The future keepers

Times Staff Writer

Philip K. DICK, the science-fiction author who struggled for years with personal demons, never saw “Blade Runner,” the first Hollywood adaptation of his writing. He died of a stroke just four months shy of its release in 1982. His grieving daughter Isa, then 15, remembers going to see the film in a San Rafael theater hoping that it might, somehow, keep part of her father alive.

“I went with my mom and I remember that there were maybe two other people in the whole theater and that was the way it was everywhere -- the movie was a total failure,” Isa Dick Hackett said. “I remember too that the lights came up before the dedication at the end, so I didn’t even get to see that. It was like a double slap in the face.”

After the bruising “Blade Runner” fiasco, Dick’s family assumed that the late writer had “zero future in movies,” as his daughter put it. That would have added another discouraging footnote to a pained life. Dick had five failed marriages, wrote most of his novels while gobbling amphetamines and, in the grips or paranoia or religious visions, he felt always the outsider.


But while Philip Kindred Dick was a disaffected loner in life, in death his ideas turned out to be pitch-perfect for a Digital Age that wanted science fiction not just about aliens but also about the alienated.

Posthumously, Dick became a one-man factory for Hollywood projects, with his fiction reaching the screen nine times. Among the films: Steven Spielberg’s “Minority Report,” Paul Verhoeven’s “Total Recall,” John Woo’s “Paycheck” and, earlier this year, the Nicolas Cage vehicle “Next,” which arrives on DVD in stores on Sept. 25.

“Blade Runner,” meanwhile, has bounced back from its early obscurity to become one of the most celebrated science-fiction films ever made. In October, it returns to theaters with “Blade Runner: The Final Cut,” a 25th anniversary edition that, for the first time, realizes director Ridley Scott’s vision with a meticulous reworking.


Resurgent image

All of it makes for a staggering turnaround for the family of the troubled writer whose work presaged the cyberpunk movement; there is still debate about the quality of his actual prose versus the urgency of his concepts, but now, finally, he is at least mentioned as often as the familiar icons of the genre during his lifetime, the Asimovs, Bradburys, Clarkes and Heinleins. (Four of Dick’s 1960s novels have just been reissued by the prestigious Library of America, giving the paperback writer some new hardcover cachet.)

This month, Hackett, who is 40 and lives in the Bay Area, joined Scott and much of the cast of “Blade Runner” at a gala premiere of the reconstituted version at the Venice Film Festival. The clamor of the international press and the ornate trappings of the theater on the Lido made for a surreal counterpoint to the sad California experience in the summer of 1982.

“I kept thinking back to how it was when I saw it that first time and how I had walked in with this little glimmer of hope that the movie would bring more attention to my dad and his writing. I loved the film myself, but I gave up that hope. And now it’s all pretty amazing.”

Hackett and her sister Laura Leslie are the principal players behind Electric Shepherd, the family’s production company. The company, which is now opening an L.A. office, was created in 2005 partly out of frustration; after watching Hollywood disappointments such as “Screamers” and “Paycheck,” the Dick brood decided they needed a stronger hand in future projects.

Right now, Hackett said, there are six film projects that are in various stages of negotiation or development, including advanced talks that would finally bring one of his signature works, “Ubik,” to life as a feature film.

Hollywood creators have flirted with “Ubik,” the 1969 novel, more than any other single work in the Dick library. Its tale of skirmishing telepaths and slippery reality earned it a spot on Time magazine’s 2005 list of the 100 greatest English-language novels since 1923.

There are also strong pushes being made into video games and graphic novels, and a audio-book collection of his complete short stories is expected to launch in 2008. There’s also a limited series for television written by David Hayter (a screenwriter on “X-Men” and the upcoming “Watchmen”) that pulls together a dozen or so of Dick’s short stories within a narrative frame.

Of all the percolating ventures, however, none is a higher priority than a biopic of Dick that is being penned now by screenwriter Tony Grisoni (“Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas”); Oscar-nominated actor Paul Giamatti is the star and co-producer. Hackett said this week that the script will intertwine Dick’s life story with scenes from his final and unfinished novel, “The Owl in Daylight,” a typical Dick story in that it bundles up themes of the fantastic and the disaffected.

The basic premise: An alien culture that cannot hear sound comes to Earth and inserts a bio-chip into the brain of a composer to funnel the experience of music to their society for the first time -- but the fellow they pick is a hack writer of B movie scores, and the aliens hunger for a richer experience than his talent can deliver. Then the bio-chip begins to push and inspire him to new heights of creativity, but it also begins to scorch his mind.

“He’s making this fantastic music, but the rub is he’s burning his brain out,” Hackett said. “In many ways it really is my father’s story. He couldn’t not write -- he had these experiences he had to write about -- but it was all at a tremendous cost to him. So the fictional story and his own dovetail beautifully.”

That would hint at a movie that chronicles a writer’s life by blurring the lines between his real world and the one he created on the page, Ã la “Naked Lunch” or “American Splendor” (which also starred Giamatti). The “Naked Lunch” comparison seems especially relevant; like William S. Burroughs, Dick also lived an unhinged life. Paranoia, drug binges and fractured relationships are at the heart of the story, and Hackett admits having deep reservations about seeing it play out on a screen.

“But I think this movie is going to be made, it’s inevitable, so I think the family should be part of it. I think it’s better to be in the room definitely,” Hackett said. “I think I’ve come to the point where I think it’s a positive if we can play a role and have some influence and keep it sensitive and make sure it has a heart and not just focused on the sensational.”

Her half-sister, Leslie, echoed that: “In a way, we feel we have to do it, because someone is going to make a film to fill that void.”

Dick was married five times before his death at age 53 in Orange County. He had three children, each by a different wife. Isa, which is short for Isolde, was the second of the children, and her mother, Nancy Hackett, divorced the author in 1972 after six difficult years. The girl kept in touch with her father through letters and occasional visits, and she said she intuitively understood how to navigate around his anxieties, such as his intense discomfort in crowds and extended social interactions.

Now Hackett is the most visible face for the family as the children carry on with their father’s considerable library. “The three of us,” she said proudly, “have not had a single significant disagreement on a project, ever.” She counts one of their great successes to be “A Scanner Darkly,” the 2006 Richard Linklater adaptation that starred Keanu Reeves, Robert Downey Jr. and Winona Ryder working for scale. The film used an animation process that made it possible to capture the fantastic elements of the story on a small budget.

On the set, Reeves came up to Hackett and humbly thanked her for the honor of allowing the movie to be made, a moment that stuck with Hackett. Now, she said, the family’s emphasis is working “with true fans of the material” on projects that capture the creative edginess of the source material. In other words, more like “A Scanner Darkly” and less like the action-heavy, high concept of, say, “Total Recall.”

When was the last time Hackett saw her father? Well, in a way it was 2005. That’s when a team of scientists -- all of them among Dick’s many devotees in the wired world -- put his face on an eerie android with lifelike skin, camera eyeballs and an artificial intelligence that allowed it to recognize old friends. When Hackett saw the face she almost fainted.

“It looked very much like my dad,” she said. “When my name was mentioned it launched into a long rant about my mother and this one time that she took me and left him. It was not pleasant.”

Hackett, knowing that her heritage and life pursuits require a certain affinity for the bizarre, said she “understands” where the robot’s creators were coming from and that it was flattering that they selected her dad to be the face of their high-tech curiosity. That android, by the way, was supposedly “misplaced” by an unnamed airline, its handlers said, a shady story to say the least, but Hackett doesn’t miss the contraption.

“That flight it was on, the one where it was lost, it was headed to Santa Ana. That’s where my dad died. That’s fitting, I guess. It’s still out there somewhere.”