Published in Figure/Ground
Interviewed by Suzanne Unrein
CONVERSATION WITH HAMPTON FANCHER
© Hampton Fancher and Figure/Ground
Hampton Fancher was interview by Suzanne Unrein. March 24, 2019
Hampton Fancher was born in East Los Angeles in 1938 to a Mexican-Danish mother and an American father. At the age of fifteen, he went to Spain to pursue a career as a Flamenco dancer. After returning to Los Angeles, Fancher began acting in the late 1950s appearing in films such as The Naughty Cheerleader with Broderick Crawford and Klaus Kinski, as well as a number of classic TV shows such as Bonanza, Perry Mason, and The Fugitive. In the 1970s Fancher began focusing on directing and screenwriting. He would go on to write the screen play for Blade Runner (1982) and 35 years later its sequel, Blade Runner 2049 (2017). He wrote and directed the Owen Wilson film, The Minus Man (1999). In addition to teaching screenwriting at New York University and Columbia University, Fancher has published a collection of stories entitled The Shape of the Final Dog, and most recently, The Wall Will Tell You: The Forensics of Screenwriting. Described by the Los Angeles Times as “a world-class raconteur,” Fancher was the subject of the recent, highly praised documentary Escapes directed by Michael Almereyda.
photo credit: Nesa Azimi
Your life has been a work of art, so much so, that Michael Almereyda made a film about it. When everyone else set out to become a doctor or a lawyer, did you intentionally go in a different direction?
No I set out to be a doctor and a lawyer and wanted to do it. The difference is that when other kids start to integrate with school at a certain age, I never did. I couldn’t do it. I was stuck. I had learning disabilities. Consequently I missed the brainwash. You have to decide to become a doctor or lawyer. You can’t do both. I didn’t care about choosing because I was always pretending and in a way that’s never stopped. I’m still pretending. Still living in a fantasy because I’ve had the good fortune of living in a way where I don’t have to report to the commander every day and do the commander’s work. I’m a bum but with the good fortune of having a rug and a couch and clean sheets.
If you didn’t have the ability to learn the way other people did how did you become a writer?
It comes from reading and the impulse. Those things were simultaneous. Reading and writing happened at the same time. My mother and father and sister read. I didn’t. I drew in the pages of books. No one ever said “Don’t do that.” I never heard that. I didn’t read until a buddy of mine’s older sister who hated my guts said “You are an asshole. A worse asshole than all of them. But you could be saved if you read.” She gave me this book at the height of the Korean war that was called Conscientious Objector, and I read it because she gave it to me. There was sex in it. I didn’t know books had those things. I read it and liked it enough to read some more. The next book I read changed my life. I went to the library and stole one because I didn’t know how to check it out. It was Hemingway’s Death in the Afternoon.
You just happened to get that book?
Well that’s just how life has been. I’ve been lucky. I read that and I was already a dancer. And those things went hand in hand. Bullfighting and Spain and Flamenco. I went to Mexico and studied bullfighting – one lesson maybe two. So that book was very important and then another, Matador by Barnaby Conrad.
Is that something that continuously happened to you, that reading informed choices you made in your life?
Oh yeah. I think that happens to a lot of people. That and the movies. Movies, music, books.
You became a writer and a filmmaker and not a painter or musician and I know you love all those things. What made you become a writer and filmmaker?
People follow their capacities maybe and I don’t think I had enough talent as a painter. I drew and I tried to paint. Never went to school for it and never identified myself as one, but I did dream myself as a director and an actor and at nineteen or so as a writer. I identified myself as a poet because the romance of it suited me. I was reading Villon and Rimbaud. I wanted to be like that so I pretended to be that. I think those things informed what I became.
Was poetry the first writing that you did?
Yeah. Because I met a poet when I was a teenager and he was spouting poetry and I learned that poetry. I loved it. It was because of him that I started memorizing Shakespeare and Rimbaud. And started reading and writing bad, bad poetry.
Did you know it was bad at the time?
No, no, I was crazy. It coincided with not only being a bit of a drug addict and an alcoholic. It was also that my brain wasn’t formed yet. I was doing crazy things. This was in my early twenties. By the time I was thirty I was a little more stabilized.
When did you go from writing poetry to writing screenplays?
When I was nineteen or so I met a screenwriter through that poet I mentioned. He took me to a guy’s house. A guest house in Los Feliz and he’s smoking and he’s drinking out of a half pint of whiskey. He’s got a typewriter and a desk and photos pinned on the wall, civil war things. I was just soaking it up because I wanted to be like him. Researching and making money and writing a movie. I didn’t even know what that meant but I loved movies and he can smoke and drink and pay for this wonderful place. They’re paying him to do this. From then on I said I was a writer.
No, a writer. I never said I was a screenwriter. I still don’t.
You went from poet to writer?
Yeah, I went from poet to writer and then shortly after I was making my living as an actor but I still said I was a writer. Acting to me was all provisional, temporary. The acting thing was to not collect unemployment this week. If I had taken acting more seriously it would have been different. I didn’t have a clue. I was afraid.
Afraid of what?
I was afraid of exposing myself. Afraid of showing anything that was real, yet finally I was even teaching acting. I was telling people to do what I wouldn’t do myself.
So you weren’t any good?
I didn’t think I was any good but when I look at it now I can see why they were hiring me. I had ideas. I was studying but not sincerely doing the work that creates honest acting, that makes an art of it. I understood it. I could talk the talk. I could act like I was doing it and directors and other actors believed me, but I was pretending to do it. I wouldn’t go all the way.
When did that change?
It never changed.
You still don’t think you are authentic?
No, I don’t think so.
No, I stumble into things that aren’t bad sometimes. Basically I dabble. I’ve never had a genuine abiding grip on anything. I feel completely inauthentic at anything, everything. I feel like it’s all a charade. And if you take off all the packaging of the charade, then what is left? It would be a very tiny little whimper. I’m not being cute. Really, that’s what I think. Something frightened and agonized and crawling and crying and wants to go to sleep sucking its thumb. And that’s it.
Do you think everyone feels that way?
I hope not.
Do you see other’s acting and writing and feel that they are much more genuine than you are?
Oh yeah. The actors are great. They’re brilliant. That’s the beauty of it. To see a great movie or great plays.
Well some people say that Blade Runner was their favorite movie of all time.
It is a great movie.
And you wrote that.
No I didn’t. There’s a lot of great people involved in Blade Runner. The most salient of which is Ridley. Usually that’s what it is, it’s the director. He stood on the shoulders of a lot of slaves and I was one of them and there were others.
Well you have to have an authentic voice with the screenplay to make it believable.
The origin of it, yeah, that’s me but then came David Peoples and what he did became a lot of Blade Runner. Then you get the graphic design, production design, and then we’re back to Ridley. Plus the music and the editing. So there’s that.
And you’re the one that thought the book would make a good movie.
I didn’t love the book but I saw a through-line that would make an interesting movie. And then I had the good fortune to get a wonderful producer, Michael Deeley.
You also made The Minus Man. How do you think about that in terms of authenticity.
Well, that was pretty good. I’ve done two things in my life, this part of my life. The early part of my life was about the dancing. And that’s what I feel the best about. The dancing. But since I was 21, there were two things that were really terrific for me. One of them was writing and directing The Minus Man. Still is when I indulge in the memories. And it’s really sad too. Because that’s what I really wanted to do, wanted to continue that experience. I was 60 when I made it so that’s a bit late maybe. I think if I had done it when I was 30 I’m sure my life would have been very different. The other was a play I directed, Beckett’s Endgame. That was the other triumph of the spirit for me.
Do you have specific memories from those two things where you felt like, “Yes, I really did something here.”
Well there are memories I have that are learning curve memories. Where I messed up. I still think about those all the time. Why didn’t I do this instead of that? Let me do it again and I’ll know what to do. I remember the fun and the beauty of it. The affirmation of it I guess. It was a different world when I was doing that. It wasn’t the same old world. With Endgame I was never satisfied, but with The Minus Man I was very satisfied. I thrived. I was old enough then to integrate with everybody. And the things I wanted to do that everyone said you couldn’t do – social things, simple things – “Don’t ever show your vulnerability” – screw that. “Stay off your feet.” That was another one I got from other directors, more experienced than I. But finally I just did what I wanted to do and it was really compatible, except for a couple of moments here and there.
What advice would you give?
Don’t let it end until you like it. And that’s really hard to do. I don’t know how to do that but Wes Anderson does, and did, and right off the bat. He’s a sweetie pie guy, full of warmth and understanding but he’s also steel when the shit comes down. You have to be smart as hell too.
Let’s go back to the dancing. I didn’t realize you felt this was the greatest thing you did.
When I was doing that, the romance with it, the connection to it was so deep and so voluptuous, gratifying. I lived it. I was living The Minus Man but I was living other things too. I was grown up. But when I was a dancer, it was just me. Young stupid me and I thought I walked alone. The love of it, my adoration of it, like a child’s imagination, I could smell it. I could sense it everywhere. I was the center of it. It was Spain, it was me, another time, other clothes, it was all consuming. I was too dumb to take advantage of my talent and to learn. I didn’t take advantage of it but I pretended to. I’ve never had that experience again. I was thirteen. Thirteen to seventeen.
Why did you stop?
I really don’t know. I know the superficial reasons. I think fear had something to do with it. And stupidity. Not knowing how to proceed. Pretending to know how to proceed. Fighting to proceed but doing it wrong. Fear of not being able to walk in and do things. At the same time I was kind of crazy at seventeen, living in New York without anything, in love with a girl who has this thing called schizophrenia. She’s a model and she’s beautiful and I’m living with her and I don’t dance anymore because I’m so messed up and enamored with her and she’s so crazy and kicks me out and I have no place to go and nothing to do. I don’t want dancing or insecurity anymore. Let me go home and get a job and get married and be safe. So I hitchhiked back to LA and met a girl, got married, had a child. And then I’m not a dancer. I’m a writer. I retired at eighteen from dancing. I was anguished, like a romance, that I didn’t do it anymore. Until I was thirty I thought I would. I’m not good at knowing the score.
Any lessons learned in life you want to pass on?
Keep it physical. Take it all in. What I saw from kids is that they stopped being and doing that at a certain point. The animal part of ourselves gets diminished and gets replaced by something more conformist and pragmatic. So I guess in a word it would be “Play.” And then watch out because when you get older there’s no room for it anymore. Find the room. The big challenge I guess is understanding another person. To understand their experience. Maybe we are too self-involved. We are animals. A bunch of monkeys don’t care that an alligator is getting killed over there. The monkeys don’t give a shit. But we do to some degree. Our fear teaches us something. Our abhorrence. So if you are open to knowing the fear of others and know how they feel. That’s a good idea.
What do you think is your biggest failure that lead to better things?
I think it all started when I stopped going to school. I started stopping when I was six or seven. By the time I was thirteen I wasn’t going much at all. When I was fourteen I was in juvenile hall. No school would take me at that point. So then I ended up in a private, theatrical school. No one really showed up there because they had gigs. I went there until I left the country at fifteen. I got a freighter to Spain. My family understood and said ok. It also got me out of their hair. Hard for them in a way.
So failure started you on this wonderful adventure?
No it wasn’t failure. That just sounded funny. No, what it really was, was doing what the dream told me to do.
© Excerpts and links may be used, provided full and clear credit is given to Hampton Fancher and Figure/Ground with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.
Unrein, Suzanne (2019). “Conversation with Hampton Fancher,” Figure/Ground
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