A new film based on Philip K. Dick's posthumous, roughly autobiographical novel, Radio Free Albemuth, has begun some informal screenings around Los Angeles. We saw the film, and spoke to writer/director John Alan Simon about representing the author's ambivalent life.
Radio Free is very independent in spirit as well as in style; it's hard to recall a feature film made with so few frills and so apparently small a budget. This may suit the material: The novel is one of Philip Dick's most personal but least well known, and offers not one but two characters who stand in for Dick himself. One, skeptical and hard-bitten, is played by an actor (Shea Whigham) who resembles the author almost uncannily — a working-class autodidact with a touch of Kerouac. The second, sunny, gullible and in love with patterns and ideas, is Dick as he might have become had his life taken a more commercial turn.
Though there's also a Nixon-like president, a conspiracy theory, and an odd pop-song subplot, the central narrative concerns the divine visions Dick also wrote about in the better know VALIS. Here's director Simon, a longtime Dick fan, talking about his journey.
io9: Radio Free Albemuth is not an obvious Philip Dick novel to film -– it wasn't even published during his lifetime. What made you want to adapt it?
There's a simplicity and tenderness to the novel that I think makes it closer to PKD's mainstream novels than most of his other science-fiction.
I've always felt that it contains some of his strongest writing. Radio Free Albemuth is the closest thing to an autobiography that he produced. The writers who have fascinated me the most — Dostoevsky, D.H. Lawrence, Henry Miller — never considered their art as something apart from their lives. The worlds they created and stories they told were intended to be cathartic not only for their audiences but for themselves.
What appealed to me what my take on Radio Free Albemuth as Dick's way to use his artistry to make sense of his own mystical, almost incomprehensible experiences in the form of a novel — a book in which he made himself one of the main characters. Not the guy to whom these strange things are happening, but the skeptical best friend.
There's a warmth and playfulness to the book and the writing that's not always evident in his science-fiction work. Religion, politics, dark humor, conspiracy theories, and metaphysics combine in an absolutely original way in this novel. I've never felt fully satisfied that any of the other movie adaptations — Blade Runner, Total Recall, Minority Report, Paycheck — captured the most important qualities of his work.
What kind of film aesthetic did you think best suited the book?
Unlike most of his novels, the story of Radio Free Albemuth is modest in scale and scope. No flying cars or cosmic battles. That also appealed to me for the purposes of adapting to film. Radio Free Albemuth also had a successful run as a play in several cities. So I felt confident the "dramatic bones" were there to tell an important story. I could easily see a movie like Drugstore Cowboy or Darren Aronofsky's Pi coming together from this material. I wanted to direct a project on modest budget that could be very faithful to the spirit of both the novel and Dick's whole body of work, which I've been reading for over twenty-five years now.
The movies that were the most influential for me have been mostly those of the 1970's — The Conversation, Badlands, Serpico, even John Huston's Fat City. In that same mold was an early eighties movie that I really like called Cutter's Way with Jeff Bridges and John Heard. Losers living in Santa Barbara who stumble into a sexual-political conspiracy that they're not equipped to handle.
As a former reporter, I'm more drawn to real-world behavior than "movie" behavior, so I think I wanted to tell this story in as naturalistic way as possible given the strange quality of the visions themselves that are experienced by Nick Brady, the main character.
I knew that i had to shoot digitally for budgetary reasons, but I wanted a rich filmic look and ended up using the Thompson Viperstream camera, which David Fincher shot both Zodiac and The Curious Case of Benjamin Button. We made this movie on a 24 day schedule with close to forty locations and over 30 speaking parts, so it was very logistically extremely challenging.
Some of my favorites films are those of Sam Fuller and Nick Ray, who shot quickly and simply and found the right moments for aesthetic statements. I didn't want any particular style to overwhelm the material in this case. I focused on clear story-telling and I think the kind of retro-seventies, eighties style of the film suits the story.
Tell us a little about your use of music in the film.
The backdrop of Radio Free Albemuth is the music business in Los Angeles. The main character, Nick Brady is a record store clerk who becomes a record company executive. So music is even more important in this film than usual.
My personal background includes stints writing music reviews for the New Orleans Times Picayune and as a contributing editor to Downbeat magazine. Whenever I write a script I'm usually playing music and it often becomes the basis for the music I'd like to use in the film.
I often thought that Robyn Hitchcock as the kind of pop music equivalent of Philip K. Dick and through an introduction by Alan Rickman, who's a long time friend of co-producer Elizabeth Karr, we were able to show Robyn a rough cut and recruit him for seven songs in the film. He also contributed to the score.
The only part that I cast immediately and purely intuitively was the part of Sylvia. I met with Alanis Morissette after her agents at CAA gave her the script. After three hours of very intense conversation, I simply offered her the part. I thought she would be perfect as a kind of modern-day slacker version of Joan of Arc, which is how I describe the character of Sylvia.
What technical and logistical hurdles have to be cleared before the film's release?
We're just in the throes of the final sound mix. Then the soundtrack is laid back to the high definition master and then we're really, finally finished. The hardest aspect has been getting the CGI right on such a limited budget.
Editing was in many ways my favorite part of the process. My friend, director Walter Hill recommended his own editor, Philip Norden, who happens to be a real science fiction fan. Philip was nominated for an Emmy here in the U.S. for editing Walter's mini-series Broken Trail with Robert Duvall. Philip, like myself and so many others on the film, worked at a fraction of their normal salary "quotes" for the privilege of involvement with such interesting and provocative material.
Personally, I have more tolerance for the slower pacing of non-U.S. movies and experimental cinema. I just saw the Romanian movie 4 Months, 3 Weeks, 2 Days, and for me it' s an almost perfect film.
Do you have future plans regarding Dick's work?
My producing partner Chip Rosenbloom also have the film rights to Flow My Tears, the Policeman Said and VALIS.
I've written a treatment for VALIS as a TV series that we may explore. I also have a concept for VALIS as a sort of sequel to Radio Free Albemuth that would be challenging - but most likely not for me to direct.
I'd done a spec script for Flow and at one point it was set up with Oliver Stone attached to direct and Tom Cruise to star. That fell apart and I've done re-writes for various other directors over the years. But last year, in collaboration of Electric Shepherd Productions, we entered into a deal with the Halcyon Company, who optioned the book and my script.
I did a re-write which I turned in on the very same day that Halcyon went into bankruptcy over the Terminator franchise debt. So, I'm hopeful that in the next few weeks the Terminator financing will be resolved and we can all get back on track with making Flow My Tears, the Policeman Said — finding the right director and actors.
Photos show Shea Whigham and Alanis Morissette with Jonathan Scarfe.
Images courtesy Radio Free LLC