Long before Amazon explored the world of Philip K. Dick with the anthology series “Electric Dreams,” writer-director Dee Rees found herself enamored with his work. In addition to counting a number of films adapted from his writing amongst her favorites (including “Blade Runner” and “Total Recall”), Dees attempted to turn Dick’s short story, “The Martian Time-Slip,” into a feature. Though it didn’t work out, she had a fan in the late author’s daughter, Isa Dick Hackett, who brought Rees aboard “Electric Dreams.”
Rees had a number of Dick’s short stories to choose from, but she says she “gravitated” toward adapting the 1953 tale, “The Hanging Stranger.” In it, an unassuming man, Ed, spots a mysterious hanging body on a lamppost, but no one else in his small town seems to be bothered by its appearance.
For her episode, “Kill All Others,” Rees opted to transform the story rather than do a beat-by-beat retelling. “The challenge is, how do you take something physical, like the body, and make it an idea?” Rees says.
Her solution was to have Philbert (Mel Rodriguez) hear and see the message “kill all others” while The Candidate (Vera Farmiga) — the only person running to rule the entirety of North America — gave a speech on television. Philbert, a simple man in an age of advancing technology, freaks out and can’t figure out why no one else is talking about the controversial statement.
“Writing [the episode] during the 2016 [presidential] campaign, it’s what was happening, in a way,” Rees says. “It was the not-so-distant future, because a lot of ideas were going unchallenged, and it felt like they were going unchallenged because they were unheard.”
In the climax of the short story, Ed (Glenn Morshower) escapes his town and tries to warn others — only to realize the body was bait to try and lure out people who weren’t under mind control. With his cover blown, Ed becomes the next hanging stranger.
“Kill All Others” pushes Philbert to a similar breaking point as he tries to tell everyone what’s going on. He gravitates toward an enormous electrical sign that proclaims “KILL ALL OTHERS” — and the police plan to subdue him thanks to his smart watch. “The attack on your freedom is not going to come in a physical way. You’re going to give it to them,” Rees says. “You’re going to tell them where you are, what you like, because you’ll get your stuff delivered sooner. People are blinded by the convenience of it; we give up our privacies bit by bit.”
Philbert’s resistence to technology “makes him even more isolated because everyone is plugged in,” Rees says. “For us as the audience, I want us to question, ‘Is he crazy, is he overreacting?’ It all starts to blur, and we feel his anxiety. And this is how the culture works: the police aren’t going to take you by force. They’re going to take you by chemicals [in the smartwatch controls]. It brought the culmination of the idea together: unconscious control by the state.“
But Rees did make sure there was a hanging stranger present for the final confrontation, and Philbert himself became an anonymous body, as the “KAO” protocol expanded into more of North America after its successful testing.
“That body was the nod to the story,” Rees says. “I thought it was important. But the more scary thing was this idea that hangs for a long time, and no one reacts to it, and then it becomes a literal, physical body — and still nobody reacts to it.”