Radio Free Albemuth writer/director/producer John Alan Simon.
FilmLinc Daily spoke with writer/director/producer John Alan Simon about his adaptation of Philip K. Dick's Radio Free Albemuth, which screens Tuesday, June 4 in Film Society's ongoing Indie Night series. He talked about the connection he felt with PKD, the challenges of making an indie sci-fi film, working with his actors (including Alanis Morissette in her first dramatic role), and his thoughts on some of the other film adaptations of PKD's work.
What was it that drew you to the source material?
Although there are many, many brilliant concepts 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 Phil 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!
Philip K. Dick 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. During the Bush era in America with the clampdown on civil liberties in the pursuit of terrorism, it seemed that RFA was written that very moment, not back in 1976, or even when the novel was posthumously published in 1985.
For a while I thought the relevance might be lost in the Obama era. But, of course, the issues of the book have remained resonant—look at the Arab spring, the Occupy movement and what’s happening even now in Tibet and Syria. 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.
Can you talk a bit about the process of making the film?
We made this film on a relatively modest 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.
We had to replace several key crew members during production and several important cast members right before the start. But in all cases, I think some kind of positive energy or force was on our side. I am not at all religious in any conventional sense, but I felt that the spirit of Philip K. Dick, whose birthday I share, was somehow looking out for this film. In every case, whatever or whomever we lost was replaced by something better. That’s always struck me as a kind of small miracle. I’ve felt all along that this movie wanted to be made. Even the long period to get financing worked in our favor. The new digital technology in both production and special effects allowed me to tell this story for a fraction of what the film would have cost to produce 10 years ago.
I was enormously fortunate in the cast and crew who came onboard this journey and made it possible. Particularly director of photography Patrice Cochet and editor Phil Norden. Also our sound designer Evan Frankfort and music composer Ralph Grierson. And, of course, all the support and advice from my fellow producers—Chip Rosenbloom, Stephen Nemeth and Elizabeth Karr.
Shea Whigham in Radio Free Albemuth
What were some of the obstacles in adapting the story for screen?
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 10 years from when we first optioned the rights.
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 Philip K. Dick 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.
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—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.
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, 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 truth. We have over 150 computer graphic shots in the film adding up to about 10 minutes of footage.
How has it been finding an audience for the film?
RFA is an indie film so we don’t have a big Publicity budget. What we are discovering from festivals is that there’s actually a diverse audience out there that dig Radio Free Albemuth. Besides science fiction, there is also a new-age mystical aspect that appeals to the audiences who liked Waking Life, I Heart Huckabees or even the documentary What the Bleep do We Know? Several fans of the movie have called it “spiritual Sci-Fi,” which I think PKD would have appreciated.
I’m sure fans of Alanis Morissette will enjoy seeing her first dramatic film role. Alanis wrote a song for the movie, “Professional Torturer,” which she performs as part of the story. Music is very important in this film. The background of the story is the music business in the 1980s in Los Angeles. And since music is so important to me I worked very hard to get the amazing music cult singer-songwriter Robyn Hitchcock to be an important part of the movie. He contributed nine songs as well as composing the score with Ralph Grierson. Science fiction, Politics, mysticism, rock and roll—I think there’s a lot of different audiences for the film. And I hope of course that just ordinary film lovers will like the movie, too.
Primarily I made this movie for Philip K. Dick fans like myself. But it’s been gratifying that people who are not familiar with his books also like this movie. They respond to the story of friendship and the courage to risk all—even your life—for freedom.
Alanis Morissette and Jonathan Scarfe in Radio Free Albemuth.
Some people have called this the most faithful of all Philip K. Dick film adaptations. Which other films do you think have captured his vision?
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 Dick 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.
Like the Exegesis, an epic philosophical journal recently published, 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. These novelsl all deal in one way or another with the God-like entity he termed VALIS for Vast Active Living Intelligent System. But Dick himself remained skeptical of all easy answers or whether human being were even capable of understanding whatever answers might exists.
How did you find your actors and what was your process working with them?
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 now taking off with his role as one of the leads (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 PKD’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 PKD.