Radio Free Albemuth Director on Adapting a Philip K. Dick Novel and Casting Alanis Morissette
The indie film is an adaptation of Philip K. Dick's semi-autobiographical novel of the same title. Set in an alternate-reality 1985, protagonist Nick Brady begins to have visions from the VALIS (Vast Artificial Living Intelligence System), of which his friend, Philip K. Dick, is skeptical. With this prompting, Brady attempts to take down the corrupt government that mirrors Richard Nixon's administration.
The cast includes singer Alanis Morissette, Katheryn Winnick [Bones, Love and Other Drugs], and Shea Wigham [Boardwalk Empire, Machete]. We spoke with Simon about why he chose to adapt Radio Free Albemuth, casting Alanis Morrisette, and exactly how their budget comapres to Avatar's.
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New Times: Why did you decide to make a Philip K. Dick film? And why this one in particular?
John Alan Simon: I was interested in science fiction as a kid. Then I
abandoned it for literature. But then I got turned onto the new wave of
science fiction that was being written by people like Philip K. Dick and
Thomas Dicsh and Harlan Ellison, and realized that they were bringing a
kind of new sophistication to science fiction. It seemed to
make real sense to make a movie that honored what I think of as the
essential qualities of PKD that often haven't gotten translated into the
films. Blade Runner is a great movie, but it doesn't have the same humor
or the humanity of the novel that it was translated from, Do Androids
Dream of Electric Sheep?.
I wanted something that wasn't easily pigeon-holed. Radio Free Albemuth is science
fiction but it's also a movie about faith and hope, experiences that PKD
really channeled into a fictional narrative from his real life
experiences. It's also very political, it's also very darkly humorous,
and it's also about popular culture.
I didn't want a star cast. I wanted experienced actors. I felt that it
[stars] would take the viewer immediately out of the story. Several
named actors expressed interest in the project, but ultimately I decided
to stay with upcoming actors and experienced character actors.
What was it like working on this budget? More importantly, why make a science fiction film on a budget?
I figured out just for fun that all 150 of our CGI shots, which add
up to 10-12 minutes in the movie, cost a little less than one second of
Avatar. The thing about movies like Avatar is they're great technological
achievements and great popular entertainment.
But when you look at them
at the end of the day it's really the old good guys vs. bad guys
formula. It's Dances with Wolves in Space. It's cowboys vs. Indians, and
as is usual today, the Indians are the good guys not the cowboys. As may well have been historically the case, I'm inclined to
believe. They were really just people fighting over the land, which is a
familiar theme, even today.
What for me is very timeless about Radio Free Albemuth is one of PKD's
most important underlying themes, the values of the individual against
the supremacy of the state. It's a timeless topic. In this story there's
a president chasing after a terrorist organization and has compromised
civil liberties. Which was very appropriate perhaps a few years ago, but
remains today with what is going on in the Middle East. Where you see
individual rights reasserting themselves against the State.
You have a pretty impressive cast for an indie film. How did you score these guys, and why do you think they were interested?
I met with Alanis Morrisette and cast her on the spot. For everyone
else, I did extensive casting. I like the process, because I get to
learn more about the characters that I've written. I get to hear them
talking. We were just really lucky that the material and PKD appealed to so many actors, because there was so little money for the parts.
What were you focusing on in this movie?
What I really chose to focus on were the characters in this story. At its heart is the friendship between Nick
Brady, who is the guy who these visions and strange experiences are
happening to, and his friend PKD, who is this very skeptical science
fiction writer who doesn't necessarily believe what is happening to his
Of course in reality, PKD the writer of RFA was both characters. He was
the guy strange things were happening to and he was the skeptical
questioner of whether he was going crazy or why he was having visions of
a religious and spiritual nature. He
used this book to work out his feelings about the issues he was having.
That's a little scary.
I think he knew what was going on in his head. He just had these weird
experiences, like a big pink beam that hit him that other people saw,
that told him that his son had a birth defect that needed to be
corrected (which is in the movie). It's very odd.
Radio Free Albemuth screens tonight at 7 p.m. and tomorrow at 9:30 p.m.. Both screenings will be followed by a Q&A with Simon and cast member/producer Elizabeth Carr. Visit floridasupercon.com.
This post has been edited to correct a reference to PKD and schizophrenia.
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