TV - The Origins of Electric Dreams


Like so many great creative projects, Channel 4’s new ten-part sci-fi anthology series Electric Dreams came about thanks to a degree of good luck. Read about how it all came about...

It began when production company Anonymous Content, and Philip K. Dick’s daughter Isa Dick Hackett, approached a producer, Michael Dinner, with an idea. “They explained that [Dick] had written 120-plus short stories, and asked me to start reading them so that we could pick one and make a series out of it,” recalls Dinner. “So I started reading them and I called them up and I said “Okay, how about if I told you I want them all?”

Dinner’s inspiration was in part the stories themselves, of course, but also a childhood memory. “When I was a kid, my parents didn’t want me to watch The Twilight Zone and I’d watch it anyway and what I loved was that every week it was a little movie, and you would buckle up and go along for the ride.” What if each episode of the series told a different story, with a completely different cast?

It was a captivating idea, but not necessarily an easy one, according to Hackett. “It was conceived of… when anthology was a dirty word, there wasn’t the appetite or opportunities in streaming and it wasn’t the golden age of television.” But while the idea was far from straightforward, she and Dinner set about pursuing their vision with gusto. They recruited Bryan Cranston, who happened to be moving in to an office below Dinner’s, and Ronald D Moore, one of the industry’s sci-fi titans. Both were excited to come on board, thanks in no small part to their enthusiasm for Dick’s short stories.

It was a theme that became even more pronounced as they began to look for creative talent to bring their project to life. “What we were greatly surprised by was the level of talent that were already fans of Philip K. Dick’s work – and that really was our lure… We had people coming to us right and left,” says Cranston. Moore agrees: “Everyone from the writers, directors, cast as soon as you call them and say you’re doing a Philip K Dick anthology series everybody jumps up and says, “I want to be part of that.”

Finding the perfect story to suit each writer was simply a matter of sending a bunch of stories to each one. “Almost always they’d come back with one that they really loved, and they’d take that one on,” recounts Cranston. “In some cases, they liked several, and we’d have to discuss which one was the most appropriate. Very rarely, a writer would come back and say “I like him, but none of these connected with me,” so we’d send three more. And eventually, we’d find the one.”

The authors were encouraged to pursue their own vision, and bring their own version of the story to the screen. It was an approach that Hackett, as custodian of Dick’s work, was keen to emphasise. “You’ve got to have trust in the people you partner with; at least that’s my approach. It doesn’t happen often that I have to say that’s betraying the story or a core value. As far as I’m concerned my job is to support and encourage and occasionally redirect, but not typically, and that would be the strongest word I would use.”

During casting, once again, the quality of the material meant that finding actors to get involved was not difficult. Hackett says: “It’s remarkable and has exceeded my expectations in terms of who we might attract to the project. It’s humbling, it amazes me. Every time I see a piece of press about it and read the line up again its mind blowing.”


It was just as well that finding talent was not a problem, as it was a project beset with complications, as Moore reveals. “Because it’s an anthology there’s no standing sets or locations or cast which means you’re literally doing 10 little movies and that’s very complex on a TV production schedule and budget… With something like this you’re starting over every single episode from zero, new location, new cast, new art director, new director and it’s just on and on and on.” “To make it even more complicated,” says Dinner, “we shot on two continents – we shot half of them in London and half in Chicago, so it’s been a pretty massive undertaking.” Bryan Cranston concurs: “It was one of the most difficult things that I have been involved with in my career.”

What is it about Dick’s work that has endured, that has seen so many adaptations for screens large and small in the decades since his death? According to Dinner, his work is timeless, encompassing as it does “the great genre themes: What does it mean to be a human being, what does it mean to be an individual faced with authoritarianism or technology, and what’s the nature of reality.”

Those themes do not date, allowing the programme makers to give them a contemporary slant. “We worked hard to present some really compelling storytelling that resonates with today’s life, so it’s not just about cautionary tales or dystopian societies in the future,” explains Cranston. “Everything has something to do with how we do things in our modern society.”

Although billed as science fiction, the series, and indeed Dick’s work, is too broad and varied to be so easily pigeonholed, as Hackett is keen to emphasise. “I’m excited to broaden the horizon as to what people think about when they think about science fiction because a lot of this is not hard sci-fi it’s just really about the human condition and there truly is something for everybody in the shows, it’s really great.”

Moore agrees that there is something here for everyone. “It encompasses a broad range of material, different visions of the future, different ideas even of the present, alternate realities, some are variations of current worlds, some are more fantastical, some are hard sci-fi so it’s a really broad scope.”

Whatever genre it fits into, Cranston is keen that it should provoke a response from the viewer. “We want the end of each programme to be the beginning of the conversation, not the end of it. We want to make people want to talk about it. That will make me very, very happy, because that’s what art should do. It should get people involved.” Ultimately, though, he admits that he’ll be happy if the series offers a spot of escapism. “Pure entertainment is valuable, and if it can ease someone’s troubles for that hour, then it’s a worthwhile endeavour.”

With such stellar creative talent behind it, that much, at least, seems to be assured.



As well as the origins feature above, Channel 4 have also released an interview with Bryan Cranston.



Why did you want to do this project and how did you come to be involved?

I had been a fan of Philip K. Dick’s work for quite some time, and I guess the more recent ventures into my own personal satisfaction in reading was with short stories. For the last 17 years, it’s been a pretty busy ride for me, and I would get frustrated by reading novels and then having to stop and read scripts and proposals and ideas and other things. And then I’d get back to the novels and I’d forget where I was and I’d start over. It was very frustrating. But I can get through short stories, and I had been a fan of Philip K Dick’s short stories for a while. So when I heard they were doing this project, I was really excited. They asked me if I knew his short stories, and I said I knew them very well, and so they welcomed me into the group. We worked hard to present some really compelling storytelling that resonates with today’s life, so it’s not just about cautionary tales or dystopian societies in the future. Everything has something to do with how we do things in our modern society.

I imagine that making what are essentially ten slightly shorter feature films in two different continents simultaneously is quite hard work. Did you know what you were letting yourself in for?

It was one of the most difficult things that I have been involved with in my career. We couldn’t let ourselves off the hook, and we didn’t. We painstakingly went through all ten stories, with ten different cast, ten different production designers, ten different directors, ten different writers. You’re dealing with a massive amount of cast and crew. We were very creative in the way that we could re-use portions of sets at times, but basically it was something that was costly and time-consuming. The effort was great, but doesn’t anything that’s worthwhile always take a lot of effort? And we hope that people in the UK and the US and around the world will be able to relate to these stories, and maybe feel better about themselves, or society, or realise that things could be worse, or rejoice in the time period they’re in. Even just an escape for an hour is a valuable tool in life. Pure entertainment is valuable, and if it can ease someone’s troubles for that hour, then it’s a worthwhile endeavour.


There is such an array of acting, writing and directing talent involved in the series – you must have been knocked sideways by the response.

What we were greatly surprised by was the level of talent that were already fans of Philip K. Dick’s work – and that really was our lure – to cast our net out there with that information – “Looking for top level talent in writing, directing and acting that may be interested in telling stories based on Philip K. Dick’s work.” And we had people coming to us right and left. We were very lucky to be able to pick and choose whom we thought really had a grasp of material and the story, people who were inventive and creative. We have been very lucky in that sense. It wasn’t without its moments of turmoil, some cases where we were running up against time problems, or other pitfalls or obstacles. But what a great learning experience.

What is it about Philip K. Dick that has made his stories endure, and have made us go back time and again to adapt them?

I think it’s because you cannot rebuke it. When you’re talking about futuristic stories, no-one can say “Oh, that wouldn’t happen.” If you talk about period pieces, historians or critics may go back and say “It’s inaccurate.” You can definitively say that, if a piece of art was wrong. You can say “That wasn’t what happened in World War II,” or “Elizabethan hairstyles weren’t worn that way,” but you cannot pick apart the future the same way, for the obvious reason. And there’s something empowering to the audience about that. And I think Philip K. Dick tapped into that long ago. He knew that when you’re telling futuristic stories you are, by and large, leaving it open to the imagination of the reader. His medium was in literature, so you’re leaving all of the production design and art direction and scenic design and music – everything is up to the reader to imagine where this took place and what it looks like. A good writer like Philip K. Dick will give you clues to the sensibility or the smell, or the heaviness at the time, or how crowded it is. But then he leaves it up to the reader to fill in the blanks with their imagination. That’s very empowering to an audience. And we want to do something similar for the audience, to empower them. We want the end of each programme to be the beginning of the conversation, not the end of it. We want to make people want to talk about it. Even if it’s just a couple looking at each other and saying “Wow, do you think it will be like that in the future?” That will make me very, very happy, because that’s what art should do. It should get people involved.

Did working on this series give you a new appreciation of his work?

It did. First of all, it allowed me to revisit his work, which was great fun. And then you look at it with a different point of view. You look at it and think “Okay, if we have this story, what would be a completely opposite story we could also tell during this ten episode season?” So it’s a bit of a puzzle, and you have lots of discussions with other producers, trying to determine which of these stories should be in production in the first season. What we did with the writers was send them three-to-five of his original short stories, so they could choose what story to adapt on the basis of what resonated with them, excited them and stimulated their curiosity. Almost always they’d come back with one that they really loved, and they’d take that one on. In some cases, they liked several, and we’d have to discuss which one was the most appropriate. Very rarely, a writer would come back and say “I like him, but none of these connected with me,” so we’d send three more. And eventually, we’d find the one. Then we encouraged them to not feel that they had to stick with exactly what Philip had written. Isa Hackett, who’s one of our Executive Producers, is the daughter of Philip K. Dick, and she told us that her father would love the idea of knowing that his story inspired something. He would not have even wanted a writer to just do exactly what he wrote and put it in screenplay form and shoot it. He was all about inspiration.

There’s a vast supply of his stories, and something tells me you’ve started looking at which ones to do next. Is there a danger, as you go forward, that you’re going to end up with the more difficult ones to film?

You know, filming anything is so difficult, there’s so many links to the chain that could break at any given time. There’s a fragility to film-making, so those of us who are involved with it, we can’t be daunted by that task. We can’t be deterred by the difficulty of it. We just have to say “This story moves me, I want and need to shepherd this story to fruition, and let’s do the best we can to do it.” That’s all we can ask of ourselves.




Electric Dreams starts on Sunday September 17 at 9pm on Channel 4.

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