In a paranoid world populated by attacking aphids and double agents in shape-shifting suits, a group of druggies strung out on a substance known only as "D" argue about whether a bike just purchased on the street is an 18- or nine-speed, then bicker over the best way to fix a busted carburetor and wonder if the cops will eventually break into their run-down Orange County house "through the back door or the bathroom window like that infamous Beatles song."
Writer-director Richard Linklater says he knew the familiar interplay between such slacking characters was the reason he could adapt sci-fi writer Philip K. Dick's surreal 1977 novel, A Scanner Darkly, into film. "It felt like a Philip K. Dick story I could tell," he says. "It's more of a character piece." He often thought about Dick's books while making his 2001 feature Waking Life, during which he first experimented animating using a digital process known as "rotoscoping." Animation, he realized, was the only way to bring the hallucinatory, herky-jerky world of Scanner to life.
Linklater, whose 1991 film Slacker put him on the map as an indie auteur, was able to assemble a dream cast to play said D-dependents: Keanu Reeves, Winona Ryder, Robert Downey Jr., Woody Harrelson, and Rory Cochrane, whom he's worked with several times. Linklater points out that using small DV cameras to shoot the film in only 23 and a half days of shooting helped relax himself and the in-demand actors. "On a typical film shoot, there's so much attention to the perfection of the image," he says, explaining that the usual visual mistakes such as a hair being out of place or a boom creeping into a shot could easily be edited out during postproduction due to the animation. "You're not obsessing about the final image, which frees you up totally to just concentrate on the performances and the actors. I think [the actors] found it pretty freeing, very rewarding...It was kind of the ideal way, as a filmmaker, you want to shoot." Gathering for two weeks of rehearsal in Austin was also liberating for director and cast. "They're all really smart, really inventive. They're all very much their own people and thinkers," Linklater says of the cast. "I love actors, and I totally appreciate what they do... The bravery it takes to put yourself out there in that way, I'm kind of in awe of that."
Shooting and rehearsing may have been idyllic, but the painstaking rotoscoping process during which every frame is hand-drawn and painted over took more than 50 animators and artists roughly 15 months to complete. It was frustrating for Linklater, who's never been a stickler for technical details. "We bit off more than we could chew, probably. It was just a huge task," he says. "But I'm very happy with the ultimate look, and it was all worth it."
"A Scanner Darkly" will show at the Los Angeles Film Festival on Thu., June 29, at 8:30 p.m. at the Ford Amphitheatre. For more information, go to www.lafilmfest.com.