Innovation and invention are the traits loyal fans of Stargate Atlantis have come to expect from their favourite astrophysicist, Rodney McKay. But after meeting David Hewlett in person, you realize it’s channeled from a natural source. When you hear about his work with Upgrade Required, his collaboration with Guillermo Del Toro, and just his unbridled curiosity in learning about what he doesn’t know, this is a creative individual that you want – no, need – to sit down with, listen to and indulge yourself in a state of blissful, geeky fascination.
David began our conversation about his work with Del Toro. First, I need to mention that I’ve always been a big fan of David. It was hard for me to restrain my inner fan-boy from squee-ing throughout our chat. But I’m also a huge fan of Del Toro’s work. Learning more about his creative capacity and imaginative muscle-power was a truly extraordinary opportunity that I couldn’t afford to miss.
“My wife says I have a man-crush on him,” he began, talking about Del Toro. “She’s probably right. He’s got this beautiful ability to make you feel like you’re the centre of attention. His interactions with you are so real. I consider myself a friend of Guillermo now. I mean, I know he’s got 50,000 people who feel the exactly same way, but I also know that the next time I see him, he will remember things about me. He’s just that caring.”
He brought up his collaboration in The Shape of Water.
“The man [Del Toro] is magic. We had met at the premiere of Splice. I auditioned for the part [The Shape of Water] and I got it, thinking, ‘This is great; put it on the resume – feather in the cap.’ But in the process, I learned he’s so… well, it’s entirely a Guillermo movie. We’re like clay to him, you know? You think you would hate that, but the reality is that he’s so giving. I’m at rehearsals, thinking, ‘Why am I here’? I’m just muddling around, waiting for my scenes and he beckons me into his office and pulls out this tiny cross of red and gold and tells me that my character needs to wear this. He had found it in a flea market in Marrakesh or some place and he thought that this was perfect for my character. He thinks like this for every character in his movies and this is the level of detail that the man has when he puts a film together. In rehearsals, he will literally turn you and move you in front of the character and that’s his magic; like magical realism.”
Working with Guillermo Del Toro is probably the best anecdote to start any conversation. But like attracts like, as my aged grandmother was wont to say. Creative people want to work with like-minded people, and when you talk to David, you can’t help but notice his own innate curiosity and creativity.
David’s projects are wide and varied. You just have to visit his production company’s website, Monkeys & Parrots, to see what sorts of innovations he explores. One of the ventures that we talked about was Upgrade Required. More than just a television series, it’s an episodic quest to enhance life through embracing technology. Imagine having the chance to be freed from our physical limitations in order to appreciate and enjoy life more. This is what Upgrade Required explores, with the idea that while this can improve life in general, it can have enormous implications on those who have severe limitations like disabilities and infirmities.
It comes from a real place. Hewlett’s friend, Q, is a sufferer of spinal muscular atrophy. Upgrade Required looks at improving his personal situation by eventually creating a cybernetic exoskeleton to allow him to enjoy his life. Some episodes show articulated robotic limbs, AI control technologies like brain interfaces and all sorts of cybernetic devices and animations that will delight and fascinate the geek-multitudes of technology-loving fans out there.
But this stems from David’s seemingly near-inexhaustible reserve of skills. From actor and writer to tech-geek and internet-savvy producer, David courses the full limit of the definition of polymath.
“It’s the ‘Jack-of-all-Trades, Master-of-None’ idea, I think.” He humbly told me. “I find that I’ve always been paranoid about the educational side of stuff. It’s a struggle, but I really am afraid of knowing if I have a sufficient base of knowledge to move to the next level. I mean, I don’t know what I’m supposed to know! I dabble, but I’ve always been a nerd about computers and film technology. I didn’t take television in school to watch television, I took it to learn about television technology. I love learning and am fascinated by what I don’t know.”
From my perspective as a fan and as the guy asking the questions from the other side of the coffee table, David’s unrestrained curiosity shines forth when you speak to him. One of the striking things about our conversation was this statement.
“When I meet with people, I love finding out how is this person interesting? If they’re an accountant, I want to know about what’s cool about accounting! Why are they so nerdy about it?”
David gave me a truly geek-worthy reason for why he got into acting.
“Doctor Who. It was that realization that there aren’t really Time-Lords so I guess I’ll just have to pretend to be one! It’s a fantastic profession for someone who is fascinated by a lot of things because you get to play with them. If you want to do your job well, you have to know about all sorts of things.”
But David’s consistent love is technology.
“You know, when you and I were growing up, computers and robots were the technology craze. I don’t think I ever grew up. Today, we have autonomous cars and robotic systems – and we have the internet with all the technological possibilities it can offer. I love robots – in fact, I, for one, welcome our robotic overlords!” He laughed.
“I took motorcycle courses, worked at a voicemail company; there’s so much technology out there, how do we keep track of it all? I want to do something with Upgrade Required, turn this into my day job and if it helps people out, then that makes me feel better!”
David related specific instances of this.
“I call ‘em ‘Upgraders’,” he explained. “There’s this really nice kid in Italy who’s going to be helping me out. He’s freaking out because he has this really crappy text-to-speech unit he has to use and it’s got to go from Italian to English to boot. He was upset because he was speaking too slow. Thanks to Upgrade, I knew a guy who knew a guy and so forth … and we got this guy from Quadstick who was able to suggest some open-source software that Stephen Hawking uses and created and bingo! He’s up and running!”
This is what we at Pop Mythology like to call “Applied Geekism” at work. I shared my own reasons for indulging in nerd culture.
“But it’s also escapism. It’s not a better world, but it’s a different one. I think so many people with disabilities gravitate towards sci-fi and fantasy because there’s that promise of some sort of magic that can provide hope. I sometimes feel like I’m pulling back the curtain and working with the wizard – which is what it’s like working with Guillermo.”
The experience of life is the reason for David’s obsession with technology – and by extension, Upgrade Required. The fact of the matter is that freeing people from the limitations of human life, regardless of the shape it comes in, allows them to experience a better human life. When you consider that the point of human learning is a gestalt effect, to better pursue and preserve those experiences for the benefit of others is a pursuit that’s worth the struggle.
“Something we have to consider … there are vibrant people who need to be documented. Look at Stephen Hawking. These people don’t have the same life expectancy as others and we need their experiences to add to our shared learning. They want to share.”
Speaking of experiences, this is the point in the conversation when I realise that I’m literally geeking out with David Hewlett. We’re talking robotics, our mutual Commodore 64 happy times, Star Trek, Doctor Who and yes, even some Stargate: Atlantis. David’s happy to lend his geek-icon status to any situation that might see technology improve someone’s life. But at the foundation of it all though, it’s the passion and shared excitement of talking to someone who has a similar appreciation and love of geek culture that feeds that enthusiasm.
Hearing about how David appreciates Guillermo Del Toro is resonating with me on a personal level as I am appreciating my encounter with David.
“He’s a geek, like me.” David says about Del Toro, “and the geek shall inherit the Earth.” He affirms to me, and I heartily agree.
Ideas are the foundation for success. If this conversation has proven anything to me, it’s that David Hewlett is no stranger to success.
Innovation and invention; that’s what came out of this conversation. But I also saw his humour, his philanthropic drive to make his geekiness mean something in the real world and someone with whom I had a great deal in common.
Just lesser success. Oh, and interest level. I mean, my life isn’t as interesting by any comparison, but I know good ideas when I hear them. This is a guy with great ideas, a lot of enthusiasm and the ability and contacts to make some serious geekculture improvements in people’s lives.
… And I’m fascinated, and can’t wait to see what he comes up with next.