Combustible Celluloid

Interview with Hampton Fancher

Part One: Blade Runner

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

Buy Blade Runner on DVD.

Most artists have careers that move along on an even keel, or fly up and down like a roller coaster. But some artists have to deal with the blessing and the curse of having one point in their career that defines every other point -- a work that somehow captured the public's fancy. A work that will never be forgotten, and a work that everything else will be compared to. James Whale wanted to be known for Show Boat (1936), but will always be remembered for Frankenstein (1931) and The Bride of Frankenstein (1935). Orson Welles' The Trial (1962) and Chimes at Midnight (1966) may be brilliant works, but he will always be remembered for Citizen Kane (1941). Screenwriter Hampton Fancher has a new movie out -- his directorial debut -- called The Minus Man. But every review of this new movie will mention Fancher's other big credit, his screenplay for Blade Runner (1982).

Fancher was in town recently to promote The Minus Man and not only was I fortunate enough to talk with him, he was also gracious enough to talk about Blade Runner at length. I've split my interview into two parts, for those interested in Blade Runner and for those interested in The Minus Man.

Q: Are you asked about Blade Runner all the time?

HF: You'd think you could answer something a couple times and they'd be disinterested. I find myself saying the same thing I said a thousand times. And I think, 'I can't do that again.' But then when I'm asked something, I do it again, with the same original enthusiasm. I kind of envy people who are sullen, quiet. But I'm not.

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. I'm a lucky guy. It helped my career a lot.

The Blade Runner experience from its origin was an attempt to try and get above ground, and get in the club. I didn't know it, but I guess I was approaching it on my own obscure level, thinking that I was making something commercial. 'This is science fiction; people will flock to see this.' Of course, I had themes I was working with that I loved and I was intrigued with. But still I thought of it as a commercial venture. And it wasn't. It was a flop, and it didn't work, and people didn't like it, and it made no money. But the script, my original scripts for it were, at one point, we lost all our money and the film was going to go down the tubes. They hustled my script, my fifth or sixth draft, out to all the studios in Hollywood. And so everybody read it. I mean, important people read it, in terms of studio honchos. So all of a sudden Hampton Fancher was... 'Oh, this guy's a great writer; I thought he was just a bad actor.' It worked. I was flavor of the month for about two years. It was great for confidence building. You make a little money, and people like you, and they want you to come meet them in rooms and offer you things.

Q: Is Deckard a replicant?

HF: No. It wasn't like I had a tricky idea about Deckard that way. Until the last draft. It kept ending in different ways. We were already in pre-production when I wrote the last draft. In the last draft, which wasn't in the movie, I finally came to the last and best conclusion about the ending of the movie which was that Rachel is going to die. And they're in love, and he's become kind of human through this. He was less human than the people he was after, because they were machines. He was more of a machine. And he becomes less of a machine through the ordeal of falling in love with her. She's smarter than he is and she's better than he is, and 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 40's doomful way. It was hot and deep romance. And BOOM he's in that car, and you hear him say in something voiceover... he's sitting at the piano again, like she sat at the piano, surrounded by his photographs, his memories. And he starts to say something about 'she understood', or something, that he didn't get. And he starts to play. I thought of Shoot the Piano Player (1960), at the end, where the voiceover says, 'music is all there is.' And he 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 the end credits, and it looks like Batty's (Rutger Hauer) hand because it froze in that clawlike thing. So you say, 'Wait a minute, is he a Nexus Six?' And Ridley doesn't take credit for it because he thinks it's bad, but they did some things, 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, that first version, I sort of like better than all the rest of them. By the way, those voiceovers that exist in the film weren't mine, nor were they David Peoples'.

Films can be different things on different days, even to the people who make them. That Marlowe-esque 40's hokey thing, you acquire an affection for that. It's almost satirical. But when I first heard it, I went nuts. 'She calls me sushi?' That's gonna age badly. But actually it doesn't age badly. It's kind of become an institution, that film.

One thing about filmmaking that's interesting and beautiful, and the best thing about it for those who make them. Blade Runner was a horrible experience for everyone who made it. It was hell. The actual shooting. Especially when you look at Blade Runner -- it's a great example -- everybody is responsible for that movie. Everybody made that movie. It's not just one of us. I don't think the Teamsters were very interested in Blade Runner, waiting to drive people home.

Q: How did you react to David Peoples' work on the script?

HF: I didn't know about it. That was a secret, because I wasn't cooperating with Ridley. I think if Ridley had said, 'listen asshole, if you don't cooperate, I'm going to bring somebody in who will,' I probably would have hit him in the mouth and left. And he probably knew that, so he didn't tell me. And it was in pre-production that it happened. When I did find out it was Christmas, and we were having a dinner. Ridley wasn't there. It was a producer on the film. And I sat down to eat, and all of a sudden the script's in front of me. I just opened it, and I saw something I didn't understand. I turned a page and I saw 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.' 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 came back at the end, because they called me. They needed something for the rooftop scene. They just had a couple days to shoot and they wanted me to look at rushes. I came back and I wrote some stuff for them. I hated the dailies. They sold this film down the tubes. It's not gonna work. It's not anything like I wanted. 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. I called my agent and I said, 'I want my name off this film!' And he said, 'that's going to be hard.' I had a very small nose to begin with, and I was cutting every inch of it I could -- get it off my face. The whole reason I was doing this film was to get on the map, and now I wanted to get off the map. And I'm crying, I'm nauseated, and I'm screaming, I'm threatening. Then the Writer's Guild calls and they say, 'we're thinking of taking your name off the film.' And I said, 'good! why? Cause I got through?' And they say, 'we're arbitrating this. We don't think you deserve a title.' 'WHAT?' Then I went exactly the opposite, 'please don't do this to me! This is my one chance!' I was fighting to get my name back on that film. And this goes on for three or four days, which seemed like a year, and the Writer's Guild calls me. And they have a letter from David Peoples, who is privy to all this. And the reason they were going to arbitrate was because they saw me as a producer. David Peoples was writing, and I had this executive producer credit, and they're very suspect of that. You know, a producer trying to get writing credits. I said, 'I'm not a producer--I just did that to protect the writing! I'm a writer! I didn't do any producing on the film!'

So David writes a letter to them. I won't say what he said, but he was so gracious. He gave it to me. He was very humble about his contribution. And they read it and they apologized to me. He wouldn't take credit if I wasn't credited. I learned something there, too, because, I don't think I would have done that. 'Let me have the extra money, let me have the glory,' but that's not David Peoples. So I said, 'I've gotta meet this guy.' So I met him and we fell in love. I just called him, in fact. He lives in Berkeley. He used to live in a little house in Berkeley, now he lives in a big house in Berkeley. We're very close friends since then.

I admire his work, except I couldn't imagine how he was stupid enough to write those voiceovers. And he was imagining the same thing about me. And after a year, one night we were drunk, and I said, 'what's wrong with you? Why did you write that stupid shit?' And he said, 'I thought you did!'

I still hadn't met David. The film still wasn't finished being shot, but somebody sent me a script of David's. And I felt sorry for him, because it was good. It was part mine, part his. But there was a lot of him in this script that I read that wasn't shot. It was, I guess, his first take on the whole thing. It was really interesting. It was more accessible than mine, but it was exciting, and he had a certain exciting way of writing. Not the way I write--we write very differently. But I liked it, and I thought, 'they're not going to do this either! This guy's worse off than I am!'

Q: What did you do on the rooftop scene?

HF: The thing on the rooftop scene had to do with Rutger Hauer's dialogue. And that was David, or it might have been a bit of Rutger Hauer, because I think he took something from a play. My rooftop scene was a little bit more verbose, and I think it was definitely improved by David. I think what they took of that night that I wrote was all that Gaff stuff, 'nobody lives forever.' But it was quite challenging. Because I hated everybody at that point. There was an editor, Terry Rawlings, I never met him in my life. 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 looking at 4 or 5 hours of dailies, getting angrier and angrier. An insane kind. They turn up the lights and they finish. And all the executives are there, and Ridley Scott, and David Ladd. And they're looking at me because they need me now. I remember, I was in a daze. I walked down a couple of steps, and I just slumped into a chair. I couldn't talk, because I hated it. And Terry Rollins, this huge Englishman, comes up behind me, and he holds my head to his stomach. And I start crying on him. They all walk out because they're embarrassed. 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 like it's a foot. And I land on my stomach, and, I'm like, 'YOU MOTHERFUCKERS!' And Ridley says, 'I guess Hampton's not grown up enough to do what we need.' And we had a screaming match. So in that mood, I went home, took some nefarious great white powder, wrote all night, and delivered it in the morning.

September 24, 1999

See also Part Two: The Minus Man

Movies Unlimtied