Bryan Cranston interview: Philip K. Dick’s Electric Dreams

Bryan Cranston chats to us about his involvement in Channel 4 and Amazon’s Phillip K. Dick anthology series, Electric Dreams...

Amazon and Channel 4’s Philip K. Dick anthology series, Electric Dreams, adapts ten of the iconic author’s short stories into hour-long TV dramas.

The show has the mighty Bryan Cranston involved as an actor and an executive producer. This marks the second Amazon production that Cranston has pulled double duty on, following on from Sneaky Pete.

Along with a bunch of other journalists, Den Of Geek took part in a roundtable interview with Cranston on the set of Electric Dreams, on an offensively hot day back in June. Here’s how it went…

I think what we all want to know is the genesis of how Electric Dreams came together.

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It did come together. I bumped into Michael Dinner, who was a director that I knew, on the Sony lot. And he said, “Your company might be interested in joining us to develop an anthology series about Philip K. Dick’s short stories.” And I thought, ‘well, I love Philip K. Dick, so let’s talk about this.’ And so we started talking about it more.

And it kind of materialised to that point where we were actually able to pitch it and say that every episode is going to be different. We’re going to embrace the eclectic nature of that. And it won’t be just taking his work and putting it into screenplay form, but that it would be used as an inspiration for the writers to use a springboard to their own reimagining of it.

Change the gender. Change the location. Change the time. Put it in the past. Put it in the future. Wherever you wanna go with it. And have some relevancy to the stories, so that it’s not just killing creatures or whatever, but there’s some meaning and intent behind it. And that it resonates to current audiences. That they will have some sort of takeaway with it that’s valuable.

And from the start, Philip K Dick’s estate – the custodians of these stories – were up for that?

Oh yeah. They’re equal partners. They’re executive producers as well.

The previous adaptations of his work are iconic, aren’t they? Blade Runner and now The Man In The High Castle.

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And The Adjustment Bureau and Total Recall, which I did a movie of. Its history is well documented, and now this is taking a different slant to it. As opposed to creating a two hour story, we want to do it in an hour format and have a bunch of different ideas.

Did you know that you wanted to do Human Is [the episode that Cranston is appearing in is an adaptation of Dick’s 1955 short story Human Is] straight away? When you first talked about the short stories?

It’s like when I’m doing a movie or something. I read a project, I read a script, objectively, so I don’t already place myself into that character’s position, you know? I wanted to see, because I always want to see, how it affects me. Does it stimulate my imagination? And it has to stay with me. Sometimes if it scares me a little bit, that’s a good sign. But certainly if it stays with me. If I wake up thinking about it, if I’m walking around, if it stays, like, it’s a good sign.

Can you say anything about how far its deviated from the original? Obviously its quite a small, short story.

Yeah, Human Is is adjusted somewhat, but not to a great degree. It is still about a woman’s plight. We’ve adjusted her position in it, to give her more of a say. In the original short story, she was without occupation, if I remember correctly. And, in this story, we have given her a very high position in a state-run experience. So, that’s going on, and so it speaks to a more current condition.

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You know, when he first wrote this, women were housewives a lot. It was back in the 50s. And we didn’t want that. We wanted the new infusion of the who and why and how. So, that’s why we wanted to do that.

And what about the story of your character, who is named Lester in the short story but has a different name now.

Just a different name.

So it’s similar?

Yeah, very very. It’s a dichotomy of a character. As a character who has lost his desire for love and companionship with his mate, and then comes back from a harrowing experience and has regained it. Or is he? Who is that person? Can a person really change that much?

It’s almost like Walter White in reverse.

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Ohhh. [Laugher] How long did it take you to bring up a Walter White reference?

Sorry.

I don’t know. Is it Walter White in reverse? I don’t know. I certainly don’t look at it in that regard. It would only, if it came to me like ‘Oh, I’m playing a history teacher who decides to be a criminal.’ It’s like, ‘Oh, okay. I’m getting a sense here.’ No, but I read everything from an objective viewpoint, and I invite it to come into be subjectively, and if it does, that’s a really good sign. If it doesn’t, then it stays away.

Could you kind of explain how hands on you are in your executive producer role? For example, have you helped sort of bring actors on board? Have you chosen the writers yourself?

I have been working with the other EPs for three and a half years, I think. Developing the pitch, going to the pitch meetings, selling it to Amazon, selling it to Channel 4, and developing the construct of how we would do this. Ten different writers, ten different directors, ten different casts – it’s a monumental production. Logistically, it shouldn’t work. It really shouldn’t. It shouldn’t, and yet it does. It comes together. Somehow, someway.

Reading. My work is mostly reading and noting. Meetings on the phone. Ten different outlines, two or three times. Either twenty to thirty outlines to read and note. Each episode had at least three drafts each. Most of them had four or five. Human Is had twelve.

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Wow.

So every time you have a new draft, you’re reading and noting. Reading and noting. And that’s really the best place for me to stay. Into driving the narrative, and my company’s whole thrust is about character. We want to take stories from a character’s perspective, as opposed to from a plot perspective. So, Human Is, for example, has my input on it more than others. Because I was able to be with the writer – Jessica Mecklenburg – and our director [Francesca Gregorini]. And the three of us were shaping it to that point.

And you get it to the point when production starts, and now we add Essie Davis, who plays Vera, and now you have her input. Swirl it around until it feels right. And that’s the interesting thing about it; art is inclusive, and incredible tolerant. No one is wrong. No one, is wrong, in their opinion and how they feel about something, which is great.

And you’ve got directors who believe that? They’re not territorial?

Oh absolutely. You know, yeah, that can be a problem, when someone says “No, this is right, this is it.’ It’s like, ‘I see it this way.’ You know?

As you said, it’s quite a logistical challenge, and quite a big bet financially. Channel 4 got it, did they? Or was that a hard meeting?

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No, you know, my philosophy in everything with my company – we have four productions now, in four years – has always been, for a lack of a more sophisticated way to put it, ‘I don’t need a job. I never have to work again in my life. So why would I take on anything that I’m not passionate about?’

So I have to be passionate about it, or I’m not interested. I wish you all the best of luck, but I’m not interested. Someone else can do a good job on it. So, with everything that we take on as a project, we’re so passionately involved in it. Which is the way it should be! And then, live with the frustration. And there is, there’s no shortage of frustration on this project or any project. It’s just the nature of how art and commerce come together, and often, clash. They smack into each other. Like, ‘Urgh, how can you not see that we need more money for this?’ [And then, from the other side] ‘How can you not see that we’re not going to give you more money for this?’ You know what it’s like.

So you have to figure out how you make that marriage work. And it is often difficult. Inherently difficult. And yet, you do it. If you believe in the project, make the call. You get on board. You pitch to Channel 4, how you envision the series. And each one of us would chime in at any interval, and you hope you make a sale. And you hope they give you the chance to tell your story.

The initial announcement of the show existing had AMC [the home network of Breaking Bad] listed as being involved. How far did you get along with that collaboration, and what kind of changed when Amazon came on?

Um, the thing with AMC was that it became… I think they have Humans. And I think they felt, ultimately, that it was going to conflict with Humans as opposed to compliment. So, they said, “We’re already all-in on that show.” So we said, “Okay.” We had confidence. First place we went to [after that] was Amazon, and they bought it. So it wasn’t orphaned for long.

How important do you think the success of Black Mirror was to getting something like this made?

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Very. Very important. It told that there is an audience for this kind of storytelling. And I think it’s a terrific show. And it’s not… I guess you could say that we would want to compete with it, but in essence it’s maybe not competing with it, but working in conjunction with it. You know, anything is a competition, but I don’t really see it that way. What I see is, like, I don’t feel I’m in competition with other actors. And that’s not to say, ‘Oh no, no one’s in my league.’ [Laughter]

That’s not at all what I’m saying. What I’m saying is that I don’t look at it that way. I look at it from a standpoint of: I’m going to present to them a possible solution, or option for them. For producers, writers. And if they select me, they’ll get a certain thing. If they select someone else, they will get something else. And so I just look at it like, ‘Oh, they wanted that.’ So it’s not offensive or anything.

I’m really interested that there is an audience for this sort of thing. Anthology series. And Black Mirror obviously proved that. And hopefully this will too. Do you think it says anything about the fact that people are starting to get slightly fatigued with long-running TV series that take a lot of commitment? Do you think that’s part of the reason [why people are getting into anthology shows]?

No, I don’t think that. I think it is, you could tell me what your favourite meal is, but if I gave you your favourite meal everyday, you’d be like ‘oh god.’ There’s different flavours out there that you’d like to try. That’s interesting. Sometimes you want to read a novel, and sometimes you want to read a short story. Sometimes you want to watch a television program, sometimes you want to go to an art museum. It’s not like we only have one avenue to appeal to us in an artist sense.

But it still feels like this is quite a new thing, where you can have an umbrella [show that encompasses lots of things].

I think it’s more cyclical than anything. I’m a lot older than you, and so there was The Night Gallery and there was The Twilight Zone. The Outer Limits was another one. I think they ebb and flow in popularity, and if it’s been gone for a while, ‘Hey, look at this!’ And it was gone for a while, so when Black Mirror came, it was like, ‘Oh, this is fresh. This is new.’

And yeah, they couldn’t do the old-fashioned stories. They had to do something with a twist to it. And have some relevance. So I look at Black Mirror as maybe a big brother. And if there’s a healthy competition with it, okay, that’s fine, but I don’t wanna feel like we’re a derivation of them, or that we’re in direct competition with them. There’s plenty of room for different tastes.

You mentioned this being a passion project. Could you maybe explain why? Could you articulate your passion for Philip K. Dick?

Storytelling. I’m really fortunate that I get to be a storyteller. It’s my job. I get to tell stories for a living. Storytelling is probably your earliest memory. Dragging a book to your parent’s lap. And looking at the pictures as they’re telling you a story. It’s like, ‘Wow, look at this, and then the monster did this, and the beanstalk, or whatever.’ It’s like we’re enthralled.

It’s one of joyous things of being a human being – actually very sweet and innocent about human beings – that we are willing, as mature adults, to spend really good money, to have people tell us a story, that we know is not true. But we don’t care. It’s so important to us. I will lay out all this money for you, please, tell me a story! Right?

All of you are writing about storytellers. It’s like, this is something that’s engrained in the human experience. That is so wonderful. We wanna be told a story. And there’s rules to telling stories. The biggest offence you can have as a storyteller is to move someone to no emotion whatsoever. Then you’ve lost. If you move them to indifference, boredom, we’ve lost. So you can miss your mark.

You can intend for something to a satire, and for them to laugh at something, but they take it seriously. That’s okay. They took it, the way they want. Some art makes you angry. Some art makes you joyous.

So what about Dick?

It spurs imagination. I think people are generally curious. Science fiction is basically for the curious. We know what the past is through history, through relatives who told us our own family past, or historians who tell us this is what happened in 1812. So we kind of have an idea about the past. We’re living the present. What we don’t know is the future. We have hopes and dreams and ambitions, but we don’t know.

You hear of someone your age who drops dead. And all of a sudden you go, ‘Jesus, wow, I forgot how tenuous life can be, how ephemeral it is.’ And then you go beyond that. ‘I wonder what life would be like for my great great grandchildren. What are they gonna see? What will they experience?’ Nobody knows! And so that’s why anybody can write about science fiction, but only a few can write about science fiction with an attachment to how it relates to you now.

Can you remember how you first came across his work?

I guess Blade Runner. What was that, 30 years ago? [Some chatter from the journos] 35 years ago. I think that was probably, like, ‘What is this world? Wow!’ And I did a little investigation into that. I did Total Recall because I was interested in the story.

You did a remake, and now they are redoing Blade Runner. How do you feel about that, because it’s such an iconic film in itself?

I think if there’s a new idea, a new slant, a new way of telling the story, I think it’s all fair. It’s all good.

But these [in Electric Dreams] are mostly stories that haven’t been adapted before?

Yes. That’s right. The estate has a very close hand on which ones, of the 125 short stories, are available.

Right. So how many of those did you have to choose from?

More than half. And, what’s interesting is, how are these selected? We read almost all of them, but then we didn’t want to force-feed any of our writers, because maybe what I responded to won’t respond to you. So we had a bunch of them available, and we gave them [the writers] – in a palatable way, so as not to overwhelm them – three at a time.

Here’s three, and they’re short stories, so they’re reading them at their own leisure. And if none of those attract [the writer], here’s three more. So we can do it in short spurts so it’s not like, ‘Here’s 25!’ So we gave them that, and sometimes we’d go two or three runs, until someone landed on something. Which is always an indicator, if a writer lands on something, it means it resonated with them. They made a connection, and that’s the one we should go with.

And how did those writers come together? Did some of them come to you, or did you seek a load of them out to try and get different voices from different places?

Yeah, from different places. Different recommendations. The people that we admired. Sometimes who we worked with. Then it became about availability, and who has it. They’re high-paid writers for feature films and things, so it’s like, ‘Do you have time to do this?’ But a lot of them thought about it like, ‘You know what, I do. I can keep my creative juices going until I know I need to start this film in three months. So I’ll do this now.’

Has there been any effort to link them in any sense, tonally or… not to keep going back to Black Mirror, but it’s very much Charlie Brooker’s cynicism and fear of technology. That’s kind of the overarching theme that’s spread out. Has the been any effort to unify them [the Electric Dreams stories] in any way?

I think the unifier is Philip K Dick. So we tried to leave it at that, that everything emanated from his source material. And we encouraged people to change. Change the gender. Change the culture. Change the language, even.

Are you prepared for the fan reaction? Like, ‘What have you done to this story?’

I respect those fans, but yeah, it’s like… again, we’re talking about a futuristic storyteller, so why not make adjustments to it?

Could you maybe tease for us which stories have changed the most? You mentioned before that the writers were allowed to move their stories to the past, for example. Did anyone take you up on that?

Yes. Um, gosh… well, now, because we’ve also changed a few of the titles, so I’m not… there’s actually three or four that we’ve changed considerably. And sometimes you see it changing, and you realise, ‘Aaah, I think we need to, kind of…’ Whenever we felt that we were floating – again, because this isn’t any hard and fast rule – and sometimes it feels like a bit of a helium balloon. You have to bring it back down. Let’s go back to the source material, and just reconnect with that to make sure that we’re making that association.

Um, and offhand I can’t think of one. My brain… I’ve got four projects. I’m thinking, trying to keep everybody straight, and I am working on this one as an actor too. Um, but there have been several that have taken liberties. Not to the extreme to where it’s unrecognisable, though. I think they’re maintaining the respect to the source material and moving from there.

Did any of them try to mesh together a number of different stories?

No, yeah, the estate wouldn’t want that.

Have there been any issues with the estate, for example, with changing details? How involved have they been?

Very involved. His daughter Isa [Dick Hackett] is one of our executive producers, and Kalen [Egan] is the curator, so to speak, of the estate. And they’re both executive producers, and they have great notes and they’re very encouraging on taking liberties. You know, it’s fantastical, and that’s what her father was. If nothing else, fantastical, and he would allow it just to open up your mind and have an experience. And so, in the spirit of that, she has blessed the concept of just going, opening.

Does Isa ever talk about her memories of her dad? She must have been very young when he died.

Not specifically, as far as, “I remember once when he”, so to speak. But in a general sense. And in talking about the tonality of his work. And again, to reinforce the nature of experimentation. And that he was all for that, and wanted to be able to embrace, to go into that place, you know? Um, because no one could say, like if I did a show about Henry VIII, and messed with history, there would be an uproar. Like, ‘What are you doing? You can’t do this!’ But if I go into the future, and did whatever, no one could say, ‘What? That’s not how it’s going to be! How dare you?!’

So we have to keep an open mind to that, and it’s like, ‘Wow, could it be that way? Could life be that simple, or that devoid of that human contact?’ In some ways, artificial intelligence taking over, and we see some examples of that now, of course.

You can’t deny that technology has marched on since he wrote these stories.

Yeah, for example, we are here in the Gillette Building. They used to make razors here. They used to make things here, and now they don’t make things here. They make these somewhere else. Robots make razors now. Not people.

Does that worry you, or does that intimidate you, or do you embrace it?

No, I’m set, so… [laughter] um, no, I think, as storytellers, it’s my interest – I don’t say it’s my job – it’s my interest to continue telling the human story. And that’s why, in my company, it’s character character character. And then, when you’re done focusing on developing character, develop more character. I can give you a plot, and I’ll put the plot in, but if you don’t like these characters, or if you’re not invested in them, it doesn’t matter what the plot is.

You’ve got four projects being developed at the moment. Is this the one that you’re most interested in? Are other people in your company looking after the others? Or are you this hands on with everything?

I’m schizophrenic. I’m working with all four. I don’t play golf. I don’t do anything else but work and be with my family. I’m a lonely, lonely man. [Laughter]

And what’s the play you’re doing, Bryan? You’re doing a play in London, right?

I’m gonna do a play, in London, yeah, I’m very excited about it. Remember the movie Network? Paddy Chayefsky. This is, Lee Hall has adapted that screenplay into a play. Ivo van Hove is going to direct, and it’s going to be at the National at the end of this year. I hope you can come, it’s like… it was first regarded, and it was, a satire. Fake news, and all that. Making news an entertainment program was a satirist kind of approach. It’s no longer that. This is the real world.

Bryan Cranston, thank you very much!

Philip K. Dick’s Electric Dreams is on Channel 4 and All 4 now.