Interview with Michael Dinner for Electric Dreams
You’re the executive producer on this insanely ambitious new project. Explain how it came about?
Five years ago, Anonymous Content came to me and said “How familiar are you with Philip K. Dick?” They explained that he’d written 120-plus short stories, and asked me to start reading them so that we could pick one and make a series out of it. So I started reading them and I called them up and I said “Okay, how about if I told you I want them all?” And there was silence on the other end of the line. I said “When I was a kid, my parents didn’t want me to watch The Twilight Zone and I’d watch it anyway and what I loved was that every week it was a little movie, and you would buckle up and go along for the ride. So I thought, what if we did an anthology show?” We started out with this crazy notion of doing something that was completely different from your average TV show. What if there wasn’t a traditional writers’ room, what if we approached writers we loved, and asked them if they wanted to write and direct an episode, or be paired up with a director, and it was kind of like an all-star team? And the same thing with the actors. What if we went after people we really admired? It took about a year-and-a-half to get it off the ground and during that process I decided I wanted to bring on some partners. I was walking into my building one day at the Sony Lot, and Bryan Cranston and his partner were moving in to an office on the floor below me, I ran into Bryan and he told me he had a producing deal and I suggested we should do something together. And then I thought of Ron Moore, who I call the resident geek on the Sony Lot, he’s Mr Sci Fi, and I called him up and asked him how much he liked Philip K. Dick, and he said “I love Philip K. Dick.” So that’s how it all began. It started as collaboration between myself, Anonymous Content, the Philip K. Dick Estate, Ron and Bryan. It took a while to set up, and Channel 4 stepped forward and said they loved the idea so it became a collaboration between Sony Pictures Television and Amazon and Channel 4, and all the producing partners.
What is the concept of the show?
It’s an anthology show, you could call it ten episodes, I like to call it ten films, each with a singular, unique point of view. Some are by writer-directors, some writers and directors paired up, and it’s all linked together by the vision of the great genre writer, Philip K. Dick. The scripts all have disparate points of view, but as they started to come in, in a way they all started to feel of a piece to me, because they encompass the great genre themes: What does it mean to be a human being, what does it mean to be an individual faced with authoritarianism or technology, and what’s the nature of reality. Sometimes those three themes are all wrapped into the same story. But they all have a twist at the end. They’re smart, sometimes funny, sometimes dark, sometimes exhilarating pieces. Doing an anthology show is tough. You don’t have an ongoing cast or ongoing sets. To make it even more complicated, we shot on two continents – we shot half of them in London and half in Chicago, so it’s been a pretty massive undertaking. But it has worked out how we hoped it would. Writers, directors, actors and composers all responded. People have a real love and interest in Dick’s work, and in the scripts. I think all these stories have a real sense of humanity in them, a real emotional component. They’re very visceral in places, very smart in places, and they’re emotional and moving. It’s been an interesting process.
With the production values and the cast and crew you have involved, this feels like you’re making ten mini-feature films all at once. Does it feel like that to you?
A little bit! Like I said, we encouraged unique points of view, and they all stand alone on their own very well. But I do think they all link together really well. With The Twilight Zone when I was a kid, the title would come up, and the music would come on, and it would tilt up to the stars, and I was ready for that ride. I kind of knew what to expect. I didn’t know what the story was going to be, but I expected to be whisked along and to have a twist at the end. But it is like making ten films. It’s been an interesting process, and ach director has brought their own vision to it.
You mentioned that there were over 120 short stories. How difficult was it to pare down the list into the ones that you wanted to film?
It worked in two ways. Sometimes a writer or a film-maker would come in with a story they had always loved. And sometimes the person would come in and say “I’ve always loved the Dick stories that I’ve read, or the movies that I’ve seen, where should I start looking?” So we would kind of curate the collection. We would send them six stories, or ten stories, or a synopsis of each one, and say “See if this makes you lean forward, and if it does, then we’ll send you the whole story.” So it was a real passion project for some people, and for some writers it was an assignment, and we’d send them a few and see which one they responded to.
Did you have any situations where you had more than one writer interested in the same story?
Funnily enough, Ron and I were kind of arm-wrestling for a story that we wanted to do. We were fighting over a story called The Hanging Stranger and so I, trying to be gracious, said “Okay, I’ll give that one to you and I’ll do another one.” And then, ironically, Ron started working on it and then decided to do another one instead, so we ended up handing that story to someone else. But we didn’t have too much squabbling between the writers, it worked out pretty well.
You mentioned that you wrote and directed an episode. Were you worried at any stage that this would mean you were spreading yourself too thin?
Inevitably it happens. On a normal series, it happens. Often I’ll direct and produce, and sometimes I’ll write, and on a normal series, if I direct the pilot, it’s usually expected that if it’s picked up, I’ll direct the first episode of the series, for continuity’s sake. That pulls me out of the writers’ room, and it always makes it difficult. So sometimes I’ll stay out of it, so I can keep an overview of everything, and I’ll do the final episode. I would do it differently next year. If I was going to direct one, I would probably wait until the end. But this is a unique series, with individual points of view in each film, so I can prep so much with the director and give script notes, but at a certain point you have to cut them loose and they’re doing their own movie. In an ongoing series with ingoing characters, it would have been a much more difficult situation.
When you’re embarking on something like this, do you go back and watch some of the previous adaptations that have been done of Dick’s work, or is that absolutely the last thing you want to do?
Certainly a lot of them are movies I’ve watched a number of times. Blade Runner was made, what, 35 years ago? You look at it today and you go “Holy Moly, how did they do this?” I’m looking forward to seeing the new one, because to improve on the original picture is a tall order. Each of these stories is so different that, to some extent, you can be inspired by what’s been done, by looking at what worked and what didn’t work with the adaptations. But the stories themselves, a couple take place in present day, some take place 30 or 50 years in the future, some take place 300 years in the future, so they’re all wildly different. I think you’re always aware of the movies, because they were pretty high profile, but it’s not like we went back and studied them. We want to keep things fresh.
What is it about Philip K Dick that his stories have lasted so well, and seem to lend themselves so well to adaptations?
I don’t think they’re easy to adapt – especially the short stories, because they’re just a snippet – some of them are five or six pages. But I think the themes he draws upon are the great existential themes and dilemmas of modern man: Who are we, what is our place in the world, and where are we headed? Is the future bright or is the future dark? It’s too easy to label him a genre or sci-fi writer. I think he was a humanist, and had some remarkable ideas, and I think there’s a real existential quality to his stories that can be updated from when he wrote them in the 50s and 60s. We have the same preoccupations that we have had for the last 60 years.
Would you say that working on the series has given you a new appreciation of Dick’s work?
It’s given me a new appreciation of his work, but the thing that’s great about it is that it’s possible to bring your own slant on his stories, and I think all of the writers did that. They all stamped their own mark on them. Some of these stories are very heavy and dense, but they all have at their core a simple idea. It might be a father-son story, or a husband-wife story, or a man-versus-machine story, and I think it’s very possible to personalise them, and I think that’s what the writers have done.
You’ve been in the industry for a long time. Looking back over the last year, did you really know what you were getting into when you started this?
No! I mean, it’s so different, we’re inventing something – a way of working, and I think you learn with everything you do. You hopefully learn from the last thing you did, and you make mistakes, and you make different decisions the next time. There is no real template to how to make a series like this. They truly are ten individual films. From a financial point of view or a creative point of view, each one stands alone. So it’s not a typical television series. There are certain things we made the right decisions on, and certain things that we’d probably do differently. But it’s very exciting, doing something so different.