A Scanner Darkly
Keanu Reeves casts himself into the animated matrix of Richard Linklater's adaptation of Philip K. Dick's Scanner Darkly
by Mike Szymanski
Philip K. Dick is the mastermind behind SF film classics like Blade Runner, Minority Report, Screamers, Paycheck, Impostor and Total Recall. It wasn't until Richard Linklater directed his offbeat animated film Waking Life that he realized he could bring the cautionary novel A Scanner Darkly to the big screen, and he convinced the daughters of the author to let him do it with a cast that includes Keanu Reeves, Winona Ryder, Robert Downey Jr., Rory Cochrane and Woody Harrelson.
The stars portray a group of drug dealers and addicts who are involved with Substance D, which is highly addictive, in the not-so-distant future. Reeves portrays an undercover agent who infiltrates the drug ring and wears a Scramble Suit that hides his identity by projecting parts of other people's faces. In the story, no one is who they seem, everyone is paranoid, and nothing seems real—even though the animation looks almost real. It's a window into Dick's own drug addiction, and the end of the movie has a list of friends that the author knew whose lives were destroyed by drugs.
Reeves, Ryder, Cochrane, director Linklater and producer Tommy Pallotta spoke to Science Fiction Weekly at the Four Seasons Hotel in Beverly Hills, Calif.
Rory Cochrane, you were in Richard Linklater's Dazed and Confused as a kind of slacker, and you play one here. Were you trying to play it different?
Cochrane: I was very aware of it, I didn't want to re-create the character, but then Richard told me that he created the character for me. Of course, I knew that it was animated, and so it was fun to make bigger gestures and exaggerate certain facial expressions because of that.
What do you think this says about the drug world today?
Cochrane: It's not a positive message for drugs, no way. It's not a fluffy kids' movie. I don't think it can have lunchboxes or things like that made for this movie. At the end, it's a tragedy.
Winona Ryder, we don't get to see you in movies all that often anymore, and now you're in A Scanner Darkly, and Sex and Death 101 is now being filmed. What does it take to get you back to work?
Ryder: This guy [Linklater]. I wanted to work with him. I haven't slept yet. I came from work to do this.
Were you aware of the animation process during the filming, and did it affect your performance at all, knowing that it was going to be turned into that?
Ryder: I didn't even think about it, because in Waking Life, which is really one of my tops, one of my favorite movies of all time—I felt that the performance came through so much in that, the subtlety of it. Seeing that, I knew that this was going to be that times a thousand, but if I had thought about it, it would've gotten to me. So I didn't think about it at all.
How fun was the reunion with some of these guys?
Ryder: I worked with Keanu on Dracula, of course, and hated the costumes, corsets. ... I have worked with [Robert] Downey Jr. before. He played my brother in a movie a long time ago, and so it was really great to be around these guys. I felt really safe. And Keanu helped me especially with the material. It was very challenging. ... It was really scary. ... But I was made to feel really safe, and Keanu was there for me.
Your family has a relationship with Philip K. Dick, right? Your godfather, Timothy Leary, knew him?
Ryder: Yeah, my godfather was actually roommates with him briefly. When I was really little apparently I met a lot of really interesting and great people. I wish that I could remember them, because it would be great, but at the time they were just grownups to me. My dad, as well, he was always sort of a part of the circle of the crowd that my dad and mom are in. ... I never thought that there would be an adaptation of Scanner Darkly, but I always hoped that it would be a good movie [and] that maybe I would get a chance to be in it.
When did you first read A Scanner Darkly?
Ryder: Well, I don't know how old I was ... but I knew my godfather was good friends with [Dick], and my dad actually has this jacket of his in his closet. I think that my dad was pretty close to him. He gets very misty when he talks about him.
How much of this storyline do you think [corresponds] to what's actually happening in the United States today?
Ryder: I mean, it's happening. I think that it was really weird at the time, watching the news, because there were things happening like Halliburton and all of that. To me, it's really eerie how relevant it is politically and socially, and I'm really happy to be a part of a movie like that, aside from just loving the movie as a personal story. Philip K. Dick was really, really on the money when he wrote it. It's amazing what he predicted, and to me—I'm just speaking for me—I just think that it is a terrifying time right now in this country and in the world. But I thought something really interesting was said about "the more terrifying it gets, the more people have to find humor and have to find relief." It's not like people just become sheep when it gets terrifying. That's when people step up. To have such a personal love story and identity for me, all of that within this is so rare. You don't see that in movies, and it's a great way to tell a story with a great backdrop, but a really important one too. I think that's what it's about.
Keanu Reeves, you've been attracted to Philip K. Dick's work for a long time. What did you like about this story?
Reeves: I was really attracted to the material because it has a lot to offer to the viewer, a lot of commentary. It's tossing out some commentary to the world, and so that was the grand inspiration. As a character, it's very interesting to play someone who wants to change [his] life.
What do you like about his writing?
Reeves: Well, he tells great stories, and I relate to the situations that he finds his character in. I love his writing. He is funny, wickedly funny, and he has little irony. I like the context of his scenes. These seem to be stories of, not the little guy, but people kind of in situations that all of a sudden aren't what they seem. His stories tell of fights of the individual against forces beyond their control and then being manipulated by them. He tells really good romantic stories and writes really cool women. There is a kind of flesh and blood there. People are greedy. People are angry. People are mean. People are scared. And I just relate to the worlds that he writes.
What do you think is the best screen adaptation of his books?
Reeves: It's funny, because even when they are adaptations, they're not really adaptations of his novels. They're almost more kind of like inspired by [them], because they're never really quite adapted works. I'd really say that this is the first true adaptation of a Philip K. Dick book, as a Philip K. Dick fan. I mean, there are some great movies inspired by his novels. This is the best one. [Laughs.] ... It gives you a lot of commentary and cautionary aspects to it, and so I think it relates, absolutely. I think that it's probably something that all of us, all of the cities are going to have to deal with and the idea of surveillance—the rights of the individual versus the impulse of the state.
Richard Linklater, as the director, how did you prepare the cast about being animated in the film?
Linklater: I really never talked about the animation. ... I don't think it mattered to either of you, you just played it like you would have anyway. But I think that Woody [Harrelson], Rory [Cochrane] and [Robert] Downey [Jr.] pumped it up a little bit, they used it and made it over the top.
What do you think is the best adaptation of his material?
Linklater: Well, Blade Runner is great, of course, but this is most authentic to the source material of any other Philip K. Dick movie.
How has the animation changed since you last did it?
Linklater: Obviously, this wouldn't have happened without Waking Life, and as a director you have to see how all these things can happen and see what is at your disposal. You have to have the visual design; it's 10 times harder to do, ... I do not want to have an animated film anytime soon again. ... It takes 500 hours for a minute of film. ... [But] in a Philip K. Dick story you're always asking what is the reality? You care about people, and see it, and this is the appropriate forum.
Tommy Pallotta, you're the producer on this and also worked with Richard Linklater on Waking Life. How was the animation helpful in telling this story?
Pallotta: It took 50 animators a year and a half to do it. ... [For things like] the Scramble Suit it was perfect—it was vague in description, a blur in the book, and we had to visualize what it would look like, and doing it animated gave us an elegant solution. I've seen it without animation many, many times, and it's very different. ... Maybe some of that will end up on the DVD.
The Scramble Suit had all those faces on it. Where did those come from?
Pallotta: They drew people they knew—friends, and stuff like that—but they began adding different characters from other science-fiction stories, nerdy stuff, and they would have jumped out too much if I let [it go] through.
What do you think this movie is all about now?
Pallotta: Richard and I talked a lot about it for a couple of years, and religion never came up, but it was always political. It was a post-9/11 world, the shadow of the Patriot Act, the drug wars. It's about the military industrial complex, it's about [Dick's] paranoia during the Nixon administration, which, as it turns out, is valid.
What do you think about the missing Philip K. Dick robot head?
Pallotta: That's a strange story, and it's sad. ... The Philip K. Dick robot head was made to look like him. This guy who made it had it at ComiCon answering questions in his voice ... and the creator traveled around and made it on his own money. He went through security checks ... and it disappeared somewhere. ... I'm sad for the guy who made it. ... I'm sad for the family. ... If it were my father's head, even the likeness, I would be upset. ... It does seem ironic.