Daniel H Wilson interview: The Nostalgist, Robopocalypse, Blade Runner

Rob chatted with author Daniel H Wilson about his new short The Nostalgist, Robopocalypse’s future and his inspirations…

Daniel H. Wilson is an author with heaps of excellent work under his belt. Chances are you’ll know him best as the scribe behind the New York Times best-seller Robopocalypse, the film rights of which have famously been picked up by a certain Mr Spielberg.

His other work has turned heads in Hollywood too, with Jack Black attached to an adaptation of Wilson’s How To Survive A Robot Uprising with High Fidelity director Steve Pink. The Crow and I, Robot director Alex Proyas also has his hands on the film rights to Wilson’s techno-thriller novel Amped

This year’s London Film Festival gave UK audiences their first chance to see one of Wilson’s stories fully realised on the big screen in the shape of The Nostalgist, a short sci-fi film about an old man and his son and the disjointed dystopia they live in, that everyone hides from through technology. It’s based on Wilson’s first fictional work, the 2009 short story of the same name.

We spoke to Daniel about the story, the film, and also grabbed an update on Robopocalypse

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As good a place to start as any – how did the idea for The Nostalgist come to you?

Well, I had just done this degree in robotics, so I was very rooted at the time in the world of real robots. But I had always wanted to write these stories, with something poignant and emotional.

I was inspired to write The Nostalgist by a number of things. One was Ernest Hemingway. I had just read The Old Man And Sea, and in that novel, this old man only has a relationship with one other human being. Which is this boy, who is there when he leaves and there when he comes back. That definitely inspired the relationship between the old man and the boy in The Nostalgist.

The other thing was, I had just written a non-fiction booked called Where’s My Jetpack?, and I came across this notion – I can’t remember who said the quote– of this thing called the ‘vanilla future’; the idea that everything in the future will be vanilla-smelling and perfect and wonderful.

I really liked that – having your individual idea of what a utopia would look like. That’s how I started thinking about ImmerSyst [the perception-altering technology of the story], and how that could create everyone’s ideal world at the same time through a shared virtual reality.

In the language of the short story you created some vocabulary– Vanille, gonfabs, slidewalks – how important is language in creating a convincing world and making it seem otherly and futuristic?

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Well it’s interesting, because I think you can go too far with coming up your words. But when you sprinkle them in, it can create that atmosphere.

And again, it’s vanilla city essentially, that’s why it’s called Vanille. Vanille and gonfabs are both French… I went for this kind-of French future that everyone in the 60s envisioned with sliding roads, and monolithic buildings, and all the men wearing these fifties-style suits, while all the women are still in kitchens and things. It was a very sexist idea of the future.

I sort of wanted to take that vision of the ‘perfect’ future that they had in the 60s and make it real as this man’s vision of utopia. And, Giacomo [Cimini, the director of the film adaptation] changed that for the short film.

It’s got this Victorian vibe in the film, hasn’t it?

Yeah! And it makes perfect sense for filming, and for making it on a budget. Using visual effects, he took that idea of this Victorian perfection and he spun it out so that there are still floating gardens and cities in the sky and it’s still very surreal, despite having a familiar Victorian atmosphere.

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And underneath that you’ve got the whole dingy, horrible, gritty future that we’re maybe more used to seeing nowadays – with films like District 9 and Elysium for example. What appealed to you about undercutting the utopia and putting that more uncomfortable sci-fi future underneath?

Well, the future that’s depicted in The Nostalgist as the ‘bad future’ or the ‘real world’ is very much Blade Runner, it’s that future we’re familiar with. When there’s not a lot of time, you can invoke a lot through cultural means.

We all know what Blade Runner looked like, maybe because it’s been copied again and again. So we just needed to quickly re-invoke that – that the real world is terrible, and neon, and it’s raining. So that visual style allowed us to do that really quickly.

In the short story, things are more complex. Because what happens in the short story is that people who can’t afford a really beautiful world to look at are forced to sell pieces of their reality to advertisers. In the same way that you might be able to play a game on your iPhone for free as long as you have part of the screen devoted to an advertisement.

So in this world you would get an ImmerSyst for free, but, say, the sky would be a constant advertisement for Coca-Cola. Or your mother’s face would be an advertisement for dog food. Which I think is really horrific, and dystopic, and jarring.

And that’s definitely a statement of whatever we’re selling when we give up portions of our attention to advertising in exchange for goods and services, which is a perfectly normal thing to do these days.

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Definitely. How important do you think it is for sci-fi to do that? That morbid foretelling of ‘this is where we’re headed!’? It’s quite integral to the genre isn’t it?

I think it is. Again, that’s a reason why I don’t go too crazy with the terminology. Because you need to have one foot in the reality that you’re familiar with, and then another foot in this new world. I think it’s nice to see how the author got there, and understand what the author is playing with in terms of the real world counter-part to what they’re talking about.

And yeah, that’s one of the things that is really fun about science fiction, it’s a simulation of a potential future. So, as the reader, you get to make up your own mind about how realistic you think it is, or whether it could really happen, or if we want it to happen or not.

Robotics and philosophy are two things you’ve studied, and they crash together into this quite emotional story. Would you call this a very personal story, or even a passion project? Seeing your first fiction story coming full circle onto screen, does that feel like you’ve come full circle back on yourself?

It’s been kind of amazing, just seeing how much it takes to make a film – to create a real world out of something that somebody has just written. It is definitely humbling, as a writer, because I write lots of stuff, and it’s easy to sit down and write. But as a writer, you still feel like a martyr, like ‘ah I spent years writing my novel and no-one appreciates it!’ – and then sometimes something you write goes off and gets recognition, and that’s terrific, because you’ve spent years of your time on it.

But then when you look at what a director has to do in order to get their career going, how many people they have to have involved, how much of their money, and other people’s money that they have to scrape together, and how physically demanding it is, and physically uncomfortable, and hard on relationships – I had no idea of the scope of what I meant to make a film, even a short film, and now I do. And I’m really happy that Giacomo could show me that.

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And I’m really glad that the film has been well received, because everyone who was involved deserves serious credit. It took so much effort, and so much time.

So how did that relationship with you and Giacomo come to be? Who made the first move there?

He read the short story, and liked it, and saw potential, and asked me for the rights. And I said ‘sure!’ – and I really expected nothing, you know?

Most of time, people are blowing smoke. It’s really hard to tell who, in the world, is serious. And Giacomo is obviously really passionate, so that goes a long way to convince you. It’s sort-of hard not to like him, and to want to see him succeed, and to help him.

So yeah, I just gave him the rights and said ‘yeah, knock yourself out!’, even though I didn’t expect much. Then he came back to me and said [awful Italian accent:] “Daniel! We are doing it!” [laughs]

Even then, I didn’t get it, you know? I bought a plane ticket to go to London and watch the filming, and I really thought it was going to be three or four guys in a room, you know? And then I got there and it was like a hundred people – it was so professional! I was immediately staggered. Blown away.

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I was reading the short story again today before our call, and one thing that really stood out to me is that the casting and the characterisation in the film sticks really true to the old man and the boy that you created. What was it like for you to see those characters brought to life in front of you?

A lot of the dialogue was the same, as the short story, too. So that was really incredible. As soon as I got there I was able to talk to the actors. There was one of them, a militia-man, and he has this scar on his face. And he has the scar in the short story, as well.

I talked to him and I said “do you know why you have that scar?” and he was like “no! I don’t!”, and I realised how much of the story was in my head, and hadn’t actually been put down onto the page. So I told him all about this war that there had been, [laughs] and he was like “oh! I get it!”

Don’t tell me this was after they had already finished filming his part?

Oh, no! He was just sitting down preparing to go on!

Ah, good!

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Yeah, it was funny. I got to sit down and talk with all the actors, and I found it funny that they even cared, you know? Really there was nothing for me to do! On set, I was like the most worthless person there! I was just a tourist, but that was really amazing.Especially with all the make-up, and being able to see all the transitions from the nice, happy, clean world to the dirty, scarred world – that was really fun.

And, you know, I was still steaming because Robopocalypse had just been delayed, it was meant to go into production right around that time. In London as well, actually. So I was still smarting from that. But then I got there, and it was like “oh, wow!” – So that was really great timing!

Speaking of features, I’ve heard there might be a feature-length Nostalgist film, can you tell us anything about that?

[Pause] Um, yeah, I can. I am developing a feature version, with Giacomo. And yeah, it does inhabit the same world. It does get into the dynamic of the shared ImmerSyst system, and what that means. Class, and what it means for that.

It definitely speaks to the way things are, right now, with wealth disparity, and people being really able to choose what they see, and the people they see, based on their income.

What it’s really, ultimately about is this really bittersweet relationship between the old man and the boy – although we’re not sticking directly to the same characters. It’s that same emotion.

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What I can really say is that, when I write, I try to stick to a theme. Some kind of lone star that will keep me on track so that I’m able to focus every scene so that it speaks to whatever the underlying point of the whole thing is.

If there was a point, if there was a theme, to the feature-length Nostalgist, it would be that you really need to face reality in order to heal. I think it’s so tempting, whenever you get hurt, to distract yourself, to try and ignore things and hope that they go away. Ultimately, at the end of the day, you really do need to face reality if you want to heal and get over traumatic things.

Yeah, you can’t just cover it up. That comes across in the short too, with the revelation and it all starts piecing itself together.

But in the short film he doesn’t heal. He goes back to the illusion. And the boy helps him. And, you know, part of that dynamic – I was inspired by this TV show called Intervention. Which is about family members getting together to give an intervention to somebody they love. Someone who’s addicted to drugs.

And what amazes me about that dynamic is this terrible paradox where these people love each other, and they want to help this person, but they have to hurt that person in order to help them.

Your instinct, with people you love, is to love them, and not hurt them, even if it’s for their own good. That’s sort of the dynamic that the boy is in with the old man – he realises that, in order for this guy to be helped in the long term, he needs to be hurt. But he’s not sure that he can survive the hurt. So he chooses not to hurt him.

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Your projects have often been optioned for the big screen, but seem to hit difficulties along the way, how exciting is it for you to finally see a project get through all those barriers and actually make it to the cinema?

Nobody deserves to have a film made out of what they write. It’s an amazing honour to have anything made, and for anyone to care! Or even to read something you wrote! So it’s not like I felt I was due anything, but of course it was incredible wish fulfilment to be able to visit the set, and then to be able to see the final film, and be so amazed by it.

And it’s that same thing – it’s not mine. It belongs to everybody that worked on it. And I love that it’s not exactly the same as the short story. And that’s surprising. And now I’m really inspired to go farther with the story with Giacomo, and make it into a feature. So it’s, really, a step along the road.

I’m definitely feeling very lucky to be able to sit down and watch it. And it made my mum cry! [laughs] It made my mum cry like a baby!

Oh wow, that’s the dream!

Yeah! Right? [laughs]

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Just finally, and forgive me for asking, but seeing as we love the book, is there anything you can tell us about Robopocalypse? Where is it at? Is it still happening? Is there a timeline?

Sure. It’s basically in the queue as far as I know. You know, Spielberg has other movies that he’s directing right now. But Robopocalypse has certainly been worked on. I’m sure that Dreamworks is still very excited about it. That’s what all indications are.

It’s just about being patient, you know? I think one of the films on Spielberg’s slate is The B.F.G., and that’s been floating around for about ten years!

So it could be a while!

Yeah. I don’t really know what a timeline is, but that’s certainly normal. So I’m just being patient and working on all my projects. It would be some wonderful bonus points if that ever comes together.

Definitely. Just that moment in itself, getting the call that Spielberg wants to make your book into a film – that must have been incredible.

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Yeah, that was… that whole experience was just pushing me to the limits of excitement, and dread! I kind of prefer to be on a more even keel when I can!

Daniel H. Wilson, thank you very much.

The Nostalgist short film is available online via We Are Colony here. The short story is also online here