Interview: Director Hampton Fancher
Hampton Fancher occupies a distinct niche in film history, as he (along with screenwriter David Peoples) is credited with writing the script for one of the touchstones of modern science fiction, Blade Runner (1983). His work not only preserved the powerful themes contained within Philip K. Dick‘s original novel, but is also a brilliant departure from the book, and successfully brought the story into the realm of film’s visual medium—the hallmark of a great adaptation.
During our discussion, Fancher revealed behind-the-scenes details about how his involvement with Blade Runner was an emotional roller coaster that culminated in personal anguish and repeated arguments with director Ridley Scott.
Despite the painful nature of the process, the film nonetheless became the turning point in Fancher’s creative career. With retrospective maturity, he spoke frankly and self-deprecatingly about the hard lessons he learned about being a screenwriter in Hollywood, and also about his directorial debut, the filmed adaptation of Lew McCreary’s novel about a sweetly naive serial killer, The Minus Man. Also present was the producer of The Minus Man (1999), Fida Attieh.
Allen White: Isn’t it great that interest in Blade Runner has endured for so long?
Hampton Fancher: It is. I don’t think about it very much, because how can you think about that? But sometimes I try to think about it, and I manage to do it, and I’m a lucky guy. Because I’m kind of a guy who doesn’t fit in too well, and no one would know anything I was doing, and all that, so there’s that little entrée that I have, it’s a calling card in a way, I guess.
AW: What has it done for your career, then?
Oh, this guy’s a great writer—I thought he was just a bad actor.
HF: Well, it helped my career a lot—that’s why I did it, actually. My career was very invisible, I think, in a lot of ways; things I was writing, things I was trying to direct. The Blade Runner experience from its origin was an attempt to try to get above ground, and kind of get in the club. And I didn’t know it, but I guess I was approaching it on my own obscure level, thinking that I was making something commercial. You know; Oh, this is science fiction, people will flock to see this. Of course I had themes that I was working with that I loved and I was intrigued with enough to continue to write it and make it happen, but still I thought of it as a commercial venture, and it wasn’t. It was another thing, it was—not a slap in the face—but it was a letdown, even because I liked what happened; but it was a flop. And it didn’t work, and people didn’t like it, and it made no money.
At one point during the pre-production, and right in the beginning, it was when Filmways went bust; we lost all our money, and the film was gonna go down the tubes. And they hustled—I don’t remember what draft—the fifth or sixth draft I’d written, out to all the studios in Hollywood. And so everybody read it. I mean important people read it, in terms of studio honchos. So they all of a sudden [said about] Hampton Fancher, “Oh, this guy’s a great writer—I thought he was just a bad actor.” So it worked. I was flavor of the month for about two years. So it was great for confidence-building, because you don’t know you’re incompetent, or you don’t know you’re insecure, you just do things to compensate for it—like become an alcoholic, or fight people in the street. But then all of a sudden: Hmm, life isn’t so bad. You make a little money, and people like you, and they want you to come and meet them in rooms, and offer you things, and that started that for me. And I liked it. I still like it. Not that it happens very much.
I finally came to the last and best conclusion about the ending of the movie, which was that Rachael is gonna die, and they’re in love, and [Deckard’s] become kind of human through this. He was less human than the people he was after, because they’re machines—he was more of a machine. And he becomes less of a machine through the ordeal of falling in love with her. And she’s smarter than he is, she’s better than he is, and then at the end, he kills her. And it’s not an outright execution—it’s elliptical—but you hear the shot, and you see where it took place, and you saw her face, and she wanted it, and it was an act of love, and it was really moving in an old ’40s kind of doomful way—it was hot, and deep romance. And boom—he’s in that car, and you hear him say something in voiceover—by the way, those voiceovers that exist in the film aren’t mine, nor were they David Peoples’—but he said something sitting at the piano again, like she sat at the piano, surrounded by his photographs and his memories and all that, and then he starts to say that she understood something that he didn’t get, and I don’t remember what that was that he said, and then he starts to play. I thought of Shoot the Piano Player (1960), where at the end Charles Aznavour says, “Hey man, music is all there is,” or something, you know—after all this treachery. And [Deckard] starts to come down on the keys, and it freeze-frames on his hand, and his hand doesn’t quite hit the keys, but the music does begin, and we see his hand over end credits, and it looks like Batty’s hand because it froze in that claw-like thing—he was paralytic. So you say “Well, either this is a freeze-frame, a tricky thing for titles, or—wait a minute—is he a Nexus Seven?” And so there was that.
Blade Runner was a horrible experience for the people who made it…
And Ridley doesn’t take credit for it, because he thinks it’s bad—maybe he does say he did it—but they did some opticals with the eyes on Deckard at one point, and I thought it was hokey. Hokey looks good to me now. Even the old voiceover in the first version I sort of like better than all the rest of them.
You know, films can be different things on different days—even to the people who made them. And it seemed like that Marlowe-esque ’40s, hokey almost thing—you acquire an affection for that. It’s almost satirical, the way [Deckard] talks. But when I first heard it, I went nuts. I thought: “She called me sushi”?! God…that’s gonna age badly. But actually, it doesn’t age badly, it became an institution, that film.
But that film—one thing about filmmaking that’s interesting, and that’s beautiful, and the best thing about it for those who make ‘em, I guess, if it’s not a horrible experience—but again, Blade Runner was a horrible experience for the people who made it, I think; it was hell. I mean, not for me, but the actual shooting. But especially when you look at Blade Runner, it’s a great example of…everybody is responsible for that movie. Because everybody made that movie; it’s not just one of us.
(With) The Minus Man, everybody made it even more. I don’t think the teamsters were very interested in Blade Runner, who were sitting around waiting to drive people home. In our film, Minus Man, everybody was involved. There was sense of camaraderie, a sense of complicity. I mean, the caterers would watch, would come up, would hold you, would speak love; everybody was deeply involved. They were all a part of it—there was no hierarchy. If there was a hierarchy, it was completely unspoken. Everyone felt autonomous and independent, and yet completely integrated.
I stood up, holding my face because I didn’t want to cry—I was so devastated—and I walked out.
AW: How did you feel about David Peoples’ work on your script?
HF: I didn’t know about it, you know; that was a secret, because I wasn’t cooperating with Ridley. I think if Ridley would have said, “Listen asshole, if you don’t cooperate, I’m going to bring somebody in who will.” I don’t know what I would have said; I probably would have hit him in the mouth and left. He probably knew that, so he didn’t tell me.
And it was toward the end of pre-production, I think, that it happened. And because I wasn’t cooperating, he did bring David in; I didn’t know it. And when I did find out, I think it was Christmas, we were having a dinner, and Ridley wasn’t there—it was another producer of the film. And I sat down to eat, and all of a sudden the script’s in front of me. And I thought, Maybe it’s something he wants me to rewrite someday. I didn’t know what it was, so I just opened it, and then I saw something I didn’t understand. And then I turned another page, and I see something I did understand, because I wrote it. And then another page, and it’s like, What is this? And he said, “I told you.” And he had hinted to me before once. And I said, “What?!” And I stood up, holding my face because I didn’t want to cry—I was so devastated—and I walked out. And I said, “Fuck everybody! I’m gone!” Whatever it was…and so I left.
And then I called my agent, and said, ‘I want my name off this film.’
And then I came back at the end because they called me; they needed something about the rooftop scene. And so they just had a couple of days to shoot, and they wanted me to look at rushes. And I came back, and I cooperated, and I wrote some stuff for them.
And then…you don’t want the long story, do you?
HF: Okay. I saw a script during that…I still hadn’t met David, the film wasn’t finished being shot, but somebody sent me a script of David’s that he’d done. And I felt sorry for him, because it was good. It was slash-up—part mine, part his—but there was a lot of him in this script. This one I read, it wasn’t shot. It was, I guess, his first take on the whole thing. And it was really interesting. It was much more populist than mine, more accessible, I thought. But it was exciting, and he had a certain exciting way of writing. Not the way I write, you know, we write very differently. And I thought, They’re not going to do this either; this guy’s worse off than I am!
Then when I did finally go to see all the dailies, because they wanted me to write something for the end on the roof, I hated the dailies, and I thought, They’ve sold this film down the tubes—it’s not gonna to work; it’s not anything that I want. I’m looking for a man who’s trying to find his conscience, and all of a sudden we’ve got shootouts. I was furious.
…one night we were drunk, and I said, ‘Man, what’s wrong with you? Why did you write that stupid shit?’
And then I called my agent, and said, “I want my name off this film.”
He said, “That’s going to be hard.”
I called [Producer] Michael Deeley said, “I want my name off this film.” I mean, I had a very small nose to begin with, and I was cutting every inch of it I could off my face. The whole reason I did this film was to get on the map a little bit, and now I want to get off the map. And I’m crying, I’m nauseated, I’m screaming, I’m threatening—it’s hard to get your name off a film.
Then the Writer’s Guild calls, and they say, “We’re thinking of taking your name off the film.”
I said, “Good. Why? Because finally I got through, huh?”
“No, because we’re arbitrating this.”
“Well, we don’t think you deserve a title.”
“WHAT?! What do you mean ‘deserve’—” And then I went exactly the opposite. I’m calling, “Please don’t do this to me—this is my one chance!” And did I see an asshole? [meaning himself]
So I was fighting to get my name back on that film, “Please, I’ll take second credit—whatever!” And this goes on for three or four days, but it seemed like a year. And then the Writer’s Guild calls me. And they have a letter that David Peoples was privy to this. And what happened, the reason they were gong to arbitrate it was because they saw me as a producer. David Peoples was writing, and I have this executive producer-ship, and they’re very suspect of that; you know, producers trying to get writing credit. And they told me that, and I said, “I’m not a producer! I just did that to protect the writing! I’m a writer! I didn’t do anything as a producer in the film! It was bullshit!” And that didn’t make any difference to them, they’re going to arbitrate.
So, David writes a letter to them saying—I won’t say what he said, but it was so gracious. It gave it to me, and he was very humble about his contribution. And they read me this letter, and they said they apologized to me. Because they told me he wouldn’t take the credit if I wasn’t in. I learned something there, too, because I don’t think I would have done that. (Now I’d have to, because I’d have to follow his footsteps and be ethical and fine.) But you know, “Okay, well the other writer doesn’t want a credit—fine. Let me have the extra money, let me have the glory,” whatever; but that’s not David Peoples. And I hope it wouldn’t be me in the future if it happened.
So then I said to a friend, “I’ve got to meet this guy.” So then I met him, and we fell in love. We’ve been very close friends since then. In fact—I guess you know all the stories—it was pretty funny me thinking…I admire his work but I couldn’t imagine how he was stupid enough to write those voiceovers; and he was imagining the same thing about me.
After a year, one night we were drunk, and I said, “Man, what’s wrong with you? Why did you write that stupid shit?”
And he said, “I thought you did.” I guess the book might say who really did.
The greatest thing in the rooftop scene had to do with Batty’s dialogue, I think. And that was David, or it might have been a bit of Rutger Hauer, because I think he took something from Blake, or something—I don’t remember, maybe it was David. But my rooftop scene was a little more verbose in the original scripts, and I think that it was definitely improved by David. I think what they took of that night that I wrote and gave it to them the next morning was all that Gaff stuff; that guy coming down and saying, “Nobody lives forever,” and then throwing him the gun. All that—that’s what I wrote.
I remember I was in a daze, and I walked down a couple of steps, and I just then I slumped into a chair; I couldn’t talk—’cause I hated it.
But it was quite challenging, because I hated everybody at that point. I come in, they’ve got this huge screening room with two tiers at Warner Brothers. And I go up on top, and I’m sitting there, and I’m looking at four or five hours of dailies, and I’m getting angrier and angrier, and insane, kind of.
And then they turn up the lights, they finish, and all the executives are there from Warner Brothers, and Ridley Scott, Laddie—David Ladd—and they’re looking at me because they need me now. And I said, [petulant] “Why don’t you get David Peoples to write it?!”
And [Ridley] said, [British accent] “Well, we want you, Hampton, because, whatever, love…”
I remember I was in a daze, and I walked down a couple of steps, and I just then I slumped into a chair; I couldn’t talk—’cause I hated it. And [editor] Terry Rawlings, this huge Englishman—Englishmen don’t exactly French kiss you, you know—and he comes up behind me, and he holds my head to his stomach. I was actually crying. And then I get up and they all walk out—they’re embarrassed. And they walk down to the passageway to go out, to have this meeting we’re supposed to have, and now I’m furious. And I see them down there, and I walk over there, and I don’t know what I’m thinking—but it’s about an eight-foot drop, and I step off it like it’s a foot. I mean, I could have broken my back, or worse. I land on my stomach, like this [demonstrates, arms out], at the feet of Ridley and Michael Deeley—stiff-upper-lip Deeley, he was like Charles Laughton, or something. And I said, [savagely] “You motherfuckers!”
And Ridley says, “Well, I guess Hampton’s not grown up enough to do what we need.”
“Yes, I am!” I get up, and follow him out, and we had a screaming match.
So in that mood, I went home, and took some nefarious great white powder, or something, and wrote all night. “See, I’m a man!”—and delivered it in the morning.
AW: Are your film projects always so dramatic?
HF: No. I think it has to do with…I don’t know, you know, it’s a growing-up thing, isn’t it? I mean, I could blow it now. I blew it once on Minus Man—about the pants. And the crew turned against me, and I thought I was the director, you know, what I say goes. And I never made a demand, never was dictatorial, but there was something about a pants incident, and I blew it. I wanted Owen [Wilson], the character of Vann, to roll in the grass at one point.
And all of the sudden the costumer said, “We have to get the double pants, because what if he gets a grass stain?”
I said, “He’s not going to get a grass stain!” I had two minutes to shoot this thing. And I said, Don’t worry!” And then everybody sides with her because it’s a crew thing.
And my accomplices—my producer, my cameraman, my, my, my…and I’m saying, “Hey, don’t do—” and they’re saying, “No, it’s a good idea.”
And I get down on the grass, and said, “Look, you can’t get a grass stain! Owen—get down there, show ‘em!” They all team up against me. I said, “Okay—I don’t want to get those other pants!” It became like a point of honor. And they got the other pants.
(Owen’s) intelligence prevailed. I don’t mean that we changed anything—the opposite. There’s a very funny moment in the film—one of the funniest—and Owen is very discreet, and he said, (wickedly imitating Owen’s laid-back accent) “Don’t do this, Hampton. Don’t do this, Hampton, please don’t do this scene!”
I said, “I’m gonna do it, Owen.”
When I told him about it originally—it’s with Brian Cox in the backyard—he said, “Don’t, man, you’re gonna get a laugh.”
I said, “I want a laugh.”
“No, but it’s the wrong kind—don’t do it.”
And I said, “I’m gonna do it.” I think that’s the only time he was wrong about anything.
That’s what [Ridley] Scott taught me. I said, one time when I was writing a scene for Blade Runner, “It’s going to get a laugh.”
He said, “Good; there is no ‘wrong laugh.'” And I believe it. And Truffaut sure proved it, I mean, in [his] first three [films].
AW: What interested you about the original book, The Minus Man. Why did you want to make it into a film?
HF: Well, I didn’t want to make it into a film when I first read it. I just liked reading the book—that’s why I got it, was just for a good read. Anne Rice had written about it, and I was sort of curious. And so I read the first page in the bookstore, and went [snaps fingers] boom. [quotes the book] “Mother died today, or was it yesterday.” You know, it was one of those experiences, like, Wow, I like this. That’s the way this goes. So I was excited, took it home, and read it. And after I read it, I mean, within five seconds after I read it, it was an epiphany for me. Because I’d been looking for something and not finding it; I don’t mean looking for a book, but I’d been resuscitating old scripts, trying to write, because I didn’t want to do the Hollywood number anymore. And I thought I could probably live for a while if I was doing something that I could believe in that I could direct. So I thought this would be perfect.
I’m gonna fail; I’m gonna spend five, six months writing this thing, and nobody’s gonna want to do it.
I guess it’s that [Vann’s] got elliptical heroic elements and yet he’s passive. And I’ve always been intrigued with the idea of somebody doing something very bad who’s very good. And I’ve always been intrigued with the idea of a narrative that seduced you through details rather than a plot venture. And those elements were all promising—in my screenwriter’s mind—in terms of the book. I saw it and I just intuitively—and also more directly—understood that this book had elements, and I was right.
I want to make this movie and give it to my agent! And he’s gonna say, “Don’t do this, Hampton; you’re barking up a stunted tree.” And then he called back and he said, “It’s a great idea!” And so of course I thought, No—it’s a bad idea. I’m gonna fail; I’m gonna spend five, six months writing this thing, and nobody’s gonna want to do it. So I finished it, and of course, that was right. The agent says, “I’m gonna have this thing financed in two weeks.”
Seventeen weeks later, I’m saying, “Can’t we get a producer?”
“No, we’ll take care of this.”
And then a week after I said, “Man—I want a producer.”
All this filmmaking business is about one thing, really; it’s about producing. Because if you don’t get it produced, there is no film. And I’ve been trying to do this for twenty-five years, and I’ve had twenty-five producers. And twenty-five producers saying, “God, you’re a genius; this is incredible! This is the best film I’ve ever read—we’re gonna do this! We’re gonna do this in France, Australia, Africa!”—whatever—and you’re high. And then about five weeks later, they say, “You know, it just doesn’t seem to work out with the financing of this thing”; so they go, and then you get another one, and they say, “No, I’m not like that.” So I didn’t want any producers I knew, so that was hard.
…we would get pimped constantly.
So I had to find a producer, and [my agent] calls me a few days after I said I demanded to have a producer, but not the ones I knew so could [he] help me find somebody?
I did call one producer I knew, and he said, “What are you doing—you like to lose? This is a turkey.” He came the last day of shooting, by the way, and his wife said, “He’s really an asshole, isn’t he?”
So [my agent] calls me, David Kanter, and he says, “I think I‘ve got her.”
“Oh, it’s a her—good. I get along with women better. Where’s she from?”
“Good.” So I get on the phone with her, and she’s read the script, and the thing was, she has a credential that is really impressive to me. There was a script I wrote a long time ago of Elmore Leonard’s that was really hard to get off the ground. I couldn’t get it off the ground with my script: two studios tried, Laddie tried; no one could get it done. Even moneyed people wouldn’t take the chance, and it was a good script I wrote called Touch. And so everybody just gave up—boom. Except this South African lady comes to America—bang—she gets it done. And this is Fida Attieh [who sits across the table from us in the room], my producer, my partner now. And so she calls me, and she says all the right things, but I know she’s got Touchstone, and I know big cannons have shot big cannonballs to get it done, and they suck. And it was one of the better scripts that I’d ever written; I thought, It’s too bad that they didn’t make mine. And so she came highly recommended by that, for me. I liked her on the telephone, and then—bang—she’s gonna put her money where her mouth is, and she’s gonna fly from LA to New York to talk to me. And then by the end of that talk in my apartment we hugged, and that was that.
Then after about a year of her working very hard, we would get pimped constantly. A company would keep it for a month, two months, we’d go down a rosy path, they wanted to do it. But then they didn’t quite want to do it, because it’s just too strange, and maybe me, maybe who knows what, but they never did it. And finally I said to Fida, “Let’s just give up.”
And she says, “Nope.” That’s the magic thing, that “No, we won’t give up.” And she wouldn’t, and so I think it took two years. The first place went is the last place we came back to, Shooting Gallery. Because they wanted to do it, but they wanted to do it for a price, and I had a bigger story at that point. And just before we went back to them we got financed for the bigger money, and then it was a question of, Do we go with the bigger money, or go with Shooting Gallery—who have integrity, who are friendly, who understand the project? And we decided to go with Shooting Gallery.
AW: How does the author [Lew McCreary] feel about the final film?
…that was the risk; you know, does he understand—this guy’s never made movies before—that I’m not going to just make this book?
HF: The author is excited. He’s in the movie. I kept him abreast of everything. When I first optioned the book, I went to meet him in Boston, and he’d written another book called Mount’s Mistake that is a better book than The Minus Man, I think, even, that I loved, and so there was a lot to talk about. He’s a great man, he’s a great mind, a humble man, but a very sharp man, a very attractive man. He’s in the film, he plays the businessman in the diner at the end; a Frankensteinian touch. And so he was wonderful. I respected him so much that I wanted not only his blessings, but I wanted his contribution. I wanted to see if he thought if I was going the right direction. So the opening scene that I wrote, which is that bar scene with Sheryl Crow, I called him, and I read it to him (now I have a fax). I knew it was a great scene, it worked. The dialogue was fine, it was totally invented. And that was the risk; you know, does he understand—this guy’s never made movies before—that I’m not going to just make this book? And he understood, because we talked a lot, and he is a movie-goer, and he is very brilliant. So it wasn’t like that, I just wanted to test it, you know, see how he’d react—and he loved it. And that was very supporting for me. And so I’d call him every week and tell him what I was doing, and how it was going. And like the football scene—I saw one football game once, and I don’t know anything about football, so I didn’t know how to write football, and I wanted this football thing in there, in America. I said, “Would you write for me?” And he wrote the football description, because then you’ve gotta write stuff, you can’t just say, “Oh, there’s a football game.” And I didn’t know what they do out there, so he wrote the football stuff.
(At the beginning when Vann waves at the audience:) He’s saying hello to you. I had to cut forty-five minutes out of the film. It’s a more sinister thing, a Hitchcock-y kind of thing. He’s doing all these things, you never see his face. And there’s this woman looking out the office of the motel watching him. And then suddenly he turns—this guy doesn’t know anyone’s watching him, I’ve established that—and then he turns, just before he gets in the car, and he waves at her, and shocks her, and the audience says, “Oh my God—this guy’s prescient.” It’s not ominous, but he’s a sensitive animal; and he just waves at her. And in cutting it, I was looking for fat to cut out, and that was one possibility. And then I began to like the idea; “Ooh, he’s waving at the audience.” And we see the ingenuousness quality that that conveys. I love it. It’s like an old airplane ad; “I’m getting on board, folks!” you know, on Pan-Am, or something. I was afraid of it, it seemed adorable to me, but I thought, maybe it’s too ambiguous. I like it, and I watch the audience these days, and the music is so voluptuous right there. I think of him as like honey and milk, he’s got that quality, he puts you at ease. And I watch him every time to see if that smile is sincere. He gets in the truck, and he’s still smiling. The reason he’s still smiling was that woman was so weird.
…everybody in this film was a piece of the puzzle that made the whole picture…
Dwight Yoakam had thought of Sheryl Crow. Dwight Yoakam was already cast, and then he called Fida, and said, “What about Sheryl Crow?” So that started that Sheryl Crow ball rolling. And I was dubious, so that turned out to be a process. I looked at all the music videos to see how she was; that all made sense to me. Dwight’s very astute, he’s brilliant in a lot of ways, so that had to be taken very seriously. Of course the money like the idea a lot, because she’s famous. And so it was a process. And she was extremely conscientious, and very open, and very humble. She wanted to do it, she loved the project, she was excited, and it would take some work. So she and I didn’t work—I read and I talked, and I told her what I thought and stuff—but then it turned out she was working on the side. We had about three readings, and then I think she got an acting coach, and she started working. And by the third reading, I thought, “Okay, this’ll work.” And then I didn’t see her again for a couple of months. And then when she showed up in LA the night before we were supposed to start shooting, I was scared to death. “What have I done?” I don’t know what’s gonna happen with her, she’s not a seasoned pro, and all that stuff. So we had a rehearsal the night before, Sunday night, at her house in LA. And I had—[to Fida] What’s his name, the bartender from Fargo?
Fida Attieh: John Carrol Lynch.
HF: John Carrol Lynch and Owen Wilson, and I was shaky. And they never met her before, what if she goes down the tubes with the pressure of these actors and me now sitting in her room, and she knows the lines now and I’m gonna start directing a little bit. As soon as she opened her mouth we were home free: “Oh, good! We’re in good shape.” And then when we shot the next day, it was a ball. She was great. She loved doing it, she was at home with the crew.
That’s another thing, see, everybody in this film was a piece of the puzzle that made the whole picture, and she was a piece, for sure. She came right in, integrated, everyone adored her, she adored everyone; I mean, I’m talking about a couple of seconds. So she walks out of her trailer across the street into the location [snaps fingers] Woo! We all had our arms around each other and we wailed. So it wasn’t like, “Cut! Uh, listen, let’s try it this way.” It was like, “Good! Okay, let’s try another angle on that.” So it was smooth. Everybody swam in the same direction, and it was no problem.
(Janeane Garofalo) was Fida’s idea. Fida’d met her in Touch (1997). And I’m not very involved in the world on a certain level, I didn’t know who she was, even, and Fida said—
FA: You looked at The Truth about Cats and Dogs (1996).
HF: Yeah. And there was a moment in there where she’s photographed. And in reality, she didn’t like being photographed, and she could either do this [mugs] or pretend to be somebody else, or be a vulnerable as she felt, and she was, in that silent section of that film. And I saw that, that vulnerability, and that’s what sold me. I thought if I could work with her along those lines, if she’s willing to expose herself like that. Because as I got to know later she doesn’t do that. I mean [raps the table] Janeane! And she’s Lenny Bruce; and so it’s wild, fast, funny, and “Don’t fuck with me.” And she came to read, too, and we worked on it. And as the work progressed, she was a gem, and she took it someplace, she understood immediately, and then her instrumentality caught up with that understanding in spades. And I’m so pleased. I wish I could just keep making that movie for the rest of my life.
And the dark forces that invade and pervade the life of human beings…the history has never changed. We’re still nailing cats against walls, laughing.
FA: Janeane also loved [Owen], and her accepting the role also had a lot to do with him being in the film. When Owen was Vann, she really wanted to work with Owen, and she would only have been able to do it if she felt comfortable with whomever she worked.
HF: There’s that, but she said something the other night in New York. We were having one of these things and she came in, there was a New York Times woman there, and she said—I was told this, I’d left already—but they asked her about Owen. And Janeane is a brilliant person, and doesn’t mince words about what she thinks, and she said, “Owen is the best actor of the generation.” That’s interesting. I’d never thought that, exactly, but I think about that now. He’s really good. And when I think about the things he’s done that were hard to do, were impossible to do, as an actor myself, I couldn’t have done it. Did you ever see Anaconda? He’s got a moment where he’s gotta get angry on board that boat. And it’s apropos to nothing, almost, I mean, for him, it’s like he was part of the dialogue. All of a sudden—bam!—he was doing it. And Owen’s a very cautious guy in a way, and he made that real. Dumb lines, dumb idea, and he got behind it; he can’t lie.
And even those older actors who you think of—in terms of Jimmy Stewart or Hank Fonda, or whatever—those guys, in their early stuff, they lied a lot, you can see right through ‘em. They got better at it. But Owen, right from Bottle Rocket (1996), he was ingenuous. And that ingenuousness…I thought maybe he was a one-trick pony. But he’s not. And he’s really a very able actor.
The whole idea of [the film] originally for me was the proximity of good to evil. And I think that’s a conundrum that is infinitely fascinating, because we could never come up with a solution to that. And the dark forces that invade and pervade the life of human beings…the history has never changed. We’re still nailing cats against walls, laughing. And raping, and burning, and mauling, and bombing, and whatever. It’s just unstoppable. So I’m not going to make a film about that, but I can make a film about one person who is smoldering in one compartment of his persona, or character, or subconscious, that’s causing him to do terrible things, and who’s a very fine person. And always the thing in my mind is that we love innocence—like we all do. And here’s the power of innocence; I mean, he’s got power in the sense that—I don’t mean that he rolls over things—but he evokes trust and love from people because of his innocence, which is totally genuine. There’s nothing sinister, there’s nothing conniving about him. He is true innocence, true goodness, he’s an angel. But he embodies also a dark thing that he can’t control; it controls him at times. I think that’s the story of mankind. Not that Minus Man is the story of mankind, but I had that platform, that foundation, that conviction to trust in. And from that, whatever confidence or accomplishment or effect that we’ve arrived at in the film, its honesty or whatever, comes from that dichotomy that I think is universal. Plus, if you look at film closely, you see every character, even the cops, in a way, have a willingness, a charity, a sympathy, that they own and is close to illuminating the situation but can’t quite do it. I think it’s evidenced mostly in Mercedes Ruehl as Jane. I mean, that woman needs something badly, and she wants to give something badly, and it’s hard to do, because she’s locked. And I think we’re all locked; and that idea, of being confined, our best qualities being confined…[Vann’s] best qualities aren’t confined—he shines with that stuff. And I’ve always liked that Candide, Billy Budd kind of innocence.
AW: In a sense, the main characters in the film all have something in common, in that they’re all basically ordinary people, except part of them is broken somehow, and they have to cope with that.
HF: Exactly. That’s it. And everybody in the film, including the cops, we worked on that level. That was an essential. The dialogues that all of us had, and I think it was pervasive in the script—not pervasive, but it wasn’t foreign to them when I brought the subject up; they already had opinions and convictions about that. And I want it to be elliptical, I want it to be subtle, I want it to be real, so it wasn’t like they were gonna play on that, but there was going to be a strain, an underpinning, that would hold up the film based on that exact thing. Broken…yeah, they were all broken.
It’s a process of falling down enough so you learn how to walk.
I said to everybody, I wrote notes, and I said, “It’s like each one of you are like a tightly closed tent that no one can get under or open, but there’s a glow in each of these tents, and they’re all trying to touch each other.” But Vann comes in and can be touched and touch. He can’t be touched, by the way, which is the scene with Janeane when she kisses him and he gives her the stone; that’s all he can give her is a rock, because he doesn’t know how to love. He sits there after she gets up and leaves, you know, and it’s pathetic and touching to me. But I find us all pathetic and touching; I look in our eyes and I see…oh Jesus, you know…you can do it with a baby, or your dog, but it’s hard to get that done with people, there’s too many forces and restrictions.
AW: The scene where he just attacks her, the dark side takes over…
HF: That’s the end of the compulsion. He can’t kill her, and then he goes crazy, he does that, and the only time he’s truly vulnerable is after that, and then he’s desperate to kill—and he can’t do it.
And the cops, his killing symbol, those two cops [two recurring characters, like Vann’s conscience, whom he hallucinates], they say, “See you later, we don’t like this anymore, we’re going.”
“No, no—don’t leave, because I won’t be complete!” because he’s not insane anymore. And he does this thing, the redemption of taking Karen, the photograph, and the house has become the haunted, empty, hollow place that it is, and he saves her. It’s got resolution, but I don’t know who will know that; maybe they’ll write about it some day.
“Lew,” I said, “do you believe in capital punishment?”
And he said, “Nope.”
And I said, “Neither do I.” This guy’s gonna go, you know, he’s gonna get a job at the post office.
I can say, “My dear wife, I’m not gonna fuck around anymore. Forgive me!” Next year, who knows, when I’m feeling cocky again. Who knows, those cops might come back and inhabit him again.
But I think that the whole process was that he got close…he said, “I’ve never done this before, I’ve never killed anybody in the same town…” He’s gonna blow it. He’s going to create a profile for himself.
Like those cops say, “Hey, there’s going to be a drawing of you.” But somehow the angel is a bit stronger than the devil in him. And he can’t do it…the post office is the key. He goes in to Arthur, and everything says—he’s got that flask at his back, it’s gonna happen—but he doesn’t do it. I got that from Mishkin, Dostoyevsky; epilepsy, he faints. And he’s blowing it, and the cops say, “Hey, you’re no fun anymore. We’re out of here.”
I was studying a bunch of things when I writing this–The Lady Killers (1955), Arsenic and Old Lace (1944)—because I wanted the Truffaut thing, which interests me a lot. I love Shoot the Piano Player. That thing of her getting shot at the end and rolling down the snow like some mythic, tragic…
AW: How has doing Gunsmoke (TV Series 1955-1975) and Maverick (TV Series 1957-1962) helped you as a screenwriter?
HF: It taught me the whole process about directing movies, about acting. And so being a bad actor in bad television shows is an education. “Waitaminute, Lem! Don’t go over there!” Is there a way to write that better? Is there a way to make that real?
It’s a process of falling down enough so you learn how to walk. I broke my nose a thousand times; okay, now we know how to do it, “Okay, put your foot in front of yourself before you take a step.” So that’s what Gunsmoke was all about; and working with great actors.[This interview was first published in 1999 in Film Threat (which, as of this posting, is no longer online); this is the full version that was edited down for publication.]
1. The voiceover to which Fancher refers I found in a draft of Blade Runner dated July 24, 1980, upon which Fancher has sole credit. This is the final scene of this draft, and takes place right after Deckard has killed Rachael:
INT. CAR - NIGHT Deckard is behind the wheel, face in shadow, eyes staring straight ahead. DECKARD (V.O.) I told myself over and over again, if I hadn't done it, they would have. I didn't go back to the city, not that city, I didn't want the job. She said the great advantage of being alive was to have a choice. And she chose. And a part of me was almost glad. Not because she was gone but because this way they could never touch her. As for Tyrell -- he was murdered, but he wasn't dead. For a long time I wanted to kill him. But what was the point? There were too many Tyrells. But only one Rachael. Maybe real and unreal could never be separated. The secret never found. But I got as close with her as I'd ever come to it. She'd stay with me a long time. I guess we made each other real. And the ruby lights of Deckard's car disappear into the darkness. THE END
3. Paul Sammon’s excellent book, Future Noir, an exhaustive overview of the making of Blade Runner, goes into great detail about the screenwriting process of the film, including its various drafts, rewrites, and the last-minute addition of the infamous voiceover. On pages 297-298, he writes:
“…shortly after the Denver and Dallas sneaks, Harrison Ford, Bud Yorkin, and Kathy Haber gathered together in a small Beverly Hills studio to record the third attempt at a Blade Runner narration. Joining the trio was Roland Kibbee (since deceased), a television writer and friend of Yorkin’s who was primarily responsible for writing this third attempt. Kibbee created his version of the voice-over by stitching together his own input with selections from previous narrations written by those who’d gone before him.
“Bud Yorkin supervised that session,” Haber continues, “and Harrison hated it. He hadn’t wanted to do the voice-overs in the first place, and by now I think he was sick of the whole movie anyway. Harrison also didn’t like what Kibbee had come up with. So he purposefully, I think, recited that narration very badly. I think he was hoping they wouldn’t be able to use it. And of course they did—that third narration was the one they released with the finished film.”