You might not know Philip K Dick’s name, but it’s a fair bet that you’ve seen some of his films.
might not know Philip K Dick’s name, but it’s a fair bet that you’ve seen some
of his films. A Scanner Darkly, Blade Runner, Impostor, Paycheck, Screamers,
The Adjustment Bureau, Next, Minority Report, and
next week’s big-news release, Total Recall, all come from the pen of PKD. Or rather, they were inspired by
his work. Because Dick is one what Tinseltown likes to call a ‘difficult’
author. They love his work but his ideas are simply too big to shoehorn into
the average 100-minute, braincandy blockbuster.
This hasn’t stopped them from trying – with
varied success. Dick famously died just before the release of Blade Runner.
However, he had great hopes that the film would bring his work to a whole new
audience and it certainly has. To date, around 20 films have been based on his
novels and short stories, although many contain the merest, homeopathic sniff
of the great man’s work.
Avowed ‘Dick-Head’, John Allan Simon knows more than most about what it takes to bring
a Philip K Dick novel to the big screen. His adaptation of the dystopian novel,
Flow My Tears The Policeman Said,
has already been optioned by Paramount. Radio
Free Albemuth, which he wrote and directed, premiered at Sci-Fi London this
year and so impressed audiences that the organizer’s created a new award to
honour Simon’s achievement in bringing “the truest adaptation of a Philip K
Dick story to screen.”
FilmJuice Features Editor Paula Hammond spoke to
Simon about the lasting appeal of Philp K Dick and the difficulty of bringing
his unique vision to life.
is it about Dick’s work that particularly appeals to you?
I think that you have to start with the
originality of the vision. His imagination was unparalleled in science fiction
and he really asked two essential questions: what’s real and what is human, and I think he found a way to
make those questions very effective. I read Philip K Dick when I was still in
college as a break from the so called ‘good’ literature I was supposed to be
reading and I thought it was every bit as good as John Updike or Norman Mailer,
and I’m glad to see that mainstream literature has caught up with my opinion.
is so difficult about bringing Dick’s vision to the big screen?
Well, you have to accept, I think, that great
literature doesn’t always translate into great film. In fact, it rarely does.
My theory is that a good novel has a better chance of being a great film than a
great novel does. I’ve felt that most of the movies that have been based on
Dick’s work – and I’ve liked all of them in some way – didn’t really capture
Dick’s voice as a writer. The dark humour, the metaphysics, the politics. It’s
very hard to find a visual style for that. Or a tone for it that makes sense
[to] … a big enough audience.
which Dickean films have you enjoyed?
I think the truest movies to the spirit of PKD
have really been Terry Gilliam’s
movies – Brazil and Twelve Monkeys. They’re Dickean and so
is Eternal Sunshine Of The Spotless Mind.
Those three movies are the most Dickean of any of the films that have been made
and they’re not from PKD material! In terms of capturing the sense of his
voice, it’s hard to say. A Scanner
Darkly comes the closest but it’s not really science fiction. It’s
something a little different, but I guess that comes the closest. I hope people
say that our movie does.
there any other PKD novels that you’d like to film?
I did an adaptation of Flow My Tears that
Paramount optioned some years ago, which Oliver
Stone was attached to direct and Tom
Cruise was going to star in. The deal was big enough so that we could buy
the rights to three novels Flow My Tears, Radio
Free and Valis. I always knew
that I wanted to do Radio Free as an indie and Valis is kind of an alternate
version of the same story. The same autobiographical story. What really
fascinated me was the weaving of Dick’s true experiences into a fictional
narrative. That’s really the genius of it. He had these bizarre experiences.
Some people think he was psychotic. I don’t. He was very sceptical of his
visions and used them to inspire his art and that’s what really touched me,
emotionally. I’m not a religious person but I think even Richard Dawkins would
agree that we have a spiritual hunger built into us. And I think Dick is the
antithesis of L Ron Hubbard in
creating a sci-fi theology. Hubbard’s theology is about individualism. PKD’s is
about how the individual questions and takes control of his own destiny and
doesn’t like government to tell him what to do – or anyone!
you tell us a little about the difficulties of being an independent filmmaker –
specifically, remaining true to the material while still making a ‘marketable’,
We started Radio Free at the very end of 2007
and did some shooting into 2008. What was really difficult about this movie was
the 150, CGI shot sequences. We have about 12 minutes of CGI and we did our 12
minutes, which is 720 seconds, for less than [the cost of] one second of Avatar. So that’s a 720-1 ratio and
that was hard. That takes time. There’s a saying: good, fast, cheap. Pick two
of the three. We picked good and cheap, so it wasn’t fast. And I think it’s
made the movie better in a way. We’ve had a long incubation. It was Coppola who said you never finish a
movie you just abandon it and I haven’t had to abandon it. I’ve been able to
rethink things [and] … had great collaborators … who’ve all been willing to
help me get it right. And I think we did.
is it that many of the biggest budget films fail to capture that Dickean
There’s a line in Radio Free where the Philip K
Dick character says “theories are like planes landing in LA airport. There’s a
new one every few minutes.” That’s who PKD was. He had this amazingly inventive
and playful mind. Hollywood loves
ideas like ‘boy and dog exchange minds’ that’s a great idea or ‘a kid discovers
he can fly’. One-line ideas. That’s the kind of stories that Hollywood wants to
make because they’re simple and universal and easy to make. I’ve [been working
on Flow My Tears] for a number of years … and important directors and actors
have been attached to the project and each time another one comes on board, I
write another draft. I’m now on about draft 50 and … there’s a dumbing down
process that inevitably happens. As a writer, a movie script is like a lovely
stalk of wheat and in the whole process of development you end up with a slice
of white bread – the lowest common denominator. But it’s a business.
that’s why you decided to take a chance with a small indie PKD movie?
Yes. Flow My Tears was always envisioned as a
big budget movie. But I thought, I’ve got to do one where the financial stakes
are not so high that we can’t be true to the source material. And I’m very
pleased that all of the PKD scholars and fans who’ve seen Radio Free Albemuth
have really embraced it. It’s not slavishly true to the novel but it is
faithful to the spirit and the spirit has really influenced many, and me.
Recall opens on 29th August.
Free Albemuth is due for release on DVD this Autumn.