Long before filmmaker M. Night Shyamalan overused the “twist ending,” author Philip K. Dick had mastered the art of storytelling subterfuge with iconic science fiction shorts and novels in the mid-20th century. Many of those classic stories have been adapted into some of Hollywood’s biggest blockbusters. From Blade Runner and Total Recall to Minority Report and The Adjustment Bureau, Dick’s paranoid visions of dystopian futures have translated well into motion pictures.
It’s no surprise, then, that there’s an entire film festival inspired by the author’s work, the aptly named Philip K. Dick Science Fiction Film Festival, which held its second annual event at IndieScreen in Brooklyn last month. What might be surprising, however, is that the winner of this year’s Best Philip K. Dick Short award, The Crystal Crypt, was directed by Las Vegas-based filmmaker Shahab Zargari. His film will have its Las Vegas debut on January 18 with a screening and Q&A session at Cockroach Theatre in Art Square.
Debuting in a 1954 issue of Planet Stories magazine, The Crystal Crypt takes place in the far future aboard an interplanetary transport ship, where a cadre of Martian soldiers is on the hunt for a trio of human saboteurs, who at first appear to elude capture. However, Dick’s penchant for blurring perception is at work here, and we learn the humans may not have gotten away as cleanly as they first thought.
The adaptation—which features a combination of live-action footage, computer-generated graphics and traditional animation—sticks closely to the original telling, only slightly modifying the ending to optimize it for the visual medium.
“Everyone who’s watching [the film] is human, and you sympathize with the humans,” Zargari says. “But at the end, you identify with the Martians.”
Zargari, 35, is something of a renaissance man. He can be found at various cultural events with a camera in hand, shooting photos for VerbicideMagazine.com. Since 1998, he’s co-run Geykido Comet Records with his wife, Heela Naqshband, putting out music by underground bands. By day, he is the creative director for Assurance Advertising, which in 2012 won four Davey Awards for “The Comeback Kid,” a slick commercial shot for Luxor Las Vegas. The success of that ad led to the making of The Crystal Crypt.
“From when I was a little kid and my parents took me to see Return of the Jedi, I wanted to direct movies,” Zargari says. “When we won those awards for Luxor, I felt confident I could do it.”
A fan of science fiction in general and Dick’s work specifically, Zargari chose The Crystal Crypt after downloading “a bunch” of public-domain ebooks. Another Dick short, 1952’s The Skull, also stood out to the burgeoning director, but he said, “The Crystal Crypt would be easier on the pocket.”
A little more than a year in the making, Zargari’s 28-minute adaptation of The Crystal Crypt cost about $26,000 to film. He liquidated a retirement account, maxed out two credit cards and raised about $5,000 through IndieGogo.com and other sources.
Many of the folks responsible for “The Comeback Kid” reassembled for The Crystal Crypt, including Zargari’s brother, Shahram (who wrote the screenplay), actor Cyrus Zoghi and producer Zeus Zamani, the latter of whom got Zargari access to the Arleta, California, spaceship interior set Zamani used in Judith Hill’s “BWM (Be With Me)” video (at a cost of $2,500 per day, not including air conditioning).
Zargari had few reservations about investing in a project that would likely have little financial return. “The thing most people don’t realize is, their favorite artists all had problems, all had bills, all had kids,” says the father of two young girls. “But you gotta do that thing.”
Although he won’t be earning revenue from The Crystal Crypt (despite the story being in the public domain, Zargari says he attempted to get a “blessing” from the Philip K. Dick Estate, with little success), the first-time filmmaker’s intent was to use the short to gain exposure.
“I had two goals,” Zargari says. “One, to see if I had the chops to do it. And two, I wanted to showcase the talent. I want people to say, ‘this is amazing,’ and ask who did that.”
To that end, Zargari has paid for submission to 16 film festivals, although he doesn’t expect to get a screening at all of them. (“One thing I’ve learned is don’t be sad when you get the rejection,” he says.) For him, fulfilling a lifelong dream to direct is reward enough.
“I had an amazing time,” Zargari says. “I’m so proud of the crew. They did me justice. You could see the passion coming through.”