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Paul Schrader doesn’t look the part: The author of such explosive Martin Scorsese scripts as Taxi Driver and Raging Bull and the director of such sex-driven films as American Gigolo and The Comfort of Strangers dresses like, well, a superannuated member of the high-school chess club. Arriving for an interview at a Georgetown hotel, the 56-year-old is wearing a short-sleeved white shirt, sweater vest, tie, and large tortoiseshell glasses. Only an incongruous soul patch suggests that he might actually be in the movie business.
Schrader’s new film, Auto Focus, is the tale of a different sort of regular guy: Hogan’s Heroes star Bob Crane, a self-styled “photo nut” whose sexual promiscuity was fueled by his enthusiasm for a brand-new product, the videotape recorder. Crane and pal John Carpenter (played in the film by Greg Kinnear and Willem Dafoe, respectively) videotaped their exploits until 1978, when someone bludgeoned the washed-up TV actor to death with a camera tripod. Carpenter was charged with the crime but acquitted.
The story has “a number of attractions,” Schrader says. “There’s a study of American manhood in the ’60s and ’70s. That’s interesting. There’s this odd folie a deux relationship between Crane and Carpenter. That’s very interesting. The ramifications of celebrity. That’s an interesting subject. Sexual addiction, and how it invades a life. That’s interesting. There were a lot of handles, so to speak. Everyone seems to find their own handle.”
The director admits that he wasn’t all that interested in Michael Gerbosi’s script at first. “I’d sort of sworn off biopics,” he notes. “My agent convinced me to read this script, and underneath the script, I saw something that really interested me. Which was a kind of American, middle-aged, heterosexual, TV-star version of a film I had liked called Prick Up Your Ears”—Stephen Frears’ movie about playwright Joe Orton and his murder by his lover. “That relationship, Crane and Carpenter, I really found fascinating. I wanted to do that movie, and rewrite the script to make it more of the movie that I wanted to make.”
Schrader did work on the script, although he didn’t get a writing credit. “What I tend to do is put the script through my own typewriter,” he says. “I will rewrite everything. By the time I’m finished retyping the script, it gets very blurred in my mind, and I’ve pretty well convinced myself that I, in fact, wrote it.”
He chuckles: “Then I can just proceed forward as if it’s my script.”
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A director, Schrader explains, has to provide more than 50 percent new material to get a script credit. “The Writer’s Guild determined that I didn’t do over 50 percent,” he says. “I felt I did, but that was their decision.”
At this point, Kinnear arrives, looking like the director’s casual-chic antithesis in black jeans and an obviously expensive baby-blue sweater. He and Schrader ponder whether anyone tried to discourage them from making the controversial, just barely R-rated film.
“You mean other than not giving us the money?” Schrader responds. “That’s pretty discouraging. In the end, like in so many films, there was one buyer. And that was Sony Classics. But, as my agent never tires of saying, ‘It only takes one.’
“We still had to do it at a price,” he adds. “We had a tight shooting schedule. Greg and I and Willem all had to work at reduced fees.
But it seemed to be something worth doing.”
“I didn’t really confer with that many people,” Kinnear says. “How they’ll respond to it afterwards is more the question.”
Schrader was raised in a rigid Calvinist community and didn’t see his first movie until he was 18. By some accounts, he later compensated vigorously for his sheltered childhood. The director bases his identification with Crane, however, on more universal concerns. “People are not that dissimilar,” he says. “That’s what makes art work. Even in the strangest person, you can see part of yourself. So it varies. At different points, you say, ‘I really identify with that,’ and then the next thing he does, you go, ‘Whoa, let me out.’ That’s part of the fun of developing a character, moving from points of identification to points of detached fascination.”
In Schrader’s films, Kinnear notes, “everything is not necessarily a specific through-line. In mainstream films, it’s A to B to C. The idea of a character who’s a family guy and is living the life [Crane] is, how do you roll those two people in one person? Were there pieces of him that maybe I see in my own life? Probably. But there’s a lot that I don’t, and there’s even more there that I still don’t understand.”
Long before Auto Focus was completed, it was denounced by Crane’s younger son, Scotty Crane, who was introduced to his father’s porno collection as a boy. “I think the whole Scotty issue began with a script that he and his mother wrote called Just Take Off Your Clothes and Smile,” Schrader says. They wanted to get that movie made, and this movie got made instead.
“So you have a power issue right at the start. They wanted to control the film about Bob Crane, but somebody else did it, and they couldn’t control it. Out of that fact, many grievances flowed. And the grievances have been exponential.”
Scotty is particularly indignant that Auto Focus gives currency to one rumor about his father, the one that says that Bob Crane had a—
“Penile enhancement?” Schrader almost squeals, before the question is completed. “Hey, how did I know?!? I read your dirty little mind.”
Schrader points out that Scotty has posted a picture of his father’s supposedly unenhanced member on www.bobcrane.com. “You can go on his Web site…” the director says. “‘Ten inches of screaming pink Jesus,’ is how he describes it.”
Schrader pauses to collect himself. “I don’t know whether Bob actually had a penile enhancement,” he says. “He told people he did. That to me is more telling than whether he actually had it. What kind of person goes around saying he had it? And that’s all the film does: It says he told Carpenter he had it. But it is an idee fixe in Scott’s head.”
Auto Focus also reaches the controversial—but not libelous, because Crane’s orgy buddy is dead—conclusion that Carpenter killed Crane. “That was the Scottsdale, [Ariz.], police,” says Schrader. “They felt very strongly that they had their guy. And if you look at the case, he’s the best fit. Motive, means, opportunity, everything. Just not enough evidence. If I was on that jury, I would have to vote to acquit, too.”
“That aspect of it was far less interesting to me than their relationship,” Kinnear adds. “They really thought they were helping one another. In fact, they were each that one person that you hope doesn’t come in your life, who leads you down paths you might be better off not going down.”
Of all Schrader’s films, the one that Auto Focus most recalls is 1985’s Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters, although the Japanese author’s obsessions were as exotic as Crane’s were banal. “The problem with that analogy is that Mishima was superintelligent,” Schrader responds. “He understood his pathology. The amazing thing is that, having understood it, he acted it out anyway. Crane did not understand his pathology. I think he lived in this fog of misperception about himself and how he was behaving. There’s almost no other way to explain it.”
Indirectly, Auto Focus is a pop history of the rise of the videotape. “Well, that’s in there,” Schrader says. “It ends before the grand explosion of home pornography that has now occurred with the Internet. Certainly, Bob would not be seen as being as deviant today as he was in that time.”
“He could probably go on a daytime talk show,” Kinnear interjects, “and talk about his journey, and get help for it.”
“There’s a lot of home porn on the Web,” Schrader continues, “that’s basically, ‘Watch me and my wife fuck.’ No thanks. There’s a site that has thousands of submissions. Everyone’s a photo nut!”
Crane and Carpenter did their pioneering videography, of course, with Sony equipment.
“It’s a coincidence that I found felicitous and Sony found very awkward,” Schrader says. “There was some discussion of trying to extract the Sony name from scenes after we had shot them, but finally they had to accept the fact that John Carpenter actually did work for Sony.”
Even if Auto Focus flops, it may have an effect on a larger project, a Hogan’s Heroes movie that Schrader says has been in development for over five years. “At one point they were developing it for Mel Gibson,” he explains. “Now they’re developing it for Russell Crowe. I think it’s a bad idea myself. If you liked McHale’s Navy: The Movie, if you liked Sgt. Bilko: The Movie, you’ll love Hogan’s Heroes: The Movie.”
He laughs. “We’ll see how this film impacts that.”
“If we did it right,” Kinnear says, “it’s off.” —Mark Jenkins