'A Scanner Darkly' is Sci-Fi Come True
by Hugh Hart
(07-09) 04:00 PDT Los Angeles -- Shortly after he began adapting Philip K. Dick's drug surveillance saga "A Scanner Darkly," Austin filmmaker Richard Linklater imagined the late sci-fi writer having a laugh at his expense.
"I was out here in Los Angeles briefly, 2 in the morning, not a car in sight, you hit an intersection as the light turns red," he says. "Boom, a few weeks later this $265 traffic ticket shows up in the mail with my license plate and a picture of my face -- they tracked me down. The logical next step is, 'OK, we've scanned you biometrically, we know you jaywalked. Fifty bucks, please.' And I could just hear Philip K. Dick chuckling in my head: 'See? I told you -- the future.' "
Linklater, sitting cross-legged yoga style in his socks, jeans and short-sleeved shirt, laughs often and easily, even as he describes the pitch-black themes explored in Dick's novel, published in 1979, three years before the writer's death at age 53. Set in Anaheim in 2013, "A Scanner Darkly" stars Keanu Reeves as undercover cop Bob Arctor, who works with other "scanners" to monitor surveillance footage in an effort to nab dealers of Substance D, a crack cocaine-like drug threatening to wreak neurochemical havoc on the entire Southern California population. Complications ensue when Arctor, disguised at work in a shape-shifting "scramble suit," is forced to wire his own dilapidated ranch house with hidden cameras to track the activities of zany addict roommates (Robert Downey Jr. and Woody Harrelson) and the cute neighborhood slacker (Winona Ryder).
"It's a real tribute to Philip K. Dick's prescience, the way he saw how technologies in the hands of government would be used not for the liberation of individuals but for their oppression," Linklater says, referring to the raft of domestic security measures that have become commonplace in the post-Sept. 11 war-on-terror era. "Sure enough, what 30 years ago was seen as this kind of crackpot conspiracy paranoia is becoming our reality today. It's kind of like 1984 missed it by about 20 years, but now it's upon us."
To convey the jittery breakdown in perception experienced by the story's drug-addled characters, Linklater decided to use the same animation techniques introduced in his 2001 stream-of-consciousness feature "Waking Life."
"Once I got into Philip K. Dick's world, I felt animation was the best way to tell this particular story," he says. "You're looking at something that seems real, but is it? Your brain gets put in this kind of dissonant state, maybe, of (both) reality and unreality. I felt that would be the right way to perceive this story, similar to what Bob Arctor is going through with his own unreality."
Linklater shot and edited the film in conventional live-action fashion.
"Then the fun began," he jokes.
A team of 50 animators, equipped with digital pens and pressure-sensitive Wacom computer tablets, spent 18 months painting each frame of digital video footage. So-called interpolated rotoscoping software enabled the artists to apply layers of color, line and texture over the original live-action images.
"We essentially made the same movie twice," says producer Tommy Pallotta, who helped oversee animation. "What you're seeing is an artist's interpretation of the live action."
Unlike "Waking Life," in which animators created completely different styles for each scene, "this was a little less free-form," Linklater says. "We were going for a uniform graphic-novel look throughout, so it put us closer to traditional animation style sheets: 'How to draw Dumbo.' For us, it was: 'Here's how you do Winona's jaw, here's how you do Keanu's beard.' "
The labor-intensive process required animators to put in as many as 500 hours to render a single minute of on-screen action.
"I'm surprised I'm the only guy who's done two movies like this," Linklater says. "People have inquired, and I think they're a little disappointed to find out how much work it is. They think you hit a button and you get this good-looking image."
The remarkably prolific Dick, who battled drugs for much of his life, lived in Berkeley for many years, where he wrote science fiction that inspired movies such as "Blade Runner," "Total Recall" and "Minority Report." In the course of developing "A Scanner Darkly" for the screen, Linklater flew to the Bay Area to secure the blessing of Dick's daughters, Laura and Isa.
"The first thing they told me was, 'If it wasn't for drugs our dad would still be writing,' " Linklater says. "They wanted to make sure that the film would still be this cautionary tale, and I assured them, yes (it would), because that's my own view of drugs."
At the same time, Linklater wanted to offer a three-dimensional saga that would include a few antic bonding moments along the way.
"It was important to not just do the vacuous 'drugs are bad, just say no' (message)," he says. "Yes, drugs are bad and they can kill you, but there can also be this kind of fun, familial, communal aspect.
"There's potentially this exuberant upside, which in a very short amount of time, can get very paranoid, dark and tragic."
Linklater found that Dick's satiric jabs meshed well with his own sensibility, which has fueled a number of off-kilter comedic pieces, including "Slacker" and "Dazed and Confused" in the early '90s and the more recent "School of Rock" and "Bad News Bears."
In "A Scanner Darkly," as in some of his more personal relationship dramas, such as "Before Sunset" and "Before Sunrise," Linklater says he's more interested in raising questions than he is in providing a neatly resolved plot.
"The whole notion of one hemisphere in the brain attempting to compensate for the other is interesting," he says, pondering the mental "cross chatter" suffered by "Scanner's" delusional drug addicts. "My mother is a speech pathologist who treats patients who've had strokes or motorcycle accidents. Part of their brain's not working because the highway between one part of the brain and the other has been demolished. Growing up around that, I've always been kind of fascinated with seeing a brain trying to make a new pathway, and that's what's going on in this movie. People are attempting to compensate."
A SCANNER DARKLY (R) opened this weekend in the Bay Area.