A Scanner Darkly is not only sci-fi writer Philip K. Dick's masterwork on drug abuse; it is among the most important works of fiction ever published on the subject. Absurdist, paranoid, hilarious, disorienting, suffocating, dark, and ultimately profoundly moving, the novel draws directly on Dick's personal, and extensive, experience with substance addiction to paint an excruciating picture of lives lived with irreparable neurocognitive defects. This summer, Richard Linklater's adaptation (which employs the same interpolated rotoscoping that the director utilized in 2001's Waking Life) will become the eighth film based on one of Dick's novels. Despite its technical audacity, the film's focus is on human interaction, rather than science fiction: Instead of blinding with futurism, it slowly ushers audiences into a shadowy reality shot through with occasional shafts of surrealism. The result is one of the most essential movies of the summer. Luke Crisell talks to three of its stars: Keanu Reeves, Woody Harrelson, and Robert Downey Jr.
Luke Crisell: Had you guys read the book before you starting making the film?
Keanu Reeves: I hadn't read A Scanner Darkly before I met Richard [Linklater] but I'd read some Philip K. Dick. I'd read Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldridge and one collection of short stories. How 'bout you, Woody?
Woody Harrelson: I didn't never read that book until we'd started workin' on it.
Robert Downey Jr.: My answer is a flat no.
LC: Did you read it once you started filming?
RD: No, but Keanu did and I figured that was good enough, so I just stood next to him and acted like I had.
LC: What drew you all to the film?
RD: Well, this is kind of weird, but I was in an adult DVD store and there was one particular feisty film called School of Cock. And that lead me back to School of Rock, and then I went back from there. And then when I saw Richard's cock… [All laugh] No, I think he's probably one of the premier directors and - wouldn't you say so guys? - process-wise, didn't we take this thing and build it into something else?
WH: He really made it fun. I've never seen anyone more laid back.
KR: He had a quiet, firm hand, I thought. But he really wasn't laconic, was he? He was like, 'Do it again guys.' And 'What do you think about this?' Richard really set up an environment where we could work on the first script. He really wanted to change some of the vernacular of the book. With all of us sitting in the room, and with his guidance, I think that happened.
LC: Did you know that Dick's original editor told him to set Scanner in 1994 but he used the language of the '70s as a subtle kind of 'fuck you' to the editor, who wanted a more sci-fi version?
KR: I think it's kind of cool that [the film] matches that same rhythm as the creation of the novel. Shit. I like that.
LC: Do you think that the film is anti-drugs?
RD: I know there was a lotta casualties and some of those fell pretty close to Dick's periphery. But there's such a negative connotation to saying that something is a pro or anti-drug movie. It's like: what would [Ralph Waldo] Emerson say? He'd say, 'Well, I can tell you everything else about that. If you tell this, this, or that position.'
WH: Oh my God. Hey, Bobby baby, when is your birthday, dace?
RD: That would be today.
WH: Today! Oh, happy birthday, man. I wish I could be there.
RD: Yeah, me too. Where are you?
RD: Where are you Reeves?
KR: I'm in Los Angeles.
RD: Are you comin'?
KR: I'm gonna try.
RD: Trying is dying.
KR: Oh my God.
RD: It's mandatory dancing with cocktail attire!
RD: Don't you wanna shake loose some of those dingy spirits?!
KR: Oh my God, do I ever.
RD: Well, come on, dude. Hey, I want to say something. I'm sitting outside on Sunset at the Coffee Bean & Tea Leaf, right? And this kid took off his apron and came out from behind the counter and said, 'Bro, Scanner Darkly, that's the movie that my people are waiting for.' And there's probably a million guys like him in every state. They're kinda cool, they're educated, they're culpable, and accountable, and some of them are gainfully employed, and it really excited me to actually be able to meet one of these guys, because that's what I think is appropriate and cool about this picture: There's something a little underground about it but it's going to, I believe, have a mass appeal. And hopefully its audience has already found it.
LC: Where do you think that appeal comes from?
WH: I think there is a massive Philip K. Dick following, and I think that there's a lotta people who love Rick Linklater. You know, I've talked to a lot of people who just say the combination of the two... they just can't believe it. Not to mention the actors. [All laugh]
RD: And while, Harrelson, I didn't see our names, at least not this decade, listed as the 50 people who can actually open a movie, I did see Reeves's name there - so that's pretty significant, too. [All laugh]
And on my birthday I want to tell you: "Give me that! Give that to me! I don't hate you because you're cute! Just give it to me!"
KR: I love you because you're talented.
RD: Oh. I love you because you are talented and kind and you're coming to my birthday party tonight, whether or not you know it yet.
KR: I think there's an expectation that this film is going to have things in it that we can think about, relate to, agree with. Governments, everything you do being watched, big business, drop-outs, alternative lifestyles, drugs, technology, friendships - all of these things, I think, are sign posts that people might feel exist in this material. Hopefully this makes a piece that will be provocative and interesting and entertaining.
RD: Yeah, it's like the accessible underground. The underground used to mean you had to find it - it was kind of a 12 Monkeys thing. Now all that stuff is at your fingertips. There's a whole other generation - that we're not, but we know 'em, you know? It's just funny to me that I can't think of a movie that is placed in the present day, that has an inkling of exactly what's going on socially and politically, that doesn't have to do with some recent thing. If I read one more script and on page two it says, "BAGHDAD!..." I'm like, "Fuck Baghdad!" [WH laughs] No offense, but what filmmaker wants to go comment on the most obvious thing that gets them that feather in their cap of, "It's going down in Baghdad'"? It's like, "Yeah, whatever."
LC: Scanner was written 30 years ago, but it's still so relevant now. That's rather worrisome, don't you think?
RD: Well, that's what synchronicity does, you know' And we all know this, fellas, you kinda wind up doing movies you're quote - unquote "supposed to do," even though there's a lot of choosing and filtering and apparent decision-making, but then at some point along the way you realize why you were there. Why were the Dick movies done in the order they were? If you think about it, they were done in the order of anticipating what their relevance was. It never ceases to blow my mind how it's like, no time but this time, this year, this summer, would have really made sense for this film.
I've seen times when Woody basically was in full command and had his choice of whatever [movies] he was going to do. And after a big success, Woody, your nomination for Flynt, I saw you go a different way, and you did things that were more exploratory and things that weren't the obvious choice. And obviously Reeves, this was a really bold thing for you to do. And it was a real endorsement of that kind of path. But the fact that the three of us ended up down there [filming in Texas]... this was by no means a party. Usually you feel a little depleted when all the pistons aren't firing on the integrity of something.
WH: It really felt alive and exciting and stimulating at all times. It was never boring.
LC: I love the moment with the bicycle, when you're looking for the gear.
KR: What was your line Downey? "I've been reeked by those lizards, those albino shape shifters"?
RD: Yeah, I should have kept my mouth shut on that one.
KR: Oh, dude, it's quotable forever.
RD: That's something that could lead to a federal inquiry! Not that they need to search to find weirdo things about me.
WH: That was definitely one of my favorite scenes. And I remember that you had some major speech in there. After you went through it one time, me and Winona [Ryder, who plays Donna] just looked at each other and said, 'I'm so glad I got to witness that.' Like, it was incredible, man. You were firin' on all pistons that day, for sure.
RD: Yep. I try to have that happen once every thousand days.
LC: The film seemed to have a real positive energy, like it was backed by a strong interaction and friendship. Is that how it worked?
RD: Yeah, I think it did. I mean, look, I've been on both sides; there's always less pressure when you're not number one on the call sheet, so to speak, and yet there was this kind of thing that I saw from the first day I went to the Chateau [Marmont, where script-reading took place] and Keanu and Rick were kinda already up to speed. It was this kind of table tennis match between Richard and Keanu, around which Rory [Cochrane, who plays Freck] and I and Harrelson, in a big way, worked. Harrelson, you just came out of the gate fucking on fire, and Winona just kind of fit in, and we found our way into this bigger perspective of what this story's about.
LC: Keanu, I wanted to ask you what it was like playing a character with a split personality.
KR: I would say "splitting."
LC: Ok, fine. Well, it doesn't seem like much fun sometimes; it looks pretty intense.
KR: Yeah, it is. But I worked a lot with Richard and the book. I tried to really follow what [Bob] Arctor [Reeves's character] was doing, for myself personally, and then working with the novel. I enjoyed getting lost in it, too.
RD: You did, didn't you? And guess who's on my speaker phone right now? It's the very man who encouraged you to be splitting. We've got Richard Linklater on the line right here.
KR: No way!
Richard Linklater: Hello! Are you in the middle of an interview?
RD: Dude, you completely ruined it. Just when he was being asked the question about the lead character and playing that double thing, you gotta call up? Do you have anything to add?
RL: No, I don't bullshit. [All laugh]
KR: Never mind the man behind the curtain.
RD: We gotta pull one thing outta him.
RL: [Starts to speak]
RD: Listen, don't talk when l am talking, Richard. A question has just been put about Arctor and the split nature of the character that you and Keanu...
RD: Don't laugh when I'm talking either!... That you and Keanu worked out.
RL: Well, Keanu, we were trying to drive you insane, and I think we succeeded in our endeavor.
KR: Oh really?
RL: You tell me... Anyway guys, looks like we have a birthday going on?
RD: Are you coming to my birthday tonight? See, he's coming.
RL: We've all made it another year. Congratulations all around.
RD: Thank you very much
LC: One quick question, Richard.
RD: Oh look, god, now you've got this guy started. His nipples are hard.
LC: How was it to work with this cast?
RD: Hey, listen Richard, and this is me, and Woody, and Keanu on the line so, you know, really scrum it up.
RL: You three all in the same anything at the same time...? It's amazing. [All laugh]
WH: How you doin', Rick?
RL: I'm doing fine. Life is good. Excellent.
RD: Okay, Rick, I'll call you back in a minute. That's what we call a chaotic segue. [All laugh]
LC: What were your reactions to the renderings of the scenes?
KR: I just saw some early cells, and I liked them a lot... Waking Life was a little abstract.
LC: The backgrounds are really detailed, more so than in Waking Life.
KR: Yeah, background, foreground, faces, figures. There's an impulse for representation I really liked. I thought with that you might have a stronger emotional connection with what you're watching, so I was excited about that. They look cool.
RD: I thought I looked a little more steroidal than I had originally desired.
WH: Robert lookin' steroidal seemed highly appropriate. [All laugh]
WH: Keanu looked the most handsome; that's understandable.
RD: Son of a bitch. It's like just in case his cheeks weren't chiseled enough, they actually look even darker.
KR: How can they airbrush a cartoon?
RD: Hmmm, was that in your contract?... I wanna bang Winona's cell.
KR: Yeah. [All laugh]
WH: You really kill me, man.
LC: This was one of the most autobiographical of Dick's novels. Did that affect the process of making this film?
KR: [The autobiographical aspect] was really important to Richard, and to Philip's daughters, and to Philip's work: Richard wanted to communicate that. I think it was really important to Richard to get that personal feeling, and it became Richard's. And that, in turn, became ours. It is coming from real events, from someone's real feelings. Help me, guys!
WH: I thought he articulated that pretty well.
RD: Yeah, he did. Let's just let that lay.
WH: No, you go on ahead, mister.
RD: I would simply like to add, in 20,000 words or less, that there's always something so prophetic about the great science writers. And I think that what separates Dick from the pack, not to take anything away from the Asimov's and the Bradbury's and the like, was that he was like us. I could relate to idea Bradbury the same way I could relate to J.D. Salinger, but they seem a lot more isolated. Whereas Philip seems like somebody you could touch and somebody who could talk turkey with you about what it's really like just being a guy who has this calling, because it's a very specific set of principles that you operate in. His books are really fantastic and far-reaching - the metaphors can't just be metaphors. That's why what Keanu was saying is so true. It's like, I've done other stuff where it's like, "This is really close to so-and-so's heart," and the family comes to the set, and it's really that faux respect thing, and they go, "We heard he put a frog up so-and-so's ass one time, could we just shoot that? We probably won't use it." And this wasn't that kind of party.
KR: His characters, and the fears that are expressed in Philip K. Dick's works, seem very similar to a lot of us, which I recognize [in the same way that] I have a kinship to certain Russian literature, you know, this kind of feeling, these same emotions, these same thoughts, they're recognizable. And no matter what the context, however fantastical, I can put myself in it. I guess it's just identifiable. That's it.
RD: What ya got, London?
WH: Oh, I'm just on listening mode at this point. I think you guys are beautiful and I'm very happy to be a part of this film, I gotta say, with you.
LC: I appreciate all your time. Woody I know it's late there, and Robert it's your birthday, and Keanu, well I don't know...
WH: Reeves, you've gotta head over to Robert's party, man.
RD: He's probably not gonna show. I want you to know that since we started this whole shebang, I've been right in the middle of a difficult stool.
WH: Wow. [Laughs]
RD: Ah, whatever. It was a breaching dolphin. It pulled back in like a turtle head. Now it's hangin' like a fruit bat. [All laugh]
LC: I think that's a great place to end the conversation.
WH: Great I'm actually a little hungry now.