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Extracted from a blog by John Alan Simon
Thirty years later, PKD has entered the mainstream of
modern American literature. Magazine covers from
The New Republic to Wired, scholarly articles and even
his own editions in the ultra-establishment Modern
American Library. And, of course, movies –many
movies. Probably more than any other science fiction
writer ever; with more to come.
America keeps trying to make PKD safe and give him
the Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval, but like the
bizarre, transforming product Ubik, PKD keeps reasserting
his subversive appeal.
Like most PKD fans, I look forward with a mixture of
dread and hope to each new adaptation that’s announced.
How will Hollywood mess it up this time? But that’s a
little unfair. All of the film adaptations so far have
something to recommend them – even those that drift
far from their source material: Blade Runner, which
the author’s real life – extraterrestrial contact with
what he termed VALIS – an acronym for Vast Active
Living Intelligent System.
In this alternate past, the U.S. has become a police
state. In the name of security. A record store clerk in
Berkeley named Nick Brady begins to have visions and
embarks upon a plot to overthrow the government
with the help of a mysterious woman named Sylvia and
his best friend, science fiction writer Philip K. Dick
himself. The story takes place against the backdrop of
the music business in Los Angeles.
For the last ten years or so of his life, the actual PKD
became obsessed with the messages he believed were
coming to him from VALIS, presaging some kind of
second coming and piercing what he believed to be the
illusion of modernity. The Ancient Roman Empire was
still alive and suppressing Christian individualism,
is a masterpiece in its own right; Minority Report;
Total Recall, even Paycheck, Screamers and
Impostor – and the very entertaining and seldom seen
French film Barjo. With the possible exception of the
animated A Scanner Darkly none has yet captured
what feels to me like the essence of PKD’s paranoid,
darkly humorous, playful and, above all, tender view of
the human condition.
So that’s the goal I set for myself with this film – to try
to transmute PKD’s singular voice and world-view to the
screen. The conventional wisdom may well be right.
The audience for such a venture is likely to be a modest
one – but this is the PKD movie I’ve wanted to see for
a long time.
Among his science fiction novels, Radio Free Albemuth
uniquely lends itself to this purist approach. It also
carried what I felt to be a special responsibility. RFA
was his most autobiographical work and he places
himself as a character within its context. The central
fictional aspect is one of the most important events in
strict adherence to the facts of biography didn’t seem to
fit the framework of an alternate, dystopian past universe.
We were able to give Shea Whigham a convincing
goatee. And even though Shea doesn’t look much like
the typical images of PKD at the height of his fame –
balding and a bit overweight – he does actually resemble
some of the less well-known photos of the younger
PKD. I made clear to Shea that this was an alternate
reality and that the Phil of Radio Free Albemuth is
not the precise Philip K. Dick of our reality. I wanted
him to feel free to find the truth of the story and the
character for himself.
I’ve shown some scenes of the movie to Philip K. Dick’s
daughter, Isa Dick-Hackett, who told me that she really
liked what she saw of Shea’s performance — so perhaps
it comes full circle to being quite true to the essential
Philip K. Dick.
Nothing about making movies is ever easy. Just
negotiating book rights took well over a year. Writing a
script, finding financing – these are actually the hardest
parts of the process.I turned down the earlier opportunity
to make this movie for two or three times the eventual
budget,because I didn’t want to compromise the story,
because I didn’t want to compromise the story with
action sequences, fights, explosions unnecessary
violence, and other elements that would have made the
movie more commercially “appealing” for the foreign
sales companies that typically step up to finance indie
One advantage of working on a very low budget is the
luxury of casting actors without the tyranny of pure
economic consideration. No studio lists. No sales
company analysis of which star’s big in Japan or Spain.
I also felt that I could achieve more realism with lesser
known actors. As a former news reporter, natural
behavior and realistic dialogue are very important to
me. Radio Free Albemuth is a very strange story that
takes place in an alternate reality. Movie stars, would, I
think, have taken an audience out of the story. Because
we were working from a Philip K. Dick novel, I simply
got to choose the best actors who were available and
wanted to play in this particular sandbox with us. The
final principal cast – Jonathan Scarfe as Nick, Shea
Whigham as Phil and Katheryn Winnick as Rachel –
were emotionally available, playful, collaborative and
hard-working, all the qualities a director needs.
Early in casting I met Alanis Morissette and after a few
hours of stirring conversation, I offered her the part of
Sylvia on the spot. She so clearly embodied my idea of
that character; a combination Joan of Arc and mellow
Towards the end of production, during the worst fires
in recent LA history, permits were rescinded.
I’m not religious or even spiritual in the ordinary sense,
but I felt that someone or something was looking out
for this movie. I learned to roll with the punches by
reminding myself that the most important part of my
job was storytelling. It was a lesson in the deep, often
untested, resources of instinct and intuition. And one of
the great supports in this arena was my cinematographer,
We shot with the Thompson Viperstream digital camera
in data-stream mode, which is a very sensitive low-light
camera and has a really beautiful color palette. It’s the
same camera system that David Fincher used for The
Curious Case of Benjamin Button and Zodiac.
Because we shot in data-stream mode with the Thompson
Viperstream camera, the hi-def footage has totally
neutral color values: i.e. when you look at the footage,
it’s basically like black and white, but in this instance,
green hued. We were able to apply preliminary color
“looks” to the highly compressed footage edited in
Final Cut, but in the Digital Intermediate process we
worked with a company called Hollywood DI, run by
Neil Smith, and a very gifted colorist named Aaron
Peak, to use all the color latitude in the digital data
stream to create a totally color balanced and rich color
palette for the film. This is why I say to people that all
movies today are basicially digital whether shot on film
or not. Starting with the Coen Brothers Oh, Brother
Where Art Thou?, virtually all movies, even those
shot on film, are transferred to digital for the Digital
Intermediate process before being output to film again.
With a “digital” movie, you’re just skipping the initial
step of shooting on film.
A start-up effects company called Angstrom – Ergin
Kuke, Yas Koyama and Klaus Seitschek – dedicated
many months to helping me get the CGI facets of the
movie right. Another artist, Shawn Hunter, also made
significant contributions in this area to certain specific
sequences. There are close to a 150 visual effects shots
and I wanted them to be of the same caliber as the
story and acting values of the movie. Our entire effects
budget was less than one second of Avatar screen
time. To turn that to an advantage, we created effects
that have a retro or ‘handmade’ look that balances
with the 1980’s time period of the movie.
Uniquely on movies I’ve worked on, none of the producers
of RFA took any fee out of the budget whatsoever. All
gave generously of their time and care. I owe a big debt
of gratitude to my producing partners on the project,
Dale Rosenbloom, Philip Kim, Stephen Nemeth and
Elizabeth Karr. Every penny of our budget is on the screen.*
I was given the creative freedom to make the movie I
wanted to make – to channel the vision of PKD as best
I could capture it. It was a rare opportunity, for which I
will be forever grateful.
I believe the results are worth the effort and dedication.
I’m worried about the general economic climate for
indie films right now but still confident that the same
spirit that guided us through an arduous production
will lead this film to the right distribution channels
and ultimately, the right audience.
[John Alan Simon is president and chief executive officer of Discovery Films. He has been involved with the financing, production, sales, and marketing of many successful independent features including, "The Wicker Man" (starring Edward Woodward); "The Haunting of Julia" (with Mia Farrow and Tom Conti); "Basket Case", "The Howling, Part 2" and "Out of the Blue" (starring and directed by Dennis Hopper). In partnership with Rosenbloom Entertainment, Discovery has acquired film rights to three novels by reknowned science-fiction writer, Philip K. Dick, whose works have formed the basis for such successful science-fiction films as "Blade Runner" and "Total Recall". Simon has written the script and developed "Flow My Tears, the Policeman Said", based on Philip K. Dick's novel, for Paramount Pictures in conjunction with Tom Cruise/Paula Wagner Productions and Oliver Stone's Illusion Entertainment. Prior to his entry in the film industry, Simon was a successful journalist and film critic, both as staff writer for the New Orleans Times Picayune and as editor-in-chief of New Orleans magazine. He has also written film and music reviews and feature articles for various publications, including the Chicago Sun-Times, Downbeat Magazine and American Film magazine. During this period, Simon also taught courses in film and writing at Tulane University, Loyola University, and the University of Illinois. Simon graduated from Harvard College with honors in History and Literature and served as an editor of the Harvard Crimson.]