Losing Sleep Over Electric Dreams
Whirlwind production — on two continents — for Amazon’s Philip K. Dick anthology series was challenging, but worth it
Five years ago, producer Michael Dinner discovered the short stories of science fiction author Philip K. Dick.
Dinner — known for the 1990s TV series The Wonder Years and Chicago Hope, and the more recent FX drama Justified — was already familiar with the big-screen adaptations of Dick's longer works, such as Blade Runner and Minority Report. But finding that the author wrote more than 100 short stories made the producer feel he had unearthed a treasure trove of untapped material.
Even more than the alternative universes Dick created, Dinner loved the emotional core of the stories so much that he didn't want to limit himself to telling just one.
"I went to Sony, where my company, Rooney McP Productions, had a deal, and said, 'How about an anthology?'" Dinner recalls. "I thought they'd say no, but they embraced the idea." Nearly four years later, Amazon commissioned the series Philip K. Dick's Electric Dreams for the U.S., as did Channel 4 for the U.K. "All of a sudden it became real," Dinner says. "When the train left the station, it left quickly."
The next order of business was to have 12 writers from the U.S. and the U.K. submit scripts. Dinner wanted to forgo the traditional writers' room and instead encourage individual points of view. Of the dozen submissions, season one of Electric Dreams would include 10 episodes, half of which were to be shot stateside and half across the pond.
"It's not only two continents, but two entirely different film cultures," says Dinner, who complicated matters by wearing three hats on the project.
He served as an executive producer (one of 14 on the series) and also wrote and directed the episode "The Father Thing," starring Greg Kinnear. Dinner describes it as "Invasion of the Body Snatchers through the eyes of a 10-year-old boy" and says he did it for his two sons.
"My boys are 12 and 14. In the past, I did stuff they wouldn't be allowed to watch — cable or streaming fare. In the back of my head, I felt this was one they could watch."
But Dinner had an even bigger reason for assuming the added responsibility of writing and directing the episode. "It spoke to me. We all have daddy issues. I used to joke that The Wonder Years let us exorcise the ghosts of our past." He wasn't the only one to tap into the emotional zeitgeist of Dick's work. "No matter how much world-building there is in some of the stories, it's not the genre that's leading the way. It's about the characters — a father-son story, a husband-wife story."
Dinner quickly learned — as did the writers, directors and crews he hired on both continents — that an anthology series poses a unique set of challenges. "It's its own beast," he says. "Some episodes take place eight seconds in the future, some are 800 years from now." Unlike a series, which has a set cast, with an anthology "you're starting from scratch every time," Dinner says, adding that "some people say Electric Dreams is more like a collection of pilots. I think it's more a collection of movies."
When it came to attracting A-list talent from both countries, the Philip K. Dick brand was a draw.
"Some people knew his work," Dinner says. "But ultimately, the cast had to respond to the script." Many bold-faced names gravitated to the project. Among them were Oscar winner Anna Paquin, who plays a police officer sharing a consciousness with a businessman portrayed by Terrence Howard in the season opener, "Real Life."
Bryan Cranston stars in the episode "Human Is" (and also serves as an executive producer), while Steve Buscemi stars in "Crazy Diamond." Janelle Monáe plays an android in the post-apocalyptic "Autofac," which riffs on an Amazon-like business that continues to operate despite a lack of consumerism.
As if the anthology format of the series weren't enough of a mind-bender, the condensed production schedule on both continents left little time for preparation, reflection or sleep.
"We often have tight time schedules and budgets," says Kirstin Chalmers, hair and makeup designer for the U.K.–filmed episodes. "What was different here was, we were designing five films for five directors simultaneously."
Chalmers came on board in February 2017 and had a month to prep before shooting the first episode, "The Commuter," about a British train employee with a mentally troubled son.
Each of the U.K. shoots, which also included "Impossible Planet," "Crazy Diamond," "The Hood Maker" and "Human Is," lasted three weeks. "We'd finish one on Saturday and start the next on Monday," Chalmers says.
She worked closely with production designer Lisa Marie Hall and costume designer Edward K. Gibbon to create distinctive looks for each episode. "It was a wonderful challenge," she says. "My mind was racing." Chalmers equates the experience to childbirth. "You finish one episode and say it was the hardest I've ever done, and then you do the next."
That pace was leisurely compared to its counterpart in the States, where five episodes ("The Father Thing," "Real Life," "Kill All Others," "Safe and Sound" and "Autofac") were shot in and around Chicago.
"We were shooting on an 11-day schedule, and the last three or four days overlapped with the next shoot," says Julie Berghoff, production designer for the U.S. episodes. She was one of four female designers on the project, along with costume designer Laura Jean Shannon, hair department head Cindy Shute and makeup department head Aimee Lippert.
Chicago made sense as the U.S. location because, Dinner says, "it's a great place to shoot sci-fi. The city burned down at the turn of the [20th] century, and the great architects of the world had to rebuild it. It's old and new."
Berghoff agrees that the city provided the perfect backdrop. "Dick's characters are the underlings, the working man, and Chicago's such a working city."
Electric Dreams was Berghoff's first sci-fi project. "I was excited to touch every aspect of every episode," she says. For each one, she, the other designers and the director hashed out the technology.
"We asked, how do doors and windows open? What does the future look like? It was coming from our imaginations, and maybe some influences from our favorite sci-fi movies. Everyone brought something to make it more interesting and dynamic." The biggest challenge, she says, was coming up with five different visions and tech for each story. "I didn't want to copy what everyone else had done."
For Dinner, the greatest obstacles were money and time, both of which were in short supply.
"You don't have an unlimited budget in TV. You need time to think of what the world you're creating will look like, and you need time to execute." He adds, "What you really need to pull off a series like this is the right people who creatively get it — and they have to have support." Berghoff says her core team of designers, builders, painters and set decorators had four hours to execute the high-tech city in "Real Life," which included flying cars. But that was a cakewalk compared to their final episode, "Autofac."
"It was the biggest set to build and the most visual of all five," Berghoff says. "To create a futuristic factory in an apocalyptic world in two to three weeks — including a six-foot drone and the inside of a spaceship — required incredible diligence on the part of my team." It also turned out to be the work of which she is proudest. "My favorite pieces are the drones we designed. I spent the most time on them and put the most detail into them."
Probably the most massive undertaking from a production design standpoint in the U.K. was "Crazy Diamond," which entailed building futuristic houses on the edge of some cliffs along the ocean. But, Dinner points out, "Money went a lot farther in Great Britain, where we got tax rebates across the board."
When it came to creating distinctive looks for various characters in the U.K. episodes, Chalmers's team (and her imagination) worked overtime.
Her favorite task was creating the facial markings seen in "The Hood Maker." In the story, a meteorite crashes, and the people who develop these marks become telepathic. For inspiration, she researched scarring on victims of lightning strikes. The ultimate designs varied by skin color, and the hair was tightly braided, "but electric, which was the theme," she explains. "The interesting thing was making the hair and makeup believable and realistic."
In "Human Is," Chalmers enjoyed the contrast between the "very controlled military world" of the husband (Bryan Cranston) and the fetish club visited by the wife (Essie Davis of Game of Thrones) in one scene. "Everyone there had wild, fun facial covering, body paint, sequins and rhinestones. I made it feel free and organic."
Then there was the human-pig hybrid Chalmers had to create for "Crazy Diamond." She fretted over how to make Sue, a human pig, "endearing and lovely" rather than the "menacing" ones from films past. So she based the pig's hair on an early Lady Di style, and created trotters that could hug a steering wheel while Sue drove. In the end, "Sue had lovely long eyelashes and soft ears," Chalmers says. "Everyone thought she was adorable."
If Amazon and Channel 4 greenlight a second season, there will surely be an entirely new set of challenges. As it stands, 14 scripts are in development, Dinner says. "We got a lot of really big writers now that they heard about the series, and a couple of returners."
He adds that he and his production partners would definitely do a few things differently next time. For one, "We'll shoot everything in London, even if it's an American-themed story."
But he wants to preserve the series' international bent by including writers, directors and actors from the U.S. and the U.K. Despite the complexities posed by working on two continents during season one, Dinner says he wouldn't have changed a thing. "In many ways, it was very exciting. Even with the difficulties, we did some really cool stuff, and it was a learning experience."
This article originally appeared in emmy magazine, Issue No. 4, 2018