Radio Free Albemuth is a terrific movie, a personal project and a labour of love, the type of quirky indie movie they used to make in the 1990s. Next to Richard Linklater’s adaptation of A Scanner Darky, it is the only other truly faithful adaptation of a Philip K. Dick novel, since the likes of Total Recall, Blade Runner, Screamers, Minority Report and The Adjustment Bureau were all altered almost beyond recognition by the studios into big budget action movies. Writer-director John Alan Simon has stayed true to the original novel, maintaining the feel of a contemporary Southern California social drama encroached upon by metaphysical Science Fiction and political dread.
I’d heard years ago that a film adaptation of Philip K. Dick’s Radio Free Albemuth was in the works and let it slip my mind. This all came back to me less than two weeks ago when I came across the film’s Kickstarter page.
I don’t generally support Kickstarter movies, but having seen this one, I kicked in to preorder a DVD.
Radio Free Albemuth is about Nick Brady, an ordinary, unassuming guy living in California who starts getting mystical visions and transmissions from an extraterrestrial entity, beaming prophetic insights into his brain that come true, like the undiagnosed ailment that his son was born with that might have been life-threatening, people he would meet that would play a big part in his life, advising him to make a career change that would improve his life, and preparing him for something bigger to come. The only person he can talk about this to without judgment or being accused of going insane is his best friend Phil Dick, a Science Fiction writer. Before long, they find themselves watched by shadowy government agents and leaned on to snitch and prove their loyalty to a fascist, totalitarian regime. The world they live in is an alternate universe where America is a fascist dictatorship of loyalty oaths, surveillance and death squads, and the heroes soon find they’re in way over their heads as they try to fight the conspiracy that has kept an autocratic president in power.
I got in touch with the filmmakers to ask for an interview when they came to New York City to screen the film at Lincoln Center as part of its Indie Screenings last Tuesday, to which I was invited.
Radio Free Albemuth has an interesting publishing history: originally written in 1974, it wasn’t published until after Dick’s death in 1985. It was a precursor to his final VALIS trilogy of novels, introducing the concept of an extraterrestrial intelligence beaming visions of guidance into the minds of select humans, an idea that obsessed Dick for the rest of his life, and incorporating many autobiographical details, going as far as writing himself as a character into the story as the second protagonist and the hero’s best friend.
Watching the film evoked the same feelings I had when I first read the novel, which doesn’t happen very often with films. There are minor changes that make it better: the setting is 1985, the year of the book’s publication and a reference to Orwell’s 1984, the main characters are in their 30s and at the peak of their lives, and they end up moving not to Orange County but Los Angeles, since the record company executive job that hero Nick Brady lands is crucial to the plot and the music business is in Los Angeles. Themes of fascism and oppression are more prescient and relevant than ever, and the film draws a parallel with current anxieties of imprisonment without trial, secret prison camps and terrorism used as an excuse for laws that end civil liberties. It’s also quite meta: the instances of Nick Brady’s encounters with VALIS referencing real incidents of Dick’s life where he said information was beamed to his brain via a pink beam. In that respect Nick Brady is his alter ego, and by inserting himself as a character in the story, it becomes a dialogue Dick was having with himself when they start debating the Gnostic possibilities of living in a hallucinatory dream while actual reality might be something quite different.
The cast also features a host of familiar faces: this is Alanis Morissette’s first real dramatic acting role (Kevin Smith’s Dogma doesn’t quite count since she wasn’t really called upon to act more than smile and look beatific), Shea Whigham, who plays an edgy but tough Phil Dick, plays Steve Buscemi’s brother on HBO’s Boardwalk Empire, Jonathan Scarfe, who plays Nick Brady, appears on GRIMM, Katheryn Winnick, who plays his wife, is on Vikings, Ashley Greene from the Twilightfilms puts in an appearance, Rich Sommer from Mad Men has a cameo as an FBI agent, as does Jon Tenney from The Closer and Major Crimes, and Scott Wilson, who plays Herschel in The Walking Dead, plays the president of this fascist America. The music by long-time cult favourite Robyn Hitchcock, who also co-wrote the score, adds an increasingly wistful and melancholy pop layer to the story.
I interviewed both writer-director John Alan Simon and producer Elizabeth Karr for over an hour where we talked about Quantum Theory, Philip K. Dick’s life and work, his obsessions, his drug use, the Gnostic aspects of his stories and the possibility that the pink light and mystical experiences Dick became obsessed with later in his life and career might have been a series of strokes that eventually killed him, and the nature of the Kickstarter campaign.
This is an all-or-nothing final bid to get the film released. The filmmakers plan to use the funds from the Kickstarter (and also matching it with their own) to self-distribute the film theatrically across the US, and for the most part, they encourage prospective supporters to see their investment as a pre-order for a digital download of the film, the music, the DVD and various perks and rewards aimed at dedicated Dick fans. Since the film is already finished, there is no risk of the final product never seeing completion. At higher pledges, they’re even offering upper tier rewards like Associate and Co-Executive Producer credits, which may not mean much for the average punter, but for people looking to get into the film business as producers, these credits would look good on a CV. People who pledge money may not have any say in the film’s direction, but they are essentially paying money to receive tangible goods and don’t face the risk of seeing Lindsay Lohan cast against their wishes. John Alan Simon used to work in film distribution before becoming a filmmaker and was responsible for getting the original version of The Wicker Man and Dennis Hopper’s Out of the Blue released in the US back in the 1980s, so they know what they’re doing here.
If you want to see a more challenging Science Fiction movie than the usual cheesy creature features or cuddly clichés the SyFy Channel shows all the time, then Radio Free Albemuth is something you should get behind. I hope to run the interview with the filmmakers later on.
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