I just stayed there for several weeks soaking in the culture. Then, during the writer's room, which was set in Los Angeles, we worked with a number of cultural consultants, both for talking about Japan as a whole and also Kyoto specific because that's where the show is set and it has its own very specific culture. We were working a lot with people to just make sure that our show lived and breathed in the specificity of Japan. In our writer's room, we had a number of people who were Japanese or Japanese-American who had their own experiences of living or spending time in Japan. Then we shot the entire season there. So, I was there for nine months and even when I was going back and doing an additional draft, I was living and breathing the culture and society.

Culturess: What went into creating the personality or identity of what Sunny was?

Katie Robbins: A lot. In terms of the character and the way that she interacts, Suzie, played by Rashida Jones, who is our main character, has a prickly personality. She's got sharp elbows and approaches everything with sarcasm and sardonic wit, and so I quite liked the idea that what you would want to juxtapose that and try to help her come out is somebody who is constantly surprising her and who has a different side and so Sunny, her name is Sunny, is this hint of optimism within that name, even. So I had a lot of fun incorporating that idea but then with these little bits of Suzie's sharp elbows because robots have machine learning. So the more time they spend with somebody, they start to develop some of that person's attributes. So I was thinking about that relationship dynamic a little bit as an odd couple as Suzie's trying to figure out if Sunny is trustworthy or not, and that's not something we know for quite some time, if ever. So that was really fun. Then in building Sunny, we worked with this incredible team from New Zealand at Weta Workshop, and we wanted to create a physical robot that could be there on set acting opposite Roshida in all the scenes. So we built this physical thing and wanted something that incorporated elements of Japanese design so a combination of this Kawai very cute, approachable, aesthetic with these sleek beautiful lines that could really function. So there's a very brilliant actress called Joanna Sotomura, who plays Sunny, was wearing a helmet with a camera, so Joanna's face and words were captured and then projected onto Sunny the robot in real-time so that Rashida and our other actors who were acting opposite the robot would have a real acting partner with whom they could play a scene.

Culturess: What went into creating the mystery surrounding Masa and what it means for Suzie's journey?

Katie Robbins: It was a lot of hair-pulling trying to figure out the details of the mystery and I can't go into too much of that but the thing that was fascinating was what happens to a person when their understanding of the person that they have been spending time with and in love with is shaken. When we meet Suzie, she is in shock and elongated period of mourning and denial. But, simultaneous to that, she's starting to question whether the things she knew about her husband were true or not and question the things that he told her and starting to question whether you, even if you don't understand the entirety or full of a person, can you say that you loved them. She's just in this quicksand of trying to figure that out.

Culturess: How much of the show was inspired by the rise in AI technology?

Katie Robbins: You know, it's very interesting. I started writing the pilot in 2019 or I went to Japan to research the pilot in 2019 and then I started writing it right after that, like Pre-Covid. I was there late December 2019 and early January 2020, and so I was thinking a lot about AI at the time and. . .to talk about what we were doing in the show in the near future or the alt present. It's not such a far distance from where we live now. But it just doesn't entirely resemble our time. I was talking a lot of theory and talking to roboticists. But even though I was having these conversations and they were like this sort of thing is right around the corner, I didn't really believe them because I don't know that robots are gonna be able to be doing these things. Then, while we were filming, Chat GBT, and interesting thought pieces were being written about the rise of AI and what it meant for people like me and like you, who are writers and what it means for creative work. So, it was interesting. The ground sort of shifted even in the process of us making the first season. So it's been a fascinating time and there are scenes and ideas within the show that feel more present than they had in the past.

Culturess: One of the concepts of the show is loneliness, and it's a big theme that's used throughout. So what do you think viewers can take away from the relationship between Suzie and Sunny?

Katie Robbins: I was writing a lot of it during peak Covid, or writing those early episodes during peak Covid, and thinking a lot about loneliness. I think I'm a person in times that are difficult, whether it's in my mental blocks or tremendous stress, I turn inward. My instinct is not to reach out for help, and I think that is a habit or a pattern that people get into. It's hard to feel, you develop this kind of calcification because it's really scary to be vulnerable. You don't know how the other person is gonna react. So it's safer just to go inward. But, we know from so much research that loneliness is one of his big research topics in general. We know how dangerous that can be for one's physical and emotional health. So this idea that there are baby steps that we can take toward opening up and take towards moments of communion with other people, I find really hopeful. It's something that, even though it's an idea that I've spent the last three years writing about and thinking about, it's something that I still have to push myself to do. But, I know that when I do push myself to do it I generally feel better. I hope that will be a little piece that people take from the show.

Culturess: There are plenty of female relationships going on in the show from familial to friendships, what went into trying to layer each of those?

Katie Robbins: Well, you mentioned familial relationships, there's the mother-in-law character, Noriko, who is played by Judy Ongg, with whom I am obsessed. She's just like the most extraordinary, warmest, funniest, amazing human being, and also a pop icon in Japan. She's an incredible singer and visual artist, and all-around amazing human who should just be everybody's Auntie. She's the best. Her relationship with Suzie is a pretty fraught one. They did not come into each other's lives in the easiest way and so they have a great dynamic with each other, a sort of banter that I really love and that I drew from my own relationships with different people. But I think there's great fun there in that generational interplay between the two of them. Then with Mixxy and with Sunny and Suzie, I thought about my own female friendships and the ways they can develop hopefully and intensely in times of stress where you're relying on the other person, and loved thinking about the ways in which we adopt terms of phrase from people that we spent a lot of time with, and start to become more similar in ways without ever thinking about it. There are these moments whether fleeting or prolonged where your friend can become your ride or die, and that can come from really unexpected places.

Culturess: What was your favorite part about working on the first season?

Katie Robbins: There was so much about it that was amazing. But, I think going back to the loneliness theme, writing, even when you're working with a writer's room, which I was lucky enough to have on the show, writing itself is a fairly solitary act and can be, when it's not going well, a very lonely act where you can just be like, 'Oh my God, will I be able to get what is in my brain out onto the page?' So to do something that is about loneliness in a way that at times felt quite lonely and then to have the process of making it be this extraordinary process of sharing and collaborating with this extraordinary group of humans was pretty profound. In the writer's room and breaking down the season with them to the production and post and just the extraordinary number of people with who I got to cross paths. There would be people in Japan like our crew and some of our designers who I did not share a common language with. I don't speak Japanese aside from tiny bits here and there and they didn't speak much English, and so we were working often with an Interpreter, but sometimes we would circumvent the Interpreter and show each other images and communicate that way and draw and laugh and finding all of these different ways to communicate with people was extraordinary and again, was the antidote in a lot of ways to the thing that I was writing about. So, I think that was my favorite part.

Catch Sunny on Apple TV+ on Wednesday, July 10, 2024.

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