Interview To William Gibson
on the release of the Film JOHNNY MNEMONIC
QUESTION: What are your initial impressions on how "Johnny Mnemonic" is turning
GIBSON: 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.
QUESTION: Have you written any film scripts before, besides this and the ill
- fated drafts for "Alien3" ?
GIBSON: 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".
QUESTION: What happened?
GIBSON: 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.
QUESTION: Have you ever been involved in any other movie or TV project before
GIBSON: 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.
QUESTION: 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 ?
GIBSON: 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)
QUESTION: You seem very detached from your previous experiences in movies.
"Johnny Mnemonic", on the other hand, seems very personal to you. Why is that ?
GIBSON: 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.
QUESTION: It's like saying that the theories you imagined in your science
fiction stories are becoming real...
GIBSON: 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 URSS. We never get the future
right. I always thought that URSS 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.
QUESTION: Now you also write "geo-anthropological" reports...
GIBSON: That's right. I did a portrait of Singapore for "Wired Magazine". That
place gave me the creeps.
QUESTION: 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 ?
GIBSON: 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.
QUESTION: Let's go back to "Johnny Mnemonic". Which direction have you given the
GIBSON: "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 have 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
QUESTION: Which science fiction movies you like most?
GIBSON: 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)
QUESTION: "Johnny Mnemonic" has a superstar, Keanu Reeves. What do you think of
his portrayal of your character ?
GIBSON: 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 actitude 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 not to black out.
QUESTION: 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 ?
GIBSON: 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. 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.
QUESTION: You have written "Virtual Light". So, what do you think of Virtual
GIBSON: 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.
QUESTION: You're not fascinated by technology, and yet you come up with ideas on
GIBSON: 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.
QUESTION: Another issue you focus on are Information Superhighways. What actions
have you taken ?
GIBSON: 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.
QUESTION: What do you think of the Clipper issue ?
GIBSON: 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!
QUESTION: Wait a second. A few minutes you said you're not into hi-tech, and now
you're raving about it...
GIBSON: 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.
QUESTION: What is in your opinion the most important technological breakthrough
of our society in recent years ?
GIBSON: My favorite piece of technology is the Walkman. It changed forever 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.
QUESTION: What about e-mail ?
GIBSON: E-mail is very glamorous. Way too glamorous.