Is William Gibson's 'Neuromancer' the Future of Movies?
Two who are turning the 1984 book into a film and game explain why now's perfect timing.
When Neuromancer was published in 1984, William Gibson redefined the future of the future by creating the concept of cyberspace. Almost 30 years later a team of filmmakers and game creators are hoping Neuromancer will redefine the way movies are made and media platforms are created, crossed, criss-crossed and combined.
Gibson's movie career to date has been bizarre -- Johnny Mnemonic, an adaptation of a short story featuring Keanu Reaves at his whoa-dudiest as the cyber-cowboy title character; a painful low-budget adaptation of his short story New Rose Hotel; a couple of X-Files episodes with sentient computers and a Gibson-scripted draft of Alien 3 that was reduced to scrap except for one concept -- a bar code tattooed on the prisoners for ID. Meanwhile, his books continue to redefine reality and rock the bestsellers lists. The newest book by the Vancouver-based cyberpunk icon, Distrust That Particular Flavor -- a collection of his essays -- was released this week.
Neuromancer is a dystopian mystery involving a hack of a computer hacker given an irresistible job by a shadowy boss. At a special forum as part of the 2011 Toronto International Film Festival, Trevor Fencott talked about adapting Neuromancer for gamers at the same time writer-director Vincenzo Natali (Cube, Splice), present via the magic of Skype and a big screen projector, talked about developing Neuromancer the movie. They were joined by Jay Firestone, who talked about the 12 years he's spent trying to bring Neuromancer to the big screen. The Space Channel's Mark Askwith moderated and asked most of the questions, starting with when everyone discovered the source code for all these new projects -- Gibson's book.
Natali first read it before it caught fire. "Popular culture absolutely had not caught up to it and when I read it, it was definitely mind-blowing. I'm sure it falls into the same category as Dune or Martian Chronicles or Rendezvous with Rama as one of the great works of science fiction. So in my mind it's always like a pillar of great speculative fiction, and never in my wildest dreams did I think that I would actually be working on it. It's a very intimidating process, trying to adapt the book."
Fencott read the book almost as soon as it was published. "I was probably one of the early adopters, maybe '85, really shortly after it came out. I was the high school AV robotics nerd, so it really was one of those things that was required reading. I think it had a profound effect on me," says Fencott. "I think it really shaped a lot of my desire to experiment with computers as communications devices as opposed to just computational devices... The idea of a hacking deck [a Neuromancer creation] and an iPad are not so dissimilar. The idea that you can be connected at all times, jacked into things at all times, is something that was completely alien in the '80s."
Firestone came to the book after working on the movie version of Gibson's Johnny Mnemonic. "I'm not that artistic to be honest. I put together Johnny Mnemonic when I was at Alliance, did all the business side, made sure we made a lot of money on it and all those kinds of things, but never showed up on set. So afterwards when it was done and I left, I thought I'd go after Neuromancer and actually produce it this time, and not just get the money together. I developed it for a little while, lost it when I sold the company, got it back again, then lost it again. And then two years ago bought it back again, a third time. And when I took it back I went to Vincenzo and now, for the first time in 12 or 13 years, it feels real."
Firestone's biggest creative concern has been keeping Gibson happy. "I gave Vincenzo freedom to do what he wanted and he worked well with Gibson. They were very much in sync. Because I do need, no matter what, the author of the book to say, 'I liked this movie.' Because if he goes out and says, 'Don't watch it, I don't agree with it,' we're dead. So they worked really well together. I think Vincenzo will say this: he connected very well with Gibson."
Natali did say that. Here are some of the other comments that caught my attention:
Natali on the challenges of adapting 'Neuromancer' for the screen:
"Having said that it was very intimidating, it adapted rather easily. For me. I think in part that's due to the work of the screenwriters who had worked on it before me, including William Gibson.
"It's a very dense novel and I think there are any number of movies that could be made, or perhaps a mini-series that could be made, from this book. But fortunately, by the time I got it, there had been a lot of mining that had been done prior to my arrival. And so I could see from those scripts, frankly, what didn't work, as much as what would work in a movie. Ultimately, I went back to the book itself and, in re-reading the book many years after having read it originally, I was actually surprised by how cinematic its structure is, because fundamentally it's a heist story.
"There's a lot of old movie influences in the book; I think Gibson would be the first to admit is that there's some Big Sleep in there, there's a lot of noir type stuff going on. From the technological speculative fiction standpoint, the book holds up surprisingly well.
"In fact, it's still a little bit ahead of the curve. My argument has always been that now is the time to make Neuromancer, because I believe that had you made this film in 1984 it would have been incomprehensible, simply because there's no way, without an extraordinary amount of expositional dialogue, a film audience would have been able to understand some of those basic concepts that are in the book which now are actually a part of our daily lives, so they don't require explanation.
"But the book's still far enough ahead of where we are right now, that it works as a piece of science fiction and it's a signpost I think, for what's coming down the pike.
"So for me, the things I had to change from the book were very much details. I actually tried -- and was able, thankfully -- to stay very true to the novel. In fact, I also had the good fortune to have William Gibson be very involved in my rewriting process. He would comment on things and so on. And invariably, he never commented on the big things that I did to the book. It was always in the details. He, more than anybody, is cognizant of how technology's evolving and how it did diverge from his book or didn't. He always points out the fact that the one thing he truly didn't foresee was cell phones. And there's a very famous scene in the book where Case walks past a line of phone booths and they're all ringing and the combined sound of these rings makes up his name. We just turned it into a bunch of cell phones doing the same thing. But the changes I made were very cosmetic like that.
"A literal translation of the Neuromancer book would be a disastrous movie. It would probably be impossible, because you could never condense it into a single film. So I wasn't literal in my adaptation, but I very much stayed true to the tone of it and the spirit of it. And that's where I felt personally very lucky to have William Gibson present in the process, because of course he would be the ultimate arbiter of what works and what doesn't. I knew from reading one of his scripts, which was extremely unfaithful to his own book, that he would be open to making changes.
"The book is very visual, very textural, it's almost poetic, really, in the way it's written, so it gives you a feeling. And my job as a director is to translate that feeling into art direction and set design and an overall aesthetic approach. From the outset, my sense was that because the real world had caught up in many ways to what is in the book, that we should take a very realistic approach. And so my very Hollywood way of describing the movie is: 'It's like a science fiction French Connection.'"
Natali on why this is not 'The Matrix' redux:
"One of the obstacles in the selling of this movie to the industry at large is that everyone says, "Oh, well, The Matrix did it already." Because The Matrix -- the very word "matrix" -- is taken from Neuromancer, they stole that word, I can't use it in our movie. And there are a number of other similarities. But first of all, I like that movie. And second of all, I feel it's a completely different film than what Neuromancer will be because The Matrix is very much a comic book film. It exists in a comic book kind of universe, whereas one of the things that's so extraordinary about the book is that it doesn't feel like a book that was written about the future. It feels like a book that was written from the future, in the future, and so it almost has a documentary -- as poetic as it is, it has a very documentary-like, almost realistic take on what that future world will be. So I felt that that was my window into that world."
Natali on creating cyberspace for film:
"There's two archetypes for the depiction of cyberspace -- one is The Matrix, which is virtual reality that essentially mimics our own. And then the other is TRON, which is this kind of Euclidean type of cityscape, where we're seeing very simplified graphic forms that more or less represent what our real world is. And my notion of what cyberspace is, without giving any sort of visual specifics, is that it is, of course, what it is: in the real world, we have cyberspace. But my extrapolation on it is that cyberspace is the domain of the AI intelligences. And that is, I think, the distinguishing feature in Neuromancer -- certainly one of the things that sets it apart from The Matrix is very much about the birth of AI and how we are going to merge with it and vice versa, and where it's leading us.
"And so this domain, where you project yourself into it as the cyberjockeys do in Neuromancer is not necessarily very friendly for human beings. Whereas wetware, as carbon-based lifeforms, we're really not designed -- evolution hasn't designed us to go into that kind of virtual environment. So it's a very rough ride and only certain people can do it. And it's a very trippy, grey line between once you enter that space between what is generated in your own mind and your own consciousness, and what actually exists as an empirical cyber-reality.
"So I guess what I'm saying is that our version of cyberspace is a much more complicated, messy, and hopefully sophisticated depiction of what that world would be, as opposed to TRON and Matrix -- which again, I love those movies, but in my mind they're a very simplified, kind of Disneyfied or comic bookified version of what that reality might be."
Fencott on creating cyberspace for gamers:
"In our game the interactive conceptualization of cyberspace is probably very different in the sense that parts of it will be experienced rather than just visually represented. We've seen in games representations of cyberspace -- like The Matrix game as an example, right, it's an alternate state. Or things like TRON, very simple representation of AIs. It's the MCP code or whatever. But what we're trying to do, at least at this stage with the game, is maybe realize some of that communication. Cyberspace as a mode of communication or a place where you can go rather than visual depiction, which I know sounds strange, but I think that for a game, we've seen it so often -- people playing games are already kind of in cyberspace. They're at their Playstation 3, they're downloading whatever, or doing whatever on their iPhones. I don't think it's going to be as big a visual thing as it is an experiential thing, the interactive."
Fencott on working interactively with the screenwriter/director:
"I think that from an interactive perspective the way we're approaching Neuromancer is a little different, because games, I believe, are about worlds and universes, whereas film and other traditional media are about stories. They have different kinds of arcs and they are perhaps character-driven. There are some games that can do that. But Tetris, there's no arc. It's a good game but there's no arc. Angry Birds, I don't know. But anyway, they are about universes and what's possible in this universe. So one of the things that was really interesting, and I think really helpful, was working with Vincenzo from the get-go to take from him 'What is this adaptation, what are the rules of this universe?' Is it the year 2600? Well, no, it's not, it's more like 2030 than 2600. That's a distinction from The Matrix. What are people like there? Can you get artificial limbs? Are there sub-machine guns or lasers? What are the rules of this?
"And from an interactive perspective you then let the player free in this environment to experience it in a way that's not passive, that's not just watching it. So it was really important for us to work with Vincenzo to understand what the world looked like, what are the things in the world, what are the minutiae of this world? The point of cell phones versus phone banks is a really important one. Things like what do these environments look like, is it more Blade Runner-y, or -- we know it's probably not 2001 and sanitized and stuff, but is it near-future with garbage on the streets? Those sorts of things are really, really important to a game, because you look at very successful -- I'm gonna call them, not 'movie games' but things like Knights of the Old Republic.
"It's not about playing Han Solo. Han Solo's a great character, but you'll all begin to feel fed up with playing that character. But it's letting the player loose in the world of Star Wars that is awesome, and that's what gets players' engagement, that's what drives that experience. But you need to be faithful to the Star Wars universe for that to be effective. So working with Vincenzo very early on in describing Gibson's world, talking about these things was extremely helpful. Hopefully it was helpful both ways around -- it really was for us in understanding what the universe contains and what the player possibilities are."
Natali on the potential for sequels (since there are two other books in the series -- 'Count Zero' and 'Mona Lisa Overdrive'):
"It's not a one-off at all. Fundamentally, what Neuromancer represents as a -- and I hate this word, so please nobody put this online, because I don't even like using it -- is a franchise. It's really the paradigm that everyone is looking to find, find a property that matches that paradigm because movies are so expensive now. And in order to reach the vast audience and amortize all your costs making the film, you have to spread your media beyond the borders of the movie and into other areas like games and graphic novels and so on. And because William Gibson's universe is so beautifully conceived and so complex and deep and there's so many regions of it that you could explore I think the hope, I'm sure everyone knows and has, is that when this movie and the game are made it's just the beginning of something rather than a one-off. I could envision it expanding in any number of ways. Maybe that includes the sequelized books that Gibson wrote himself, maybe not, maybe something original that he does, or that we do."
Firestone on the possible future of the future of 'Neuromancer':
"I'm allowed to use the word franchise... I've been asked by everybody I've talked to to do a prequel. They all want a set-up. Neuromancer has a very mature audience right now, and bringing it to a younger audience could be done with a prequel. So there's been a lot of discussion on how to get it back out there in a very widely dispersed way and appeal to 18-year-olds. Not the Twilight crowd, but maybe. The publishers have all said to me that if I have the deal, we'll race to get a prequel out ahead of time."