The Schizoid Man
Director Richard Linklater creates an animated allegory for our times with A Scanner Darkly, an adaptation of sci-fi great Philip K. Dick’s darkly comic tale about drug-using undercover agents.
by Scott Macaulay
In A Scanner Darkly, one of the last novels published by the science fiction great Philip K. Dick, Bob Arctor has gone to seed. Since his divorce, this former family man has spent his days sampling the drug Substance D while crashing with his equally zonked-out friends. But Arctor’s also a narc who, unbeknownst to his housemates, regularly trades bits of information about the California drug culture to his local police department. During these exchanges, to protect his identity he wears what Dick calls a “scramble suit,” an outfit that reduces his presence to that of a “vague blur.” (In the novel, Dick writes that its design “consisted of a multifaced quartz lens hooked up to a miniaturized computer whose memory banks held up to a million and a half physiognomic fraction-representations of various people: men and women, children, with every variant encoded and then projected outward in all directions equally onto a superthin shroud-like membrane large enough to fit around an average human.... The wearer of the scramble suit was Everyman and in every combination.”)
One of Dick’s most personal novels, compressing tales of friends he knew while living in California’s Marin County, relationships, his own experiences in drug rehab, and the paranoia resulting from an unsolved burglary at his home one night, A Scanner Darkly gets its narrative drive from the tragic but also blackly comic splintering of Arctor’s identity when, addicted to Substance D, he’s assigned to spy on himself. Arctor’s psyche breaks down, and in the process Dick creates not only one of the best novels about drug addiction but also a prophetic allegory about government and social control. In the end, though, A Scanner Darkly is an elegy, which Dick makes clear in a moving and philosophical “Author’s Note”: “This is a novel about some people who were punished entirely too much for what they did,” Dick writes, then lists 14 friends in addition to himself who have either died or are permanently damaged by drug use.
In adapting Dick’s novel, director Richard Linklater nails its ideas, characters and tone. (He even ends the film with that same Author’s Note scrolled on the screen.) He gives Philip K. Dick fans a film that finally captures the author’s cosmic humor and mind-bending reality games. Gone are the action-movie tropes grafted onto previous Dick stories like “Minority Report” and “Total Recall,” and, unlike Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner, which was based on Dick’s novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, Linklater’s natural sensibility, which celebrates ordinary characters and the oddities of everyday life, is very much aligned with the human heart that lies within Dick’s fiction. And given the story’s fascination with split personalities and divided existences, Linklater’s approach, which filters filmed reality through the animation style he first experimented with on his earlier Waking Life, becomes an ingenious way to convincingly capture Dick’s world for a new generation.
When adapting Philip K. Dick, Hollywood usually just lifts the high concept of one of his short stories and gets rid of the rest. I think your film might actually be the first Dick adaptation that tries to capture his characters and his social milieu.
I’m glad you appreciate it, because that’s definitely what I set out to do. It’s always been frustrating to the Dick fans that there’s so much more to his novels and stories than what ends up on the screen. Hollywood has this history of grabbing the central premise and making a traditional genre film, an action movie. I thought Dick deserved a full adaptation of one his stories, and what I always thought was missing [from the film adaptations] was his humor and the full range of his characters.
When did you first read A Scanner Darkly?
I was kind of late coming to Philip K. Dick because sci-fi isn’t really my genre. The first one I read was Valis in the ’80s, and then I started reading various others over the years. At first I was obsessed with Ubik, which I thought would make a really good movie. I wrote a draft of it without even having the rights or anything. And then Tommy [Pallotta] and I tried to get them, but they had drifted away from the estate and were co-owned — it wasn’t a clear title. Wiley Wiggins had been telling me, “Scanner would be the best [novel to adapt].” I was at Warners meeting with [Steven] Soderbergh, who had liked Waking Life a lot, and I mentioned Scanner because I knew Ubik wasn’t available. Two days later [Section Eight] optioned the book for me. It was that quick. That one had a history in Hollywood — it had been optioned but never made. This was in late ’01, and then it still took a while.
Did you know anything about the previous versions? I think Charlie Kaufman wrote a draft, and Chris Cunningham had also worked on it for a while.
I had heard about all of those. I think Kaufman had set [the story] in that period — the novel was written in ’77, set in ’92. I thought, You have to make it relevant to today. Scanner seems so of this moment, this John Ashcroft moment, so we had to set it in the near future. The only thing really outside of [today’s] real world is the scramble suit, so [the movie] is sci-fi, but it’s not. Philip K. Dick, he always had such great ideas, but his science was not... I guess what I’m trying to say is that I’m more motivated by his characters than his science.
But the irony with Dick is that compared to a lot of the “hard science-fiction” writers, a lot of his technological speculations have actually come to pass. Artificial intelligence, new forms of advertising—
He got it, because he always had a human character base. He wasn’t about these highfalutin ideas about where consciousness, the world or technology was going. He was like, “Yeah, people, what are they going to do next?” He knew that at the core of the future, there is always going to be some schlubby guy struggling, trying to get laid, and being frustrated. [Other science fiction writers] create these fantastic worlds where humans have suddenly lost all humor and they’ve become automatons, but Dick always granted everyone their full humanity, and that’s his enduring appeal. His characters are flawed and oh-so-human. When I read Scanner, I intuitively felt that it was probably his most personal work. It felt like he had lived this world, [the characters] felt like every roommate he had and half the roommates I had at a certain time in my life. It felt very familiar, the way you just sort of “end up” around people. You can see how that house became a kind of crash pad. One group moved out — his family — and another group, these ne’er-do-wells, move in. It’s fun for a while, but then it spins out of control.
How do you think the meanings of the book have changed in the years since Dick wrote it? Or have they?
Dick wrote this paranoid future, and my premise with the movie was that we are living in science fiction now. This is the paranoid future. I mean, Dick was coming out of the Nixon era in which there was wiretapping, there was COINTELPRO, [the government was] after citizens, even to the extent of assassinating citizens like [Black Panther] Fred Hampton. There’s always a time to be a little paranoid about your government, but I think that’s hit another peak today. If you put a peak in a chart during the Nixon era, I think we’re at another little peak in the graph, a spike up, today in the Bush administration. What he was writing about, which we would term paranoia, well, you just wait a generation and paranoia becomes reality quite often.
Seeing the movie in the context of the Iraq war, heroin trade in Afghanistan and the intelligence controversy involving the NSA, the storyline seems very much of this specific political moment.
Yeah, it’s all tied in, the geopolitics. Again, I didn’t want to make it front and center, but it’s there if you listen closely. At the beginning of the movie, when the guy in the Brown Bear Lodge says, “Our troops are down there fighting for us,” you get a sense that our government is using [the drug war] as a pretext to go into any country it wants. That’s there, but some people probably won’t pick up on that.
Why did you decide to do A Scanner Darkly with the same animation technique you used in Waking Life? If the movie is so much of the present moment, did you ever think of making it more realistically?
I didn’t, but it certainly came up. We were battling against the notion that adults don’t want to see animation. The only way we got [the movie] made was because it was so low budget — $6 million — and I got the cast. It was a tough sell. It might have been made earlier if it was live action, but I don’t think so. It’s not a very commercial story, and we’d have been going down the road of making a $20 million live-action movie, and we’d have been forced to reinvent it with elements that would make it seem like every other Philip K. Dick adaptation, and I didn’t want to do that. Low-budget animation ended up the right place to tell this story, but that’s just the economics. Honestly, as a filmmaker, I always visualized it animated. I always saw it with this look. The software has come a ways since Waking Life, and I had in mind a different design altogether, a very consistent graphic-novel look to the whole movie, unlike Waking Life, in which [the animation style] changes. I knew [the animation] would be beneficial when it came to the scramble suit, but on the deepest level, I felt [the animation style] would work because it kind of forces your brain into this space where you are processing [the visuals] both as reality and as something else. I thought that the mind fuck [the animation] is putting on the viewer, whatever that is, would especially work for this story, where the hemispheres of Bob Arctor’s brain are competing. Arctor’s reality is shifting, it’s not consistent, and I thought that this animation puts the viewer in that state. But again, it wasn’t some super-intellectual thing.
When you started on this film, were there specific things in the production you decided to do differently than Waking Life, based on what you learned about animation by doing that film?
Waking Life and this, they’re different. Waking Life, I had two handheld cameras, shot it doc style with no real art direction or design, and had no moving camera outside of the handheld. I wanted to make a handheld animated movie in the style of doc realism. This one was the opposite. It was all Steadicam — typical moviemaking, very much color-coordinated, and very much lit. Waking Life, we hardly lit anything; we just wanted to get enough of an image for the animators [to work with]. This was much more sculpted, there was more lighting for atmosphere and mood. We were trying to have the animators take their cues from what was on the film. We shot 24P so we could move quicker, but it was much more of a regular shoot than Waking Life, where one day we’d shoot 24 pages in a day. Still, our production schedule was 25 days and we finished in 23. The actors worked real hard, and we had a lot of rehearsal time. As far as the performances go, I did something here I really hadn’t done before. I’ve always gone for a certain realism, but in this one I kind of tweaked it up a bit in both the casting and the feel of the movie. I thought the performances, like Rory Cochrane’s and Woody Harrelson’s, would work better if they were a little bit more stylized, you know? I wanted to go a little bit more towards the extremes, which I thought would be more fun to watch and would tell the story better. But it’s not my natural inclination.
Did your actors have much knowledge of Dick’s work before they joined the project? Was Woody Harrelson, for example, a fan?
I don’t think he [knew Dick’s work], actually, but he liked the script. Winona, her dad knew Philip K. Dick. She had letters from him, and she brought a lot of knowledge to the table. Keanu is a total workhorse who did tons of research. He and I would always refer to the book and Dick’s letters. I would say Woody and Rory didn’t overthink it too much. Downey definitely has to dig in on an intellectual level, as does Keanu, but Winona probably had the most knowledge.
As someone who is seemingly always bouncing back and forth between bigger studio films and smaller pieces, are you someone with a lot of projects in development, a lot of projects like A Scanner Darkly you are trying to get made at any given time? Or do you push one project until you make it?
At any time I’m sitting here with quite a few projects, and I’d say, for the most part, they are lower-budget things like Scanner. I just shot Fast Food Nation, which is another lower-budget, difficult-to-tell character piece. It’s my era of very difficult adaptations. [Fast Food Nation author] Eric Schlosser, we wrote the script together over several years. I met with him, said I love the book, and he mentioned a character-based thing where these issues play out, and, well, that’s what I do, and we started rocking and rolling from there.
Did the popularity and recognition of Fast Food Nation (the book) let you, in kind of a stealth way, do a movie about your traditional themes and character studies, or do you deal as much with the politics and health issues as the book does?
The film is based on the atmosphere of the book, and I think it probably helps if you’ve read the book [before you see the movie], so you know these [food industry practices] to be factual. But the movie itself is not throwing out facts or figures or any of that; it’s just showing people working, doing what’s best for them. I’ve been working on this for a long time. For years I wanted to do a workplace comedy, like one about a guy who worked on a car line. I was getting depressed that Hollywood doesn’t think that people want to pay to watch someone work, even though there’s a history of workplace comedies. Then I thought, Maybe TV, HBO — that’s a good place to do this show. I did an HBO pilot, a comedy, but real, called $5.15/Hr. that was just about people working. I really liked it, but the people at HBO thought it was very sad and depressing, the idea of people working for minimum wage, and they didn’t pick it up, which, if I look back, I’m happy about, because I immediately segued into Scanner. So when the time came, I put all my feelings and energies of that [earlier minimum-wage] world into Fast Food Nation. You can’t force these things. If you keep at it you get your stories told one way or another. I’m just feeling lucky that I’ve been at it long enough to enjoy the cycle back. The years go by, and you do get a chance at something, just not when you thought you’d get it. Like a lot of things in life, it hits you when you’re ready, not when you think you’re ready.