As well watching loads of films and television programmes I also write scripts and produce low-budget short films. This year and last was quite productive. My horror short Flatmates (2018) was shot and completed and having got a couple of festival screenings it still awaits an online release. In the meantime I shot a 90 second micro-budget science-fiction thriller called Don’t Trust Me (2018) which can be seen on my YouTube channel HERE.
Furthermore, my short film C’est Fini (2018) was produced by the Northern Film School and our Star Trek Fan film The Holy Core (2018) found a backer and is currently in pre-production. Finally, myself and actress Melanie Gayle decided to work together again to produce a script for another 90 second short film competition Depict! This competition screens micro-shorts at the Encounters Film Festival and so we shot MISDIRECTION (2018), with that in mind.
MISDIRECTION (2018) was shot in June in a day with a small crew; not that they are short but there was only four of us! The crew were great and so was my leading actress Melanie Gayle. My wife also provided wonderful voice work as the SAT-NAV. The 90 second version was edited and then submitted to Depict. Yet, I also had a slightly longer version cut and I think, despite the low-budget, it works well as a little twist-in-the-tale story that’s both funny and sinister too. There are obvious homages to the works of Philip K. Dick, 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), Black Mirror and Tales of the Unexpected. Here it is – hope you enjoy:
A short, low-budget science-fiction comedy film with a twist.
Valentine Ford is meeting her boyfriend, Dave, for dinner. However, her SAT-NAV has other ideas.
CONTRASTING DREAMS ON PAGE AND SCREEN: REVIEWING THE WORK OF PHILIP K. DICK
“Today we live in a society in which spurious realities are manufactured by the media, by governments, by big corporations, by religious groups, political groups… So I ask, in my writing, what is real? I do not distrust their motives; I distrust their power. They have a lot of it. And it is an astonishing power: that of creating whole universes, universes of the mind. I ought to know. I do the same thing.”
― Philip K. Dick
For a writer who wrote extensively about artificial intelligence and technology, Philip K. Dick himself was in fact a certifiable writing machine, publishing over 44 novels, a further 120-odd short stories, plus a whole vision of manuscripts, essays and other literary paraphernalia. His death at the relatively young age of 53 took an incredible genius away from us; however, you’re never too far away from his work either on TV, computer or at the cinema.
The latest cinema release inspired by Dick’s vision was the beautifully directed space epic Blade Runner 2049 (2017). Here Denis Villeneuve picked up the baton from Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner (1982); an adaptation of K. Dick’s seminal novel Do Android’s Dream of Electric Sheep (1968). But of course his stories have also given us film adaptations including: Minority Report (2002), Total Recall (1990 & 2012), The Adjustment Bureau (2011), Next (2007), Paycheck (2003), A Scanner Darkly (2006) etc. Moreover, Amazon has recently adapted his classic 1962 alternate history novel The Man in the High Castle (2015) to positive acclaim.
With Charlie Brooker’s Black Mirror jumping ship to Netflix, Channel Four UK (Sony / Amazon in the U.S.A) and various other production companies) must have felt there was a “futuristic anthology show” hole in their schedule. Thus, they obtained the rights to Philip K. Dick’s back catalogue and produced a show called Electric Dreams – shown in two halves in 2017 and 2018. The production values were very high and some extremely talented actors, producers, writers and directors were brought in to bring ten Dickian short stories to the TV screen. Such creative luminaries included: Janelle Monae, Dee Rees, Ronald Moore, Juno Temple, Bryan Cranston, David Farr, Matthew Graham, Timothy Spall, Jack Thorne, Steve Buscemi, Anna Paquin, Terrence Howard, Travis Beacham, Richard Madden, Vera Farmiga and many more.
I have immersed myself in the novels, cinema and TV work inspired by Philip K. Dick recently. I was fascinated by the themes and narratives represented and comparisons between the literary and screen works. How did they compare to Dick’s original vision and how do they differ?
NIGHTMARE THEMES IN ELECTRIC DREAMS
Of late I have read his novels Do Android’s Dream of Electric Sheep (1968), Ubik (1969) and the collection of short stories – collated in conjunction with the Channel 4 series – Electric Dreams. Moreover, I have seen most of his works adapted for cinema. His narratives are often hallucinatory and dream-like with simple yet devastating prose. They deal in reality, alternative reality and beyond reality. You’re often in a place where you are unsure as to what is occurring is in the real world or some imagined or manufactured nightmare. Technology, disease and war are more than often a threat. The biggest threat though is humanity and its seeming endless proclivity for inventing weapons, machines and viruses with which to kill. Paranoia and doubt infect Dick’s work making you feel as trapped as his characters. Further, mutated strands of humanity are a staple trope where telepaths and empaths inhabit his oeuvre; along with classic science fiction aliens and monsters from outer space too.
The narratives, while possessing an otherworldly and futuristic feel, paradoxically feel realistic because his characters are everyday people. They are rarely action heroes or soldiers or scientists but rather administrators or office staff, factory or transport workers. They are family people trying to make their way through life and the horrors the world throws at them. Given Dick was writing during the 1950s onwards it’s not surprising that the threat of nuclear war hung heavy within his words. Furthermore, the rapid technological breakthroughs which, while offering hope for humanity, brought with it a movement to the loss of free will and a possible future governed by machines. Big corporations, banks, governments and computers all erode and destroy the very fabric of being in Dick’s world rendering human identity and existence obsolete. His universe is brimming with people under threat, humans desiring to escape and a questioning of what it means to be human.
CONTEXTUALISING THE NIGHTMARES
**CONTAINS FILM AND LITERARY SPOILERS**
Adapting Dick’s work can be complex because what works on the page as a concept can be difficult to transfer to a visual medium. Conversely, his work is often altered beyond recognition with fragments of the initial idea remaining while others stay true to the original. The original and subsequent sequel of Bladerunner (1982) are very faithful to the structure and futuristic vision of Dick’s original novel; retaining the ‘hunting of replicants’ plot and the existential question of whether an android can be considered human. In Electric Dreams the adaptation of the short story Human Is. . . . poses a similar question. In this story a wife faces the choice as to whether her husband, whose body has been invaded by an alien, is in fact more human because he is an improvement and displaying idealised human traits such as kindness and love. The flipside of this occurs in the film adaptation of Imposter (2002), and the short story adaptation The Father Thing, where nefarious aliens hell-bent on invasion take over the humans in order to divide and conquer. Human Is… both the short story and television adaptation are particularly convincing as many people have all been trapped in dying relationships where we wish we could change our partner. Dick’s story takes this idea and makes it real and emotionally very powerful.
Certain filmmakers, when adapting Dick’s work, will mould their style to his vision. For example, in the Steven Spielberg directed thriller Minority Report (2002), Dick’s pre-crime conspiracy model was presented as an action pursuit film with Tom Cruise going on the run for a crime he may or may not have committed. Spielberg retains the initial idea and concepts relating to pre-cognitive telepathy and empathic mutation but renders it a more fast-paced and spectacular cinematic experience. Similarly, telepathy and mutants feature heavily in Matthew Graham’s pretty faithful adaptation of The Hoodmaker. Like Minority Report telepaths are exploited by the government and law to do their bidding, only for the system to be corrupted and used for death by those in power.
Dick’s story We Can Remember it For You Wholesale, has been adapted on two occasions as Total Recall (1990 and 2012). Paul Verhoeven’s earlier version about warring government agents and colonies on Mars is an absolute blast. Dick’s concepts relating to alternative realities and implanted memories are fused with an explosive Arnold Schwarzenegger action film. Yet, what is retained amidst the shoot-outs and spectacular set-pieces is the main protagonists’ life dissatisfaction and desire to escape their everyday existence for something more exciting. This is a common theme in Dick’s work and can also be found in the Electric Dreams’ stories Impossible Planet and The Commuter. In the latter a Station clerk finds a hitherto lost “town” which offers a means of escape from his seemingly humdrum life but it comes at a cost. While Total Recall raises the pace and stakes within an interplanetary setting, The Commuter is more ordinary and emotional in its cerebral representation.
Political, social and technological corruption is present in many of Dick’s other works too. In Richard Linklater’s adaptation of A Scanner Darkly (2006), an undercover cop battles to conceal his identity while struggling with drug addiction. While in Electric Dreams, Dee Rees’ rendition of Dick’s short story The Hanging Man, takes an allegorical story about social unrest and fascistic hangings, turning it into a thought-provoking, paranoiac nightmare scenario. Rees calls her story Kill All Others, where we find Mel Rodriguez’s factory worker driven by fake news and political manipulation during an election. This eerily reflects much of the social and media saturation seen during Donald Trump’s U.S. election win. Likewise the adaptation of Foster, Your Dead became the very impactful Safe and Sound; and examined the deadly possibilities of technology firms manipulating youth within the context of the war on terror.
Arguably not as successful, however, was the Tony Grisoni adaptation called Crazy Diamond. This episode completely altered Dick’s story Sales Pitch, which told of a relentless Sales-Bot who won’t take no for an answer. In fact I had no idea what Crazy Diamond was trying to say and perhaps the writer should have stuck to Dick’s intriguing techo-nightmare premise. Indeed, threat of technology and the inevitable doom progress represents is also presented in the excellent episode called Autofac. Dick wrote this story in 1955 and set it after an apocalyptic world war has devastated Earth’s civilizations. All that remains is a network of hardened robot “Autofacs” supplying goods to the human survivors. However, these drones and bots are in fact hindering survival and the idea is incredibly prescient. Indeed with the rise of Amazon and Google and Apple industries our society is becoming more dependent on such technology to the extent we could be classed as helpless without it.
Lastly, what Electric Dreams demonstrates, along with the many film adaptations of his work, is that Dick’s concepts are just as relevant, if not more so than at the time of writing. Moreover, what this thematic and genre contextualisation of Dick’s work illustrates is that universal themes such as: the desire to escape; what it means to be human; media manipulation; fear of technology and war; oppressive government regimes; and all round insidious paranoia about a very dark future are inescapable and will always be part of society and the human condition.
HEARING STORIES: SOME THOUGHTS AND REVIEWS ON AUDIO-BOOKS
Six months ago I was reading a physical book of Joseph Heller’s Catch 22 and I was just not feeling it. Not the actual book as it is a classic novel of our time but the actual activity of reading itself. I just did not want to read anymore. Of course, I can do it but my mind just didn’t have the desire or energy. What did this mean?
Had I been dumbed down and rendered attention deficient by virtue of the constant viewing of films, TV and the barrage of internet viewing. Perhaps my brain had been become punch-drunk and distorted my mind, like an over-the-hill boxer who’d just had one too many fights. It was confusing. I’ve always loved reading and did not want to stop.
So, I thought why not try out the Audio-book route? What’s the worst that could happen? I could LISTEN to someone reading the book to me and experience the literature from an aural perspective. I have to be honest – I’m glad I did! Because I have been listening to a number of audio-book productions and they have been very rewarding from all manner of dramatic, artistic, comical and emotional directions. Moreover, I listen to these books while walking and at the gym so my “reading” has become a very pleasing mobile pursuit.
Anyhow, here are some reviews of the books I have been listening to over the past months. If you also listen to audiobooks please feel free to suggest any good “reads” or narrations.
BACK STORY – DAVID MITCHELL (narrated by David Mitchell)
Comedian, actor, panel-show humourist and writer David Mitchell takes us on a literal walk of London landmarks and streets, while also wandering down his own personal memory lanes and avenues. Pedantic, neurotic, angry and insightful in equal measures this is an entertaining and intelligent journey full of hilarious rants and stories relating to Mitchell’s life; one which is blighted, not by personal tragedy, but rather a very painful bad back. His narration too is very funny and listening to him speak is like having your very own personal version of the brilliant comedy show Peep Show in your head. I especially, from a creative point-of-view, enjoyed his analysis of comedy past, present and the actualities of writing sketches, jokes and performing too.
CATCH 22 – JOSEPH HELLER (narrated by Trevor White)
The novel which began my whole diversification into the audiobook territories is a startling anti-war character drama full of tragedy and black comedy, highlighting the folly of humanity during conflict. I was both laughing out loud and crying inside as Heller’s seminal work crashes us into the heart of madness during World War II. Featuring any number of crazed pilots either being killed or trying not to be killed while flying over Italy, this novel expertly takes you up and down and up and down. Heller does this with a meticulously acute writing style and via characters such as the wonderfully named: Yossarian, Milo Minderbinder, Doc Daneeka, Snowden, Nately, Nurse Cramer, Captain Aardvark, Colonel Cathcart and many more lunatics. This is a sprawling insane war-set epic which satirizes and laments the folly and destructive behaviour of mankind, and is all the more relevant today because we still can’t fucking learn to stop killing each other over ridiculous things like money, land, God and love.
DO ANDROIDS DREAM OF ELECTRIC SHEEP – PHILIP K. DICK (narrated by Scott Brick)
Dick’s classic science-fiction novel is better known now as Blade Runner and the film versions are incredibly stylish and powerful genre works. Yet, Scott Brick’s narration of Dick’s source novel is absolutely perfect in its rendition, creating a haunting pathos beyond that featured in the film. The story covers one day in the life of Rick Deckard – an “Andy” or android bounty hunter who must track down a series of superior robots of the Nexus Six variety. The original Blade Runner (1982) film did well to distil and simplify the narrative but it only touched the sides where the complex themes are concerned. The novel is far more involved with subtext relating to: simulations; animal husbandry; Artificial Intelligence; Virtual-reality religious fervour; and the existential pain or humans and robots, being explored within the rotting dystopic, Earth setting.
GAME OF THRONES – GEORGE R.R. MARTIN (narrated by Roy Dotrice)
George R. R. Martin’s North-versus-South-Westerosian fantasy epic has provided hours of entertainment via HBO’s massive hit TV adaptation. The original source novel is a literary monster of a book with an over 33 hours running time, so kudos to the talented, yet ageing actor, Roy Dotrice for staying alive during the recording and finding the energy to narrate it. If you don’t know the Game of Thrones TV show, it has become an iconic narrative of Starks versus Lannister’s versus Targaryen’s versus zombies versus dragons and all manner of: lords, ladies, monsters, whores, hordes, henchmen, sorcerers, warriors, Kings, Queens and peasant scum; all fighting and spitting hate at each other for a baying public’s bloodthirsty satisfaction.
The book, of which Game of Thrones is based, is an intricately plotted, brilliantly characterised and action-packed joy. Not for the faint-hearted it is explicit from a violence and erotic perspective and Martin’s writing is believable unbelievability of the highest order. While it may be fantastic in regard to many of the concepts it is grounded in a raw and human reality as the flawed characters conflict with each other in all manner of familial jousting, hearty battling and political chicanery. The book has all the greatest qualities of the television show and much more besides and well worth the many hours it took me to “read”.
HOW NOT TO BE A BOY – ROBERT WEBB (narrated by Robert Webb)
The other half of the Mitchell and Webb double-act, Robert, narrates his own story with an adept sarcasm, intelligence and over-riding sense of grief throughout. As a big fan of Peepshow, his brilliance as an actor is playing unlikeable-selfish-man-boys with devilish charisma. He’s obviously very funny too and his anecdotes and memories of growing up in a Lincolnshire town and overcoming family heartache before joining the so-called Cambridge academic elite are very honest and personable. I would have liked a bit more detail about his creative process but reading between the lines I felt that it all came very naturally and unpretentiously to Webb. Overall, this is a terrific listen, full of funny and tragic moments; plus given I’m the same age as Webb, his references to televisual, pop, film and comedy culture were immediately recognisable to me, only adding to the book’s enjoyment.
I, PARTRIDGE: WE NEED TO TALK ABOUT ALAN – ALAN PARTRIDGE (read by Alan Partridge)
Steve Coogan’s genius comedy creation Alan Partridge has been part of my life since the 1990s when I first saw him on the brilliant satire show The Day Today. There he presented the sports and would subsequently go on to a kind of greatness as a chat show host on Knowing Me, Knowing You and starring in one of the best sitcoms of all time, I’m Alan Partridge. It is a testament to the acting ability, quality of writing and sheer stamina of Coogan that he continues to mine comedy gold from the hills of Partridge, as it were. Coogan narrates (in the glorious character of Partridge) a fictional autobiography from actual cradle to career grave. It also hilariously covers how he bounced back from the precipice of a chocolate-driven-frenzied-nervous-breakdown-suicide-attempt in Dundee. I have never laughed so much as six hours of comedic gold entered my brain and left me in stitches throughout. This is one of the funniest things I have had the pleasure to listen too; full of bitter rants, vengeful asides, over-elaborate similes and a litany of what I can only call Partridgeisms! Is that a word: well it is now!
Philip K. Dick’s dense, dystopic and futuristic novel, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep (1968), is an ugly, beautiful, depressing, obtuse, hypnotic wade-through-treacle read full of incredible concepts relating to: Artificial Intelligence; robot technology; android simulacra; animal husbandry; apocalyptic disease; virtual reality/empathy mood tech; extinguished humanity; and ultimately, of course, mortality and death. The fact that Hampton Fancher and David Webb Peoples were able to fashion a workable screenplay for Ridley Scott to direct is a creative miracle in itself. Moreover, it is testament to the writing and Scott’s incredible production team that Bladerunner (1982) is held in such high esteem among cinema fans now.
The original Bladerunner, despite bombing at the box office and subsequently going through a number of cuts, re-cuts, final cuts and re-re-re-releases, has become a bona fide science fiction cinema classic. I watched the original theatrical version recently and despite the deadpan Harrison Ford voiceover and spurious, tacked on “happy” ending, it actually has a lot going for it. Obviously the ‘Unicorn Dream’ re-edits released under the guidance of Ridley Scott are the purer versions but the film holds up notably because of Ford’s gruff, depressive and world-weary performance as Rick Deckard; the imperious psychopathy of Rutger Hauer as android assassin Roy Batty; Scott’s glorious tech noir rendition of our desecrated future; as well as the evocation of Philip K Dick’s thematic existential power.
Thus, to offer up a near three-hour sequel to a box office bomb of an almost unfilmable novel was something I thought extremely brave from a creative and business perspective. However, as soon as I saw the director Denis Villeneuve was attached, I immediately knew that Bladerunner 2049 was a must-see! This filmmaker has elevated himself to the higher echelons of Hollywood directors with superlative work such as: Incendies (2010), Prisoners (2013), Enemy (2014), Sicario (2016) and Arrival (2016). In such films he was able to meld story, style, character and performance to create very accessible genre films which encapsulate the pain and drama of the human condition adroitly.
In Bladerunner 2049, the future’s orange but, like the original novel and film adaptation, it’s definitely not bright! We are in a sick, unforgiving and murderous world where a dying Earth, specifically California, is inhabited by killer replicants, pleasure models, and totalitarian law enforcement and overseen by the venal, profit driven capitalist oligarchic Wallace Corporation. In this vision of Earth, men, women, children, animals and robots are all slaves to be bought and sold to the highest bidder. I have seen some critique that the film is exploitative in its female representations but the films reflects much that is wrong with our world today and the original novel’s dystopic and misanthropic themes.
Both male and females are objectified and deemed commodities and alas that is true too of the sick world we live in today, yet perhaps just not as blatant? Bladerunner 2049, I does not offer solutions but depressingly mirrors society’s desire to sexualise and exploit others. Our “hero” the replicant cop ‘K’ (Ryan Gosling) is a victim of such exploitation in his touching relationship with A: I hologram Joi (Ana De Armas). Ultimately, he learns that they’re all being faked by the horrific technological nightmare they call existence. I think it extremely interesting that K’s wry smile when he realises he has been exploited by the Wallace Corp. product Joi; and paradoxically this demonstrates his humanity.
Villeneuve, aided with startling artistry by cinematographer Roger Deakins directs from a screenplay written by original writer Hampton Fancher, plus Michael Green. One could argue that the original Bladerunner is style over content, as the story was distilled to that of Deckard basically hunting down a bunch of outlaw robots. However, the style WAS the content along with the dense richness of the themes. Similarly, Bladerunner 2049 does not have a particularly complex plot, save for one fantastic thematic reversal, yet at its heart it explores the powerful question of what it means to be human? I think all intriguing narratives should ask this and explore important notions of existence. I mean, it’s not surprise Gosling’s character is called ‘K’ – because the story echoes Kafka’s The Trial in many ways. Indeed, is his seemingly futile search for meaning or humanity just a pointless pursuit or is it reward enough to delude oneself with the possibility of hope or love? Life and the decision whether to carry on regardless is therefore very much on trial.
I think this is a film which will benefit from further viewings. I felt like I was watching a Tarkovsky or Bergman film on a massive budget. It’s like Denis Villeneuve managed to combine, with the writers and designers, an indie-Hollywood-art film installation. I would say this is a character and theme led narrative rather than purely plot driven. Even Niander Wallace’s (Jared Leto) weirdness, while not essential for the plot, added to the depth of character and surface emotion. He felt like a Colonel Kurtz figure trapped in his own insane delusion and obsession. Could he have been a replicant too? Likewise, Harrison Ford’s reappearance as Deckard adds great flavour to a wonderful sci-fi broth. Yet, his aging persona is integral to the plot and not simply a meta-textual nod to the original film.
Ultimately, we mere mortals are arguably not worthy to critique this fantastic work of genre art cinema. I understand it was slow but that almost increased the joy for me. It moved glacially but with high confidence and in Ryan Gosling it had a bona fide star to guide us through this sick yet beautiful world. Moreover, the sound design and music from Hans Zimmer and Benjamin Wallfisch was a powerful force which heightened the suspense and paranoia. While the visuals are absolutely breath-taking I was also drawn in by the existential intrigue of the themes. Technically, within the story, the replicants are not living people but we empathise with their plight nonetheless because THEY are US. There lies the paradox and beauty of this film, in that I cared and was fascinated by what happened to actors playing robots on the cinema screen.