Linklater's Scanner Darkly

Cannes Film Fest 2006–Based on legendary science-fiction author Philip K. Dicks own experiences, A Scanner Darkly tells the darkly comedic, caustic, but deeply tragic tale of drug use in the modern world. The film plays like a graphic novel come to life with live-action photography overlaid with an advanced animation processa method known as interpolated rotoscoping, first employed in writer/director Richard Linklaters 2001 film “Waking Life” to create a haunting version of America, seven years from now.

Americas endless and futile war on drugs has become one and the same with its war on terror. Reluctant undercover cop Bob Arctor (Keanu Reeves) follows orders to start spying on his friends, Jim Barris (Robert Downey Jr.), Ernie Luckman (Woody Harrelson), Donna Hawthorne (Winona Ryder) and Charles Freck (Rory Cochrane). When he is directed to step up the surveillance on himself, he is launched on a paranoid journey into the absurd, where identities and loyalties are impossible to decode.

Philip K. Dick has slowly but steadily become a cultural icon with his works of mind-bending fiction. His first novel debuted in 1955, and ever since, his cumulative works have sold roughly 20 million copies and been translated to 25 different languages.

Considered by some measures to be the most adapted science-fiction author in the history of film, Dick has created futuristic worlds in many of his works, several of which have been adapted into feature films: Blade Runner, based on the novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep; Total Recall, based on the short story We Can Remember It For You Wholesale; Screamers, based on the short story Second Variety; the French film Confessions dun Barjo, based on Confessions of a Crap Artist; and Minority Report, Impostor and Paycheck, based on works of the same name. The movies have brought new fans to Dicks work.

Never out of print in its 27-year existence, A Scanner Darkly is one of the three top-selling Dick novels and only the second novel of Dicks to be adapted. The story of how A Scanner Darkly became a film begins with a respect for Philip K. Dick shared by writer/director Linklater and producer Tommy Pallottaa mutual admiration often talked about on the set of Waking Life.

In crafting the adaptation, Linklater wanted to convey as much of the comical perspective as possible. To remain true to the book is to attempt something that is more difficult in film than in literature, which is to be both a comedy and a tragedy at the same time. I wanted the film to capture the humor and exuberance of the book but not let go of the sad and tragic. Its a tonal challenge for sure, but that is the heart of the story.

Because his stories and novels often involve futuristic elements, they are a popular source for movies. People have taken core ideas from his stories, and have turned them into big action-thrillers. A Scanner Darkly is a different kind of story though. Its not plot-driven in that way. Its really about these guys and what theyre all doing in their alternate world and whats going through their minds is really what keeps the story moving. So though its officially in the genre of science fiction, its much more character-based than plot driven. In that way, its different than many portrayals of the future. In this, you have people who are living their lives, hanging out, just trying to get through their day, explains Linklater.

Linklaters first foray into animation had been Waking Life, a film Wired magazine called the first independent computer-animated feature film ever made in Americaan abstract, psychedelic, digital video improv that takes the Disney/Pixar formula and turns it on its perfectly coiffed head. He thought A Scanner Darkly lent itself to trying animation again.

To stay true to their goal, Linklater and Pallotta enlisted the help of two of the stewards of the Philip K. Dick trust, Dicks daughters Laura Leslie and Isa Hackett. We were originally approached by Tommy with the enticement of a faithful adaptation, say Leslie and Hackett. When we read Richard's screenplay, and then had the opportunity to meet with him and discuss his and our visions of Scanner, we knew this was the right way to go.

Linklater recalls the Bay Area meeting with the authors daughters. I think they appreciated the fact that I wanted to stay faithful to the book and tell the whole story, he explains. I wasnt going to be cavalier with the drug aspect. They were very frankthey said, You know, if it wasnt for drugs, our dad would still be writing today, instead of dying in 1982. Its been a wonderful addition to have Phil K. Dicks daughters on board with us spiritually.

A Scanner Darkly is one of our father's most personal stories because much of it is based on his own experiences, add Leslie and Hackett. For this reason, it was especially important to us that it be done with all of the right intentions. His struggle with drug abuse is well documented, and he (and we) have witnessed many casualties along the way. The novel is filled with his humor and his own tragedies, and Richards screenplay managed to capture these key elements.

“Five years ago, Philip K. Dick's vision of the future seemed at the very least a bit fanciful or paranoid, but now it seems like a highly plausible possibility,” says Mark Gill, president of Warner Independent Pictures, of the story. There's so much surveillance and counter surveillance and people ratting each other out and paranoia about whether or not you can trust the guy that you've been hanging out in the living room with for two years, says Robert Downey Jr. Its your general garden variety mistrust. You dont really know what anybody means. Or who you can trust, adds Linklater. In this kind of paranoid world that they create for themselves, suddenly everyones suspect.

It does make you wondersomething like 70% of your life youre either on camera or being documented in terms of your transactions, says Reeves. What does that do What do you become Whos wielding the camera What are they doing with the information

Linklater agrees that the story resonates loudly in light of todays political and social climate. The paranoia that these guys feel is similar to our own paranoia in the world, with the all-encompassing war on terrorism. It kind of puts a cloud over all of us as a culture. Its like the new McCarthyism, the new witch hunt. In the film, were able to present this environment but with an often humorous perspective as laid out by Dick in his novel.

Linklater fine tuned the script during two weeks of rehearsals with the cast in Austin, Texas before principal photography began. Richard really informed the final script with what we did during rehearsals, says Reeves. The characters were allowed to develop, and eventually became a fusion of the character in the novel, Richards adaptation, and what we as actors brought to it. It was great to work like that because youre participating in it.

The Austin locationLinklaters hometownseemed to put everyone in a relaxed and creative mood. It wasnt like a normal set, says Ryder. Everyone was so mellow and yet they worked really hard. They have a different approachmore loose and free, with a real flow to the way everybody worked together.

Even though its technically a home of the future, the style of Arctors house is surprisingly retro. This is in keeping with Linklaters philosophy about the production design, which would later be reflected in the animationto avoid the kind of clichd portrayal of the future that many sci-fi movies fall prey to. While it may be considered science fiction, it didnt feel that way to me, says Linklater. It felt very contemporary and real-world, and though in the future, the world has changed a little bit, youre still going to live your life.

That always bugged me about movies set even a little into the future. They tend to change peoples behavior. Things get serious! You see these antiseptic worlds, where people are robotic or something. And I wonder, When did people lose their sense of humor The worse things get the more outrageous people become, but they still find humor and irony in life.

Another major location was the Braker Center office park in northwest Austin, owned by General Electric. Braker stood in for several locations, including Frecks apartment, the New Path reception area, hallway and cafeteria, and the phone scanning room. Other Austin locations included the Mi Tienda market, Arkies Grill, Culvers Grill, and a private apartment at 1st and Ephart. The cornfield scenes were shot on a farm in the town of Elgin, about 25 miles outside of Austin. The farm, which grows cotton and corn, belongs to fourth generation Texans who originally came from Sweden, were flooded out of Galveston, and finally moved to Elgin.

Philip K. Dicks daughters, Laura and Isa, visited the set during filming and had a chance to speak with the actors about some of the more personal aspects of the story. Without exception, every person we spoke toactors, producers, and crewwas entirely gracious and enthusiastic about the work of Philip K. Dick. They welcomed our input, and made us feel a part of this project, says Hackett.

Since the film would be animated on top of the live action, makeup and lighting were less of a concern, as were equipment like booms or mics sneaking into a scene. They could be animated out later. Anything solid they can fix, says director of photography Shane Kelly. It was a new area for me to deal with. I learned what the animators can fix and what they cant fix, what I can get away with and what I cant.

Some of Kellys duties were unique to the animated project. I tried to get a good image for the animators to work with. I worked off the monitor a lot, because something that stands out on an eight inch monitor to me will stand out down the line, he explains. I definitely shot and composed with the animators in mind. I also gave them a color palette to use, because they sample the colors from the live action.

The animators visited the set on occasion to see what they would be working with. I talked to them several times, and once in a while the compositor showed up on set to say, I really need this and I really need that, says Kelly.

Though Kelly opted for a general lighting scheme to give Linklater and the actors the freedom to move around within the set and change blocking if needed, his composition and lighting became a little more graphic, almost as though I was working in black and white, he says.

The process used in A Scanner Darkly is a further evolved version than the one used in Waking Life. There are several creative differences between the films as well. Says Linklater, On Waking Life, one scene could be wildly different than the one that followed. But on this film, we were always thinking in terms of a graphic novel that would have a similar design throughout, having a consistent look was one of our overriding ideas from the start.

The process ultimately offers Linklater the opportunity to let his imagination run wild. I dont feel there are any limitations to what we can do in post-production, he says. Thats whats fun about this. Weve created another world.

Linklater says it was imperative to portray A Scanner Darkly honestly because I felt like I had Philip K. Dick, his family, and millions of fans who feel a special relationship not only to him, but to this particular work, out there. I felt like I had a weight on me. Its a little daunting, but I also felt like I was up for that challenge. Im happy, because I dont think they will be disappointed at the end of the day.

And how does Linklater explain the movie to non-Philip K. Dick fans, those unschooled in the authors mind-altering, groundbreaking brand of science fiction Thats my favoritewhen people ask me about it, says Linklater. I say, its kind of like a nightmare that sneaks up on youfunny, funny, funny, and then darker than you could imagine. Its like so much in life.