City Paper is not for tourists
Hampton Fancher lights a Marlboro and orders a glass of port as he summarizes his diverse career. “I did a few things not too well,” he says. “I did one thing well.”
He’s not referring to his best-known script, for Blade Runner, or to The Minus Man, the eerily low-key serial-killer movie with which he’s made his directorial debut at 61. He’s talking about his time as a flamenco dancer—an avocation from which he retired 43 years ago.
“I was too fanatical,” he explains. “I was choreographing, and nobody could live up to my expectations. I think I was an asshole. Also, I got introduced to the world of literature. I saw some Chekhov, and I read some Freud and Salinger, and a whole new world opened up.”
Fancher has explored that world ever since, although he has more screen credits as an actor than as a writer. In discussing his new film, the director unostentatiously invokes such authors as Vladimir Mayakovsky, Joseph Conrad, and Walker Percy. Acting “was a fluke,” he says. “The opportunity occurred, and I took advantage of it. That started a career, of sorts. It was all connected in my mind—acting, directing, writing. I never make too many distinctions between those things.”
His pre-Minus Man directing credits are limited to theater and a few short films, but Fancher says he always saw himself as a director, even as a child: “When we were playing games in the backyard, it was like: I know the way to do this.”
Fancher is a Los Angeles native, and he looks the part. He’s wearing slip-on shoes without socks and soft, expensively shapeless clothing, including a shirt that falls open to reveal a mass of gray chest hair. After years of frustration in Hollywood, however, he abandoned a bicoastal existence to live only in New York. “When I stopped making money,” he says, “I had to give up something, so I gave up L.A.”
The director stopped making money when he quit writing scripts for the major studios. “After Blade Runner, I was working with studios all the time. Doing scripts I wanted to do, but they were never produced, except for The Mighty Quinn in 1989. All the other scripts are owned and on shelves. I know some of them are truly worthy. The best things I’ve done are on shelves. And you can’t buy them back, either. You go into these things and you’re all enthusiastic and everybody loves each other, and it turns out to be a bunch of shit.
“Finally, just before Minus Man, I stopped. I called the agency and I said, ‘I won’t do it anymore. I’m finished. I’d rather wash dishes.’”
While writing scripts, Fancher also tried several times to direct. “It’s money,” he says. “I’ve been writing screenplays since I was 24, and no one ever gave me the money. I’ve been in preproduction before. Gone right up to a week before shooting and then [had] it fall it apart.” The director credits producer Fida Attieh for the perseverance that got The Minus Man financed. “It took two years to get the money for this. Other producers have given up after a month.”
Although retired from screenwriting, Fancher decided to try again when he discovered the Lew McCreary novel that’s the film’s source. “I read it in one night. Ten seconds after I finished it, I knew it was what I wanted to do. So I called my agent and said, ‘Let’s option this.’” I was afraid he was going to say it was too dark of a horse. He read the book and called back and said, ‘This is wonderful.’ Then I got scared.”
Fancher cites Robert Bresson’s Diary of a Country Priest among his inspirations for the film, but he turned to Badlands for a device he might have been expected to avoid: the lead character’s voice-over narration. Nervous studio bosses added voice-over to Blade Runner, over director Ridley Scott’s objections. “I never thought of using voice-over for Blade Runner,” Fancher reports, “but I did a draft of the voice-over that they never used.”
“Voice-over’s great,” he adds. “You can do paradoxes in voice-over.”
The paradox The Minus Man explores is that of mild-mannered, well-meaning young drifter Vann, played by Owen Wilson, who sometimes offers strangers liqueur laced with a strong, rare poison. The character-revealing voice-over is just one of the things that sets the film apart from other Hollywood depictions of peripatetic killers. “I don’t think of this as a serial-killer movie. I never did,” says Fancher. “I don’t think of him as a killer even. It’s more soporific. The production designer asked me, ‘What is this movie to you?’ and I said, ‘It’s a lullaby.’ And he said, ‘A lullaby is a song you’re not meant to hear the end of.’”
The director smiles approvingly when relating that remark. “It’s the luxury of death, more than the horror of it. It’s about curling with Mommy, curling up in Mommy.”
Fancher was not familiar with Wilson, who co-wrote Bottle Rocket and Rushmore and starred in the former. “I thought of that actor who died, who was that, River Phoenix? A guy that had a childlike quality about him. Jimmy Dean, Monty Clift. I had that kind of image in mind. When I finished writing the script, I sent it to my agency, and they sent me back a tape of Bottle Rocket. I saw it and said, ‘That’s it!’ But I wanted an actor who’s more seasoned, because it was his first film. So I said, ‘That’s him all right, but not him.’ They were disappointed, because they thought it was perfect. They were right.
“A year later, I’m testing for the actors, and they say, ‘Do you mind if [Wilson] comes in to test?’ So he came in. He was really intelligent. And I liked his acting. He tested with two or three scenes, and in the first scene I looked at Fida and said, ‘To go on is ridiculous. If I can’t make the movie with this guy, I don’t want to make the movie.’”
Fancher had a similar epiphany with Dennis Haysbert, who plays a detective pursuing the killer. “I didn’t even say hello to him—I just started punching him,” the director recalls. “I hit him, he hit me back, we’re rolling around. Fida jumped up—’What are you doing?’ And I said, ‘You want to do this movie?’ He said, ‘Uh- huh.’ I said, ‘Done.’”
The director was less sure about Janeane Garofalo and Mercedes Ruehl, who took the two largest female parts. Garofalo was cast to play an awkward, earnest postal worker. “This girl’s a bleeding soul, and Janeane Garofalo is Lenny Bruce. But she read it; she liked it.”
As for Ruehl, “Her agent said, ‘Mercedes Ruehl wants to do this.’ And I said, ‘Mercedes Ruehl is a Mediterranean sexpot who lands on her feet. This is a fucking loser who’s hiding her soul.’ So I talked to her on the phone about it, and she said, ‘That’s really who I am.’ I said, ‘Well, if you think that’s who you are, I’m glad to have you.’ “
Despite such serendipitous casting experiences, Fancher finds the process of casting “dangerous emotionally,” he says. “It’s scary. My conscience was stricken by it, because I’m an actor. To have people who were fucking great and have to say no, that’s the hardest thing. That part of it is a killer. You have to get close to people to see if they can do it, and in that closeness it seems like they’re gonna do it. They think they’re gonna do it!”
Fancher originally wrote the script for Canada, then decided to film the whole movie in Maryland. When told he had to shoot “in fucking Los Angeles, I was prepared not to do the movie,” he says. “Then I was driving to the meeting— somebody was driving me—and I said, ‘Stop!’ There was some horrible street in the [San Fernando] Valley, where there’s a culvert. I looked at that culvert, and I thought, ‘This is really The Man Who Fell to Earth. Vann comes into this fucking place?’ Then we had to find the locations that excluded the L.A.-ishness. I had some precedents. Reservoir Dogs did a great L.A. So I thought, I can do an L.A. that’s never been seen.” Fancher simply rewrote some dialogue to make the film’s whereabouts more ambiguous and was ready to go.
He’s quick to add, however, that he had great location scouts—and, in fact, an extraordinarily dedicated and involved cast and crew. “I had the drivers read the script. I said, ‘If you have any ideas, tell me.’ Everybody made the film. That’s a fact. Everybody should get a directing credit.”
Fancher admits that the drivers didn’t actually have any good ideas. “But,” he says, “it’s the first time, from what I hear, that Teamsters ever were good. They hugged us and that shit. And they came to the cast party.” —Mark Jenkins