Bryan Cranston is exhausted. “I feel like a young dad coming home at night to look after a baby,” the star of cult crime hit Breaking Bad says with a smile. “When you have a young child you can actually sleepwalk – when I had a baby, I could get up, go to their cribs, pick them up and hold them without once opening my eyes. This is pretty much the same.”
He’s chatting in a break in filming – he’s starring in Human Is, an episode from Channel 4’s big-budget autumn drama Philip K Dick’s Electric Dreams, a hugely ambitious TV series. It’s a ten-part anthology – split into two blocks, the first six going out on Channel 4 from this week, with four to come at a later date. Each episode is based on one of Dick’s short stories and they have been filmed in the UK and the US, with a cast that includes Steve Buscemi, Greg Kinnear, Timothy Spall, Sidse Babett Knudsen, Liam Cunningham, Anna Paquin, Vera Farmiga, Jack Reynor and Benedict Wong.
Cranston is executive producer and now, four years on from the conception of this project, he’s finally on the home straight and sounds ready to stop. “The logistics have been so challenging: ten writers, ten directors, ten casts, ten different locations, ten different designs… It’s worse than having a baby – it’s like having triplets.”
So why do this? “I was always a Philip K Dick fan,” he shrugs. “I did Total Recall with Colin Farrell in 2012 and I was fascinated by Dick’s concepts about what the world could be. He’s a genre writer and a humanist, so there’s an underlying theme in his stories about what it means to be human. I think the themes in the stories are as pertinent today as they were 60 years ago.”
Philip K Dick, perhaps more than anyone, has defined huge swathes of our popular culture. The US sci-fi writer published 44 novels and about 121 short stories during the 60s and 70s, and if you’ve watched an intelligent sci-fi movie in the past 30 years, the chances are it came from, was inspired by or was dressed to look like one of his tales.
As well as Blade Runner – originally published as Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? (hence the title of the series) – Total Recall, Minority Report, The Adjustment Bureau, The Man in the High Castle, Paycheck and A Scanner Darkly are all adaptations of Dick’s work, while the likes of Terry Gilliam, Darren Aronofsky and Charlie Kaufman credited Dick as the inspiration behind 12 Monkeys, Pi and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind respectively. James Cameron cites a Dick short story, The Skull, when discussing his Terminator franchise. Effectively, almost any dark, smart, dystopian sci-fi has its roots in Dick’s complicated mind.
Cranston himself knows more than a little about cult influence. After years in goofy family comedies like Malcolm in the Middle, King of Queens and Sabrina the Teenage Witch he was cast as Walter White, a high-school chemistry teacher who starts cooking methampethamine to help pay his family’s medical bills, in Breaking Bad on the US cable channel AMC. The show – and Cranston’s reputation – soared over its five season run, with Breaking Bad hailed as “the best TV show of all time” by critics from the Daily Telegraph to Rolling Stone.
Cranston thinks it was certainly one of the luckiest. “It was serendipitous to come along at that time,” he nods carefully. “Audiences now are far more sophisticated than they were when I was younger. If you looked at shows from 20, 30 years ago, they’re laughable. They wouldn’t last now, when you have Humans, Black Mirror…
“The mistake that a lot of television executives made was thinking that to sustain interest in a show you had to have, first and foremost, compelling plotlines. That is incorrect. First and foremost, you need interesting, compelling characters. We’re human beings and that’s the gateway into a story. People need to invest in people.”
His brief to the writers of Electric Dreams – ranging from UK TV stalwarts like National Treasure’s Jack Thorne and Southcliffe’s Tony Grisoni to The Affair’s Jeffrey Reiner and Clash of the Titans’ Travis Beacham – was very open-ended. “Use the original material as a springboard – change whatever you like,” he explains. “Keep the core idea and the core theme, and enhance that to see how that affects a modern-day audience… We didn’t want to tell them, ‘This is the story you’re doing,’ so we laid the stories out like a buffet. It was by their choice that we came up with the ten for this season.”
As a result, each story mixes “what if?” questions with intense human choices. In Jack Thorne’s take on The Commuter, for instance, Timothy Spall is a station master who notices something odd when a passenger tries to buy a ticket for a town that doesn’t exist. He stumbles into the town where – in theory – every wish is fulfilled and he has to decide whether to stay with Linda, a woman played by Tuppence Middleton, or return to his schizophrenic teenage son.
“Philip K Dick always does something extraordinary in connecting the fantastical with the emotional,” says Spall when we meet on set. “The science-fiction structure is born out of his inability to come to terms with his problems. I adore the poetry of the ordinary, and this is right smack bang in the middle of it. It’s about the nitty gritty of human suffering in its mundane way – what is in the passions of the ordinary man?”
The first show in the series is The Hood Maker – written by Life on Mars’ Matthew Graham and starring Game of Thrones ’ Richard Madden. It’s closer to traditional sci-fi but with a political edge – set in a world without advanced technology and where mutant telepaths are the only way people can communicate over long distances.
Madden plays Agent Ross, one of the top detectives in the state police that enforces a law that requires everyone to have their mind read. Then a mysterious organisation starts making telepathy immune hoods, which the government promptly bans. “It’s a take on racism, surveillance and privacy,” Madden explains. “You can see the burkha [controversy] and the US National Security Agency in there, or see it just as a thriller – it’s constantly escalating, with loads of stunts and chases, but it keeps coming back to these issues underneath. I’m a big sci-fi fan and a big Bryan Cranston fan, so I loved it. Bryan was a bit of a hero – he flew in from the States, did a bunch of costume, hair and make-up fittings for his episode, then at 11pm drove across London to our night-shoot set to say hello to us. He didn’t need to do that.”
It’s easy to see why Cranston’s exhausted if that’s that way he’s run this show. Does it make his personal life tricky? “My wife and I have an agreement that we won’t go longer than two weeks without seeing each other,” he explains. “When I was working on Breaking Bad and we were two states away from California, I’d go home almost every weekend. My wife and daughter adapted to life without me and I felt like an interloper at times. You have to be careful about that. But that’s the beauty of working on Philip K Dick stuff – you get the feeling he’d understand all of that. In the end, all his sci-fi stories are about love. And that beats aliens every time.”
By Stephen Armstrong