I also thought that I could achieve more realism with less known actors. As a former news reporter, natural behavior and realistic dialogue are very important to me in movies. Radio Free Albemuth is a very strange story taking place in an alternate reality. Movie stars, would, I think, have taken an audience out of the story.
So from every perspective, I felt that the right actors found their way to this movie. We were able to work fast once we were shooting because they delivered on a performance level very consistently. My most important job is to not be distracted by all the logistics of the film-making process and to remain open and alert to what the actors are communicating in their performances.
If I'm thinking about their performance as actors, I know what they're doing is still superficial. If I'm caught up and believe what I'm seeing as real life in front of me, then that's it. That's what I'm always hoping and looking for. And almost all of the time, that's what we got on film. Occasionally, because of time constraints, I had to live with a little less – but not in any key scenes. But if an actor asks me what I felt about their performance, I always tell them the truth. Actors usually, though not always, know when they hit it. If you lie to them, they will never trust a director to guide their performance again. The actors are flying blind when they perform. The director is the air traffic controller. Imagine being a pilot in a very crowded sky with other planes and mountains out in the fog somewhere and not trusting the air-traffic controller or navigator by your side. Actors also have to be free to try bad, crazy ideas sometimes. Just as a writer does. And not feel judged. They need to feel safe to take risks. Just knowing that, gives them a certain confidence and freedom. By all accounts, Robert Altman was the master of that strategy.
Shea Whigham as Phil(lip K. Dick)
Shea Whigham was presented with a special challenge in playing the "character" of Philip K. Dick. For reasons having to do with the wishes of his daughters, we never refer to the character of "Phil" as Philip K. Dick in the movie. Even though he is actually called Philip K. Dick in the novel. I had no problem with that limitation. We weren't making a bio-pic. "Phil" in our movie is still the writer of The Man in the High Castle and The World Jones Made and Flow My Tears, the Policeman Said. But he's not the real Philip K. Dick. This is an alternate reality, after all.
For myself in working on the script, I thought that the character of Philip K. Dick in Radio Free Albemuth is in the final analysis just another invention of the writer, Philip K. Dick. So I accentuated that aspect in my script and made him a little bit more of an idealized version. The way an author might like to think of himself. I think “Phil” bears the same relationship to the real Philip K. Dick that the character of Philip Marlowe did to his author, Raymond Chandler, who also put a great deal of himself into that character.
I gave Shea the BBC documentary A Day in the Afterlife of PKD, which I thought, in and of itself, captured playfulness and wit of the man. I honestly don't remember if he ended up watching it. I don't think he did. Probably not all of it, in any case. I told Shea not to try to speak at all like the real Philip K. Dick. How many people know what Philip K. Dick sounded like? He wasn't a media figure like Tom Wolfe or Truman Capote, frequenting the talk shows of his time. From what I've heard on audio tapes and video, his speech pattern was rather Middle America flat and not terribly distinctive.
John Alan Simon & Shea Whigham (Phil).
We were able to give Shea a very convincing goatee. And even though Shea doesn't look much like the typical images of PKD at the height of his fame, balding and a bit overweight, he does actually resemble some of the less well-known photos of PKD as a younger man. I told Shea that this was an alternate reality and that the Phil of Radio Free Albemuth is not the precise Philip K. Dick of our reality. I wanted him to feel free to find the truth of the story and the character for himself.
I think this was very liberating for Shea in his performance. I think he was able to create an interesting and memorable character from his own inner resources and the circumstances presented to him by the action of the story. Audiences can judge for themselves. I've shown some scenes of the movie to Philip K. Dick's daughter, Isa Dick-Hackett, who told me that she really liked what she saw of Shea's performance as Phil — so perhaps it comes full circle to being quite true to the real Philip K. Dick in certain ways.
I've shown some scenes of the movie to Philip K. Dick's daughter, Isa Dick-Hackett, who told me that she really liked what she saw of Shea's performance as Phil.
Question :There must be a day when things ran amok !
I wish it had been limited to just one day! I would have to admit that on a movie of this complexity and ambition with limited financial resources that some things ran amok virtually every day. Extras didn't show up, locations were not available when we had counted on them.
Towards the end of the schedule, we were shooting in the midst of the worst fires in recent Los Angeles history. We had permits rescinded even on the same day we were filming. But almost without exception, all the accidents turned out to be "happy" ones. (For example, the smoke from the fires gave the light in the labor camp scene at the end a very unusual quality.) Locations in Malibu were replaced at the last minute with cliffs twenty miles away in Palos Verdes. But the new location, which we had to find in a hurry, turned out to be much more isolated and beautiful. I'm not religious or even particularly spiritual in the ordinary sense of the word, but I often felt that someone or something was looking out for us. I learned on this movie to roll with the punches. I reminded myself constantly that the most important part of my job was story-telling. From that perspective, I managed to find a way to tell the story in simple and, I hope, powerful ways, even when what I had planned and expected, often unexpectedly failed to materialize. It was a great lesson in self-reliance and the deep often untested resources of instinct and intuition. And one of the the great supports in this arena was my cinematographer, Patrice Cochet, who happens to be French. He has an amazing, cheerful, optimistic and resourceful attitude and together we found a way to overcome every obstacle we encountered — and to simply enjoy the challenge in the process.
One surprise to me was how "unfriendly" certain parts of Los Angeles are to film crews. While we were shooting the Brady house scenes – shooting in a very hilly, quaint section of near-downtown LA to stand in for Berkeley, the neighbors were putting garbage cans on their lawns to spoil shots and bringing out chainsaws to ruin our sound. Everyone on that particular street felt that if a film crew was filming in their neighborhood, they all deserved to get paid even if only a tiny, tiny piece of their house was visible in a shot. Los Angeles has become very jaded to film production. When I've filmed elsewhere, like Arizona for The Getaway, the people in the those towns were incredibly helpful and interested in what we were doing. It's small wonder that Los Angeles is losing ground to other states in film production. But we couldn't have afforded to go out of town and I must admit it was very nice to sleep in my own bed each night — even if for only a few hours.
We shot for 24 days — six day weeks. I don't think there was a single day we didn't work fourteen hours or more. There was no time, except Sunday, to even watch dailies. And on every Sunday, I was actually out having to scout replacement locations for the week ahead. In the final analysis we came in on schedule and on budget.
Question :How did the editing process go? Did you have to cut out some material?
Editing was in many ways my favorite part of the process. My friend, director Walter Hill recommended his own editor, Philip Norden, who happens to be a real science fiction fan. Philip was nominated for an Emmy here in the U.S. for co-editing Walter's mini-series Broken Trail with Robert Duvall. Philip, like myself and so many others on the film, worked at a fraction of their normal salary "quotes" for the privilege of involvement with such interesting and provocative material.
Personally, I have more tolerance for the slower pacing of non-U.S. movies and experimental cinema. I just saw the Romanian movie 4 Months, 3 Weeks, 2 Days, and for me it' s an almost perfect film. Phil's taste runs more to big-budget action movies, which Radio Free Albemuth most definitely is not. So Phil was very helpful in providing a balance to my own inclinations with his more traditional taste in what is sometimes termed "popcorn" movies, i.e. traditional Hollywood fare. But we never argued or fought over anything.
Alanis Morisette (Sylvia) & Jonathan Scarfe (Nick)
When we disagreed, which actually was quite seldom, we almost always came up with a solution that was better than what either of us had initially been suggesting. Phil also has experience with both sound-editing and special effects, so he was also very useful in helping further the movie along in those areas while we worked. Some of the temp effects and many sound effects will almost certainly end up in the finished film.
When we "assembled" all the scenes of the film, I was very surprised that the running time was over 150 minutes. Even with very judicious trimming, we could only get the running time of the complete assembly down to about 140 minutes. So, somewhat to my regret — at least at the time — we were forced to remove several scenes and subplots from the film that were quite good, but could be removed without damaging the logic of this very complicated story. I would anticipate that those scenes will be included on a DVD deleted scenes section. Anyone who likes the movie will enjoy seeing them.
In some ways I would prefer the "long" cut of the movie, but realistically, the film's current running time of about 128 minutes, now seems right to me. I suppose if you didn't like the movie, even this version would be too long! But I don't think there's anything more left to cut. My producing partner, Dale Rosenbloom, feels that one or two scenes should even be slightly lengthened.
Question :What are the next steps until we may see the movie worldwide ?
I've got to finish the movie! We are working on special effects now. That's a very slow process and I'm not a technical guy, so very new and strange to me. I'm fortunate that our special effects supervisor Elliot Worman, is as dedicated to getting things right on the movie as I am. He also is working of a small fraction of his normal quote. We also have the help of a very talented and imaginative computer artist named Shawn Hunter.
Sound is also very important to a movie. David Fincher is really a master at use of sound design. I attended a seminar here at which he and his sound supervisor talked in depth on this topic. For my own homework, I've been listening to Zodiac and his other films with headphones, often in the dark.
I was able to have a very good chat with David, who had influenced our decision to shoot Radio Free Albemuth with the Thompson Viper camera — a very high-end digital camera that he used for both Zodiac and his new Brad Pitt movie — The Strange Case of Benjamin Button.
On-set : Jonathan Scarfe (Nick) with Hanna Hall (Vivian Kaplan)
Almost every movie — even those shot in 35 mm — now go through what is called the DI — the digital intermediate process — where it is color corrected - even before being outputted back to 35 mm. So in the final analysis, I consider that all movies today are digital movies, even those shot in 35 mm film. Rufus Burnham, who owns Camera House, who I believe supplied Fincher with all his Vipers, has been a real friend to Radio Free Albemuth. Among many other helpful things, he recommended a great sound supervisor to us — Evan Frankfort — who has his own studio here and has really become the person doing all of the sound, also helping with the music on the movie so far. Another person like myself, who is wearing many hats on the production.
So the short answer is that work remains to be done. I was very fortunate that my financier — Philip Kim, who served as executive producer — is patient and wants the movie to be as good as it possibly can. I hope I will be finished with the director’s cut — including all preliminary special effects — in the next few weeks. Then I will get feedback from my fellow producers — Dale Rosenbloom, Philip Kim, Stephen Nemeth and Elizabeth Karr. I will also show the movie to other people whose opinions I trust. There will, I'm sure, be some re-editing from those comments. I also have to shoot some exteriors that we didn't get during production — which is very usual. Also perhaps some more green screen for the effects sequences, if we need them. I don't think there will be any re-shoots, per se, but I've budgeted already for a day of that.
I used to be a music critic, so music is quite important to me. We are in the midst of making those decisions for songs and score. I feel this movie is a little bit like Blanche DuBois in Streetcar Named Desire who famously said "I have always relied on the kindness of strangers."
I'm screening the movie this week for someone quite interesting who might come onboard either to contribute more songs in addition to the ones that Alanis Morissette has already generously given us, or work on the score, perhaps with Evan's help. Once finished, we will talk to distributors. It's a tough theatrical market place in America right at the moment. A huge glut of indie movies. We just lost Warner Independent and Picture House, both distribution companies that might have been very good for Radio Free Albemuth. Paramount has closed down the marketing division of Vantage, which may affect that company's interest in a smaller film like Radio Free Albemuth.
But I'm still very confident that we will get theatrical release in the U.S. Earlier in my career, I was a producer's rep and had my own small theatrical distribution company, so I’ve considerable familiarity with the business end of things. My first experience with the film business — apart from being a film critic — was, along with several partners, restoring and distributing the original Wicker Man in the United States. We are also fortunate on Radio Free Albemuth in having the in-house advice of an expert producer's rep, Seth Willenson, who works as a consultant more formally for my producing partner Dale Rosenbloom. Seth has been a friend and supporter of Radio Free Albemuth since it's inception.
Question :For something completely different : did you see Richard Kelly's Southland Tales ?
I have the DVD and have watched parts of it, but not the whole thing from start to finish yet. I did read the script — or at least one version of it. I'm a great admirer of Richard, who in turn is a great admirer of PKD. Through Richard, I met his production designer, Alex Hammond, who recommended Priscilla Elliot to us. Priscilla worked as an art director on Radio Free Albemuth — she designed the FAP (Friends of the American People) logo and the alternate reality American flag. She also served as a visual consultant for me both during production and in the effects process, too.
Friends of the American People (on-set)
Even without seeing the whole film, it’s clear that Alex Hammond, with the help of Priscilla and others, did a spectacular job on Southland Tales. I think Richard Kelly is one of the most interesting young filmmakers out there — along with Paul Thomas Anderson and Darren Aronofsky and Jason Reitman.
It's really a very exciting time to be making films.
John Alan Simon : Radio Free Albemuth Redux
John alan Simon, writer, producter and now first time director talks about the adventure behind his movie adaptation of Philip K. Dick's Radio Free Albemuth.