William Gibson: Prophet of Cyber-Grunge
by Uri Dowbenko
(snipped for Keanu content)
Writer William Gibson has seen the future -- and it is Grunge.
High-tech. Lo-tek. Artificial Intelligence. Nanotech. Sentient Holograms. Corporate Assassins. Drugs. Hustlers. Low Life Proles. More Drugs. Filtered through Nightmare Noir. Reframed by the Bad Karma-Mojo of pop culture icons William Burroughs, Phillip K. Dick and J. G. Ballard.
As Gibson himself admitted during a cameo appearance in the cult TV serial Wild Palms, he's been credited with inventing "cyberspace" -- and "they won't ever let me forget it."
Ever since his first novel Neuromancer, HyperNow has been extrapolated to a Surely More Decadent Tomorrow. And Gibson's Future still occupies a grotesque and detailed universe of Quaking Doom and Gloom, tinged with GeeWhiz, Flash and Buzz.
William Gibson is, after all, the Psycho-Cartographer of the Astral Plane.
In a strange anomaly -- or is it synchronicity? -- Orwell's Novel of the Future -- 1984 -- was published in 1948. It described then current off-the-shelf technology -- Big Brother's blueprint for the world after World War II.
Gibson's Neuromancer, on the other hand, was published in 1984 -- the year of Orwell's Big Bad Promise.
With a slight southern twang in his voice, Gibson spoke from the Beverly Hills Four Seasons Hotel in an interview by phone.
GIBSON IN MOVIELAND
Because of his detail-heavy descriptions, Gibson's novels and short stories have been disparagingly called "art direction" by Hollywood types.
So what did he learn from the experiences of working on the movie version of his short story Johnny Mnemonic (1995), a film starring Keanu Reeves and directed by artist Robert Longo?
"That really, really large sums of money, like multiples of millions, have their own peculiar momentum," he answers hesitantly. "People talk about having control and losing control, and I look at that very differently now."
"In terms of practical application, I don't think I'm going to know until I get there," he says cryptically.
And there were no obvious "lessons" after he passed through the experience?
"Only that it's all a lot more serious a business than you can imagine before you've actually been there," says Gibson, alluding to the prototypical shark-like behavior of studio execs and others in the entertainment "industry."
Johnny Mnemonic was shot in Canada -- in part because of tax incentives for investors. "I was there on set in Canada quite a bit," says Gibson. "Considerably more so than a screenwriter ordinarily would be. Because of my relationship with Robert Longo and also because the script was changing as it was shot."
And who was responsible for that?
"I was responsible," admits Gibson freely. "It had to do with how we started. We started with a modestly budgeted independent film. Initial estimates held the budget at one to three million. Then the inflation began."
"I wasn't very concerned with that at the time," he says. "I think the top end might have been seven or eight [million] which wouldn't have been a very big deal."
"We started with an actor who wasn't -- on the day we signed him -- a movie star. When we started with Keanu [Reeves], Speed had not been released. And Keanu was not a star in the way he was after Speed was released. So Keanu's suddenly bankable status as an action star definitely put a spin on what was happening, and it got us a gradually expanding budget. And it also got us in TriStar's pocket because of the escalating budget."
"So what we wound up with -- in the end -- I've always said that it's what you would have gotten if the studio had recut David Lynch's Blue Velvet and marketed it as a mainstream detective story."
Was there a lot of editing after it was "in the can" -- more or less completely shot? Being diplomatic, I said, "There were a lot of controversial aspects to it. It got dissed pretty regularly."
"It might not have been dissed if you'd have the film that I wrote and Longo shot," says Gibson. "It got so radically reconceptualized that when I watched it for the first time, [I said] 'Oh my God, it doesn't make sense.' To some extent, it had been intentionally a comment film, a very alternative sort of SF film, very self-conscious about its genre in an ironic way. When the frame for that was lost -- it got lost after the last cut -- they recut it to their specs."
So was the Johnny Mnemonic experience somewhat of an abortion -- with the sense of loss and what could have been?
Gibson is non-committal. He says simply, "It was a learning experience."
And whose idea was it to cannibalize the "Bridge" -- a future squatters version of the famous San Francisco hallmark -- from Virtual Light and put it in the film?
"That was mine," answers Gibson. "At the time, I didn't think that I'd have a chance to do anything else. I saw Johnny Mnemonic as I wrote it, and we shot it as a collage of a lot of things. It was about a particular kind of science fiction. It's not about Virtual Light but about that sort of environment. The set that Longo constructed was stunningly great, and the cut that emerged -- you scarcely get any sense of it. It was probably one of the most beautifully realized science fiction sets since Blade Runner. Really really great. And as we shot it, the film made considerably more use of it, but it did not make it to the screen."
So was Longo's and Gibson's "vision" not the same as the "suits," the studio execs and the producers? Or what happened?
Gibson answers tentatively, "After a certain point, the suit who was most supportive of us throughout the process -- he would speak to my position by saying, 'At this point I have to speak for the members of our audience who are 'Gibson-challenged' -- and at that point I knew that I was in trouble. This guy was saying that 'whatever it is you're laying down here, bud, they ain't going to get it.' He was just doing his job."