The CulturePulp Q&A: Richard Linklater
by Mike Russell
As promised to readers of my comic in the July 2 Boston Globe and July 16 Oregonian: Here's a slightly edited transcript of my full 45-minute phone conversation with director Richard Linklater…
Remember the dizzying rotoscoped animation in Richard Linklater's “Waking Life”? Well, Linklater (who also directed "Slacker," "Dazed and Confused," "Before Sunrise" and "School of Rock") revisits that unsettling filmmaking technique for “A Scanner Darkly” -- his faithful adaptation of Philip K. Dick’s 1977 sci-fi novel.
Dick (who died in 1982) was a brilliant, troubled writer, plagued by mystical visions and paranoia. His stories were almost always obsessed with fractured reality. But Hollywood loves turning his trippy concepts into big-budget entertainment. “Blade Runner,” “Total Recall” and “Minority Report” (and, alas, "Paycheck") were all loosely adapted from his stories. (The Boston Globe's Web site has a nice slide show on "Philip K. Dick movies" right here.)
“Scanner Darkly” is Dick's most personal novel, and Linklater shows unusual fidelity to the page with his film adaptation. The book’s based partly on Dick’s sad, funny experiences living in a house full of drug users in the early ’70s. Layered over this is a genre story about a narc named Bob (Keanu Reeves in the movie) who's addicted to the overpowering "Substance D." Bob slowly loses his mind after he’s assigned to surveil himself.
I talked with Linklater for 45 minutes about Dick’s life and work; the late author's family; "Scanner"'s more muted use of "Waking Life"'s pioneering animation technique; why the theatrical cut of "Blade Runner" is superior; and much more.
MIKE RUSSELL: So this interview is actually for a comic strip.
RICHARD LINKLATER: Okay. Should I answer in a comic way?
Q. That actually ties into one of my questions: When you were making "Scanner Darkly," did you have to sit down with the actors and say, "We're making a movie that looks like a cartoon, but don't act like you're in one?"
A. Yeah. You gotta play it real, because that's all you have in front of you. And in our case, the animation is really just going over -- what you see is what you get. You can't embellish much. You're pretty much stuck with what the actors do.
Q. I saw the movie a couple of days ago. And I must say: Robert Downey, Jr. [who plays Barris, the logorrheic conspiracy theorist] has a bizarre gift for speaking paranoid dialogue.
A. He's really one of the few actors who could pull that off. He said he had more dialogue in this movie than in the last five or six things he's done combined. It was good for him. Got him in shape.
Q. I just listened to an audio file of Dick reading a passage from "Scanner Darkly" --
A. The suicide scene?
Q. Yeah. The overdose-of-Freck sequence.
A. Yeah, that's on the Internet. I never could find a good original of that. It's a crappy old recording. I was hoping to use that in the movie. But it was just too poorly recorded.
Q. What's interesting to me about that recording is that Dick is cracking up throughout the reading.
A. Philip K. Dick is hilarious. The great thing about making this movie was that, as much as possible, I got to know him. I got to know his daughters. I read a lot about him.
But no one talks about how damn funny he was. And smart. Kind of like Downey's character -- he could spin a story and keep adding these elaborate, intelligent pathways to whatever he was talking about. I think he's an incredibly comedic writer. He creates absurdist situations with a feel for people. That was a big deal for me -- to bring out the humor.
Q. I read "The Divine Invasion," which he wrote when he was starting to personally sort of spin off [into paranoia and mystical experiences]…
A. Yeah. There are definitely some dark areas in there. His paranoia was real.
Q. But I recall a character in that book sort of comedically acknowledging that his reality was fractured.
A. Dick had a sense of self-irony. He was kind of absurdly aware of his condition. Not just his condition, but the human condition.
That's how I always talked about the movie. I said, "It's a lot like life -- really funny, and then darker and sadder sometimes that you could have ever imagined."
I think Philip K. Dick knew when he was spinning out. There's a famous incident: He was a real foe of the establishment -- he thought his phones were tapped and his apartment had been broken into, and that the government was pretty much out to get him. He was pretty sure of that. He just figured he was a major target.
And the Freedom of Information Act allowed people to get their own FBI files. And he thought for sure it would be this thick thing about how they'd been after him all these years. He was ready for the big awakening -- finally, the proof of everything!
And he got the file, and it was kind of empty. It's similar to Freck and his [jar of] bugs -- you get wound up, and there's nothing there. He never registered with the authorities -- he was just some crackpot sci-fi writer. His little world, his thinking, had never broken through to them.
Q. Why has a man so eccentric -- and so marginal in life -- inspired so many movies of his work? Movies of his books have a combined box-office take of something like $700 million at this point.
A. He was alive when "Blade Runner" was made. He kind of knew. People were catchin' up to him for a long time, and he was certainly big in other countries. I think there's a certain ghetto with sci-fi where you're not taken as seriously as a writer. People sort of judge you real easily that way. It's like Poe in his day -- "He wrote thrillers." Now, he's a real writer.
In Japan, they consider Dick a top American writer. And nowadays, it's pretty obvious.
As far as adaptability goes: He has fantastic core ideas. "Scanner"'s only the second novel made into a movie -- "Blade Runner" being the other. All the rest have been from short stories. And these stories are often just one incredible idea: "PreCogs can arrest people before they commit the crimes." That's a great idea for a movie. "Total Recall," all these movies -- great, singular ideas, one after the other. And Hollywood's good at nabbin' a good idea whenever they can find it.
Q. And yours is really the first adaptation of an entire Dick novel. "Blade Runner" adapted -- what? -- 10 pages of "Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?"
A. Yeah. And they kind of ran with it. But I think Philip K. Dick liked what they were doing -- he understood that adaption process. The gist of it was there.
But I wanted to be faithful. I think he's a significant enough writer that someone should adapt the whole story, not just take an idea.
And you could just take "Scanner Darkly"'s idea: Narc gets addicted, and the Philip K. Dick twist is that -- because of the scramble suit and his hidden identity -- he's assigned to surveil himself. but his brain is split and he's forgetting who he is. That gets you into the Philip K. Dick area of "Who am I?" "What is reality?"
Those ideas could probably have been spun into a thriller -- something a little more jacked-up Hollywood. But I didn't want to do that. I wanted to tell the story the way I thought he saw it -- which was about people hanging out. I could tell it was very personal to him.
And I wanted to keep the humor. I'd always been sort of bummed that so many of his films lose a lot of that humor. And now I see why. Movies are mostly just finely tuned short stories. You hit a tone -- you take the viewer on a ride, but you don't change tones completely. It just kind of goes against simple storytelling, I guess.
But to actually be true to Philip K. Dick's work, you have to be…. I saw this early on: "We're going to be a full-blown comedy, on the one hand, but we're also going to be a full-blown tragedy. Those are gonna be right on top of each other." Tonally, it's a difficult thing to undertake. It throws you a little bit. But that's what you have to do to be true to the work -- and true to his view of the world.
Q. The scenes with the guys hanging out in the tweaker house are very much of a piece with "Slacker." We're getting right back to your origins.
A. [laughs] I always related to that. When I read that, I was like, "This is real." I think I had these guys as roommates, you know? Sitting around, bullshitting, and not even sure how they got there.
Q. Though I expect you spent less time obsessing over the number of gears in a bicycle [a scene in the movie].
A. Well, in the real world, that's as important as anything. Isn't it? At that moment?
Q. Well, it's a marvelous piece of writing. I've been witness to that conversation where people are getting collectively worked up over nothing. That's hard to capture in a script.
A. Well, it's a hard thing to get in a movie. You've got a committee of people saying, "Well, it doesn't move the story forward. We can kind of lose that. It doesn't tell us anything." So I was just lucky that our budget was low enough that I had creative freedom. That's what the movie's all about.
Q. And so many movies about addiction play up the glamour or the bathos. They never get into the absurdity or the silliness.
A. Well, it's communal -- you have a few people that you're using with, and they become your surrogate family, except it's a family you chose. There's this exuberant, communal upside. And of course that's missing, because no one ever wants to hint that any of that could actually be fun in any way.
But if you show that, it's more than compensated for by the fact that…. It's sort of like a crime movie. In "Goodfellas," you see them at the top of their game -- but then it ends. And it's the same thing in the drug world: You catch a groove for a second and have fun. But the price you're going to pay for that little bit of fun is enormous. It's everything. So you feel kind of sad for the frailty of the people who wanted that fun and were willing to risk everything for it.
And it goes from fun to dark paranoid death really fast. That can happen in one day.
Q. At the end of the movie, you include Dick's dedication, from the novel, that lists his friends lost to drug use. Why was that important to put in the movie?
A. He wrote more. I left the same list of people and shortened the dedication, because it was pretty lengthy. But when you read the book, you realize, just as I suspected, "Oh -- these were real people." He's on the list. One of his wives is on the list -- the mother of one of his daughters. For all of us working on the movie, that was an issue: "Are we gonna put that in? Does that have anything to do with the movie?" But you know, it's a tribute. Everyone involved in the movie has their own list. Doesn't everybody have their own list?
Q. It's also a nice nod to Philip K. Dick's family -- who I undertand keep a pretty careful watch over his estate. Was approaching them to let you adapt this novel tricky at all?
A. It wasn't tricky. They weren't just, "Do whatever you want with our dad's work." They were like, "If it wasn't for drugs, our dad would still be writing." They wanted to see that I wouldn't be cavalier with that.
I think they really loved the fact that I still had that dedication. It showed that it was still seen in tragic terms. I think they wanted some assurances that I was on the right wavelength with that.
Q. I read that several real-world Philip K. Dick artifacts appear as "Easter eggs" throughout the film. True?
A. [laughs] Yeah, they were very generous that way. I got the ultimate anointment -- Philip K. Dick's own copy, from his own library, of "Scanner Darkly." The original paperback they gave to me, with his initials in the front. I was sitting there going, "Holy shit!"
Q. What did you do with it?
A. Well, it's wrapped in plastic in a special place.
Q. It's bagged and boarded.
A. [laughs] I don't think he'd be too precious about it.
Q. The story's about people who disappear into illogic and lose control of their language. Maybe you don't even care about this, but I have to ask: How do you film that and keep the audience interested without causing them to tune out like they would when listening to a tweaker ranting?
A. I've had some experience with this before…. [laughs] In real life, if a person is ranting in your living room, it's amusing for two minutes and then you're like, "Would that person get out of here, please?" or "Are they dangerous?" You have to think of real-world consequences.
In a movie, though, you know, you're sittin' in your seat in a dark world, and it's a safe distance. And I think obsession is kind of fun to watch. I kind of count on that a lot -- people can watch obsessed people [in movies].
Q. It's like they're being obsessed for the rest of us. By the way, I wasn't trying to suggest that "Scanner Darkly" made me tune out.
A. Oh, I think a lot of people WILL tune out. [laughs] But they would never tune in in the first place. But that's obviously not who this film was made for. They're the people who call the cops when that person starts talking to them.
Q. You've said you felt you were "channeling" Dick while making the film.
A. I don't think "channeling." That's not fair. Spielberg said he was "channeling" Kubrick when he made "
I thought, in some spiritual way, that I had his permission. I had his chuckling permission to make this as a movie. [laughs] But it's important to delude ourselves. It's important to become an obsessed weirdo. You have to meet the energy of the book in a similar way.
Q. Any odd magic moments on-set?
A. I have those all the time. I'm really hard-pressed for any one incident of, like, "Ooooo!" I kind of felt it in an all-pervasive way. I know that's a boring answer, but it's kind of true. I just felt it with the cast when they came in, rehearsals, everything -- it just felt like we were on the right wavelength, you know? We were just in this perfect place where we didn't totally get everything that we were doing, but were excited by it.
Q. Have you read Robert Crumb's fantastic comic adaptation of Dick's mystical experiences?
A. Yes. I have that.
Q. I would love to see a short film of that.
A. Someone could make it. There it is. All laid out, right there.
Q. You've described "Scanner Darkly" the novel as Dick's "love letter" to his lost friends. But that love letter is a story of paranoia, to some degree.
A. Well, let's not forget: All the paranoia in the movie is justified. Their house is bugged. There is an undercover agent living amongst them -- he just happens to be our hero.
Even when Downey says, "Might I suggest that the tow truck was bugged -- thus allowing an operative time to come back and dismantle…" -- you could look at it that he's right.
Q. You could argue that the "Bob Arctor" half of Keanu Reeves' character did do the damage to his car that required them to have to call a tow truck.
A. Yeah. Because it gets them out of the house. If you go back and start piecing it all together, he's not the one tweaked out. I mean, he is a little bit -- but Woody Harrelson's tweaked more. It all pieces together in some fascinating retroactive ways.
So I think the "love letter," to be true to this world, could only end this way. You've gotta be honest.
Q. So it's a love letter in the form of a lament.
A. Yeah. There's a little requiem, you know?
Q. Why did you use interpolated rotoscoping on this in a way that was so much more muted than "Waking Life"? I was frankly surprised by how muted the overall look and tone of the film was.
A. Yeah, you could do some much more interpretive or out-there kind of stuff [with this animation technique] -- stylistic and otherwise. I don't know. I just wanted it to look kind of like a graphic novel come to life -- consistent design, pretty straightforward. I wanted you to go into the story and not be consistently pulled out of it by artistic flourishes.
You know, my previous foray into this, "Waking Life," the movie was so much about itself as a meta-cinematic undertaking [laughs] that it was okay to be changing styles and drawing attention to how you were experiencing something being created -- and you were part of it, in some way. But this was a totally different vibe. I was trying to engage your brain and your emotions, not pull you out of the story.
Q. In "Waking Life," the style kept shifting so much, I never forgot it was animated. I actually sort of forgot "Scanner" was animated while I was watching it.
A. Hopefully you would.
Q. You delivered a monologue at the end of "Waking Life" about Dick and his … complicated mystical/paranoid relationship with the Book of Acts. It leads me to wonder why you didn't adapt "Flow My Tears the Policeman Said" [the Dick novel Linklater references in that monologue].
A. Ah, that would have been a little too obvious. I feel closer, in a way, to "Scanner."
Q. Would "Flow My Tears the Policeman Said" even make a decent film?
A. I don't know. It probably could. I like it, but I wasn't thinking of it in cinematic terms.
Q. Some people have argued that your speech in "Waking Life" is, in fact, the key to understanding the movie. If Wiley Wiggins' character says "Yes" -- essentially admitting he's dead -- he floats up to Heaven.
A. [laughs] Or wakes up. Well, I guess it sort of reads that way, but I don't think it's some singular Rosetta Stone type of thing, you know? No more than anything else in the movie. The placement of my scene near the end probably gives it a certain gravity.
Q. William Gibson has talked about how all science fiction that picks a specific year in which it takes place has a "sell-by date." "Scanner Darkly," the novel, takes place in 1994.
A. Yeah. '92 or '94. Something like that.
Q. Now, you purposely made that vague in the film, correct? And you played up the surveillance aspects of the novel?
A. Well, adapting is choosing. The stuff I dropped [from the book] was '70s slang and stuff that seemed to put it in the '70s.
Q. Sure. Otherwise you end up with a Heston sci-fi movie.
A. You can't really imagine the future, and I didn't want to try too much. If the "scramble suit" [the morphing camouflage suit in the movie and novel] got invented tomorrow, that's our future. We'll just say, vaguely, seven years from now. But I didn't want to put a date on it, because that date does eventually come. We'll be at 2019 before we know it, looking at "Blade Runner." Is that 2019?
Q. Yeah. It's November 2019.
A. So we'll be there someday going, "Here's what happened! Here's what didn't!" Same with "2001." Where this will be just perpetually out of reach in front of us.
Q. Well, we're almost to the scramble suit. They're developing projecting fabric now.
A. Right. Whether it would get that application [that it has in "Scanner"]…. [laughs] It's vaguely absurdist.
Q. By the way, if I can fanboy out for a second: Whenever I saw one of those scramble suits in the movie, I thought, "Man, that looks like it was hard to animate."
A. Oooh, yeah. It was. It was. In live-action, I think that would have stood out. At some point, that would have just looked cheesy. If not now, then three years from now.
Q. I'd love to hear a little about your personal relationship with Dick's writing. When did you first read his stuff? Have you ever tried to work your way through the "Exegesis"?
A. No. I have it, and I've just read parts. But I'm not hard-core like that. I kind of came to Dick a little bit later; I wish I could say, "Oh, yeah -- I've been reading him since I was a teenager." I mean, I'd heard about him, but sci-fi's not my biggest genre. I read some as a teenager, and I wrote sci-fi stuff as a youngster. But into my 20s, I was kind of on another wavelength. So I missed him, to a large degree, early on.
But somewhere around '85 or '86 -- mid-twenties-ish -- the girl I was dating was talking about "VALIS" and how much she liked it, and got me a copy. So I read it, and that got me thinking about his mind, because that book is out there.
But I haven't read the entire library. And I've always seen him from a film perspective, too -- I can't help but read his work and think, "Film? No film?"
Q. Did [frequent Linklater performer] Wiley Wiggins get you turned on to some of Dick's stuff?
A. Yeah. For a while, I was thinking of [adapting] "Ubik." I like that one a lot. That would make a good movie.
Q. There's a really trippy story in that.
A. And that's a fun adaptation, too. How do you take that '60s notion of cybergenics and update that to the digital age? That got me goin'. I was really thinking about that, and working on it on my own.
But the rights to that weren't available. And I remember, I was just talking to Wiley, and he mentioned "Scanner," and I said, "Yeah, I need to go back and read that again. I remember liking it, but…."
And post-9/11, I read it and saw it in a whole new way. The way power works, and surveillance, and government control -- all those elements make it more relevant than ever. What was paranoid then is our reality.
Q. Yeah, what's fascinating, from what I've read, is that Dick actually wanted to write a book about his real-world experiences in that drug house -- and then he added a lot of the sci-fi references to keep it within his genre. And it's odd that we're sort of caught up with those genre elements.
A. Yeah. The drug thing's never gone away, but his genre stuff -- he was so right-on. What was a crackpot theory from the margin right then is our reality now.
Q. Your stock response to questions about why you were making a science-fiction film was that "we're living in science fiction."
A. And it's not the fun sci-fi from when we were kids. We're not on Jupiter. It's sort of the darker sci-fi. And that's what Dick saw -- government and corporate control, used to condition you. To alienate you from others and yourself. I think he thought pretty damn clearly.
Q. After yours, which film is the most effective (if not faithful) adaptation of a Dick novel?
A. Well, I'm not even claiming a position. Every film can't help but reflect the personality of the filmmaker. And so many don't want to be faithful -- that's not what they're aiming to do. So I don't want to seem like we're any holier than anyone else.
My opinions on previous Philip K. Dick adaptations are probably really similar to everybody else's. I think we all rally around "Blade Runner." There's no obscure Dick film that everybody doesn't like where I go, "Oh! That's a masterpiece!" And I haven't seen all of them. Even making this movie, I didn't go back and reference or re-watch any of them.
I like the original cut of "Blade Runner" more than the Director's Cut -- the so-called "Director's Cut." I liked the narrator. I hear there's a new DVD coming out with three different versions, and I'm waiting for that, because the original cut has become unavailable.
It's more in the film noir tradition to have a narrated voice -- and you kind of need it to pull the elements together. It's not cheesy or bad in any way. It's classic. But I saw it in the theater at the time, too, so maybe it's just special to me.
Q. And apparently the "Director's Cut" wasn't the director's cut, because now there's going to be this "ultimate cut."
A. You know, that's what bugs me about these things. Like, Ridley Scott -- he has a stature and a position where I can't believe that film we saw back in '82 wasn't his film. It's like a James Cameron "director's cut": You're the most powerful director in the world, and the movie I'm watching in the theater isn't the movie you wanted me to be watching? Give me a break!
Every film that I've put out there -- and I've got no power -- is the final film. No one's cutting things behind my back, no one's making me change anything. There won't be a "Director's Cut" of any of my films. The "Director's Cut" is the one you're watching. It becomes a marketing tool to sell more DVDs. I have mixed feelings about it.
Q. Are we going to see a Criterion edition of "Before Sunrise" and "Before Sunset"?
A. Ah -- those two together? I hope so. Yeah, there's talk of it. I don't know if it'll be Criterion, but it's out there somewhere.
Q. I would love to hear your take on how mentally ill Philip K. Dick actually was. He seems to have had some perspective on what was happening to him. From talking to his family, have you learned anything about how far gone he was, or wasn't?
A. Mm -- not really. There are certain areas I don't poke around in too much, but I don't think he was mentally ill. I think drugs had a negative effect, certainly. But I don't view him as that guy.
Q. Is your relationship with him more thematic than personal?
A. Yeah. It's more about the work. And there are personal traits about him that I've heard about and always want to hold on to -- what kind of guy he was. I hear things like "loyal friend" and "funny."
He struggled. He never had it easy. But he persevered, and he really left so much.
When he first passed away, the guy was 32 years older than me -- I was in my early 20s, and I thought, "Well, he was 53, and that's pretty old." Now, at 45, I'm going, "Damn he died young! Damn!" I feel the loss, now, that I didn't feel back then, as a person with so much of his work to catch up with.
It's a loss not only of the work, but of the family. His daughters have kids, and he didn't see that. That just makes me really sad.
Q. And on a selfish level, he had at least another decade of good work in him.
A. Oh, yeah. That mind was never gonna quiet down.
Q. When you're in your 20s, you tend to think, "My creative peak is now!" Then you get older and go, "Oh. Now I'm informed by wisdom."
A. Yeah. Dammit! And the politics of the time -- he would have really gone somewhere with the Reagan '80s and the current situation. He'd have a lot to say. So we've missed a lot. But he left a lot.