Interview: Keanu Reeves, Winona Ryder & Richard Linklater
Movie: A Scanner Darkly
by Sheila Roberts
After making cult classics such as "Dazed and Confused" and "Waking Life" that raised profound existential questions, Director Richard Linklater offers us "A Scanner Darkly," a complex, layered and deeply personal meditation on drugs and the loss of identity, friends, direction, and life. The film is a highly stylized sci-fi noir and faithful adaptation of one of Philip K. Dick’s bestselling and darkly pessimistic novels. Indeed, Philip K.
Dick ended his novel with a bitter afterword that memorializes all his friends whose lives were destroyed by drugs. Linklater explains why he felt compelled to direct a film based on the novel, "I’ve always been interested in people who are self-medicating, or escaping. I related to it a lot. With what little I’ve seen of that world, I always saw the upside, but wow, there’s a horrible downside. Is it worth it? The price these people pay for a little bit of fun is just unbelievable, and that’s what this story’s about."
"A Scanner Darkly" is set in suburban Orange County in the not-too-distant future where a new and extremely addictive, mind-scrambling drug known as substance D has reached epidemic proportions. Futuristic undercover narcotics agent Arctor (Keanu Reeves) is an unwilling government recruit who is doing his part to eliminate demand for D.
Operating under the code name "Fred," he is assigned to infiltrate and track the drug dealing activities of a group of individuals who include the hyper-intense Luckman (Woody Harrelson), an ultra-paranoid junkie named Freck (Rory Cochrane), and a very attractive Donna (Winona Ryder). When Arctor is ordered to spy on himself and his friends, he embarks on a mind bending journey into the truly absurd where identities and loyalties are impossible to decipher and no one can be trusted, not even his girlfriend.
Using the same distinctive style that he used in his 2001 film "Waking Life," Linklater shot "A Scanner Darkly" in live action then overlaid it with a complex animation process called interpolated rotoscoping in which animators paint over every frame to create a surreal hyper-reality that serves the material well. The end result is a remarkable visual experience and an intriguing drama which follows one man’s psychic implosion as he is forced by his double life to confront warring dual personalities.
At a press conference held yesterday in Los Angeles, Linklater and the film’s stars, Keanu Reeves and Winona Ryder, talked at length about their recent collaboration. Here’s what they had to say:
Q. Winona, what do you think that you brought to this role that was special because you were familiar with Philip K Dick? I mean, through your family.
Winona Ryder: Hopefully something (laughing). I don’t know. I just feel so lucky that I got the part because I was such a huge fan, but I mean I was so completely drawn to it. I was just lucky that he (director Richard Linklater) picked me.
Q. Rick, how necessary was this thematically to do in rotoscope? Do you think you could have done this live action or some other way?
Richard Linklater: Technically, you could have done it live action but I never thought of it that way. I thought it’d kind of be… well, the scramble suit would probably be really weird live action. It would be strange. Once you kind of jump into this world, kind of this graphic novel look, everything fits it. And I think it’s the right way to tell the story.
The way the rotoscoping works on your brain as you watch it. This kind of computer variance of rotoscoping. I think it puts you into the right head space to have a similar experience that the characters are having.
Q. Keanu and Winona, you guys took these roles for substantially less money than actors of your caliber typically work. Why? What was it about this project?
Keanu Reeves: Great story. Great story for me. Great role. Important story. And it was the way we could get it done.
Winona Ryder: And this guy (pointing to Linklater) and him (nodding to Reeves), I’ve just, like I said, feel really lucky. Usually the movies that you do for a lot less money are the ones you enjoy more, for me, I find.
Q. How did you see Donna?
Winona Ryder: How did I see her? Well, the adaptation was what I concentrated on the most.
Q. Rather than the novel?
Winona Ryder: Well, I read the novel actually a couple years before. I had it by my bed during the whole time. Because it is different. There’s a little difference. I just saw her in a very, very hard position and starting to really care about someone that ... I kind of saw her…Actually there’s this song that Wilco does called "She’s a Jar."
If you listen to it, it really reminded me of her. She’s sort of stuck and not allowing herself to feel the full… to let herself go…and follow her heart because she really has this thing that she has to do for the right reasons ultimately, but it’s complicated.
Richard Linklater: It’s a tough situation to be in.
Winona Ryder: Heartbreaking.
Q. Since Philip K. Dick wrote the book, society has kind of caught up in that we do live in a surveillance society. Do you think the fact that we’re watched on line, we can be photographed in our car, we can be photographed walking on the street…. Is this a good or bad thing for society?
Winona Ryder: Bad. (laughter)
Richard Linklater: What would Philip K. Dick say, I wonder? Hmmm. (laughing) It’s a cautionary tale from the past. Thirty years ago. That’s what kind of amazes us. Even as we were working on this. We shot it two years ago, but in the interim, it’s become even more relevant. I think that’s just a tribute to what Philip K. Dick saw. The darker side of technology and this all pervasiveness in the hands of certain powerful entities…corporate and government. What that result is and how it affects the individual.
The ultimate disconnect or alienation in modern society. Ultimately, it’s from your friends, from yourself. The paranoia it sort of creates in this world. I don’t know. We’re living it. Back then it was just a paranoid conspiracy rant from the margin, but now it’s pretty much our world. It’s amazing how adaptive we are. London… England is worse than the U.S. as far as everything… your license plate... They’ve given up and said, ‘You’re just under surveillance all the time.’ Big brother is just all over.
Winona Ryder: I did my final in English comparing (the novel) "1984" to the year 1984.
Richard Linklater: You missed it by 20 years.
Winona Ryder: One of my favorite books is "Scoundrel Time" by Lillian Hellman. Even back then, that was just tapping phones and stuff like that. But now, I think it’s almost in a way dehumanizing… the perspective of watching people like that. They become less human. They become little things walking… It’s hard to answer this articulately. It is for me, from my point of view, pretty scary. I know in England they have cameras in certain areas on the street for crime reasons, and the crime rate did go down because of that, but there’s also that amazing thing in "1984" where he has one corner of his apartment that he can write in because he knows…
Richard Linklater: That’s it. The invasive quality. Once they’re in your house. And that’s what we have in this movie. Once they’re in your bathroom and your kitchen.
Winona Ryder: And the computers nowadays, too. That’s crazy. I don’t go on there.
Q. They can trace everything in your computer. Where you’ve been. Whatever.
Richard Linklater: That’s what’s sad. It seems to work when the London subway bombings… They can creepily... You see how they backtrack. It’s always after the fact they can put things together, not that it prevented anything, but they can do that. But the alienation effect when you realize you’re just data. Everything we do is just data. They have all your phone calls. It’s data to be mined.
Keanu Reeves: It’s also how it’s being used and abused. Really.
Richard Linklater: Who knows?
Keanu Reeves: There’s no redress for the governing entity in terms of the rights of the individual or the way that the data is being used. That’s really the kind of sinister aspect of this.
Richard Linklater: Philip K. Dick wrote this definitely coming out of the Nixon paranoid… He had every reason to be paranoid. The Nixonian era. And it’s the same thing now, a kind of very secretive government with a really unpopular war. The government trying to solidify its position and silence critics. It’s not long before journalists are going to be in jail for revealing….that’s the next big step.
Q. That was in the papers yesterday
Winona Ryder: It’s already happening.
Richard Linklater: Everyone is going to be leaking important stuff, i.e. truth, to the population is going to be against the law soon.
Winona Ryder: And also I learned a long time ago something that I didn’t know which is that they do …like a lot of what you read in the paper…They put their, ‘that isn’t true.’ They say, ‘well, we’re doing this because this will help us catch this person or this’ …. In fact, as though that’s an OK thing to do.
Keanu Reeves: Right.
Richard Linklater: To put our misinformation for the greater good.
Winona Ryder: Like in "1984" the kids are turning their parents in. I don’t know. I did see a lot of double plus bad. Show me the dictionary. (laughs)
Q. How was it like working together? Can you tell us how that was like? Did you play it like you were in love with each other?
Winona Ryder: Oh, I am. (laughter) He knows it. I tell him all the time.
Q. Keanu’s blushing (laughter)
Winona Ryder: That’s what I was trying to answer before without giving too much away was how complicated the role was in terms of heartbreaking for her to have any sort of other agenda than to not want to do that to him. But certainly with Keanu it’s very easy to…
Keanu Reeves: Aw shucks (laughter)
Winona Ryder: I’m totally serious. Well, you know that.
Q. Is it frustrating to do that love scene with Keanu that had several layers splitting from reality?
Winona Ryder: I was frustrated because we didn’t get to make out really. Remember, we came that close.
Keanu Reeves: I know.
Q. Was it improvisation? You almost made out?
Richard Linklater: It was in the story.
Winona Ryder: It was in the story, but we didn’t. And it was frustrating. (laughter)
Q. Keanu, you’ve done a number of science fiction films. What is it about the genre that keeps calling you back?
Keanu Reeves: I guess the questioning of them. I find these films and the genre itself it’s questioning. It really kind of asking. It contextualizes and questions where we are, where will we be, what’s going on, who are we?
Winona Ryder: I never saw this as a science fiction movie actually.
Richard Linklater: It kind of isn’t. Well, we said, we’re living in science fiction now so the only element of this that’s science fiction is the scramble suit which is technically possible and could be invented tomorrow and then we’re completely contemporary.
Keanu Reeves: We’re already using disguises and masks, those kinds of things.
Q. What do you guys think happened to Philip K. Dick’s android head?
Winona Ryder: What? (laughter)
Richard Linklater: I have no idea. That’s an interesting story and it should be followed up.
Winona Ryder: What?
Richard Linklater: Remember, this guy in Dallas he created a Philip K. Dick android. Full bodied.
Q. Artificial intelligence.
Richard Linklater: And could answer your questions.
Q. And look at you.
Richard Linklater: Philip K Dick should have been here today is the real…. I don’t know if you guys know about this, but over a year ago we had him. He spoke at a Comic Con Convention with us. Philip K. Dick would be at the premiere. This android Philip K. Dick that they got permission for.
Q. And his head is now missing?
Richard Linklater: And he got stolen.
Q. He left the head in a bag on the plane and they shipped…
Richard Linklater: It’s a shipping thing. Something’s… I don’t know. But it’s a weird irony. Philip K. Dick was very paranoid about…
Q. His head?
Richard Linklater: …forces like that out there. So I don’t know. I suspect something bigger.
Q. Do you guys see this as a druggy movie that people can go trip out on that’s all about altered states of consciousness or paranoia or whatever?
Richard Linklater: Well, I think by the end … maybe they’ll… I don’t know.
Keanu Reeves: They may have a little regret. (laughter)
Richard Linklater: Maybe we shouldn’t have.
Keanu Reeves: YES! (more laughter)
Q. Keanu says ‘yes.’
Winona Ryder: I just see it as an incredible story, a very human, very heartbreaking, very emotional. That’s why I didn’t see it really as science fiction so much. I know… I see how it can be seen as that but I do think that it’s just a heartbreaking story.
Q. Have you seen yourself in the film?
Winona Ryder: Yes. I saw it.
Keanu Reeves: Yeah.
Q. What do you feel as actors when you see yourself animated?
Keanu Reeves: I thought it was really well done. And in terms of a representation of the performances, I think it’s very successful.
Q. Do you try to give a slightly different, more heightened performance?
Keanu Reeves: We spoke about that. That was kind of in the air. Do you articulate your performance to adjust and… For myself, I didn’t.
Winona Ryder: I didn’t either. I felt that after seeing "Waking Life" that the emotions are so there. They’re almost more so in this weird way.
Richard Linklater: Yeah, you can emphasize.
Keanu Reeves: You can point. It was an articulation to point to what you want to see.
Q. You know how actors, a lot of them certainly, hate seeing themselves on screen? Isn’t it kind of fascinating to see yourself animated?
Winona Ryder: Yeah, that actually was pretty cool.
Keanu Reeves: To me, it created a more objectified position.
Richard Linklater: I think you have to feel those 500 hours. If these guys had any idea how much time was spent drawing your beard or your cheekbone. There’s 50 people for a year and a half who spent nothing but drawing their faces and all their movements.
Keanu Reeves: I call it actor heaven. (laughter)
Richard Linklater: I think you feel that kind of intensity, that love that they gave.
Winona Ryder: Oh, it’s a great excuse to say ‘I was animated.’
Richard Linklater: It is a weird thing. I fear that the actors won’t get the credit they deserve for the performances. Oh, at the end of the day, you’re a voice in an animated film. Well, no, you’re not. This isn’t one of those movies.
Keanu Reeves: This is the performance.
Richard Linklater: This is the performance.
Winona Ryder: I think when you see Woody throw a little tantrum. You see him and you know the performance is there.
Richard Linklater: Well, yeah.
Q. Speaking of performances, do you read your reviews, Keanu? Because "Lakehouse," everything I saw about that…
Keanu Reeves: I haven’t seen reviews for "The Lakehouse." ( read our Lake House Review )
Q. Even the one that were divided on the movie, they all praised your work as being so loose and ….
Keanu Reeves: That’s nice.
Q. I mean they were the best reviews I’ve seen.
Keanu Reeves: That’s nice to hear.
Q. But you don’t read reviews then?
Keanu Reeves: Not all the time. It depends on the day. It’s not like in theater, if I did a play on Broadway, I’d probably wake up early with a cup of Joe and get the….
Richard Linklater: Don’t you stay up and watch it and read the review at 2:00 in the morning?
Keanu Reeves: (assuming a theatrical British accent) I go to bed early, Richard. I go to bed early. (laughter)
Richard Linklater: Get the Times delivery. Your future rests in their review.
Keanu Reeves: I’m so tired from last night’s performance. I gave so much. I have to sleep. (laughter)
Q. Could you tell me what was the most challenging part or most impressive scene of this movie?
Keanu Reeves: The challenging part of it? I think it was sometimes …. The part that was challenging was really for me what was interesting: How does Arctor behave? Sometimes I just didn’t know how to (turning to Linklater) ‘Richard, am I doing enough? What do I do here? I have so many contradictory feelings? My brain is a bit scrambled from the effects of the drug and I’m scared.’ So that was really like…
Richard Linklater: Yeah, we had kind of a scale. How much of you is Bob and how much are you Fred? How far gone are you?
Keanu Reeves: Am I gone?
Richard Linklater: It was interesting. We’d look at each other and go like this is…OK. You’re just totally out of it.
Winona Ryder: Also, the drug is this drug of the future.
Richard Linklater: Yes, the designer drug. That’s the most sinister. Because it’s ambiguous what the drug’s effects are. I remember in the 70s. I was just thinking about this yesterday. There was this notion. They need to create a perfect drug. Obviously humans have this desire to transcend. Let’s do a safe drug that’s not addictive, not harmful. Let’s make a drug for all those so many who want to… Let’s do that. So substance D is really just the exact opposite of that. Let’s make a drug that’s very addictive, that renders your body able to function as basically slave labor that divorces you from who you really are. It’s like.. Oooh! That’s the drug that got designed. Not the euphoric one that will make you…
Keanu Reeves: Expand consciousness.
Richard Linklater: Yeah (laughing)
Winona Ryder: Sort of like in Brave New World.
Richard Linklater: How a medicated population is a controlled population.
Q. Were you able to relate to the character easily or did you have to use some personal experiences?
Keanu Reeves: Yeah, it was a mixture of that. My job is to try and personalize or at least look at it through that because, you know, it’s what I have to offer. But then it’s also enjoyable to learn about the character. On this particular role, I really used the novel. I really used that as a template for what I was doing.
Q. You had that great scene on the couch. It felt like there was intimacy there, but it was almost suppressed. Why do you think people are so afraid of intimacy? How to relate?
Winona Ryder: Because it…
Keanu Reeves: I think it can be scary.
Richard Linklater: Well, in that particular scene you want it to be.
Winona Ryder: If you get it and then it gets taken away, it kills you and sometimes you can never really recover from that. That’s how I see it. But that scene, in particular. That was for me very difficult because I was feeling tremendously drawn to him and trying not to think of my other agenda.
Richard Linklater: Yeah, what the bigger picture meant.
Q. For you, Keanu, how was that?
Keanu Reeves: It was deliciously painful. With all that yearning and love that was unrequited. (laughter)
Winona Ryder: Unbearable.
Richard Linklater: It’s really sad to be in the middle.
Keanu Reeves: It’s part of the tragedy. I mean it’s one of the great things I think about this work. Richard has spoken about it. This is a comedy as well. It’s an arch comedy. It’s kind of silly and it’s a tragedy.
Winona Ryder: There’s a 10-page scene about the bike. I loved that. It’s hilarious. And it’s like necessary. And when you have that, it’s fantastic.
Keanu Reeves: It’s ambitious. It’s very ambitious work.
Q. Do you think fans of the book are going to be really pleased with the movie?
Keanu Reeves: Yes.
Winona Ryder: I think so.
Keanu Reeves: I hope so.
Richard Linklater: Feedback so far, yes. I mean I think there’s some frustration in the Philip K. Dick community of fans that ‘well, have they really nailed it?" Have they ever? They take ideas and sometimes make really good movies out of them, but this one at least was striving to tell the whole story the way he saw it, as faithful as possible.
Q. What do you think is the equivalent of substance D today? What did you read it as?
Richard Linklater: I don’t know. There really isn’t one.
Winona Ryder: My character wasn’t really…
Richard Linklater: Yeah, you’re not on it.
Winona Ryder: I could never really figure out if she was faking taking it and acting like she was on it. And then how do you act because I don’t know what it is?
Richard Linklater: You were faking.
Keanu Reeves: The new substance D might be like paparazzi magazines. (laughter) No, no. Because there’s an identification pleasure system that also kind of takes you out of where you are. Takes you out of your own life into the dream world and manipulates identities on both sides.
Richard Linklater: It’s pretty addicting.
Keanu Reeves: HELLO magazine might be… No actually, that’s a lower kind of .. (laugher)
Winona Ryder: That’s English.
Keanu Reeves: That’s a weaker strain of substance D. That one’s cut with Meth. (laughter)
Richard Linklater: But will it kill you?
Keanu Reeves: But will it kill you?
Q. This question is for both of you. What was your favorite scene to shoot? The most memorable scene?
Keanu Reeves: I don’t want to choose my children. (laughter)
Winona Ryder: For me, it was the scene we were just talking about.
Richard Linklater: Outside?
Q. On the couch?
Richard Linklater: Or the scene after outside?
Winona Ryder: Outside. Oh, that was hard. Because I was talking about planting ideas.
Richard Linklater: It wasn’t dropping him off after he’s thrown up?
Winona Ryder: The very last scene in the movie. My favorite scene to shoot was the one we were talking about in my apartment.
Keanu Reeves: I really enjoyed the scenes that were very tender and the ones that were very arch, that kind of pushed it as far as it could go. Kind of extreme circumstances. And the ones that were very kind of ironic. You know, like this cop who’s at his job and is just taking substance D. You know, that to me was funny. And working with Woody and Robert is just… They’re so…
Winona Ryder: That was fun.
Q. You had good chemistry. You all worked well together.
Keanu Reeves: Yeah, every day was really good.
Q. Rory Cochrane was saying how improvisation …
Keanu Reeves: Genius performance.
Q. And Downey was saying Richard was very open to letting people sort of try things. Can you look at things in the movie that you see that were just riffs or things you came up with?
Keanu Reeves: Well, they were riff, but they were articulated riffs.
Richard Linklater: Yeah, they’re all based on the characters in the story. They weren’t too far a field. They were within the scenes.
Winona Ryder: Even if he (Linklater) was indulging me, he made me feel like I could try anything and in any different way, and I probably drove him nuts, but it was so exciting. It was such a great story and a great group of people. I just felt so lucky every day. I couldn’t believe it.
Richard Linklater: You don’t get this cast and then clamp them down. Why? That would be the dumbest thing ever. You want their… You want their…
Richard Linklater: Yeah.
Winona Ryder: But that makes us feel really special.
Q. (to Linklater) You’ve got "Fast Food Nation" coming out. Keanu, you still don’t know what you’re going to do next?
Keanu Reeves: That’s correct.
Q. And Winona, do you have something?
Winona Ryder: I just came from work actually. I’m doing a movie called "Sex and Death 101."
Q. A Woody Allen movie? (laughter)
Winona Ryder: No, it’s a Dan Water’s who wrote "Heathers." We’re going to do a sequel to "Heathers." Something different. But it’s very twisted. ( You can read more about the film here: Winona Ryder joins Sex and Death 101 )
Q. Are you a teacher?
Winona Ryder: No, I’m death actually.
Richard Linklater: She said she had blood on her earlier. (laughter)
Thanks for much for your time this afternoon. "A Scanner Darkly" opens in theaters on July 7th. This film is a must see and will no doubt become another Linklater cult classic. Don’t miss my upcoming interview with the film’s producer, Tommy Pallotta, and actor Rory Cochrane, who plays the character of Charles Freck, which will appear later this week. In case you missed it we have two reviews posted on site from myself, and from The Dude. I would encourage you to give them a read.