Dangerous Visions 2016: Interview: Ed Harris

Ed HArrisEd Harris is the author of Your Perfect Summer, On Sale Here, part of this year’s Dangerous Visions series from BBC Radio 4, to which he contributed the play Billions back in 2013. He took a break from working on an adaptation of Czech author Karel Čapek’s War of the Newts for Soho Theatre to chat with Paul Simpson… (NB This interview contains spoilers for Your Perfect Summer… so go and listen to it first…)

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I enjoyed Your Perfect Summer – particularly some of the tricks that are used with the ‘voice of the game’, such as when ‘Sophie’ starts asking Theo for his password. That was a shivers-up-the-arm moment.

Good! I’m glad. That seemed to come across really well. It was one of those things where it just came out of the script while I was writing it. I don’t know how conscious I was that we could have a moment where we turned the dialogue into that but it became a fun and slightly chilling moment.

Scarlet Brookes, the actor who played Sophie, did it beautifully. She has one of the most beautiful voices I think I’ve ever heard anyway, and it just becomes slightly less like Sophie’s voice and slightly more calm and that sort of all-purpose, calming voice…

…that makes you want to kill somebody!

Yes, precisely that voice. She just cools the temperature with her voice each time she speaks that and it just becomes nasty.

How did you get involved with this season of Dangerous Visions?

edshotIt was Jonquil [Panting], the producer I work with a lot: I think she just rang me up and said, “If you’ve got any dark and nasty ideas at the bottom of a bucket somewhere, then now’s the time to get them out.”

These things take ages to get commissioned: you sort of have an idea and pitch it, and then you really forget about it for six months. Then you get rung up –“ That play? You’ve got to write it now.”

But the idea I had maybe ten years ago. I was a care worker for a while, like Theo in the piece, and I started writing it as a novel (or it might have been a short story – I can’t remember), but didn’t get very far with it;. The idea stuck around and I always thought it would be really nice: the care element of it makes it quite sinister.

There’s a nasty dark sense of humour to the idea that somebody else is living your life, and doing better at it than you are – which probably we all fear. We all collapse in on ourselves and go, “no-one else would have fucked that up in the way I fucked it up,” whatever it is, an interview, a meeting, a first date. The idea that somebody who’s more successful than you is playing your life for fun with the people that you love is cruel.

Was the games-testing part of it all along?

Perfect Summer picIt was one of those things that had been knocking around for a while as an idea.

I think if we start to tell stories about games – which we should because it’s probably increasingly important – the thing that is going to really hook somebody isn’t the bells and whistles of ‘now we can have games that are totally immersive’. That’s not the thrilling part, really. What’s thrilling is that it’s about love rather than technology, and how we choose our own narratives… and even then our narratives don’t work as we want them to, and are quite easily challenged and blown out of the water by people who remember things differently.

I think death in a computer game means absolutely nothing, dramatically, but love is quite an important thing. I was wondering: if you could have a sense of love being fulfilled by a computer game, how would that affect you in the rest of your life? When you fall in love, your brain is so addled with the chemicals and all that that you’re kind of on drugs. Especially for that first honeymoon period, you’re wandering around in a stupor of happy idiocy. If there was a way to access that, a way to light up those bits of the brains, it would sell like ecstasy would – it would be addictive and obsessive.

How much did it alter along the way or is it pretty much as you imagined it originally?

Perfect SummerIt changed quite a lot because actually while I was writing the first draft of it, my partner of four years and I broke up, which in a sense was sort of useful (not that that was why it happened!).

A lot of my first drafts are quite rambling – you can tell by the way I speak! – and not very concise, but Jonquil is great at that and knows how to take my stuff and offer cuts. It did change quite a bit, but in terms of plot and what you’d recognise, it’s hard to say, because once I’ve hit delete on a document, I’ve also hit delete on it in my mind. I forget where it was going to go.

We’ve tried to work out as many little switchbacks as possible. I think in the first draft, Paul wasn’t one of the game’s creators. Again, that was something that just popped out during the writing. We’ve got to have a reason why Theo is more insulted by this one man having this game, than the rest of the world. If everyone is playing it, and Theo is aware that everyone is playing this game, then his enemy is the world at large and there’s nothing he can do about that. There has to be a sense of “This is the man to blame, it’s all his fault and now he’s completely vulnerable and trusting in my hands, and I’ve got a way to dispose of him if I want to.”

It became more cruel – you find ways of ramping up the cruelty and the sadism that you put your characters through with each draft so that it becomes more and more unbearable for them… which hopefully I’ve done.

Theo’s relationship with Saskia is almost crueller than what he experiences in the game…

The way that it breaks up? Yes, good.

There’s something that I wanted to do with both her and Paul: I’ve noticed more and more over the past few years that language has become very sophisticated in terms of “mindfulness” and people “listening to themselves”. They use slightly hippy tones and phrases that are actually ways of not being responsible for things that we should be. Going “Yeah, maybe I would have said sorry to him or her, but at the time I just felt for myself. I, like, really needed to focus on myself, and that was a negative energy” In fact that’s just an incredibly selfish way of saying, “I was a coward, a moral coward” but we’ve now got ways of dressing that up to sound like some sort of intuitive self-rewarding heroism. “I’m so in touch with myself I didn’t apologise…” But that’s ridiculous. I seem to notice, whether it’s true or not, that that sort of language is increasing.

DV2016I think it’s despicable – we’re all shits. Sometimes we’re brilliantly brave, and sometimes we’re awfully fearful and do incredibly selfish things. Part of the job of being alive, and part of the job of analysing that, is being aware and knowing for next time not to act like a dick. We always recreate our narrative of ourselves to be pleasant and harmless, and in touch with what was actually going on at the time. “We are without blame, we are without fault.” We’re not living a real life, then, so we might as well be living a computer game… and that’s not living a kind of life worth living.

Saskia is a little brave at moments: when she’s talking about her friend in the past who had a genetic motor neurone disease thing, she’s at least able to acknowledge that what she did was cowardly. But other than that? The way she’s trying to repackage at the end of it, where she breaks Theo’s heart, she’s trying to package their affair in this “we were just trying it man” way with no responsibility for how he might have felt. She uses words like “taking little holidays” and “being a tourist” – they’re all consumer-led ways of not having to look at the mess that you make after you leave a situation.

I thought this would back up the idea of using computer games as holidays and love as something you can walk into and walk out of with your hands clean… rather than something you’re going to walk out of with everyone’s hearts a bit bruised and bloodied for quite a while. That’s what love is.

You need the lows to appreciate the highs…

That’s the risk of it: if love was something you could just walk into and go, “oh this is lovely and nice and shiny… actually I’m a bit bored now, I’ll go home”, then you haven’t experienced it. There isn’t anything there to experience – you’ve just experienced a pretty moment. The cost of it is: you have to be beaten up by it.

That nature of the reality of feelings is something you were tackling in Billions as well…

BillionsYes, again, love as this sort of disposable consumer product, I suppose, and that’s terrifying. We try to do that more and more, try to manage the things that will hurt us. All the dating apps, like Tinder, are all beautifully designed to never really hurt you, so if you’ve been rejected you don’t really notice. They’re designed to give you a little buzz, a little ego boost, but then a lot of people start dating on Tinder and never stop, because there’s always the idea that there’s someone better round the corner. “If I settle now, it’s like a card game, and I might have won the jackpot next time.” It’s a way of avoiding pain by remaining in control, by putting everything else on the other side of your computer screen or your phone screen, so you’re not actually interacting or actually risking anything – or that’s the hope maybe. But, even so, you’ll get hurt, by if not by commission then by omission.

The minute you let someone in, you give them that potential…

And you can’t have love without that. Exactly.

Read our review of Your Perfect Summer… here

Photo of Ed Harris in peril (c) Sarah-Jayne Butler and used with permission.

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