Radio Free Albemuth — Interview With John Alan Simon — Part 1

Radio Free AlbemuthScience fiction aficionados and fans of Philip K. Dick have reason to rejoice. Tomorrow, June 27th, Radio Free Albemuth will be released to theaters. The movie is the latest adaptation of the work of Philip K. Dick for the big screen, following in the steps of Blade Runner, Total Recall, Minority Report, A Scanner Darkly as well as others. The film was written and directed by John Alan Simon, and stars Jonathan Scarfe, Shea Whigham, Alanis Morisette, Katheryn Winnick and Scott Wilson. It also features music from underground rock legend Robyn Hitchcock.

The novel was written in 1976 but the world it depicts looks eerily similar to our own. An overbearing government spies on it’s citizens and works to pit neighbor against neighbor as a frighteningly believable depiction of Big Brother. A small group of rebels comes together after learning of an alien advocate attempting to help them. The group struggles to ensure that their help will arrive safely.

I make no secret about my adoration of the work of Philip K. Dick. I have been looking forward to this movie since I first heard about it. John Alan Simon, the writer and director of the film, was kind enough to chat with me about the film. And I have to admit that talking to him only doubled my excitement for this one.

Robert Emmett: Thanks a lot for talking to me, for letting me do this. So, I want to ask first, what brought you to Radio Free Albemuth?

John Alan Simon: I’m pretty much a life long Philip K. Dick fan. That’s what brought me to it. My ambition was always to make movies that I wanted to see. And there are two novels of Philip K Dick’s that I especially loved. I saw in my mind they had good potential for film. One was Radio Free Albemuth and the other is Flow My Tears, The Policeman Said.

We’ve had these under option for a long time. Valis came with Radio Free Albemuth. They were kind of a package deal when we optioned them. I wrote a screenplay for Flow My Tears for a major studio. A major director and major actor became attached to the project. They paid us a lot of money for the option and they paid me a lot of money to do a rewrite. With those funds were able to actually buy the rights to all three novels.

It was always our intention to do something very purist with Radio Free Albemuth. I always thought it would make a great indie movie, kind of in the vein of Drugstore Cowboy and an indie movie of that same period called Cutter’s Way, with John Hurt and Jeff Bridges. That kind of vein, I always thought of that kind of movie.

My producing partner Chip Rosenbloom always encouraged me, saying that I should consider directing Radio Free Albemuth. So it was actually a pretty easy script to write, compared to Flow My Tears or other scripts that I’ve written, because I didn’t have to channel someone else’s sensibility. I could just write the movie I wanted to see, which was pretty close to the book.

I’m very gratified that when we showed it at the Philip K. Dick conference in San Francisco, with Philip K. Dick scholars and fans from all over the world, and the screening was the centerpiece event, and everyone said, “Oh my God, it’s absolutely faithful to the book.”

But it’s not. It’s not actually faithful to the book, but it is absolutely faithful to the spirit of Philip K Dick. I’ve read everything he’s written. I have all the volumes of his letters which are almost impossible to find at any kind of reasonable price. And I’ve read the Exegesis. I had read the abridged version a long time ago, In Search of Valis.

I was always fascinated by the confluence of his mystical visions with this terrific science fiction novel he wrote. When I first read it I didn’t know about his real experiences with the extra terrestrial intelligence that he called Valis. When I was an undergraduate at Harvard I wrote my thesis on William Butler Yeats and mystical nationalism. Yeats had these visionary experiences, with his wife going into trance states, and wrote a book about it, a book I think is similar in many ways to Philip K. Dick’s Exegesis notebook, called The Vision. That was exactly what I’ve always been interested in. I thought nobody other than me is going to quite get the movie that I want to make out of this material.

I don’t really have any ambitions to get hired to do Transformers 9 or Spider-Man 8 as a director. What I want to do is make reasonably budgeted indie movies mostly based on novels that I love, that I think I get as a reader better than any director I could try to explain it to or write a screenplay for.

So Radio Free Albemuth was the first in that category. The next thing I’m going to do is a Jim Thompson book called Nothing More Than Murder, which also has some interesting aspects to it since it takes place mostly in a movie theater.

Radio Free Albemuth
Radio Free Albemuth

Philip K. Dick’s work has proven especially difficult to translate to film. Many ardent fans have been disappointed with some of the attempts thus far. Much of the tension and conflict happens inside the minds of the characters, many of his works can be considered psychological thrillers or ordeals. He also had a wild, vivid imagination and some of his concepts have proven difficult to depict realistically in two dimensions. Radio Free Albemuth, while still being science fiction, is a lot closer to the world we currently live in. Most people these days can relate to the paranoia of an overbearing authority which pries a little too deeply into our private lives. At the same time, CGI technology is improving everyday and making it easier to realize some of the author’s wilder imaginings. It seems almost like a compromise, the real world and Philip K. Dick agreed to meet each other half way for this one. I asked Mr. Simon if this had any bearing on his decision to tell this particular story.

JAS: Well, Radio Free Albemuth was sort of Philip K. Dick’s version of Orwell’s 1984, and also a little bit The Manchurian Candidate. It’s more sci-fi like Brave New World or 1984 or V For Vendetta than Star Trek or Star Wars or Christopher Nolan’s movies. So I wanted to make something like Drugstore Cowboy, which had some interesting little special effects in it, kind of retro effects during the drug state. Or something like David Cronenberg’s Naked Lunch, which I really admire, where he interweaves some of the plot of Naked Lunch. Plot, I guess that’s really…

RE: That’s putting it generously.

Radio Free Albemuth Shea Whigham as Philip K. Dick
Radio Free Albemuth Shea Whigham as Philip K. Dick

JAS: Some of the text of Naked Lunch, let’s say, into Burrough’s biography and Burroughs writing of it. So since Philip K. Dick made himself a character in Radio Free Albemuth, it was appropriate that it become a little more weighted toward what this story meant to Philip K. Dick. That was an interesting aspect of it for me in the adaptation. I didn’t want to make a real effects heavy movie, but even so, there are close to two hundred CGI effects in the movie. That’s one of the reasons it took so long to do and get right. While it’s perfectly feasible to make a really good movie on an independent budget, it’s still hard economically to do CGI. And I figured once staying up late at night when I was bored, we did our two hundred CGI shots, which is probably about ten to twelve minutes of footage, for less than one second of Avatar.

RE: Wow!

JAS: And CGI is CGI. So it’s kind of a 720 to 1 ratio of what our effects budget was. We really couldn’t afford an effects company, so I was pretty much my own special effects supervisor. I found individual artists for the most part to help me with it and work on it. It was a great learning experience. But there’s an old saying in the movie business, probably in every business. ‘Good, fast, cheap. Pick two of the three.’

RE: Yes, yes I know it well.

JAS: So I hope we did it good, and I know we did it cheap, and I know it wasn’t fast. So that is sort of the trade off.

RE: Speaking of that. I know you’ve been at this since 2007. I don’t know if that’s a long time to make a movie. It sounds like it is these days. Is it hard to keep up the enthusiasm, or keep yourself geared up for a project for that amount of time?

JAS: Well, we had the rights to the book even longer. I didn’t really finish the movie in the complete sense until January of this year. The good and the bad of the digital age is that you can keep working on something until they pry it our of your cold dead hands. So until we delivered the movie to our distribution partners, I kept working on it, making little tweaks. I would say people who saw the movie, like at the Philip K. Dick festival where we won the grand prize or where we won the grand prize at Worldcon and showed at the Hugo awards, they wouldn’t necessarily notice any difference. But I could take people through and show them little tweaks in sound or color or the special effects, things that we did.

RE: Things that you might not necessarily catch on the first watch. But one of the great things about a Philip K. Dick novel is you can read it several times and find something new every time.

JAS: Yeah, I’ve read it fifty times. Over fifty times I would have to say. And it’s funny, I’ve so assimilated it. And of course I’ve seen the movie probably a thousand times. And sometimes, I kind of pat myself on the back and say, “That’s a good line you wrote there, John.” Then I would reread the novel and there it is. I didn’t write it at all. And then sometimes the opposite, sometimes I think, that’s a good line of Philip K. Dick’s, and I can’t find it for the life of me. So, I’ve pretty much internalized this work.

I love the novel. It pains me that it’s got a little bit of a short trip from critics. I was very gratified that one of the major Philip K. Dick critics, Umberto Rossi, actually delivered a paper about the importance of Radio Free Albemuth at the Philip K. Dick conference, because it wasn’t included in the New American Library editions of Philip K. Dick’s work, even though it was written right between two of his considered masterpieces, A Scanner Darkly and Valis.

RE: You know growing up, I knew about Valis, and The Divine Invasion and The Transmigration of Timothy Archer. And then it seemed like this book just came out of nowhere. I had never heard of it, and the first time through I thought it was like Valis Beta 1.0, a first attempt. There’s a lot of stuff that’s in Valis and a lot of stuff that’s also scattered around A Scanner Darkly and The Divine Invasion and such.

Radio Free Albemuth Nick Brady
Radio Free Albemuth Nick Brady

JAS: Some people think of it that way. I really don’t.

The history of it is interesting. When he wrote it he entitled it VALISystem A. He sent it to his publishers, and there was a new editor there who thought it was too religious. They didn’t think Philip K. Dick fans would get anything this religious. So they sent it back to him with lots of notes. And he just put the manuscript away. Then he wrote the novel that he sent in, which was even more religious and even more philosophical, that he called Valis.

And my theory is that if VALISystem A had been published, he probably would have called that VALISystem B. In any case, he changed the title to Radio Free Albemuth presumably after Valis was published, and gave the manuscript to his friend Tim Powers, a fellow science fiction writer, and said, “Hang on to this. After I’m dead it will be important.”

Tim Powers thought it was just an early draft of Valis too. And then when he read it he realized it’s a wholly separate novel. It really turns the Valis Trilogy into a Valis Quartet.

It’s really Philip K Dick’s last — what you could call for Dick — normal science fiction novel. Because Valis is not really a science fiction novel in any kind of ordinary sense of the word. He bends the structure. It’s very experimental. The Divine Invasion is a really allegorical book.

RE: It’s three different books really. You’ve got the beginning, in the dome on CY30-CY30B, where Herb is stuck in isolation and meets the girl Rybys. Then you have on Earth where he raising Emmanuel, the God-child or whatever you want to call it. And then you have that weird end section with the evil goat, and it turns into this metaphysical wager between the light and dark side. It’s one of my favorites. I read that one more than any of the others, but it is a strange book.

JAS: When I first read The Divine Invasion, I didn’t like it at all. But I didn’t know anything at that time about Philip K. Dick’s own experiences with Valis. When I reread it a couple years ago I was very impressed with it. By that time I had really studied the Kaballah quite a bit. I was gratified to realize reading the Exegesis that Philip K. Dick also was a great student of the Kaballah. And really, The Divine Invasion is kind of a Kaballah allegory of the Christ story, kind of a Gnostic Christian allegory. So it’s not really science fiction in any kind of normal sense. And then in The Transmigration of Timothy Archer, Philip K. Dick fulfilled his lifetime dream of publishing a mainstream novel. It’s not science fiction at all. I think Radio Free Albemuth stands uniquely as the last of the sci fi novels, and he took that form as far as he could in that novel, in my opinion. So I am a great fan of it.

Check out http://radiofreealbemuth.com for more details on the movie, including showtimes and locations. I know they are adding more cities and theaters regularly, but if it is not yet showing in your area, you will also be able to rent it and stream it at home starting on the 27th.

Tune in next time for the conclusion of our discussion, where we talk about, among other things, stalking Robyn Hitchcock to convince him to contribute music for the film.



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About the author

Robert Emmett

Robert Emmett is a writer and illustrator from Chicago. He was exposed to Monty Python and Doctor Who at a very early age, and blames this for his current eccentricity.

His first book, Meowing On The Answering Machine, a collection of short fiction and prose, launched in January 2014. It is a bizarre collection of odd characters, talking furniture and food that can cook itself.

He has otherwise spent most of his time around Chicago, making strange art and playing in loud experimental rock bands. When asked what he wishes to achieve, he says "I want to be able to write in the way Salvador Dali could paint."

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