Combustible Celluloid

Interview: Paul Schrader

Pain and Crane

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

September 5, 2002—The man who wrote Taxi Driver -- perhaps the darkest and most Dostoevskian vision of an American searching for something and never finding it -- comes across as, surprisingly, rather jolly in his purring lion's voice and bear-sized spectacles, sipping his black coffee.

This veteran writer/director, Paul Schrader, also supplied filmmaker Martin Scorsese with three other legendary screenplays (Raging Bull, The Last Temptation of Christ and Bringing Out the Dead) while turning director himself with such edgy visions as Blue Collar, Hardcore, American Gigolo, and Affliction.

In these and other movies, Schrader often delves into The Search; characters attempt to fill portions of their lives that can never be filled, but they can no more stop searching than they can stop breathing.

Today, Schrader has come to talk about his newest film, yet another portrait of a lost soul, but this time with a distinctly funny side. And the comedy has not yet worn off on either the director, or his star, Greg Kinnear, who sits across from him sipping expensive bottled water.

As we discuss the film, Auto Focus, which opens Friday in Bay Area theaters, the two of them can't help breaking into laughter, either at the humor in the film itself or at the many inside jokes that cropped up during filming.

"My hope is that we can do this movie again someday and Paul will let Willem and I trade parts!" laughs Kinnear, referring to his co-star Willem DaFoe, and attempting a DaFoe-like snarl on one of the movie's more entertaining lines.

Auto Focus is a biopic of a decidedly marginal American star, Bob Crane, famous for a brief time as Hogan on the TV series "Hogan's Heroes." But offscreen, Crane -- played by Kinnear in a superb performance -- led a strange life. He befriended a video nut named John Carpenter (played by DaFoe) and embarked on a journey of sexual deviancy, taken to the degree of obsession and addiction. The pair even videotaped their encounters on the primitive equipment the 1960s and 70s had to offer.

But with Crane's show biz career spinning out of control (including a flop Disney movie called Superdad) and his problem threatening his happy marriage, he died suddenly at the hands of an unknown murderer, beaten and strangled in his sleep. The case remains unsolved.

"I'm a little sad for him, I think," Kinnear, 39, says. "Given the demons he was dealing with, today he'd probably go on some big TV talk show and get a three picture deal out of it. Like any addiction, I don't think he was aware of it. And that makes him somewhat forgivable to me. I don't like him, but I think he's fascinating."

To prepare for the role of Crane, Kinnear watched a handful of "Hogan's Heroes" episodes on video as well as some of Crane's original sex tapes, which looked like "two dolphins swimming around underwater." In addition, he endured 3 1/2 hours of makeup each morning to play the aging, jowly Crane toward the end of his life.

"We had the woman who did Tim Roth in Planet of the Apes," Kinnear says. "I asked how long it took and she told me 3 1/2 hours. And I thought great! But the thing that you learn very quickly is that there's no difference; there's no light prosthetic. You're either doing a prosthetic or you're not. And it's still 3 1/2 hours."

Schrader, 56, has explored sex and sexuality before, in films like Taxi Driver, Hardcore, and Cat People, but to make Crane and Carpenter's exploits come to life, he had to film many semi-explicit sex and nude scenes.

To begin, he used cable shows like "Sex in the City" as a model of how far he could go. But he says he still had to go back to the MPAA ratings board five times to get an "R" rating.

To placate the board, he pixilated one image, blurred another, stop-framed another and slow-motioned two others. "Because they're very into 'thrust.' That's a big word for them. At around 2 1/2 thrusts, you get into trouble. So if you do it in slow motion, you lower the number of thrusts. That's why Willem in all his horizontal sex scenes is such a cautious and considerate lover."

As for Crane, Schrader and Kinnear decided early to make his sex scenes look like fun, rather than soulless and empty. "That would suggest a guy who was really contemplating where he was," Kinnear says.

"This way we let the audience figure out that it's empty," Schrader adds.

For Schrader, who re-wrote about half the script for Auto Focus but did not receive credit, the film doesn't quite fit into the "Spiritual Crisis" realm of his films Taxi Driver or Affliction.

He says the difference in Auto Focus is that Crane dies before he has a pivotal moment in which he suddenly understands everything.

"That's what made it fun and interesting for me," Schrader says. "You have to create a certain kind of tone. Particularly with Crane, a lot of it gets very light hearted. There are no dark nights of the soul in the Crane house."

"In retrospect, I'm more intimidated by the task of creating that tone than I was while making it. If I'd realized how difficult it was while I was making it, I might not have done it."

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