John Alan Simon (left) with actor Jonathan Scarfe (right) on the set of Radio Free Albemuth
by Pawl Schwartz
John Alan Simon has taken a big leap of faith translating one of Philip K. Dick's later works, Radio Free Albemuth, to film. On top of that, Simon is attempting to actually carry the spirit of PKD’s storytelling, thoughts, characters, and writing over to the screen. Instead of inflating the action or sci-fi elements to fit a Hollywood format, Simon is creating something special and singular, following in the large footsteps of movies like Pi and Eraserhead. This is a movie built on passion and admiration for a man who grew his ten-ton thoughts in the cultural gutters of literature and is still struggling post-mortem not only to be heard, but understood as well. UR Chicago reached out to John Alan Simon to chat about his film Radio Free Albemuth, which has only been shown at a handful of festivals so far but is well on its way to seeing a national theatrical release.
UR Chicago: First of all, I can’t help myself — I hear you have some big news to drop about Radio Free Albemuth?
John Alan Simon: There are two things actually, both of which are pretty big, at least for us. The first thing is that we have been invited to screen the film at the Film Society of Lincoln Center in New York. It is a very prestigious venue, to say the least. It will be part of their “Curated Indie Series.” That’ll be happening on June 4th, and they’ll even be flying me out for it so that I can do a Q&A, as well as make some new friends for the movie, hopefully. This is the kind of movie that needs people to champion it.
I used to be a film critic actually, and part of me wishes that I was still reviewing, because indie movies need reviewers to notice them and support them, to take up certain films as almost a cause, otherwise they will never be released to a wide audience. The last person who was really a champion of personal indie films was Roger Ebert, who is actually an old friend. I am really sorry that he isn’t going to see the movie. Roger really helped me start my career. I’m originally from Chicago, and Roger would have me fill in for him at the Sun Times when he would go on vacation, and he eventually recommended me for a job at the New Orleans paper The Times-Picayune. He even helped me later, championing an indie movie that we didn’t produce, but that I distributed, called Out of the Blue — Dennis Hopper’s movie.
UR: Wow... How was working with Dennis Hopper?
JAS: Working with Dennis was great! He is one of the people that I give special thanks to in the end credits because he really encouraged me to direct. It was when we were on the road with Out of the Blue that he really taught me about acting and actors. He was a very generous, sometimes difficult, but overall beautiful soul. A great deal of innocence and paranoia, not unlike Philip K. Dick. I really wanted him to be in Radio Free Albemuth, and he did as well, but unfortunately his illness and then death made that impossible.
UR: Before we get off track, I believe there was a second new thing you wanted to announce about Radio Free Albemuth?
JAS: Oh, yes! We are on the cusp of starting a really interesting Kickstarter campaign for the theatrical release of the movie. Having been a distributor, I just don’t see too many companies with the kind of passion and instinct to gamble in the indie-sphere that there used to be. There is such a glut of product because of the digital revolution, but unless all these smaller companies get a big deal out of the Sundance or Toronto or Cannes festivals, their movies don't stand a chance of breaking out. Making very safe deals for video, On Demand and DVD get them a small profit, but do nothing for the people who have invested in the movie, which is fine if you made a $10,000 movie just as a showcase to land a job, but if you have a movie with any kind of substantial budget, then these kinds of deals just don’t work.
It’s exciting for me to get back into the distribution arena because now it is in the same state as when I started. I got out of it because it got too crowded, and there were just too many companies vying for attention. But today, the arena is pretty bare. You have Fox Searchlight and Focus, but they are both looking for movies to spend three to five million dollars on marketing for, and not every movie, including ours, really justifies that kind of spending. If you spend that much, then of course the distribution company wants to recoup it, and you end up digging yourself into a large financial hole. Movies like this can’t be done like fast food; they have to be nurtured and placed in the right markets.
film still of Radio Free Albemuth with actor Shea Whigham
UR: What do you like most about your movie Radio Free Albemuth?
JAS: Well, looking at it as dispassionately as I can, which is hard, I'm glad that there are some people that see this movie and are inspired to really love it. So from that, I think we can create an interesting little army of people to do the kind of word of mouth, grassroots campaign that it needs to get out to the public. Movies like Primer, Pi, Requiem for a Dream, or Take Shelter even, would never have been made or released without large groups of people who felt passionately about them. We think that this film is very strange and special, and we want to do some interesting transmedia events to promote it, because we think it deserves it. Chicago is a place that we definitely want to do something in; it’s a great theater town.
UR: How have audiences who are not familiar with Philip K. Dick, or have never read him, reacted to the movie?
JAS: You know, I’ve been really pleased with the response from that crowd, especially people who only know Philip K. Dick through Blade Runner, or Minority Report, or Total Recall — they aren’t expecting the depth and layered approach that this movie takes, and that I see in PKD’s writing. I’m often asked what I think the most authentic PKD movie is, and of course, A Scanner Darkly is up there, even though it isn’t really science fiction, but I think that of Terry Gilliam’s movies, especially Brazil and 12 Monkeys, which of course aren’t from PKD’s work at all!
UR: Wow! I have argued the same exact thing, except that I include The Fifth Element. Finally, someone who agrees with me.
JAS: Well, two people who simultaneously agree. Synchronicity.
UR: Synchronicity. Exactly. Weirdly enough, my next question is about synchronicity. Were there any strange PKD-style synchronicities that happened during the making of Radio Free Albemuth?
JAS: Oh, there are huge ones! Number one is PKD and I, and the leading man of the movie, all share the same birthday, December 16th.
UR: How did you prepare to start in on the filming of Radio Free Albemuth?
JAS: I took this very interesting directing workshop right before I started working on the movie. I knew the husband/wife directing team, Vallery Faris and Jonathan Dayton, who did Little Miss Sunshine. They had actually approached us at one point about doing something with the rights for Valis, which I also have. The reason they approached us was because of Billy Corgan, actually, who is a pretty big PKD fan. He wanted them to direct a movie of it, but then he kind of lost the production deal that he had, so nothing ever came of it. But either way, I met them (Vallery and Jonathan) and we started talking. They told me that I have to take this workshop from a woman named Joan Sheckel. One of the things that she had me do in this workshop was to channel the spirit of the movie, and I really tried to channel PKD as well. I think that doing this really served the movie because to be honest, this was a really, really difficult and ambitious movie to make at the modest budget that we had. We had 24 days to shoot with forty speaking parts and thirty locations. It was tough, but I really felt like there was a spirit helping us, watching over us.
UR: Any examples of this spirit manifesting?
JAS: Right before we were about to shoot the prison sequence at the end of the movie, there were huge fires all over LA — wildfires. We were told that because of the fires, we couldn’t get the permit that we needed to shoot. I managed to find, at the last minute, locations that were just as good, if not better, and the smokiness in the air actually added a really wonderful, surreal quality to the cinematography. Also, I saw the spirit manifest in that the right people just seemed to find their way to this movie. Alanis Morissette is a good example of this. Her agent gave her the script and we met, and I hadn’t even started auditioning yet. Even though I had written a lot about music and was a music critic, I still wasn’t really familiar with her work. I tended to champion groups that nobody had ever heard of, and she was always popular, so she was kind of off my radar. Well, when I met her, we had cocktails, and I did something that you are never supposed to do: I told her, “If you want the part, it’s yours; I’d be happy to have you,” because her vibe and personality just seemed so right and perfect for the part of Sylvia. She accepted, right there on the spot. Near the start of the movie, things almost fell apart, and without her, they would have. Alanis was the linchpin that really held everything together. She considers Radio Free Albemuth to be her first real dramatic role.
film still from Radio Free Albemuth with Alanis Morissette
UR: Lastly, I know that in the book PKD struggles a lot with Christianity. Was it difficult to make the movie not come off as overly spiritual?
JAS: I really felt as though something was bringing all of the right people together for the movie to happen. I’m not a spiritual person per se, yet I felt that there was a spirit guiding this movie, and it helped me to trust that things would all turn out okay. I tend to be a glass half-empty guy; like most writers and journalists I'm kind of cynical by nature. I just want to put that out there before I say: this movie really wanted to be made. I feel like to a large extent I was just helping the movie get itself made. Now, I’m not saying that it made itself, but it really wanted to happen. Even when things started to look really dark in terms of the movie getting made, the problem would always kind of work itself out.
Bring Radio Free Albemuth to a theater near you by contributing to the Kickstarter campaign!
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Check out the trailer for Radio Free Albemuth!