An Interview with John Alan Simon, Writer/Director of Philip K. Dick Film Adaptation RADIO FREE ALBEMUTH
Just like Blade Runner, Minority Report, A Scanner Darkly, and Adjustment Bureau…to name a few…Radio Free Albemuth is based on a Philip K. Dick novel. Radio Free Albemuth has been embraced by PKD fans and scholars and hailed as the best adaptation of PKD’s works to film yet by the likes of London SciFi International Film Festival.
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In November, Blue Shift Magazine will run a full version of an interview with writer/directorJohn Alan Simon, but SF Signal has obtained this exclusive preview.
The film Radio Free Albemuth is based on a Philip K. Dick book. How’d you come to be involved with the project and what’s your role?
John Alan Simon: Critical opinions differ but I’ve always considered Radio Free Albemuth as an absolutely pivotal work. That’s part of the reason I chose it. This was Philip K. Dick’s first fictional attempt to tackle the mysterious VALIS experience that would haunt him the rest of his life.
How did the book first come to your attention?
JAS: I’ve enjoyed – on some level – all of the earlier Philip K. Dick adaptations – from Blade Runner to Adjustment Bureau and even the new Total Recall. But with the possible exception of the animated A Scanner Darkly, I think that most other PKD book fans would agree with me that none of these films – including Minority Report and the first Total Recall – really captured the full dimensions of Dick’s writing – the uneasy blend of science fiction, metaphysics, dark humor, paranoia and politics. I read Radio Free Albemuth when first published when I was still in school and became very intrigued by the idea that Dick had made himself a character in this alternate reality conspiracy thriller, even without knowing at that time the auto-biographical basis of the story. The fact that in February and March of 1974, the real Philip K. Dick had experienced a multitude of visions and voices that obsessed both his fiction and personal life until his death.
There is what I consider a mistaken impression that Dick “abandoned” Radio Free Albemuth as a novel. And based on my own first-hand research that is simply not accurate. He submitted the finished novel to his publisher where a new editor freaked out that Philip K. Dick had written a “religious novel” and gave him “suggestions”. Rather than implement those notes, he entrusted the unchanged manuscript to a friend, science fiction writer Tim Powers – and then wrote a completely different novel that also attempted to deal with those experiences in a different artistic context. In fact his next two novels, also dealt with the same themes and pre-occupations and form what Dick considered The Valis trilogy. Had Radio Free Albemuth been published as he had originally intended, (instead of posthumously) I can’t imagine it wouldn’t have been the first in the Valis “quartet.” Like the Exegesis in which Dick took up theory after theory to understand his strange paranormal experience intellectually, he also wrote several novels to attack the same issues in a creative fictional context. There’s a great line in the movie – taken from the book – that the Philip K. Dick character says: “You know how I am about theories. Like airplanes taking off from LAX – a new one every few minutes.”
What is the film about?
JAS: PKD was a bit paranoid before he was a mystic. The idea that the oppressive Roman Empire never actually ended and that we might all be living in early Christian era – a time of persecution and martyrdom. That’s mystical and paranoid! And there’s no doubt that PKD was a visionary. That’s what makes fiction end up as “literature.” The timeless quality. Orwell’s 1984, Huxley’s Brave New World and Dick’s Radio Free Albemuth remain amazingly relevant in every era. Just with a slightly different resonance. As the character of Silvia says in RFA: “It’s an ancient fight – the battle of the individual against the supremacy of the state.” She says “what the ancient Hebrews were to Egypt and the early Christians to Rome, we are now to the new American Empire.” That’s why it seems so visionary, not because PKD could see the future, but because his concerns and themes are so eternal. As true today as in ancient Rome.
JAS: Although there are many, many brilliant ideas in the novel, I responded to it also on an emotional level as a story about friendship. A very deep and powerful friendship between record store clerk Nick Brady and his sci-fi writer buddy, Phil – as in Philip K. Dick. In the movie they are really two halves of the same person – and the connection is understated yet intense. I think one of the reasons that Radio Free Albemuth may appeal to less “intellectual” viewers is the strength of their friendship and the tests and journey along the way. Ironically, in the novel and film it is Nick Brady who is having these experiences of extraterrestrial communication and his friend Philip K. Dick is the skeptical one. In real life, of course, it was PKD himself who had these visions. I think there must have been a degree of solace for a writer, who after all is a creature of solitude, to have created such a great bond between these two characters, one of whom is himself!
You wrote the script yourself, right? Wanting to stay faithful to the novel, as you said. Tell us about that process.
JAS: The script went through only a few drafts – and as I recall – now a distant memory – I wrote the first draft very quickly by my usual (slow) standards. I think knowing that I would eventually direct the material freed me up to be very decisive in my choices. I didn’t have to worry about what someone else might like or respond to. It was very clear to me what parts of the novel I wanted to use and those which I didn’t. And those elements I felt I needed to change. I am unbelievably pleased that even expert PKD fans feel the movie is so completely faithful to the book – because actually there are many, many changes, but it means I stayed true to the spirit of the novel and PKD – and that was always my intention and goal.
You made Radio Free Albemuth as an independent film. How does one go about getting a passion project like this made without big studio/big Hollywood support?
JAS: The most difficult aspect of the process was finding the financing for such an unconventional story. That’s almost always the hardest part of indie filmmaking. It took us well over ten years from when we first optioned the rights.
We made this film on a modest and efficient budget and shot in over 40 locations in just 24 days with, I think, about 35 speaking parts. The work of production was long – mostly 16 hour days. On the one day off, Sunday, I had to find new locations during production to substitute for locations we lost for various reasons, including intense fires going on then in California.
But one of the most difficult problems was getting the special effects right – particularly at the kind of budget I had to work with. My friend and mentor , director Walter Hill (48 Hours), likes to say there are two stages to special effects. The first stage is “it’s too early to tell what it’s really going to look like.” And the second stage is “it’s too late to change it.” That’s actually frighteningly close to true. We have over 150 computer graphic shots in the film adding up to about 10 minutes of footage. I estimated that we did our ten minutes worth of CG shots with the budget of one second of a studio movie like Avatar. Because I was determined to get the shots right, and we had such a tight budget, the trade-off was the post production took much longer than I envisioned. Again, though, this proved a happy accident because the extended time of post gave us enough perspective to keep changing and editing the movie. You might say also that “finishing” is the most difficult part. Every time I watch the movie, I still see things I would like to adjust.
You had Alanis Morisette, Katheryn Winnick (Vikings, Bones), Jonathan Scarfe (ER, Raising The Bar, Perception), and Shea Whigham (Fast & Furious, Silver Lining Playbook, Boardwalk Empire) leading your cast. Tell us about the cast and crew a bit.
JAS: I was enormously fortunate in the cast and crew who came onboard this journey and made it possible. Particularly director of photography, Patrice Cochet, 1st camera Louis Massouras, and editor Phil Norden. Also our sound designer Evan Frankfort and music composer Ralph Grierson. And my friend Paul Petschek who helped in any way asked, including additional editing. And, of course, all the support and advice from my fellow producers – Chip Rosenbloom, Stephen Nemeth and Elizabeth Karr.
I knew early on that one of the challenges would be the treatment of the “Philip K. Dick” character. Radio Free Albemuth has unique elements of autobiography in a science fiction setting though the elements of PKD’s own life are mostly transferred to the story of his “friend” Nick Brady in the alternate reality of the novel and film.
I always say there are many more great actors than great parts—and I believe that’s true. But sometimes there are also actors who just seem to be fated to inhabit certain roles. And though it was far from obvious at the time of casting, I feel that way now about the major actors in RFA.
When you make an indie film there’s a lot pressure to cast “names” that will help with sales and distribution. And RFA was no exception. A number of “name” actors who might have been interesting, hovered around the lead parts but ultimately proved unavailable. Because our budget was low enough – I had the really unusual privilege to cast purely on the basis of my own instincts.
I’d seen Shea Whigham in David Gordon Green’s All the Real Girls and much earlier in Tigerland. I liked his work and he was great in the audition so I found myself coming back to him over and over. I cast Shea first as Phil and then Jonathan Scarfe as Nick. I knew that I wanted them to be physically different types, especially if they weren’t very well-known household-name actors. It’s been really great to see Shea’s career take-off with his role as Steve Buscemi’s brother on Boardwalk Empire and as Bradley Cooper’s brother in Silver Linings Playbook.
I couldn’t have asked for a more dedicated cast. We all worked under tough, less than ideal conditions and the actors rarely, if ever, complained. 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 young PKD. We discussed 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 gave him a copy of the documentary A Day in the Afterlife of Philip K. Dick but told him not to try to imitate the real Philip K. Dick’s voice. I wanted more of a “hipster” feel to Phil slightly reminiscent of Kerouac and Cassady – and I think Shea really delivered that note in his performance.
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 I’d like to think the script and Shea’s performance come full circle to being quite true to the essential Philip K. Dick.
JAS: I’ve been overwhelmed by the positive response of “Dick-heads” to the movie version of Radio Free Albemuth. PKD scholar David Gill, who writes the influential “Total Dick-Head” blog, gave us this quote: “I was blown away! Loved it!” On the Australian Arts Hub website, filmmaker and scholar Leon Marvell wrote: “John Alan Simon has crafted a film that reveals and revels in the wild flights of imagination and everyday madness that fueled Dick’s brilliance. Radio Free Albemuth deserves a big audience – it is the most accessible adaptation of a PKD novel yet produced.” Ted Hand, who writes on PKD and religion wrote: “Radio Free Albemuth is the Philip K. Dick movie we’ve been waiting for. Mind-blowing fun.”
“Radio Free Albemuth is a terrific movie, a personal project and a labour of love, the type of quirky indie movie they used to make in the 1990s. Next to Richard Linklater’s adaptation of A Scanner Darky, it is the only other truly faithful adaptation of a Philip K. Dick novel, since the likes of Total Recall, Blade Runner, Screamers, Minority Report and The Adjustment Bureau were all altered almost beyond recognition by the studios into big budget action movies. Writer-director John Alan Simon has stayed true to the original novel, maintaining the feel of a contemporary Southern California social drama encroached upon by metaphysical Science Fiction and political dread.” — Bleeding Cool Website review from Lincoln Center Screening
NOTE: A longer version of this interview will appear in the November issue of Blue Shift Magazine, available from White Cat Publications this fall.
Filed under: Interviews
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