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William Gibson Interview

by Giuseppe Salza
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William Gibson Interview

by Giuseppe Salza

March, 1995  [Etext #118]

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by Giuseppe Salza

****This interview will be included in the book "Net-Surfers"

(tentative tile) by Giuseppe Salza, to be published by

"Theoria Edizioni" in Italy in Spring 1995****

CANNES. William Gibson was in Cannes in May 1994 to promote

the filming of "Johnny Mnemonic", a $26 million science fiction

movie based on his short story, and starring megastar Keanu

Reeves as the main character. Directed by the concept artist (and

Gibson's pal) Robert Longo - with a few music video and TV credits,

but for the first time in charge of a feature, the film also stars Ice-T,

Dolph Lundgren, Takeshi Kitano (of the cult "Sonatine"), Udo Kier,

Henry Rollins and Dina Meyer. William Gibson also wrote the

screenplay of his original story, which was published in the anthology

"Burning Chrome". "Johnny Mnemonic" goes into wide release

in current 1995.

In this interview, William Gibson talks at length about "Johnny

Mnemonic", movies, SF, net culture and issues.

What are your initial impressions on how "Johnny Mnemonic" is

turning out ?

I have just seen the pre-assembled 10-minute show reel. I think it is

fantastic! It felt very good seeing the universe of "Johnny Mnemonic"

taking a life on its own.  If it had been different, I wouldn't probably

be here. But it can be safe to say that "Johnny Mnemonic" has been

the optimal screen experience so far.

Robert (Longo, the film director) and I kind of had a mutual

experience with it.  We first tried to make a screen adaptation of

"Johnny Mnemonic" back in 1989, so we started pitching it around

film companies, asking for money.  Didn't work out.  We realized

afterwards that our major mistake was asking too little money.

Our aim back then was to make a little art movie, we figured that

we would need less than 2 million dollars. Jean-Luc Godard's

"Alphaville" was our main inspiration back then.  We should have

asked more money.

We went through several script drafts and stages.  It became very

painful pursuing the project.  If it were just for me, I would have

given up long ago.  It was really Robert's faith and persistence

in getting this film done that made it possible.

Have you written any film scripts before, besides this and the ill-

fated drafts for "Alien3"?

Yeah, I have done a couple of screen adaptations that never got

made.  One was "Burning Chrome" (ED.Kathryn Bigelow was

involved in it for a while) and the other was "Neuro-Hotel".

What happened ?

I don't really feel like talking about them.  Let's just say that

these projects have been... developed to death.  It was getting

more and more frustrating, and I didn't like that.

Have you ever been involved in any other movie or TV project

before that ?

I was gonna write a story for the "Max Headroom" series, but the

network pulled the plug.  My friend John Shirley did a couple of

scripts for them.  He's the one who convinced me I should have

written one, too.

The only thing which was left of your script for "Alien3" was the

prisoners with the bar code tattooed on the back of their necks.

What do you think in retrospect of this misadventure ?

My script for "Alien3" was kind of Tarkovskian. Vincent Ward

(ED.the director of "The Navigator") came late to the project

(ED.after a number of other directors had been unsuccessfully

approached), but I think he got the true meaning of my story.

It would have been fun if he stayed on. (ED.he eventually quit.

"Alien3" was finally directed by David Fincher)

You seem very detached from your previous experiences in movies.

"Johnny Mnemonic", on the other hand, seems very personal to you.

Why is that ?

I wrote the original story in 1980. I think it was perhaps the second

piece of fiction I ever wrote in my life.  It held up very good after all

these years.  "Johnny" was a start for many creative processes:

it was in fact the root source of "Neuromancer" and "Count Zero".

It is only fair that the first script of mine that goes into production

should come from that, from my early career.

The world of "Johnny Mnemonic" takes for granted the Berlusconi

completion process, I mean the media baron becoming one of the

Country's leaders.  I think the distinction between politicians and

media is gonna disappear. It already has, in effect. It is very sad.

It's like saying that the theories you imagined in your science fiction

stories are becoming real...

Yeah, but people shouldn't look at science fiction like they look at

"real" fiction.  They shouldn't expect that this is what the future

is gonna look like.  We (ED. science fiction writers) are sort of

charlatans: we come up with a few ideas and we make a living out of that.

When I wrote "Neuromancer", I would have never imagined AIDS

and the collapse of the USSR.  We never get the future right.

I always thought that USSR was this big winter bear that would

always exist. And look at what happened.  In 1993 I wrote an

afterword for the Hungarian version of "Neuromancer".  I wrote that

nothing lives forever, and that it's time that the winds of democracy

blow over the East.  But now, after the arrival of people like

Zhirinowsky, I have second thoughts again and I fear for them.

Now you also write "geo-anthropological" reports...

That's right.  I did a portrait of Singapore for "Wired Magazine".

That place gave me the creeps.

You are considered the true father of cyberpunk.  What do you think

of how this word has spread in the world and has gained new meanings ?

It depends whether you believe in such a thing.  "Cyberpunk" has

become a historical word, one of these words which you use to

describe a definite period of time.  The risk is that it could suddenly

become outdated, passe.  Now it is a very fashionable thing to say:

wearing cyberpunk outfit or behaving cyberpunk has become hip:

you see it on MTV.  I was never comfortable with this interpretation.

Billy Idol (ED. he released in 1993 the album "Cyberpunk") has

turned it into something very silly.

Finally, I think that cyberpunk is one of these journalistic terms,

that media like to rely on.  I am aware that most young writers

are delighted being considered cyberpunk authors.  But I'm older.

I remember well the Sixties.  I know that once you have a "label"

attached onto you, it is over.

Let's go back to "Johnny Mnemonic".  Which direction have you

given the screenplay ?

"Johnny" is about the politics of Information.  It's an action film

of course, but it doesn't forego for flashy and graphic FX: there's too

much of that already on MTV.  Besides, Billy Idol burned that look.

We preferred opting for an anti-realistic look: we want to plunge

the audience into a very strange but consistent universe.  In short,

we have decided to tell a story.  That's what science fiction

literature has often managed to achieve, unlike most films.

Which science fiction movies you like most ?

I like "Blade Runner", Andrej Tarkowski's "Stalker", Chris Marker's

"La jetee", and also the British pilot for the "Max Headroom"

series.  (ED. it was directed by Rocky Morton & Annabel Jenkel)

"Johnny Mnemonic" has a superstar, Keanu Reeves.  What do you

think of his portrayal of your character ?

Keanu is fantastic! I have this problem: I have never been able to

describe the character of Johnny, until he came aboard.  One day in

the early stages of developement, we were discussing the character,

and I wasn't making a good job of doing that.  But he really

got Johnny from day one. It helped me better understand this

person that I had imagined, so I was able to make small

adjustments to the story. I have always had a good attitude

towards actors, and Keanu helped me reinforce that idea.

Once "Johnny" got its second chance, Robert (Longo) and I have

talked to each others on the phone at least once every day.

Subsequently, I was often on the sets during the filming, doing

rewrites.  The sets of this picture were awesome!  Everything was

hung 50 feet up in the air.  They were quite dangerous:  you really

had to watch where to put your feet.  But I was able to not black out.

You and Bruce Sterling are the forefathers of the new science fiction.

Isn't it ironical that he is very fascinated by hackers and the new edge,

whereas you're not a technical person ?

Bruce practically lives on the Internet. I don't even have a modem

or e-mail. My computer is outdated by any standards of criteria.

I never was a technical guy and never will be.  I'm a writer,

and poetry and pop culture are the two things which fascinate me most.

I'm not deeply excited by hi-tech.  The Edge of the U2 was over here

the other day and he was showing me Net stuff. He showed how he

could telnet to his Los Angeles computer and he was very excited.

I'll never be like that.  However, I feel obliged to be ambivalent

towards technology.  I can't be a "techie", but I can't hate it, either.

You have written "Virtual Light".  So, what do you think of Virtual

Reality ?

If we take what I consider the "Sunday paper supplement" of VR,

I mean Goggles & Gloves, I think that it has become very obvious,

very cliche.  I think that real VR is gonna come out from the new

generation of visual effects in movies.  I met Jim Cameron when he

was editing "Terminator 2": he showed me the clips of the T-1000

emerging from fire in the L.A. canal.  He said they were gonna use

the actor for the whole shot, but it was easier for them to do it in

digital.  This is the future. One day there will be entire virtual

replicas of real actors.

Incidentally, the book I'm writing now is about virtual celebrities.

It's the story of a guy who becomes obsessed with the virtual replica of

a star, and falls in love with her.

You're not fascinated by technology, and yet you come up with ideas

on the edge...

When I write my books, my favorite part is always "art direction",

not the plot.  I admit I like giving people a visual impression

of the world I'm creating. Then, I have to remind myself that

I have to tell a story, foremost.

Another issue you focus on are Information Superhighways.

What actions have you taken ?

Bruce Sterling and I went to the National Academy in Washington to

address the Al Gore people.  We told them that this is the last

chance to give the poorest schools equal chances than the richest.

In a few years it will be too late and we won't be able to fill up the gap.

To me, Information Highways are best described by the most

interesting image I've seen on TV during the Los Angeles riot.

A Radio Shack shop (ED. a chain of shops selling consumer

electronics gear) was being looted.  Next to that there was an Apple

shop, and it was untouched.  People wanted to steal portable TVs

and CD players, not computers.  I think this clearly indicated the

gaps of culture, or simply the gaps of chances, in our society.

Besides, the Information Highway issue gives the public a false

perception.  They don't wanna offer you exhaustive accesses to

information; they wanna offer you a new shopping mall.

What do you think of the Clipper issue ?

The NSA wants to legislate that every computer manifactured in the

U.S. will have a chip built inside that will allow the Government

to decrypt the information.  The worst thing is that people are not

informed of what is at stake here.  Who would buy a computer with a

spy inside?  The Clipper chip is an admission of incompetence.

They say they wanna be able to decrypt the information that would

jeopardize National Security.  But to can prevent the Medellin cartel

to buy - say - into a Swiss corporation which comes up with a new

encryption system which totally cuts out the Clipper ?

Encryption programs are stronger and stronger.  There is a new one

called Stego, which is free on Internet.  It takes written material and

hides it in visual elements.  I send a digitized e-postcard from

Cannes and there is half a novel hidden in its data.  I've seen it work.

I haven't understood the half of it yet.

Man, the Clipper chip is fucked anyway.  Most of the new edge guys

are into computers, and they're coming up with new gear nobody

had the slightest clue about five years ago.  I saw recently a

prototype which looked like a beeper, but it was a virtual telephone.

Unfortunately, we have to deal with more paper than before.  We are

submerged by tons of paper!

Wait a second.  A few minutes you said you're not into hi-tech, and

now you're raving about it...

I'm not a techie.  I don't know how these things work.  But I like

what they do, and the new human processes that they generate.

What is in your opinion the most important technological

breakthrough of our society in recent years ?

My favorite piece of technology is the Walkman. It forever changed

the way we perceive music.  The Walkman has given us the opportunity

to listen to whatever kind of music we wanted wherever we wanted.

The Fax machine is also an amazing thing.  We live in a

very different world because of that:  instantaneous written

communication everywhere. It is also a very political technology,

as the Tien An Men Square events told us.

What about e-mail ?

E-mail is very glamorous.  Way too glamorous.

Copyright Giuseppe Salza, 1994.


This document can be freely copied under the following conditions:

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express of implied warranty. In other words, use it at your own risk.



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