Arvind Ethan David (The Infidel) is executive producer of the Netflix/BBC America hit series Dirk Gently Holistic Detective Agency, which is in its second season. But he was also at San Diego Comic-Con promoting his latest project Darkness Visible, a collaboration with comic book creator/novelist Mike Carey (Lucifer).
I met up with David during Comic-Con 2017 and we had a lovely conversation that ranged from Darkness Visible to Dirk Gently and Douglas Adams to the rich tradition of British comedy. And because we were at Comic-Con, we even happened to be interrupted by (dare we say it three times?) Beetlejuice himself, who was lunching nearby.
David explained, “Darkness Visible is the tale of an alternate London in which red demons came out of the shadows 70 years ago, and are now part of the populous. It’s kind of maybe what True Blood was to vampires, we are to demon and demon kind. Issue 5 just came out this month from IDW. We think maybe it could be a television show, but right now we’re making the comic to get to co-write with one of my heroes (Carey) is tremendously exciting.”
Successfully bringing Dirk Gently to the small screen has also been exciting for David. Although the series has been on the small screen for only a year, David’s history with the classic Douglas Adams creation—and with Adams himself—goes back two decades, to a time when David was still in high school and adapted the strange and wonderful series into a stage play. He explained the entire thing as “one of those brilliant Comic-Con stories, ’cause it’s kind of what I think we all as fans wish might happen, and I have the ridiculously good luck that it did happen to me.” When he wanted to do the play again while a student at Oxford University he thought he “should get permission, so I wrote to his agent, the late great Ed Victor.”
Although Adams granted permission, David noted that the letter he received admonished, “Douglas Adams does not believe that Dirk Gently is adaptable to the stage, or indeed in any other form. However, he will not stop you trying.” So, the play went on at the Old Fire Station, Oxford, and “then amazingly, his agents came, and they liked it, and they said Douglas must see this. And then Douglas Adams turned up. That started my career and changed my life, and led in kind of wiggly lines to me getting to make it for television now.”
Throughout the years Douglas Adams remained an important part of David’s life. “I worked for his production company and ended up starting my own production company with two of his business partners. His lead investor, Thomas Hug became my lead investor in my second production company, so the interconnectivity between my life and Douglas is very deep and important to me. That said, I didn’t do anything with any Douglas properties since I left his company to start my own in 2000. Douglas sadly died in 2001.”
David has come back to Dirk Gently periodically through the years, “because it is a story that’s stayed with me, and Doug has stayed with me, but the rights were always tied up in complicated ways. They’d been optioned to Dreamworks; they’d been optioned to a British television company. It kept not happening.” By that the time, David’s career had become more focused on feature films. “And I was clear that [Dirk Gently] wasn’t [meant for] feature treatment because of its complexity.”
The same, of course, might be said of other Douglas classics like Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. David noted that “seeing that even with the best will in the world, and everyone who worked on the Hitchhiker’s Guide movie loved it and loved Douglas. And indeed, he co-wrote the script. But it didn’t work out. There was a sort of mood poem to Hitchhiker’s, rather. Because Douglas’s genius was not plot. It was character and ideas and adventure.”
In the intervening years, Avrind became a producer and a playwright, getting on with building a successful career. Then, a few years ago, after moving the U.S. he ran into Adams’s agent at a wedding in the Hamptons. The same man who’d come to see David’s Oxford production of Dirk Gently! “He’s not gonna remember me,” David recalls. “but I tap on his shoulder, and I say, ‘Ed, it’s …’ And he went, ‘Ah, good evening, David! Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency!’ Yes!”
Talk about coming full circle! A real Hollywood tale.
By this time, the rights for Dirk Gently had reverted to Adams’s estate, and David was offered the opportunity to once again take on the complex tale. Arvin recalled, “We figured out a deal with the estate, and I made three phone calls. I called Max Landis (Mr. Right, American Ultra), who I had known for about a decade, and who I knew loved Douglas exactly the same way I did.” Landis agreed to write the script, and they brought aboard David Alpert (Executive Producer of The Walking Dead).
Before shopping it, the three of them created a series bible and “figured out the whole of the first season.” They knew exactly what they wanted Dirk Gently to be, and, quoting Douglas Adams, David said, “Development in Hollywood is like trying to grill a steak by putting it in an empty room and having a bunch of people come in and breathe on it. So by the time we went out, we knew exactly what it was. We knew the show we wanted to make. And we said, ‘Here we are. We’re weird as hell; we will be the weirdest show on television. Who wants to come play with us?’ And amazingly, a bunch of people did.” The rest is history, and here we are in season two with BBC America and Netflix.
As we talked, I learned that David and I share a mutual admiration for the tremendous talent that is Hugh Laurie—and House, M.D. (In fact, two of House’s best writer-producers, Garrett Lerner and Russel Friend, are in the writers’ room for season two of Dirk Gently!)
David is also in the process of bringing Alanis Morissette’s album Jagged Little Pill to Broadway as a musical. With a book by Diablo Cody (Juno) and directed by Diane Paulus (Waitress, Finding Neverland), they open next May. “We’re in pre-production, we’ve had workshops and rehearsals. And that opens next year, and it’s enormously happy-making. It’s like, I have one rule, pretty much in my career, which is work with your heroes. And it started with Douglas obviously. I wrote Douglas a letter, that went well for me. So now whenever I love anything now, I just write a letter. And these days, you can just write a tweet.”
He didn’t know Morissette, but, he said, “but I’ve loved the album my whole life. We’re exactly the same age, and she wrote it while I was at college, which is embarrassing. So we wrote to her and said, ‘Can we have lunch with you? Pitch you an idea?’ And she said yes. And now we’re making this.”
Speaking of heroes, David cited Hugh Laurie and Stephen Fry as “being such a huge influence on me.” Much of modern British comedic tradition comes out of two schools, Oxford with the Oxford Revue and Cambridge with the Footlights. David explained, “Great comedian after great comedian after great comedian, whether it’s Monty Python, the Flying Circus or whether it inspired Laurie, or whether it’s actors like Emma Thompson and all that will all come through the Footlights.”
David went to Oxford (Lincoln College) with the objective of learning “to be a playwright, a comedian, a writer, a storyteller. I remember watching Fry and Laurie thinking, ‘Yes, that is what I want to do.'” And of course, Stephen has a connection with Douglas Adams as well. “Stephen was genuinely Douglas’s best friend, he was a flatmate. He was, in fact, Douglas’ flatmate when Douglas was writing Dirk Gently.” Now, Fry is a new neighbor, and Laurie and David are in the same book club! “it turned that circle, right? Starting from that inspiration.”
You can catch Dirk Gently on Amazon, iTunes, or Google Play.
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