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THE RESURRECTION OF DIRK GENTLY - Producers Pay Tribute To Douglas Adams' Atheist Ghost

Posted By Cecelia Lederer, Thursday, October 27, 2016


Strange things happen in our universe. In a douglas adams universe they happen more frequently and with additional strangeness.

You’re no doubt familiar with the unique, five-book ‘trilogy’ that is The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, in which a hapless brit is involuntarily saved from the end of the world to find himself wandering the universe with a host of suspicious characters. But you may not be quite as familiar with adams’ follow-up series. Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency and its sequel, The Long Dark Tea-Time of the Soul, were the first two of what were to be many dirk gently tales, but the series was tragically cut short by the untimely death of its author in 2001.

We don’t learn much about dirk gently (née svlad cjelli) in the novels. The rumors that he was born to a vampire in transylvania don’t quite explain how he somniloquized test answers at university, but those are mere trifles compared with the vast mystery of the universe you, me, adams and dirk inhabit. And it’s a mystery he plans to solve.

EP Robert Cooper (second from L), Max Landis (R of center), and Arvind 
Ethan David (right) relax behind the scenes on the set of Dirk Gently's Holistic
Detective Agency. (photographed by Bettina Strauss/BBCA)

Dirk is a holistic detective—he doesn’t look for clues or suspects, but rather lets the universe provide them via its fundamental interconnectedness. And this interconnected universe (something I’ve come to believe in far more than anything I was taught in Hebrew School) is responsible for BBC America’s production of the newest set of Dirk adventures.

When producer and PGA member Arvind Ethan David was in secondary school, he wrote, directed and starred in his own adaptation of Dirk Gently. The production proved to be a trial run for a revamped and relaunched production as a student at Oxford, a year and a half later. This time, the show was going to be visible enough that David and his partner reached out to Adams’ agents with a friendly and respectful “Please don’t sue us.” The relief of not being sued was replaced with what David describes as “joy and horror” when he learned that Adams himself would attend the performance.

“I remember seeing where he was going to sit and sitting about eight rows behind him to the left,” David recalls. He didn’t watch the show that night, rather he “watched Douglas Adams watching me do Douglas Adams.”

After the show Adams took David and his co-writer out to dinner. Afraid that they “broke his book” David asked, “Is it okay, the way we changed the plot?” to which Adams replied, “You fixed it.”

Adams fans don’t love him for his plots. We love his characters, his tone and his ideas. We love the comedy and the philosophy and the heart. The plot is just a vehicle for the good stuff. But to state the obvious, a hopefully long-running TV show with season- and series-long arcs needs a narrative to keep us holding on for next week.

“Our show is more of a Douglas Adams tribute album than an adaptation,” says producer and head writer Max Landis. “We’re trying to do a Dirk Gently TV show, and you can’t do that by trying to do a Dirk Gently book.”

 Showrunner Robert Cooper

Landis was the first and only person David approached for the job. “One of the fun things has been assembling a team of friends,” David tells me, “and a team of fans.” That’s the magical thing about Adams. It’s easy to turn fans into friends and vice-versa.

David and Landis had met years earlier and knew they’d work together eventually, even though they didn’t know what the project might be. And since the Dirk Gently novel had been optioned before David even met Adams, all they could do was wait.

“It kept being re-optioned,” says David, “and every few years his agents and the estate and his literary executors and I would have a conversation and they’d say ‘soon.’” Following an unsuccessful 2012 series on BBC Four, the option finally ran out. David put in the call to Landis and told him, “I have Dirk now.”

PGA member Rick Jacobs and showrunner Rob Cooper rounded out the team of on-set executive producers the day of my visit. There was more excitement in that room than one typically finds in an interview. You can almost sense the humming connection of a common underlying philosophy.

“In order to do something like a Douglas Adams adaptation of Dirk Gently, I think it’s really important to have a core group of people who believe in it,” says Jacobs. “Because it’s weird. And that can be scary for people if there’s not a real true passion.”

Another factor that can’t be counted out, as Dirk would certainly tell you, is timing. “I’ve been waiting to do this for about 20 years,” David beams. “And one of the things I’ve been waiting on is finding the right medium for Douglas Adams.” Was it coincidence that the discovery coincided with the option becoming available? Dirk would doubt it.

 David with episodic director Michael Patrick Jann

Douglas Adams’ work has proven famously difficult to adapt. Capturing his omniscient yet hapless voice and authorial readiness to tell us what horses and tables are thinking, is trickier with camera and screen than with pen and paper. But the producers aren’t daunted. The consensus in the room is that American cable television has become the place to tell intense, complex, genre-mashing stories like never before. The medium doesn’t shy away from what David describes as a “multi-stranded, interconnected story that will only make a limited amount of sense on first viewing,” or if we still watched TV the way we did before the advent of DVR.

Though developed without studio involvement, BBC America has jumped in with the passion you’d expect from the home of Doctor Who. “Dirk is the sort of bastard stepson of Doctor Who that comes out of Douglas’ time writing Doctor Who,” David nerds out with me. The arc he wrote, titled “Shada,” never aired, but it became the blueprint for the first Dirk Gently novel. “And so 30 years after that,” David muses, “to be able to bring it home … it is a kind of cosmic karma.” Or—a fundamental, holistic interconnectedness.

Cooper shares his immense respect for BBC America’s taking the risk and following Dirk into uncertainty. “They said they’re looking for something that will make noise in the marketplace and be different from anything else.” In an environment where most companies are risk-averse and steer toward the middle of the road, “they’ve been very supportive of that, in many cases pushing it farther from the middle.”

“This is not a show you do as a piece of business,” agrees David. “CBS doesn’t say, ‘Oh we need a new detective show … this is the one.’” But he happily paraphrases BBC America’s response as, “‘Hell yeah, bring on the weird!’ They let us make the show we wanted to make.”

 Producer Arvind Ethan David (left) on the set with cast members Elijah 
 Wood and Hannah Marks.

Sarah Barnett, the EVP and GM of BBC AMERICA, is as enthused about the project as anyone you might meet at Comic-Con. “It’s actually a match made in heaven,” she told me when we spoke on the phone. Agreeing with Landis’ description of the project as more tribute album than adaptation, Barnett explains, “You can’t slavishly adapt Douglas Adams. You have to find the heart of it.”

Cooper tells me, “We’ve tried to make something that is very different and unique and has its own voice and is, I think, unlike anything else on TV right now. So that’s the challenge that was set out to be accomplished and it’ll ultimately be up to the fans to decide whether it lives up to expectations or not.”

In LA, pilots are still how we mark the seasons, but it’s not standard practice in the UK. “It was important to be at a network that wasn’t concerned about testing,” explains Jacobs, “because our show’s not just heavily serialized, it’s also a broken puzzle that gets put together at the end of the season.”

Production on Dirk Gently is structured more like an eight-hour film than a TV series. There aren’t many standing sets, which traditionally make TV production easier than film. But Cooper credits the constraints of the medium with grounding the project in reality. “If you try to literally adapt [what’s on the page], it becomes either $100,000,000 or not very identifiable. We are introducing you to a very real world with very real characters who have very real problems that you’re going to hopefully identify with. And then we’ll slowly reveal and insert the more strange and absurd characters and moments into that.”

The constraints are significant. “We’re producing the show in an incredibly competitive situation,” Cooper said of Vancouver. “There’s not a ton of crew available and we’re competing for locations. This is a very location-heavy show that has a level of detail in it. We often talk about the fact that it’s never just two people in a room talking … there’s always two or three gags per scene. That requires a crew that’s constantly on top of every single element. Sometimes even we can’t keep track of all the interconnected layers of the story and how they intersect.”

Because the show is more tribute than adaptation, the original text isn’t as helpful to turn to for outside answers.

“My Dirk then and our Dirk now is very different from Douglas’ Dirk,” David admits. The Dirk I’ve read about is middle- aged and overweight. His clothes are shabby, his apartment’s a nightmare, and there’s a small ecosystem evolving in his refrigerator. But on the page, those details fade into the background and we’re free to find Dirk the single coolest dude to ever walk the planet. On the other hand, “In a physical representation of that,” David continues, “he has to charm you. He’s such an impossible, ridiculous character that if he doesn’t charm you, if he doesn’t take you along for the ride, it doesn’t work. In the words of P.T. Barnum, he has to fool at least some of the people some of the time into believing that he’s a great detective, even if the rest of the time, we can see that he’s not. So he’s not just the absurd figure he is in the books, but someone who you would follow into danger, into an adventure.” Exactly like BBC America is.

Not wanting to lean too heavily on voice-over, the producers tasked the directors with finding that omniscient voice lost in the transition from page to screen.

“What we tried to do is give a very strong point of view to the filmmaking style,” says David, visibly excited about his collaborators. “We wanted people who would bring an authorial point of view to the filmmaking, like Dean Parisot, (Galaxy Quest) and Michael Patrick Jann (The State and Powerless). Both comedians and sci-fi nerds.”

Having self-proclaimed nerds working on the inside is key to appealing to the notoriously easy to infuriate subculture. I should know. I’m part of it. Women in science fiction are hard to come by, especially three-dimensional ones. The only woman in the room, I pressed the men on how they planned to live up to my expectation that anything Adams must include cool, smart and weird characters with double X chromosomes, Trillian Astra, Kate Schechter and Random Dent.

Landis’ giddy response filled me with optimistic anticipation. The action lead of the show, Farah Black, is female but not in a ‘sexy-girl-knows-judo’ way. When we first meet her, she’s tied to a bed. But like women in the nerd world, she isn’t kept down. In no time, she subverts expectations of what women in sci-fi are traditionally capable of. “I tried to write characters for the show who are as interesting and weird as the male characters. That to me, is what an actual strong female character is,” Landis asserts, marveling at how greater Hollywood still doesn’t get it.

“The best movies and the best TV shows always have interesting female characters,” he continues. “You’d think that just from a practical, business standpoint you’d learn to write them better, but they don’t. I just wanted to create characters worthy of Douglas Adams.” Along with Farah Black, another new creation is Bart, Dirk’s counterpart, a holistic assassin. Although there will be the odd reference to old friends from the books like Professor ‘Reg’ Cronotis and Thor, God of Thunder, much of the story is original. The TV series takes place after the books, with the intervening time gap filled in by comics written by David and published by IDW. The team is evidently fearless when it comes to expanding on their source material. “I wanted to tell a new Dirk Gently story,” Landis pauses, “or at the very least, for sticklers, a story in the style of Dirk Gently.”

In each of the books, Dirk has a different sidekick. In the show he’ll have Todd Brotzman. “Going into the TV series it was clear to Max and clear to me that Dirk, like all detectives, functions best when he has someone next to him, someone to show off to and someone to be a detective around,” David explains. “However in Dirk’s case, those people never want to be there. So they’re unwilling sidekicks. Or as Todd puts it, ‘I’m not your Watson, asshole.’”

Cooper describes Todd as “a character who has no supernatural power or very strange things in his life until Dirk drops in, and then he goes on this wild ride.” Without Adams to narrate, Todd is our guide in this world where the blind lead the blind.

“And there’s still a lot in the margins,” David reports with excitement. “I think one of the very clever things about the way Max conceived the show and hopefully the way we’re all executing it, is that it’s a bigger world than we’re seeing. That’s a very Adams-ian thing. Hinted at in the margins of the frame and intruding slowly as the show progresses is a bigger frame, a bigger mythology. We think that the beauty of television, as long as the audience turns up, is that you can go for years. You have time. You start at one corner of the coloring book and you get to build out and build out until there’s a giant map … And given some time, we’ll get to do a Dirk-verse.”

The loss of a brilliant artist in the prime of their life is a tragedy shared between every fan, every person for whom their work served as a touchstone. The day I found out there would be no more Douglas Adams left for me to read was the day I confronted mortality. Fifteen years later, when I found out BBC America was bringing me more Dirk Gently, I started to wonder what the afterlife might look like, if it existed. And if it did, could I watch it on TV? 

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