A Scanner Darkly

[SPOILER ALERT: Contains a spoiler or two, especially if you have not read the book, though the movie isn't really plot-twist-driven. It's not as if I'm going to reveal that Rosebud was a sled or that he's a ghost or anything of that magnitude.]

Wednesday night, I attended a preview screening of A Scanner Darkly at the Lincoln Center. After the movie, Robert Downey Jr. and Richard Linklater were to host a discussion about the movie.

Lingering jetlag zonked me out in the afternoon, and by the time I awoke from a long, long nap and rushed up to Lincoln Center on the subway, I was late for the event. Fortunately, these things never start on time, and I found a decent seat on the aisle. Ethan Hawks was directly ahead of me, two rows up. While catching my breath, I felt someone hovering over me in the aisle. I looked up and it was Keanu Reeves, chatting with someone who knew Rory Cochrane, one of the other actors in the movie.

I've heard Keanu speak a handful of times in person now, and he is an enigma with that awed surfer voice wrapping itself around such a wide range of ideas. I caught snippets, "So he can read Proust and Goethe in the original languages? That's fantastic." Seems like a nice guy.

Linklater was caught on an airplane so he missed the introduction which Robert Downey Jr. and Reeves provided instead. Downey Jr. is a huge talent, with boundless supplies of charisma, and the two of them warmed up the crowd with some improvised comic banter.

I have read some Philip K. Dick, but not A Scanner Darkly, so I can't comment on the faithfulness of the adaptation, but some of the guests addressed the issue in Q&A.

Notes from the Q&A, with guests Richard Linklater, Robert Downey Jr., Keanu Reeves, Jonathan Lethem, and PKD's daughter Isa:

  • The first PKD novel Linklater ever read was Valis.

  • After Waking Life and post 9/11, Linklater was searching for another use for the rotoscoping, and this PKD novel just felt timely.

  • Though they used the same software as for Waking Life, they were able to generate more detail this time. Linklater noted that what they did was not pure rotoscoping; he refers to their process as interpolated rotoscoping.

  • They use style sheets to maintain some consistency. As Linklater put it, style sheets told the animators, "This is how you draw Keanu's beard. This is how you draw Winona's..." [when he paused here, the crowd laughed, because Winona is topless, albeit in animated form, in some of the movie] "...jaw."

  • Keanu was the one person on the set who had his nose in the book the whole time (Downey Jr. did not read the novel).

  • Linklater wrote and rewrote as they went along, always trying to maintain the spirit of the book. Someone, I think it was Lethem, mentioned that when PKD first saw Blade Runner, he said that the movie was okay, but he wished that someone would make a movie that honored the ideas in his books. Lethem felt that A Scanner Darkly is the most faithful PKD adaptation ever, the only movie that honors the ambiguity and indeterminacy of PKD's work.

  • Jonathan Lethem, a PKD expert, was consulted upon before production to help the cast and crew to understand PKD's vision.

  • A Scanner Darkly is the most autobiographical of PKD's novels, a cautionary tale. PKD was addicted to amphetamines and saw many loved ones submit to drug addictions of one form or another. "If it wasn't for drugs, our dad would still be writing," said Isa. She found the end dedications to be the most moving part of the film because she knew the people referenced.

  • With an $8 million budget, Linklater had to get Isa and the rest of PKD's family to agree to a lower option fee.

  • Linklater screened the movie for Radiohead, and they liked it, so they allowed some of their music to be used in the soundtrack, including a single from Thom Yorke's new solo album The Eraser to run over the end credits.

  • Downey Jr., jokingly, I think, on Linklater, "He's a monster. I know you're thinking he's such a nice guy, softspoken, sitting here, but he works you like a rib. 'You want lunch?! This is for PKD! His daughter is sitting right there!'"

  • The biggest change they made in the movie versus the book is a twist in which Winona Ryder emerges from the second scramble suit, worn by Fred's superior on the force. It was an added twist, but one Linklater and others felt was still faithful to the spirit of the novel.

  • Where did the title A Scanner Darkly come from? Isa thought it was from Biblical scripture, while Linklater thought it might refer back to the Bergman film (I assume he meant Through a Glass Darkly.

  • The look of the movie was intended to be that of a graphic novel.

  • Linklater never thought to do a live action version of the movie. "Someone could pull that off," said Linklater, "but I couldn't."

  • Lethem liked the use of animation because "animation gives a more seamless division between reality and hallucination." Prose can do that better than most any medium. Photography is too literal. Animation helps moving pictures to capture language's potential for metaphor.

  • A lot of famous faces were used as models for images on the scramble suits, including PKD. Something to play around with once the DVD comes out.

  • The advantage of rotoscoping was that they could stick things in the scene that could just be ignored during animation, like microphones. It allowed Linklater and crew to focus on the scene as a whole while ignoring random details about getting the shot perfect, things which often consume so much time on set.

  • The shoot itself, a 25 day shoot, went smoothly. Once they shifted to animation, they hit some snags. It took longer than expected to finish.

This is about as far from a popcorn movie as you'll find in theaters this summer, a departure since most PKD novels have been transformed into sci-fi action flicks. The movie is challenging in a way that other PKD film adaptations have not been. In making the central character an addict whose personality has been splintered by drug use, and in nesting one conspiracy inside another in a Russian doll of dark forces (government, pharma, the police, among others), Linklater and company have left the movie bereft of any easy emotional handle for the audience, no one character to identify with. The dialogue-to-action ratio might frustrate the average filmgoer. On the other hand, this movie stands as a testament to the idea that Hollywood can turn out animation for adults, animation about ideas.

If you've ever sat around listening to the seemingly meaningless babble of a group of stoned buddies, you have a sense of what it feels like to listen to watch much of this movie. It's occasionally hilarious, especially the verbal parrying between Downey Jr. and Woody Harrelson, but often maddening and obtuse. The rotoscoping is effective at heightening the sense of reality's dissolution. Every moment on screen looks the same, whether it's a hallucination, a flashback, video on a surveillance screen, or reality. You can't tell one from the other. On the other hand, I occasionally wished I could see Downey Jr.'s character in live action. His face operates on a frequency that rotoscoping can't capture.

So finally, a most faithful PKD adaptation to the silver screen. PKD fans will rejoice, but the studio, I'm guessing, may not when box office receipts come in. I, for one, am glad we don't have another PKD story pillaged for an action dud like Paycheck.