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The future keepers

Philip K. Dick's children work to ensure the influential author's cinematic legacy.

September 15, 2007|Geoff Boucher | Times Staff Writer

The basic premise: An alien culture that cannot hear sound comes to Earth and inserts a bio-chip into the brain of a composer to funnel the experience of music to their society for the first time -- but the fellow they pick is a hack writer of B movie scores, and the aliens hunger for a richer experience than his talent can deliver. Then the bio-chip begins to push and inspire him to new heights of creativity, but it also begins to scorch his mind.

"He's making this fantastic music, but the rub is he's burning his brain out," Hackett said. "In many ways it really is my father's story. He couldn't not write -- he had these experiences he had to write about -- but it was all at a tremendous cost to him. So the fictional story and his own dovetail beautifully."

That would hint at a movie that chronicles a writer's life by blurring the lines between his real world and the one he created on the page, à la "Naked Lunch" or "American Splendor" (which also starred Giamatti). The "Naked Lunch" comparison seems especially relevant; like William S. Burroughs, Dick also lived an unhinged life. Paranoia, drug binges and fractured relationships are at the heart of the story, and Hackett admits having deep reservations about seeing it play out on a screen.

"But I think this movie is going to be made, it's inevitable, so I think the family should be part of it. I think it's better to be in the room definitely," Hackett said. "I think I've come to the point where I think it's a positive if we can play a role and have some influence and keep it sensitive and make sure it has a heart and not just focused on the sensational."

Her half-sister, Leslie, echoed that: "In a way, we feel we have to do it, because someone is going to make a film to fill that void."

Dick was married five times before his death at age 53 in Orange County. He had three children, each by a different wife. Isa, which is short for Isolde, was the second of the children, and her mother, Nancy Hackett, divorced the author in 1972 after six difficult years. The girl kept in touch with her father through letters and occasional visits, and she said she intuitively understood how to navigate around his anxieties, such as his intense discomfort in crowds and extended social interactions.

Now Hackett is the most visible face for the family as the children carry on with their father's considerable library. "The three of us," she said proudly, "have not had a single significant disagreement on a project, ever." She counts one of their great successes to be "A Scanner Darkly," the 2006 Richard Linklater adaptation that starred Keanu Reeves, Robert Downey Jr. and Winona Ryder working for scale. The film used an animation process that made it possible to capture the fantastic elements of the story on a small budget.

On the set, Reeves came up to Hackett and humbly thanked her for the honor of allowing the movie to be made, a moment that stuck with Hackett. Now, she said, the family's emphasis is working "with true fans of the material" on projects that capture the creative edginess of the source material. In other words, more like "A Scanner Darkly" and less like the action-heavy, high concept of, say, "Total Recall."

When was the last time Hackett saw her father? Well, in a way it was 2005. That's when a team of scientists -- all of them among Dick's many devotees in the wired world -- put his face on an eerie android with lifelike skin, camera eyeballs and an artificial intelligence that allowed it to recognize old friends. When Hackett saw the face she almost fainted.

"It looked very much like my dad," she said. "When my name was mentioned it launched into a long rant about my mother and this one time that she took me and left him. It was not pleasant."

Hackett, knowing that her heritage and life pursuits require a certain affinity for the bizarre, said she "understands" where the robot's creators were coming from and that it was flattering that they selected her dad to be the face of their high-tech curiosity. That android, by the way, was supposedly "misplaced" by an unnamed airline, its handlers said, a shady story to say the least, but Hackett doesn't miss the contraption.

"That flight it was on, the one where it was lost, it was headed to Santa Ana. That's where my dad died. That's fitting, I guess. It's still out there somewhere."

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geoff.boucher@latimes.com

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