Interview : Tommy Pallotta & Rory Cochrane

Posted by: Sheila Roberts

This past weekend I attended a highly entertaining Q&A in Los Angeles with Tommy Pallotta and Rory Cochrane who talked at length about their latest project, Richard Linklater’s new, highly stylized sci-fi noir, "A Scanner Darkly." Pallotta is the film’s producer and actor Rory Cochrane plays the ultra-paranoid junkie Charles Freck, one of the film’s principal characters. Based on Philip K. Dick’s bestselling and darkly pessimistic novel of the same name, "A Scanner Darkly" employs the same distinctive style that Linklater used in his 2001 "Waking Life." Both films were shot in live action than overlaid with a complex process called interpolated rotoscoping in which animators paint over every frame to create a surreal hyper-reality.

Pallotta is an innovative storyteller who gravitates towards science fiction. He enjoys combining technology with compelling filmmaking and has produced a number of animated shorts including "In the Waiting Line" and the award-winning "Snack and Drink" which is permanently featured in the collection of the New York Museum of Modern Art. Lately, he’s been attracted to interactivity and ways in which to blend the cinematic experience with the gaming experience and directed an interactive project based on Jonathan Lethem’s novel "Amnesia Moon." Pallotta first collaborated with Linklater on "Waking Life" in 2001.

Cochrane is well known for his role as Ron Slater in Linklater’s 1993 "Dazed and Confused" and spent several successful seasons appearing as Timothy Speedle on the "CSI" television series. He delivers a riveting performance in "A Scanner Darkly," especially in the film’s dark and funny opening when his character battles bugs in a drug induced paranoia in which he can no longer distinguish between what’s real and what isn’t. That initial sequence sets the tone for the rest of the film. Here’s what Tommy Pallotta and Rory Cochrane had to say about their latest project:

Q. So Tommy, what inspired you to make a movie like this?

Tommy Pallotta : Like this? What do you mean like this?

Q. Just like this type of movie. Live action that is rotoscoped.

Tommy Pallotta : This is actually not the first one that I made. I produced a feature called "Waking Life" that came out in 2001 using the same technique basically filming live actors and inviting artists to draw over those actors.

Q. Why such a gap between 2001 and now?

Tommy Pallotta : We started doing this film really two years ago, the actual production of it. It’s a laborious process. We filmed it in 2004 in 23 days. After we do that, it’s basically like making two films in one. You shoot it like you do a live action film. You edit it. You lock picture. You’re done with the live action version of it and then you bring it into the animation process. And we had 50 full time animators working for 18 months basically drawing over it.

Q. If substance D had a real life equivalent now, what drug would you say it was?

Tommy Pallotta : (to Rory) Do you have any insight?

Rory Cochrane : I have no idea. (laughter)

Tommy Pallotta : I think that one of the things that really attracted me to the source material of the book was that it dealt with addiction in a way that I hadn’t really seen before. It didn’t really romanticize it or demonize it. Part of the way that they were able to do that was to put it in the near future and sort of make things more vague. So substance D is sort of a pastiche of a lot of different types of drugs. I think if you read the novel carefully trying to say like, ‘What kind of drug is it? Is it an upper, a downer, a psychedelic, or whatever?,’ you can’t really place your finger on that and I think that that’s a good thing.

Q. Rory, you’ve gone back working with Richard now?

Rory Cochrane : Yes

Q. Is this sort of a reunion? Can you talk about how that happened and what it was like?

Rory Cochrane : Well, I’m a big fan of Rick’s. I think he’s a terrific filmmaker. I think he has a lot of confidence in the people that he works with. He’s very relaxed and sort of free flowing if you will. It was a pleasure to work with him, and I’ll work with him any time he asks me to. And also, I love the city of Austin so any excuse to go back there I will.

Q. Tommy, you and Richard had a mutual respect for Philip K. Dick’s work. Did you guys discuss doing other novels as well as this one? Can you talk about the genesis of that?

Tommy Pallotta : I think when we were shooting "Waking Life" we were talking about Philip K. Dick a lot. There’s even a scene in "Waking Life" where he’s dressing Philip K. Dick and talking about him in the actual film itself. And we knew that we would like to do a vision of Philip K. Dick that we felt had been missed by most of the films that had been done before. So we wanted to do something that could bring a lot of the humor and absurdity and the tone that we felt was missing from a lot of the big blockbusters. One of the things I’d like to mention about the last question real quick about Rory is that Rick, when we first started talking about it, he had you in mind for that role from the very beginning. He was like, ‘Rory Cochrane is going to play Freck.’

Q. Why?

Rory Cochrane : I don’t know if that’s a backhanded compliment. (laughter)

Tommy Pallotta : In his mind...I mean I didn’t really question it. When a director has such a strong impulse, you just sort of go with it. I mean I’ve worked with Rick before as well and I just learned to trust his instincts.

Q. And what did you think of the role when you saw it?

Rory Cochrane : I was like ‘Great! You’re going to hire me for another drug addict.’ (laughter) Can’t be like a lawyer or something, you know? But no, I trust his instincts. I was happy to do it. The most challenging for me was to try to come up with a different character than I played in "Dazed and Confused." So I tried to do that.

Q. Rory, this seemed like a very intense shoot with a lot of very intense actors. Did that sense of paranoia in the film spread at all to the set and how was it working so closely together?

Rory Cochrane : I don’t think that anybody was really paranoid. It was weird. Everybody was sort of relaxed. It was a very relaxed atmosphere, and I think the paranoia was more of a forced thing when we were supposed to be paranoid and acting like that.

Q. Did you improvise a lot with the druggy stuff?

Rory Cochrane : A little bit. We had a lot of liberties. Again, working with Rick, he allows you to expand and sort of experiment with different ways to do things.

Q. Because you wanted to be different from your character in "Dazed and Confused," how did you mentally prepare for the role of Freck? Did you read the book?

Rory Cochrane : I didn’t read the book and I didn’t read the script. (laughter) We went to rehearsal for two weeks and I was sort of not figuring out. I wasn’t getting what I was trying to do. And I’ve said this before and I’ll say it again. I woke up that morning and sort of had this epiphany that I’m going to do it this way. And I took the concept down in the elevator with me and I showed up, and I sort of did that. And I think the rest of cast …we had rehearsed certain scenes… were like, ‘What are you doing? That wasn’t what you were doing before.’ But you have to give it a shot.

Q. And Rick just said ‘That’s great Rory?"

Rory Cochrane : Rick’s terrific. He just like ‘OK. Whatever.’

Q. What was he like when you look back at "Dazed and Confused"? That was his first studio film and then you’re going, what is it? How many years later? 10 or 12?

Rory Cochrane : Yes, something like that. He’s the same guy. His approach is the same. I think he has a love of film. He has a love of actors. And I think that’s the right way to be. Not a lot of people are like that. I’m a big fan of his.

Q. Is it frustrating to see that the issue of security, of national security, you know, all the controversy surrounding that lately sort of came after the film was made for the most part? Because the film certainly deals with the war on terror, I guess, in a way, comments on that as an extension of the war on drugs.

Tommy Pallotta : That doesn’t frustrate me. I think it’s a good thing. And it sort of foretold this. But I think that kind of harkens back to Philip K. Dick’s prescient vision in that he wrote this novel in the 70s and its issues are still relevant today. So a lot of that came out of sort of the paranoia around the Nixon administration, and we’re certainly in that time when we all have reason to be paranoid.

Q. Were there restrictions placed on the material? Was there a certain way that you had to adapt it or stay faithful to the original material?

Tommy Pallotta : No, the estate was hands off. They put a lot of faith in us. We were very upfront with what we wanted to do with the material, and it’s a very autobiographical book, and it’s very much based on the life of Philip K. Dick and the people that he knew. And we, from the very outset, felt that a literal adaptation was going to be the best way to go with that.

Q. And why animation as opposed to live action?

Tommy Pallotta : There are several just practical design issues to address. The first one is the scramble suit and in the novel, there’s a very, very brief description. I think it’s described two times. A couple sentences. One says it has millions of projections of different characteristics at a really fast speed. And another time it describes it as a vague blur which works when you’re reading the book, but when we have to actually visualize that and when the actors are in these scramble suits for long periods of time doing entire scenes and we have to sort of identify with those characters and have to see their acting come out, it really becomes an issues of how to do the scramble suit. So the scramble suit was going to have to be animated no matter what, in some form or fashion. Add to that, we have drug use going on, and we have basically the protagonist’s brain is deteriorating, and he’s having a split brain personality disorder. And we have basically an alternate viewpoint, an alternate world, so how do we do all those things at once. So from the very beginning we conceived of this as a rotoscoped, animated production.

Q. How do you feel about working with Warner Independent and their marketing approach?

Tommy Pallotta : I think it’s a challenge on how to market this film. I don’t think that there’s a real precedent for it. So far I’m very happy with it. I think the more that we can show with the movie, the more that we can show the imagery and get it out and sort of the more… I mean, I love the tag line "Everything is not going to be OK" And sort of the more negative things where it’s not… I don’t feel like it’s being marketed like a traditional movie which I’m very happy about.

Q. Do you think it’s being sold as a drug movie? People should trip out and go see it? (laughter)

Tommy Pallotta : No, I don’t think it’s being sold as a drug movie at all. If you look at the trailer, there’s no real reference to drugs. I think that a lot of people know about it and they’ll research it. A lot of people do drugs and they like to go see movies. So I don’t know.

Rory Cochrane : I think it’s the type of movie that it would be a mistake to market like a drug movie because it’s not… You have to be sort of fully faceted and aware when you go watch this movie, or else you’re going to lose some things. You can’t just sit back and get high or get drunk or whatever people do and try to follow this film. I think it’s different.

Tommy Pallotta : It’s a demanding film.

Q. Could it be a little scary too for people if they went on a drug trip?

Rory Cochrane : I would assume so. Yeah. (laughter)

Q. Were you frustrated that this same animation process has been used in an insurance commercial? Was that annoying to you?

Tommy Pallotta : You know, it’s the same technology. So we licensed that technology. So the software writer can license it to anybody else. But, you know, I don’t know how I feel about that. I think in some ways it gets people used to the technique, used to seeing that, so I think the more that we open up people’s minds to that, the better, so…

Q. So what about Philip K. Dick’s robotic head being lost? Is this a good thing for this movie?

Tommy Pallotta : Do you guys know about that? There was an android built with artificial intelligence of Philip K. Dick and he disappeared. The android disappeared from a plane flight and they can’t find Philip K. Dick’s android head.

Q. That was at Comic Con, wasn’t it?

Tommy Pallotta : It was at Comic Con. We actually had the android speaking at Comic Con. I know the guy who built the robot and it’s a tragedy for him, and I think the estate probably feels really odd about it. And I try to be really sensitive to that. I wish Philip K. Dick would come back home.

Q. How do you feel about Japanese animation?

Tommy Pallotta : I think it’s probably some of the most innovative visual stuff that’s going on. I mean I think it’s influencing our culture in ways that we don’t really recognize right now, but I think even in live action. What would "The Matrix" be without Japanese animation? What would Tarantino’s "Kill Bill" be without it? I mean it’s just such a powerful cultural influence.

Q. What are you working on next?

Tommy Pallotta : What am I personally working on?

Q. Both of you.

Tommy Pallotta : (to Rory) You want to go first?

Rory Cochrane : I have no comment. (laughter)

Q. CSI? No?

Rory Cochrane : I was done with that a while ago. But you obviously try to do other things. So that’s what I’m trying to do.

Tommy Pallotta : I’m personally real interested in interactivity at the moment and I think I’m going to start doing… try to unify the cinematic experience and the gaming experience in an interesting way. As well as developing more feature films and also stand alone games as well. But always technology and storytelling seem to be the things that attract me.

Q. You had…one of your past interactive projects was based on a Jonathan Lethem book, "Amnesia Moon." Do you have an affinity for science fiction? Do you think it lends itself to that interactive role?

Tommy Pallotta : I think genre does lend itself. When you try to do something experimental, it’s kind of easier to do it if you’re within a known genre. So like science fiction and horror are probably good ones that I sort of gravitate towards if I’m trying to do something experimental.

Q. How much control did Philip K. Dick’s relatives have over the material? Could you have done anything with it and it would have been fine? Or did they really want to know going in?

Tommy Pallotta : They really placed a lot of trust in us, and we met with them beforehand and talked to them. This was a passion project on every level. The actors worked for scale. The estate actually cut their usual fee. Philip K. Dick is one of the most successfully translated authors to film, and he commands a premium price, and they helped us out with that.

Q. Why hasn’t it been done before? It seems like most of his work has been.

Tommy Pallotta : Like sort of big blockbuster kind of thing?

Q. Yeah. Like a "Bladerunner" or something.

Rory Cochrane : Concept?

Tommy Pallotta : Yeah. I think he has sort of big concepts, and I think people kind of have an idea of what Philip K. Dick is from the movies more than the books. Also, they sort of expect the big Hollywood blockbuster when you mention Philip K. Dick.

Q. Rory, have you seen the film and if so, how do you feel about seeing yourself animated?

Rory Cochrane : I saw a rough cut of it, and I feel fine with it, I guess. If that was live action, I probably wouldn’t feel fine with it. But it’s fun to be able to take liberties and do stuff like that.

Q. Does it affect your performance at all knowing that it’s going to be animated?

Rory Cochrane : Yeah. You definitely do a few little more gestures and things you wouldn’t do in a live action film or if you want people to believe you. So it’s kind of fun.

Q. The rotoscoping is obviously so expensive. I see what happens is the whole film is not only shot but then edited and then it goes off and gets animated.

Tommy Pallotta : Right.

Q. And it’s never reedited?

Tommy Pallotta : Yeah. We made tweaks, but it’s mostly just editing stuff out. I mean you can’t really go and shoot new stuff. We can animate more, but then it would be taking forever to do that. I think on the DVD you’ll get a little extra stuff that we sort of cut out at the last minute. Things that we really didn’t know how it was going to play as an animated feature

Q. Can you talk about the look of this film? It’s been described as a graphic novel come to life. Can you tell me if there were any particular graphic novels or animated Japanese films that influenced its look?

Tommy Pallotta : I wish I had a better answer for that but I would have to say that the look for this film sort of evolved and the way that the animation process goes… it really kind of goes in layers so we didn’t actually have the look of this film planned out from the very beginning. Actually, as we went along, we had 50 animators, and I was always hoping that there would be some sort of mind meld or zeitgeist that would sort of bring a unified vision to it. And about midway through, we sort of locked into it. And then we were able to go back and make some changes to stuff that we had done initially.

Q. How would you describe the image that they locked into?

Tommy Pallotta : A Scanner Darkly. (laughter)

Q. Did you ever think it might have been easier just to pick … and put the actors in a voice booth?

Tommy Pallotta : I always thought everything would have been easier than the way that we did it. But you sort of take that leap when you’re going into a project like this and you’re trying to do something innovative, especially within the budget that we’re trying to do. It’s really unprecedented and it’s a massive undertaking. But you sort of jump into it thinking, ‘OK. I’ll figure out how to do it’ once you’re in it and you have to figure out how to do it.

Q. Rory, you said you left "CSI?" Would you go back and do another series?

Rory Cochrane : I was happy to work with those people. I thought it was a great cast and everything. It’s just the work schedule, the grind, the monotony wasn’t for me. I have nothing bad to say about the experience. I was happy to do it. But, you know, to be able to work on stuff like this, and I have another film coming out called "Right at Your Door" which is at the L.A. Film Festival if you would like to see it on the 28th and the 30th.

Q. That’s an independent feature?

Rory Cochrane : Yes

Q. Is it a comedy?

Rory Cochrane : No, it’s definitely not a comedy.

Q. It’s a very dark piece?

Rory Cochrane : Yes, it’s very dark. It’s an uncomfortable film.

Q. Are you a murderer?

Rory Cochrane : No, no, no. Go see it. (laughter)

Q. Is there any improv in this script in terms of what you did or overall with any of the other characters?

Rory Cochrane : There was a little bit. Rick gives you a lot of liberty to sort of explore different options. And he’s pretty much OK with it. Don’t get me wrong. He knows exactly what he wants, and if he doesn’t get it, he has a very subtle way of making sure that it happens.

Q. Anything specific?

Rory Cochrane : Not off hand. Rick just says ‘You’ve got a lot of bugs on you. There’s bugs on you." (laughter)

Q. Do you think fans are going to be happy with the film? There have been fans of the book for a long time.

Rory Cochrane : I think if they’re fans of Philip K. Dick, I think they will be.

Q. Off the set did you try and recreate the kind of closeness that you had on set? Were you all staying at the same hotel?

Rory Cochrane : Yeah, we were all staying in the same hotel.

Q. In Austin?

Rory Cochrane : Yeah, in Austin.

Q. Was it bug infested?

Rory Cochrane : No, it was the Four Seasons. (laughter) It was a great group.

Q. Rory, how has Richard’s style as a filmmaker evolved over time? I mean, you’ve worked with him since the beginning. Have you noticed any differences in the way he directs actors now?

Rory Cochrane : No, I haven’t. Like I said before, he sort of had the same approach on "Dazed and Confused." He had a lot more stress back then from the studio and stuff, but he was always relaxed, and he never sweated under the pressure or anything. And I think he continued to do that and on this film, there was absolutely no stress, I think, he showed ever. I think Warners and everybody else sort of understood that this is the way he wants to work, and they gave him freedom to do that.

Tommy Pallotta : He’s kind of an anomaly as a director. He has a really, really cool head. I mean I think it takes a lot to really get him rattled. And I made two movies with him. Both which were very long, intensive processes and the director-producer relationships are usually a little bit more contentious than director to actor and he’s just an amazing person to work with.

Rory Cochrane : I’ve never seen him pissed off. Never in my life.

Q. Is that frustrating?

Rory Cochrane : No, I don’t like people being pissed off. But I’ve never seen him get angry. I’ve never seen him get upset. I’ve never seen him throw anything. He’s just like ‘whatever. OK.’ (laughter)

Q. With the cast hanging out and the people we have here…we have Woody Harrelson, with Keanu and with you and stuff…did you guys make music? You were down in Austin. Did you go and do a surprise midnight performance at a club?

Rory Cochrane : I didn’t. I can’t speak for the others.

Q. What was your favorite scene to shoot?

Rory Cochrane : I guess maybe when I try to commit suicide. I just think it’s funny because he just has bad luck, and he can’t do anything right. He’s trying to do this thing, and he messes that up. I don’t know.

Q. Do you think that the world’s drug problems have escalated since Philip K. Dick wrote the book?

Rory Cochrane : No, I think that’s got nothing to do with it. That’s just society. I think he’s a reflection on society, but I don’t think he’s the cause of anybody doing any drugs.

Q. Oh no, I wasn’t suggesting that he was the cause. Just is it beyond what Philip K. Dick had envisioned?

Tommy Pallotta : Is there a bigger drug issue today, do you think, than there was in 1977 when he…?

Rory Cochrane : No, I don’t think so. I mean those people were all freaked out back then. Acid on a daily basis. (laughter)

Tommy Pallotta : Now there’s a war on terror instead of a war on drugs, so I think that the media has sort of shifted the light away from it, but I think it’s still there. It probably will always be. The nasty secret is that people like to get high.

Q. Especially in Austin?

Tommy Pallotta : I think probably everywhere.

Thanks for much for your time this afternoon. "A Scanner Darkly" opens in theaters on July 7th. This film is a must see and will no doubt become another Linklater cult classic. Don’t miss my other interview with the film’s director, Richard Linklater, and co-stars Keanu Reeves and Winona Ryder, who plays the characters of Bob (aka Fred) Arctor and Donna respectively. In case you missed it, we have two A Scanner Darkly reviews posted on the site from myself, and from the Dude. I encourage you to give them a read. Be sure to also watch the Trailer for A Scanner Darkly

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