I'm biased, but I think you should see it. Jonathan has made a really good movie.
This is a blog about writing the screenplay and its relationship to my other work. If you want to avoid spoiling the movie, stop reading now.
Making REALITi has been a long road. Around 2005/6 after he had made the horror-comedy Black Sheep, Jonathan asked me if I had any movie ideas "lying round." I did. In 2004 I had written a short film called The Alibi Girl for the 48 Hour Film Festival. Directed by Clinton Phillips. The Alibi Girl is about two women trafficking a street drug that alters the perception of time. You can see it below – again, if you want to avoid partly spoiling REALITi, don't.
The Alibi Girl was an idea I had been thinking about taking further. Using the short movie as the set-up for a longer story I wrote a treatment and then a feature-length screenplay, now titled REALITi. I wrote the screenplay very quickly. I liked it and so did the director.
The project was put into development. I wrote several new drafts of REALITi but they were never as good as the first. The project stalled.
(Americans call this development hell but it's more like limbo. I've had two features "in development" and the process – the "journey" – killed them both. For a long time REALITi was in the same hole. I just don't write that way.)
In the meantime Jonathan had had the opportunity to make another movie, the fantasy-horror Under the Mountain based on the novel by Maurice Gee, and I was living in London. Jonathan and I teamed up again online when he illustrated a comic I had written, City Lights. He raised the idea of making REALITi using that early, good draft. One of the strengths of that original draft is that it could be made for a low budget. When we couldn't get funding for the movie, we decided to go ahead and make it anyway.
In this blog I've referred to REALITi as both a sci-fi noir and a SF movie with no special effects. It's a drama about normal people confronting a surreal possibility. In that respect it shares something with my 1994 novel, Heaven, which plays with the idea of changing realities and emotional discord. Heaven was made into a movie by Miramax in 1998, directed by Scott Reynolds:
Like Heaven, REALITi plays with the idea of repeating, if slightly altered, personalities and events. It's about a media executive who begins to wonder what's real – an idea which also popped up in my 1994 science fiction story 'Somewhere in the 21st Century'.
Collected in The Man Who Wasn't Feeling Himself, 'Somewhere' is about a man who discovers he's the star of a TV science-fiction series. Here's an overlong excerpt:
As Miles left Larry's dressing room the clapper boy glanced up at him with a rapt expression, star struck. 'I don't care what the director says, Mr Despot.' The words pressed on him like a confidential hand. 'I think you're cool.'
'Well.' Miles looked at the star on the door, and then at the handle. 'I'm. Uh. Um.' He wondered if he should lock the door behind him in case someone tried to steal Larry's things. He broke with his thoughts and turned to the young man. 'How long have we known each other?' he asked in a too-shrewd tone, trying to sound as he imagined a TV star would.
'We've never really spoken before, Mr Despot. But my friends and I, we all watch The 21st Century and it's really...' He groped for the word. 'It's cool, Mr Despot. It's a cool show. You're just the coolest.'
Miles nodded. His reflex was to say thank you but he felt enough of a fraud simply standing at the door. The boy bit his lip, waiting for an answer. Miles fumbled. 'You're doing a great job of that floor there,' he said finally. It was all he could think of, but it seemed to please the young man enough.
He was relieved to find large signs directing him to the car park. As he made his way through the building he was prodded by a chorus of similar pleasantries. Fabulous show, Larry, called a tuxedoed young executive from a European convertible. Loved it when you zapped the Martian, Larry, chimed in the slender young thing in the passenger seat. Enjoyed last week's show, Mr Despot, said the garage attendant and automatically Miles acknowledged the man with a thank you and a nod as if he really was the star of a show called The 21st Century, and it was a good show. Then he stopped: good for whom? For Steve the director? For Larry Despot? Who was Larry Despot? And his wife?
'Babe...' A woman motioned to him from a 1963 Thunderbird at the front of the car park. Miles leant down and peered through the passenger window. Her eyes were blue. She had a heart-shaped face and blonde hair tied with a scarf like Grace Kelly. Her chin was pointed, her smile sharp at the corners. She wore a white dress. He didn't even ask if she was Imogen Hush. He just got in the car.
The highway was long, the traffic seamlessly fast. Gleaming beetle shapes, black windscreens, white, star-crossed lights. The engine whined like a jet.(If you want to read the whole thing, the e-version of the collection The Man Who Wasn't Feeling Himself is available on Kindle | Smashwords and iTunes.)
Miles cleared his throat. 'You're really something,' he told her.
'Well, you have my worst side.' She reached behind the seat and pulled out a thick glossy magazine which she passed to him. Vogue Italia . He looked at the cover for what seemed like a long time.
'You're right,' he said finally. 'You look better from the other side. But that's splitting hairs. You're still really something. Are you a famous model?'
'I used to be. But marrying you meant I could give all that up. It got kinda boring.'
'Ms Hush –'
'Imogen. Ms Hush.' He felt ridiculous. 'I don't know what all those people think, but I'm not your husband. I'm not Larry Despot.'
'You are now.' She held up her hand before he could interject. 'I know, I know – you're not Larry. But as from now you're positioned in the universe in such a way that you appear to be Larry Despot, to me and to everyone else.'
'But you can tell that I'm not Larry. Can't you?'
'Oh sure. But I'm a little closer to Larry than other people. And I've seen this happen before.'
Miles felt his head beginning to spin. 'You have?'
'Larry first changed about two years ago,' she said with a faraway look in her eyes. 'Now it's happening every few months. They all showed up like you did – in a club or a restaurant, middle of the night. I'd wake up and it wouldn't be Larry any more. Well, I mean, it would be Larry, but someone else at the same time...' She winced. 'I feel guilty about it, but what can I do?'
City lights flickered past, whipped by the wind. 'What happened to the other Larrys?' Miles said.
'I don't know. They passed, and their respective identities with them. The doctor diagnosed it as a series of paranoid schizophrenic episodes. That was what I thought too, that the strain had finally got to my husband. But it's happened so many times now that I've become able to discern physical differences between one Larry and the next. I believe what you're saying – and what the others said. You're not Larry. You're simply occupying his place in this reality.' Imogen squinted at him, hard, for as long a time as she could take her eyes off the road. Her gaze was acute, perceptive. It felt as if she was digging her fingernails into his skin.
'But I have memories of my life before,' Miles interrupted. 'I was standing in the Pavilion on New Year's Day in the year 2000... and then I was in a studio, and everyone's telling me my real name's my character name, that my life was really the episode in which I was acting.' Miles sank fitfully in the passenger's seat. 'Jesus.'
'It's okay. Be cool,' she reassured him. 'What I think is, we're occupying parallel universes. Like the lanes on this highway. Now, for some reason, things have begun to change lanes. Maybe because the lanes have become similar. Maybe all these science fiction stories are making us catch up with the future, in some way.' She shrugged. 'Maybe some sort of space-time anomaly. Anyway, we're almost home.' She pointed out the window. 'That's where you live. We live. Together.' She seemed not unhappy at the thought. 'Have done for four years.'
'We have?' He looked across the highway to twin apartment towers sprouting from the low, serrated skyline. 'Is it a nice area?'
'Anywhere's nice from the fifteenth floor. You can see the ocean.'
'Wow,' he said flatly. He rubbed a contemplative hand across his chin and was rewarded with a palm full of studio makeup.
'Larry always washes before he leaves the studio,' Imogen stated. 'And he doesn't touch his face when he's wearing makeup. No TV professional would.'
'I was thinking about the apartment.'
'Well, that's the wrong expression for thinking. You're not holding your hand properly.' She demonstrated with her left, flicking her thumb up and down through her hooked index finger. 'Larry Despot always does this when he's fidgety or irritated. See? Like an imaginary cigarette lighter. It's a subliminal gesture – he does it when he wants to smoke. Do you smoke?'
'Wrong. We both do.' She dug into the glove compartment and pulled out a packet of menthols. Keeping her eyes on the traffic she put the pack to her lips and drew out two cigarettes. She left one in her mouth and held out the other to him. 'Try the movement first.' He flicked his thumb very slowly. She shot him a bored expression as she tossed him the cigarette. 'You're not even trying.'
'I have enough to think about.' He depressed the car lighter and waited for it to heat. 'Half an hour ago I was standing in a different city at the beginning of a new era and now I'm a television star being driven around by a woman telling me how to wiggle my hand. I mean, Jesus. 1965 – I don't think I'm born yet.'
'I know. I'm the one who should be saying sorry.' Her tone was automatic. 'But really, this has happened so many times it's more tedious than anything else.' She sighed and leaned forward on the steering wheel. 'What a dumb-ass situation. Didn't you ever watch The 21st Century?'
The heated lighter popped out. He lit her cigarette, pressing the orange ring against the tip. Then he lit his own. It didn't taste bad. He didn't cough. He waited for the element's heat to disperse before answering. 'I don't recall any such show.'
'Maybe it doesn't exist in your universe,' she said, trying to prick her own interest as much as his. 'That's possible.'
'How many other Larrys were there?'
'Counting Larry? Five.'
'So I'm Larry six. Am I much different?'
'You're taller,' she said. 'The last one barely came up to here.' She indicated her nipples with a karate chop.
It was a grim lineage. And yet if what she said was true... 'Doesn't someone notice the height difference?' he wondered.
Imogen shrugged. 'I do. No-one else does. You know what it's like with TV stars: someone says they're short, someone says they're tall... If Larry's suits are tight the people in wardrobe assume he's put on weight. Too short and they figure they have the wrong suit, a bad tailor – something like that. I mean, would you accuse someone of shrinking?'
'I guess not.'
'Especially not Larry Despot.' She blew two lines of smoke and her nostrils flared. 'Nobody would dare say that to Larry.'
The idea of reality-altering drugs figured in Electric, in which chemicals cause different cities around the world to occupy the same space:
Dawn was coming up. The light was the colour of cornflour. The traffic sounded like gentle rain. Somewhere between sleeping and waking she had slipped out of bed and left me alone. Beyond the Chrysler Building the Eiffel Tower was fading in the sun. I was dreaming a lullaby: a girl singing 'Sweet Jane', her faint voice stretching to reach the notes. Na na na na na, sweet Jane. And then it really was a voice.Chemicals influences are everywhere in REALITi. Four of the character names – Holly, Mandrake, Meg (nutmeg), Jessamine (jasmine) – are taken from plants with toxic qualities. There is also some nominative determinism in the lead character of Vic Long: he's not quite a Victor.
Although it's science fiction, REALITi is mostly a noir. It's a detective story, as was Shirker, Electric and Departure Lounge, in which the darkness and cold of the city mirrors the characters' lives. The plot can be read in two ways: one traditional, one meta. Either will do.