When producer Tommy Pallotta comes to the San Francisco International Film Fest May 2nd toting a 20-minute sneak preview of “A Scanner Darkly,” director Richard Linklater’s adaptation of the late science fiction writer Philip K. Dick’s novel, he may feel like an Olympic torch carrier nearing the finish line. Filmmakers — including such visionaries as director Terry Gilliam and screenwriter Charlie Kaufman — have long been trying to bring “A Scanner Darkly” to the screen, but the barriers have been many: the financial and technological challenges of bringing it to life faithfully, as well as the relatively small human scale of the story, which carries with it a perception of box-office difficulties. Dick’s story, basically a sci-fi take on he and his friends’ counter-culture existence in the dark Summer-of-Love aftermath circa 1970, is a highly personal take on the effect of hardcore drug use as it bumps up against a sinister and malevolent government, resulting in a darkly comic tale of paranoia, alienation, and hopelessness — hardly a pitch to warm the cockles of big-budget motion picture financiers.
“You basically have two choices,” Pallotta told me in a conversation last week, “Either diverge from the book and not make a faithful adaptation,” which to Pallotta — a long-time and passionate PKD fan — wasn’t an option, “or make a faithful adaptation and keep the budget low.” While “A Scanner Darkly’s” $8.5 million dollar budget was considerably more than the $1.5 million of Linklater, and Pallotta’s similarly animated 2001 movie “Waking Life,” it’s still a far cry from the $30 to $100 million dollar budgets of previous PKD screen adaptations like “Blade Runner,” “Total Recall,” and “Minority Report.” Dick’s film rights demand a premium, and previous screen adaptations have combined to gross upwards of three quarters of a billion dollars, making him the most successfully adapted science fiction writer on film. But Dick’s children were ready to let “Scanner” go for less if they felt they could get it made right, and Pallotta was able to economically secure rights to the piece by convincing them that he and Linklater were both sincere and capable in their desire to faithfully bring their father’s most personal work to life.
Once the major economic barriers were dealt with, there were still issues of style and execution. Pallotta said there are two essential design problems in bringing “A Scanner Darkly” to the screen. “One is how to portray this alternate reality — basically the characters are on drugs a lot… there are a lot of pitfalls in dealing with that as a filmmaker.” And “Scanner” is not just a film that happens to deal with drugs, but one where the basic POV is essentially drug addled. One only need remember Oliver Stone
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