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Copyright ©2006 PopEntertainment.com.  All rights reserved.  Posted: July 14, 2006.

When director Richard Linklater (Dazed and Confused, School of Rock, Before Sunset) decided to film sci-fi novelist Philip K. Dick’s extremely autobiographical 1977 drug cautionary tale A Scanner Darkly, he knew he was taking a big chance artistically and commercially.  He’s not the first – Dick’s pitch black world view has always been seductive to thoughtful filmmakers.  His short story “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep” was the basis for Ridley Scott’s classic parable Blade Runner.  Steven Spielberg took on his novel Minority Report.  Several of his other works have hit the screen as Total Recall, Payback, Screamers and Impostor. 

However, A Scanner Darkly, with its hallucinogenic images and highly paranoid vision was undoubtedly the most ephemeral of Dick’s musings, a story very specific to its creator and its time and yet at the same time strangely universal. 

In casting the film, Linklater reached out to some actors who he felt could understand Dick’s vision.  Artists who had been slightly dinged up in their own lives and could relate to the desperation of the characters.  These actors included Keanu Reeves, Robert Downey Jr., Woody Harrelson and Winona Ryder – most of whom has spent a certain amount of time in the gossip columns and the police blotters as well as on soundstages. 

“I actually had a really emotional reaction to seeing the movie in Cannes, because I realized how touching and personal it was,” Downey says.  “It’s Dick’s story.  It’s science fiction.  But it’s [also] kind of about this generation of actors who – well maybe except for Keanu – we haven’t really gotten through the last ten years all in one piece.” 

Not that we see them in the film – well not exactly.  Linklater decided to do this film through his own special brand of animation called interpolated rotoscoping.  The process, which Linklater debuted with his dream-state fantasy Waking Life, calls for the movie to be filmed and then for a group of animators to painstakingly go over each frame.  It gives the film an oddly fluid feel, much more accurate than traditional film animation.  It almost feels like a graphic novel come to life. 

Of course, filming to just be drawn over opens up all sorts of freedoms and possibilities to an actor, ones which Downey acknowledges he didn’t fully take advantage of.  

“I kind of forgot; to tell you the truth,” Downey smiles.  “I forgot and then I was really pleased.   The greatest smoke ring blown in the history of cinema, and that’s no small feat.”  

Still, Downey did see the original footage and was rather shocked by the changes that came out of it.   

“It looked really simple… and crude… and improperly lit, which it was.  But it also would have sufficed.  This interpolated rotoscoping – the long way of saying trippy – was a good fit.” 

Another good fit for Downey was just the opportunity to work with Linklater.

“I saw School of Rock and I’m like why haven’t I worked with Richard Linklater already?” Downey recalls.  “They’re like, ‘Oh and he also did that…’  I’m like, oh and Dazed and Confused?  Then by the time I got him I said I’m really pissed off.  I feel like you owe me some – what do you call it?  Retroactive swag.  So he gave me the ten year anniversary of Dazed and Confused t-shirt, which I still wear with relish.”   

Linklater soon decided that Downey was someone that he wanted to work with as well.  For years he had been working on A Scanner Darkly as a passion project.  He sent a draft of the screenplay to Downey and asked him to look it over. 

“I read the script and I was like this is nuts,” Downey says.  “Oh my God, I bet it’s going to be cool.  And Keanu’s playing the lead.  So I went to the chateau.  We just started to have this spitball session.  We talked about characters and all that with Woody and Winona.  It was just a great experience.” 

Not that he would have done the script for just any director.  “It would have had to have been someone really special,” Downey admits.  The chance to finally work with Linklater is what sealed the deal.  “I am convinced that he is one of our great American directors.” 

So Downey went down to Austin, Texas, Linklater’s base of operations, and started trying to get into the head of his character.  “We would talk on subjects,” Downey recalls.  “[Linklater] would say, ‘What would this tweaked-out propellerhead say?’  I’d say, well, let me think.  You know, whatever… 

“It was a room like this,” Downey continues, gesturing to the hotel conference room where we are sitting, “except a lot muggier with bats around, because we were in Austin.  Some gal would come in and be like, you know… I don’t know, maybe she’d have a zit on her cheek or something.  When she left we were all like, bug bite, huh?  Then the next day I’d be calling Arctor or Fred a bug bite.  That’s the great thing about [Linklater].  It’s very specific.  He calls shooting ‘the ground war.’  It’s just this very incremental move towards the finished product.  He works you like a rib but he’s so collaborative.”   

The character of Jim Barris is a verbose know-it-all, a drug-addled idea man whose ideas don’t work nearly as often as he’d like.  He’s always got a scheme or an invention that he is working on, but mostly Barris is one of those guys who just like to baffle you with bull.  

“If you’re anything like me there are days when you’re pretty convinced that you know more than everyone around you anyway,” Downey smiles.  “Which are often confirmed by your interactions with people.  So, I just know that if you talk faster and use more ten dollar words than anyone, you can convince half of them that they should shut up, because you know what you’re talking about.  The great thing is that it’s hard-wired into the script.  He says, ‘I’ve got to figure it out.  I installed different cameras…’   And of course when he gets there he didn’t turn them on.  I invented a better silencer for $0.23 of Reynolds’ Wrap and it doesn’t work.  That’s not the answer.  I think Dick was really fantastic at throwing out the stereotypes – or an archetype, better yet – and then showing you why it’s full of holes.”   

The holes are showing particularly in Downey’s showiest scene, a hysterical segment where Barris buys a secondhand bike for cheap and only eventually comes to realize that it is hot and he has been ripped off.   

“I just kept looking at it and saying, follow the logic of a scene,” Downey says.  “This was somebody who is obviously again wrong, but is very excited about how great things are.  Then his life crashes before his eyes and he pulled everyone else in.  When she says, ‘Maybe it was this or that,’ I go, yeah, but you know this is a boy’s bike.  He condescends to people.  So I just follow the straight of the scene and improvise on that and then lock into it. 

“I don’t want to hit on the bike scene too much, but the entirety of the cast falls to smithereens there behind me,” he laughs.  “He’s one person introducing an item of novelty, in this case a second-hand bike.  But there are all these scenes.  Like, you know when they’re by the side of the road.  When it starts to escalate and you don’t know really who can trust who.  I read the script, but I try to look at these things through the eyes of a child when possible.” 

Downey admits that he hasn’t read any of Dick’s novels, but he said that was not so much a reflection on the author as it was on his limited time for reading.  “I’m reading Confessions of a Corporate Hit Man [by John Perkins],” Downey says.  “I saw it in a secondhand bookstore.   I was like, wow, this was written in 2004.   I’m almost up to speed with what’s going on now in the literary world.”   

So even if he hadn’t read the book, does he think they all just got it?  Nailed the characters and ideas that Dick was apparently trying to impart in his cautionary tale? 

“I would say that Rick and Keanu got it,” Downey says.  “That Winona looked great.  She’s a great actress and she’s very smart.  Woody and I were basically in a scenery chewing competition.  At one point I shoot off this silencer and I hear thud.  And I go; did he just fall out of the tree without a crash pad underneath him?  What is he trying to do?  This is my scene!  I look over and he’s like (laughs and makes gesture).  ‘That’s lunch.’  It was fantastically fun.” 

So it was a fun shoot apparently.  However, it was still a really tough job.

“It was a period in time, you know?” Downey says.  “It was in Austin.  We were all staying at this golden hotel.  Woody wouldn’t put on air conditioning.  Keanu had his bass in the next room.  Winona was like,” he imitates a girl’s voice, “’Guys, you want to go to a movie?’  It’s like, no; I want to make a fucking movie.  I’m studying.  She was like, ‘Oh, all right.  Don’t become serious about this lighthearted part you’re doing.’  I was like,” he takes on a gruff voice. “Shut up, you study your lines, too!  I was so fucking uptight.”  Downey laughs.  “Because it was hard.  It was hard.  I went to work.  When I wasn’t shooting on the set I was studying.  I went to the gym, studying at the gym.  I went and ate at the same restaurant every night.  I just went in like it was fucking boot camp.”   

A Scanner Darkly was a particularly interesting case in point, because it is so character driven.  Not much really happens as far as plot goes, but these five fascinating losers devolving in concert makes the story intriguing.  Coming off of Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, Downey’s acclaimed but little-seen 2005 noir crime drama with Val Kilmer, it was a nice switch-up.   

Kiss Kiss Bang Bang was – the story was the plot.  Then the characters played a little bit around within that.  To me it was just this glorious outcome.  A Scanner Darkly has themes and layers, but ultimately who cares about what’s happening and what it means?  It’s again why I think Linklater is such an American treasure, because directing is a really tall order.  To understand how you kind of dial it in so that whatever that waveform is… it’s all those points.  It isn’t just technical or isn’t just emotional.” Downey laughs.  “I’d much rather have something be technical than emotional, which is a little bit odd to say as an actor, but I’ve just seen so many people they just like turn it up to eleven.  Like, 'Ooooooh fuuuuuucccccccckkkkkk!'  Wow.  That was a big fuuuucccckkking scene.  'Oooooooooooooooooh!'  You know.” 

A Scanner Darkly, with its themes of government invading personal space and paranoia also seem strangely trenchant in a world of NSA wiretapping.  However, Downey only buys into that argument so far. 

“I’d say you have to give credit to any institution that’s so evil that they’re completely running the program,” Downey says.  “I’m not a big illuminati guy.  I think that paranoia goes from generation to generation.  It’s convenient if you’re neurotic to imagine that there’s people controlling everything by a way that’s manageable and small.  Like the fucking Wizard of Oz to tell you the truth.  But that’s not life.  Life is messy.”   

Downey has been on the cusp of superstardom for so many years that it seems almost impossible sometimes.  Despite critically revered turns in Chaplin and other films, he is often surprised when a film does not capture the attention that it deserves.  Not that Downey feels that lack of an audience means a bad film.   

“Disappointment, humility, it’s all relative,” he says.  “I just look for the highest degree of difficulty and disappointment, just because of better quality.  Like I said, life’s really messy.  Either the cosmos has order to it or it doesn’t.  I choose to believe that it does.  So to judge or compare is a really dangerous pastime.  I think that I hold the record for having been the actor who has done the most movies and still makes the same amount of money as when I was three movies in.  How much is so and so making?  ‘He’s getting four million dollars.’  I go, what’s his name again?  ‘Yeah, well he was in this movie.  It wasn’t a hit, but boy he’s hot.’  I’m like, well, wow, how did he do that?  It’s my lot in life just to be really patient and wait and be disappointed.  It’s not about your day job, anyway.  It’s about what you’re here to do, whatever that is.” 

Not that he’s totally averse to just taking a job for the money.  After all, he did appear in Disney’s remake of The Shaggy Dog with Tim Allen.  And you know what, that’s okay, too. 

“I just wanted to be in a Disney movie and they offered it.  Best job I ever had,” Downey laughs.  “The craft service is a million.  It’s fucking crazy.  ‘Hey, thanks, we got that shot with you and the monkeys.  We’ll see you in three weeks.  Did you get your check?’  I’m like, yeah!  Wow.” 

Downey has also recently finished filming the highly anticipated thriller Zodiac with director David Fincher (Panic Room, Se7en and Fight Club).  Downey welcomed the opportunity to work with the notoriously perfectionist filmmaker.   

“He’s very tough on technique.  So if you’re a technically proficient actor, you’re going to survive.  If you’re not, you’re going to hate him.  I love him.”   

Downey has worked with some of the greatest directors in film today.  Is there some kind of connection that he searches for when he is working with a director? 

“It’s always the same thing.  I want to find a man or a woman where we become a third thing to get in the first thing together.  That’s it.  I’m not interested arguing.  I’m not interested in imagining that the status is any different than it ever is.  It’s a director’s medium and you’re there to serve the piece.  If the piece happens to be the character on what’s happening and what the character means and what the story’s about, then you’re always kind of playing the director in a way.  If a director is confident enough with himself to realize that that’s the outcome that can happen, then it’s a fucking love affair.” 

If Downey is not at the top of the A-list at this point in his career, that doesn’t mean that he isn’t working steadily. 

“Zodiac is done.  Fur is coming out.  Now I’m doing this movie called Charlie Bartlett in Toronto, which I adore.  John Poll, who is Jay Roach’s editor and producing partner, is directing it.  It’s this fantastic kind of… almost like if Mean Girls was like Harold and Maude type thing, you know?  I play a school principal. 

“Movies are still a mystery to me, because they are alive.  The experience of making them and the process… we’re left with these articles or stuff that come out.  But you want to know what I’ll remember?  What it felt like in the room.  What kind of day it was.  It was raining and now it’s not.  That’s what I think is so magical.  Every frame and every instance of the film is kind of supported by the – and I’m not big on this word – but the karma of people who came together and did it.  It’s one thing to have that Bodhi tree bullshit attitude.  It’s another thing to come to realize it’s largely true.  [A Scanner Darkly] ten years ago would have meant one thing.  Twenty years ago.  If they made it into a movie right when it was written it would have been proper.  But it’s just again seeing those cycles.  Now having been around for enough cycles to understand that I’m playing the school principal instead of the rebel student, things tend to repeat themselves in a way that is predictable and yet exciting.   

So since A Scanner Darkly is a view of our not-so-distant future, does Downey think it will have relevance in the upcoming years?  As mankind catches up to Dick’s vision, well it still resonate as it did? 

“I bet it does,” Downey agrees and then pauses a moment to collect his thoughts.  “I just decided to put myself under the impression that everything is so layered and things are so binary that one and zero adds up all these things.  The next thing you know, you’ve got a fucking screensaver.  So to break things down into; is this good?  Is this bad?  Is this going to be hard?  Is this going to be worth it? Are these going to be scary years?  Is there going to be a cataclysm?  What do you fucking think?  Things change.  A lot.  I think this is an exciting time.  I think so.  I think it’s an exciting time in film, which sometimes is an indication for where society is at. 

“They say an optimist believes the future is uncertain,” Downey says.  “A pessimist is always right, but derives no satisfaction from always being right.  So it’s my duty to be an optimist, yet clearly the pessimists have more fucking information because they’re always right.”   

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Copyright ©2006 PopEntertainment.com.  All rights reserved.  Posted: July 14, 2006.

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Copyright ©2006 PopEntertainment.com.  All rights reserved.  Posted: July 14, 2006.