RADIO FREE INTERVIEW – Part 2 – Elizabeth Karr – Woman behind the Science Fiction

I recently had the privilege of talking with Producer/Director John Alan Simon and his partner, Producer/Actress Elizabeth Karr about the creation of their cinematic version of the classic Phillip K Dick novel, “Radio Free Albemuth”, starring Shea Whigham, Jonathan Scarfe, Alanis Morrisette, Katheryn Winnick, and Scott Wilson.

Science Fiction has often been thought of as a male dominated genre, but more and more women are seizing critical roles in genres outside the norm. One of the first that comes to my mind is the daring and memorable Kathryn Bigelow, Director of both the Science Fiction tale “Strange Days” and the Academy award winning “Hurt Locker”. We are pleased that we can now add Elizabeth Karr to this relatively exclusive and distinguished list.

In Part Two of this interview we speak more with Elizabeth Karr about her career and her role in bringing Phillip K Dick to the big screen.

TR: In Part One of this article { radio-free-interview-part-1 } we discussed your work with John Alan Simon and your role as Co-Producer on “Radio Free Albemuth”. Could you tell us more about how you came to be involved in production in general?

EK: Producing films was on my career path trajectory, a natural progression from producing theatre for twenty years in the equity-waiver/99 seat plan, chalking up some critical and financial successes. Working on shoestring budgets in theatre teaches you to be creative. There are many similarities between the two, the main difference being that film is a larger canvas on which to paint – more variables, more challenges. My acting background was useful, too. You pick up a thing or two spending time on set on the other side of the camera.

John has been an incredible mentor for me as a producer. There’s nothing like on the job-training. And being supervised by him throughout has been an extraordinary education. Chip Rosenbloom, Steve Nemeth and Daniel Assael have been great to work with, too.

TR: Tell us about your acting role in “Radio Free Albemuth” and your experience acting and producing on the same project.

EK: Radio Free Albemuth is my first feature film as a producer. Prior producing experience was primarily in theatre, including two collaborations with John Alan Simon as director in two Oscar Wilde plays: “A Woman of No Importance” and “An Ideal Husband as Victorian Noir”. In both plays, I played lead roles, as well as produced. Producing and acting in theatre is more manageable than doing so in film – at least that’s my take. In theatre, pre-production and producing aspects are more contained. Time is allotted to take care of the physical producing – casting, set design, costuming, etc – and time allotted for the rehearsal process. During rehearsal hours, I was able to focus entirely on my role and collaboration with the director and other actors. Of course, there were things that would come up – there always are – but rehearsal time was sacrosanct for the acting part of the process.

Some of the women of RFA on set.

That bifurcation is harder to do in film, because the producing process is never ending. It’s a moving target. Producers need to make sure things are running smoothly, everyone is doing their job and/or has the wherewithal to do so. Most important during the shoot is that the director and actors have what they need to tell the story. It’s hard to focus on everyone else’s needs, as well as your own needs as an actor. That’s why I think it unlikely that I’ll ever be a producer of acting vehicles for myself. I’d rather act in other people’s films and be a producer on films where that is my sole function, because being a producer is actually 100(s) of jobs rolled into one, which is hard enough to do in its own right. Of course, a lovely cameo role, or small supporting role is doable – but even that has its challenges, as I experienced on “Radio Free Albemuth”.

 The day we shot my scene in RFA, our location was Venice Beach. A Full day of several big scenes at one of the busiest tourist sites in LA. That scene opens the novel, and is the epilogue in John’s screenplay – explaining why Nick Brady was the chosen one. It’s a flashback – young Nick Brady (played by Maxwell Perry Cotton) with his parents (Matthew Letscher and me) (John wanted to get that scene at golden hour. There were camera problems that day, so John had less than a half hour to get it all in. It was fun being an actress – hair and make-up, gorgeous 60’s vintage dress by costume designer Jayme Bohn.   So much of being an actor on set is ‘hurry up and wait’, so that part I’m used to. Minute John called, “cut’, it was back to street clothes and back to the production trailer. The actress in me wanted more takes, more coverage, more ‘me’ time. Producer knew John was doing the right thing – Focusing on the story points – getting the moments that mattered and moving on.

But even during performance, it’s hard for me to completely divorce myself from the producer’s role. During a performance of our play “Woman of No Importance”, while dressed in Victorian garb, I chased down a thief who had stolen the cashbox. Waiting for my entrance, I saw him slip the cash box under his coat and exit the courtyard. I gave chase, yelling, “Stop, Thief!” (I felt like a character in a Dickens novel.) That guy probably didn’t know what hit him – this crazy woman in a long gown yelling at the top of her lungs. He dropped the cash box and was nabbed by a policeman in the park. As a producer, receipts in that cashbox helped the play finish in the black. It all happened so fast, I didn’t miss my entrance.) As a producer, you always have to have some part of one eye on the bottom line.

TR: What are your thoughts on the role of women in Science Fiction?

I’m not a science fiction expert by any means. What I like about PKD’s novel, Radio Free Albemuth and John’s screenplay is that it’s a compelling story about friendship and hope and perseverance, even up against overwhelming odds. Whatever genre – scifi, mystery, horror, rom-com – I spark to full-bodied characters with points of view and idiosyncrasies. Characters I’d like to hang out with or avoid – either way. Hard to think of a better ally to have on your side than Sylvia Aramchek (Alanis Morissette), And put FAPPER Vivian Kaplan (Hanna Hall) in the column of scary baby-faced fascists to avoid.

It’s been great to discover how many women PKD fans are coming out to see Radio Free Albemuth. Sci-Fi is no longer a domain dominated by men. Women are reading and writing scifi in increasing numbers. The first sci-fi writer I read was a woman – Madleline L’engle (sp), “A Wrinkle In Time”.

John Alan Simon’s extensive knowledge of Philip K. Dick – he’s read every novel and short story – was my way into becoming a Dick-Head. In future I see, women characters – and authors – becoming more of a force in sci-fi. But then, I think women are becoming more of a force in everything, particularly in the film business.

TR: What was the most challenging aspect of working on this Phillip K. Dick film adaptation for you?

The long hours and endless details of post production. It’s like running a tab on 15 different customers in your head. Embracing grunt work as necessary and important, getting up to speed on social media. Making scary phone calls – calling in favors, negotiating some of the budget items, etc. – the realization that you can’t do it all, having to step down from five years of running a theatre company (Classical Theatre Lab) to focus on producing.  I had to put performing in theatre on hiatus to focus only on film & TV work.

That ‘producing is a moving target’ analogy I made above – that’s an adjustment. To be organized and structured, yet to allow for flexibility has been a challenge for me.

I’ve had a wonderful producing mentor in John Alan Simon – organized, capable, no-nonsense. I’m a zillion times better producer now than when I started. John has taken my natural abilities – strong work ethic, people skills, good taste, and honed in on what needed sharpening – ability to say no, organizational skills/time management, being  tougher.

Every set is different and has its own personality. I recently played a secretary in ‘J Edgar’. A Clint Eastwood set is a quiet, efficient well-oiled machine. I think I’ll make that my goal for sets on which I am a producer.

TR: I noticed that “Radio Free Albemuth” features the music of both Robyn Hitchcock and Ralph Grierson. Can you tell us about the use of the two composers and how that came together for the project? 

       

{In order to answer this question more thoroughly, Elizabeth has brought John Alan Simon back into the conversation}

John Alan Simon:
 I’m a long-time fan of Robyn Hitchcock‘s smart, quirky songs. Five or six years ago, he’ used to play quite often here at the old Largo Cafe with great musicians like R.E.M. and Grant Lee Philips and John Brion as his "back-up".  One night, I worked up the nerve to ask him if he was a fan of Philip K. Dick and he told me that he didn’t much like science fiction at all.   So I filed away the concept of Robyn’s involvement in RFA.  But I really never lost the sense that Robyn’s music is in many ways the pop music equivalent of Philip K. Dick – surreal, funny, poignant, ironic and with a deep sense of skepticism about all accepted forms of authority, whether political, social or religious.   I think in some alternate reality Robyn is both critically and commercially on a par with the Beatles or Dylan or anyone else you’d care to name.  Just for fun, I habitually would use his lyrics in any screenplay where a song is required.

Anyway, a few years later we discovered that our friend Alan Rickman is a mutual friend of Robyn’s.  Elizabeth Karr asked Alan to facilitate an intro, and the not only talented, but  helpful and generous friend, did so.   Robyn’s manger here in LA is Richard Bishop, one of the very nicest and most decent people I’ve ever encountered.   Robyn responded favorably to the rough cut of the movie and Richard and I worked out for Robyn to contribute both songs and score.    Because of Robyn’s schedule and budgetary reasons, Robyn worked on the score, on his own from London. We weren’t able to sit in a room together and discuss scenes and really fine-tune the score. So I was very fortunate to find Ralph Grierson to contribute his compositional skills.  

For many years, Ralph was one of the most sought-after pianists in Hollywood.   He worked on most of John Williams’ scores and even played piano on Randy Newman‘s albums, among his many, many credits. But a few years ago, while playing with John Williams at the Hollywood Bowl, he tripped on a cable backstage and shattered his hand.   He’s fully recovered and still plays wonderfully now, but not quite up to his own high standards, so he’s taken this accident as an opportunity to fulfill his long desire to spend more time composing. In a kind of "only in LA" way, we were introduced through a shared massage therapist, who mentioned the movie to Ralph, who as it turned out is a fellow PKD fan.  So I really ended up with the best of both worlds – Robyn’s songs and some excellent original music cues and the really intense collaboration with Ralph for the more dramatic elements of the score. 

Way back in my past, I was a music critic, writing for the New Orleans Times Picayune and as a contributing editor for Downbeat magazine.   But while I have a huge music collection and wide breadth of musical tastes, I’m not a musician.   It was really a steep learning curve for me to communicate with a composer.   Steve Martin once said that talking about music is like dancing about architecture.", That about sums it up. Despite those challenges, I think I ended up with a really terrific soundtrack and there are a lot of people to thank for that.

EK: After Alan Rickman put us together, John and I attended Robyn Hitchcock’s rehearsal at the Coronet and met him backstage. John and Robyn hit it off – John’s the most musical non-musician imaginable. He can talk music with the best of them. Robyn took a dvd back to UK, liked the film and composed in his London Studio. Ralph and John collaborated breathing the same cubic feet of oxygen here in Los Angeles. In addition to the composers, Robyn Hitchcock’s songs round out the score. Alanis Morissette and The Good Listeners also composed original songs for the movie.

TR: What has been your plan of attack on getting distribution/screenings for Radio Free Albemuth and where else will the film be screening on its festival run?

EK: Since Part 1 of this interview, Radio Free Albemuth has had three outings: Opening Night film at Experience Music Project | Science Fiction Museum in Seattle for the annual Science Fiction Hall of Fame Induction. That was an incredible experience. EMPSFM  was a perfect venue for our Philip K. Dick film and a it was a thrill to screen RFA for the science fiction literary community, as well as the Seattle audience of filmmakers and indie film lovers. Seattle has an active indie film community. An added bonus of screening RFA there was that John Alan Simon and I got to meet some of the folks, heretofore only known to us via twitter. We also got to chat with Neil Gaiman there.

 On July 1, Radio Free Albemuth was the opening night film for Florida Supercon’s inaugural Geek Film Festival. RFA took home the award “Best of Festival”. Geek Film Fest was our first screening in a scifi convention setting – very different from typical film festivals. At film festivals, patrons don’t necessarily come costumed as their favorite film and fantasy characters.

 Currently we’re in Perth, Australia at the Revelation Film Festival with Radio Free Albemuth. Both screenings were packed with long-lasting Q & A sessions. John also did a workshop on Screenplay adaptation, which branched out to John talking about writing and the business in general. John is very articulate on filmmaking in general, and Philip K. Dick and this film in particular. I always learn something new during these sessions, even though I’ve been living with this film for several years.
The best part of festivals is meeting and interacting with the audience. In my opinion, it’s crucial for the director – in RFA’s case – wrtier/director, to be in attendance. Film Festivals have a whole roster of films/events they’re scheduling, so it needs the personal attention of filmmakers on premises to make the most out of the film’s screening, including helping to get audience there. In addition, festivals are a wonderful place to meet other filmmakers, exchange ideas, share experiences, and – who knows – lay the groundwork for future collaborations. Revelation has been particularly conducive to that. The bar upstairs at the Astor Theatre is a hotbed of filmmaker and audience activity and conversation throughout the day and post-screenings. Program Director Jack Sargeant and Revcon Director Richard Sowada run a festival that encourages interaction between filmmakers with each other and the audience.

TR: From our previous discussions I discovered that we were both Wisconsin natives – could you tell us something about your transition to LA from the Midwest?

EK: I love Wisconsin! I have lots of family there and visit often. My ancestors were one of the founding families of Cedarburg, and the graveyard is filled with them. (It’s one of my favorite places to visit, especially as my beloved Nana is buried there.) I spent a lot of time as a kid in Milwaukee – Shorewood, Whitefish Bay – and my extended family still lives there. Door County is another favorite haunt.  I’d love to film a movie in Wisconsin. I have a project – “Thanksgiving”  by Emer Gillespie – that would do very nicely there. I didn’t move directly from Wisconsin to Los Angeles. New York was in between and some time in England. Los Angeles is my home, but I’ll always have a foot in Wisconsin.

John’s from the Midwest, too – Chicago. There are a lot of us mid-westerners transplanted to LA. – Might be something to do with the weather.

TR: What projects are up next for you in directing, production and acting?

EK:Nothing More Than Murder” is a pulp fiction novel by the great Jim Thompson that John has adapted for the screen, and will be directing. It’s a tale of fraud, murder, lies and adultery with a small town movie theatre and the film distribution business as background circa 1950’s. Murder is one of my favorite genres – film noir. Nicholl Fellowship quarter-finalist “In From The Cold” is an action/thriller written and directed by Dominika Waclawiack about a meek wife who stuns her cheating husband when she becomes the spy she was trained for as a child to smuggle state secrets out of Communist Poland on the night leading up to Martial Law, transforming her marriage and family in the process of keeping them alive. “The Divide” by Rashmi Singh: An MI-5 agent discovers that her own brother is the prime suspect in a terrorist bombing. The one common denominator between all these scripts is excellent writing and compelling story. You need to be passionate about what you’re doing because it’s so damn hard to get a movie made.  

Acting –wise, I’ve got great agents and a manager who handle getting me auditions, including a recent role as a secretary in “J Edgar”, directed by Clint Eastwood.

  I’ve taken a hiatus from doing plays as my producing load heats ups. I’m still active with Pacific Resident Theatre – a great community of talented theatre artists, and a great place to do staged readings of screenplays. We’re celebrating PRT’s 25th anniversary with a series of staged readings by our honorary board. Next up is Ballad of the Sad Café, by Edward Albee, adapted from Carson McCullers novella. I’m so lucky to do work that I love. Even in the darkest moments of frustration attendant upon any creative undertaking, that is something to hold onto. My favorite playwright is Chekhov, and as Sonya says in Uncle Vanya, “We must work."

 

TR: What’s up next for Radio Free Albemuth?

We’re planning on doing a few more festivals –sorting through some invitations now. Film Courage will be the first to know where and when, and of course, we will announce it on our website.  As far as when Radio Free Albemuth will be available in theatres – late 2011 or early 2012 for a limited US theatrical release. International release cities will vary. More details available on our website: http://www.radiofreealbemuth.com/

Elizabeth Karr bio:

 Elizabeth’s work as an actress include House, ER, Womens Murder Club, Veronica Mars, Sleeper Cell, The West Wing, Passions, Young & Restless, Pawn, Shiloh Season, Radio Free Albemuth, Shiloh Season, January Man. She’s an active member of LA Theatre Community: Lead roles in many Critics’ Choice productions. Company Member—Paci?c Resident Theatre & Classical Theatre Lab, Artistic Director—Cedarburg Productions. Besides co-producing Radio Free Albemuth, she’s produced/cast several short films and a Disney Channel TV pilot, Webgirl.

http://www.ElizabethKarr.com

http://www.imdb.com/name/nm0440066/

More on the Film adaptations of Phillip K. Dick stories at:
http://nightmaresoundlab.blogspot.com/2011/05/nightmare-theater-hottest-films-in.html

Upcoming: 
My next interview for the Film Courage Blog will be with Joe Wilson, Creator of Vampire Mob – Some of the best Web TV has to offer!

T. Reed – Composer / Sound Designer / Music Producer / Writer  @TAOXproductions

http://www.taoxproductions.com

http://nightmaresoundlab.blogspot.com

http://filmcourage.com/blog/5