aul Schrader knows his way around dark-and/or-twisted sex, having directed such kink noir classics as American Gigolo, Hardcore and Light Sleeper. In his new film, Auto Focus, Schrader tackles the true-life story of Bob Crane, the star of ’60s sitcom Hogan’s Heroes, who was mysteriously murdered in 1979 and left behind a stash of self-produced pornography, often starring himself, that would rival the output of Buttman. The film stars Greg Kinnear as Crane and Dafoe as John Carpenter, Crane’s partner in kink who was ultimately suspected of (but never charged with) his murder. Schrader, who wrote the screenplays for Taxi Driver and The Last Temptation of Christ and engineered a critical comeback last year with the Nick Nolte drama Affliction, sat down to talk about the key to Crane’s downfall and what Charles Eames taught him about shooting sex.
How did you first become aware of Bob Crane’s secret life?
Well, the same way everyone else did. When he died, it was in the news. I can’t say I was particularly shocked, because I wasn’t a big Hogan’s Heroes fan, and I’d long gotten past that point in my life where I find people’s secret lives very shocking.
What interested you about the story?
When I read the script, which was a kind of biopic at the time, it reminded me of a film I like called Prick Up Your Ears. So I thought I could do an American, middle-aged, heterosexual TV-star version of Joe Orton and Kenneth. That got me interested. As I got deeper into it, I came to realize that Crane was similar, in a way, to other characters I had done. But he had one important difference: he was not introspective. I liked that idea. Usually, my clueless characters are definitely trying to figure it out, but Crane was clueless about being clueless. So I thought maybe I could make a story about a superficial guy that’s not a superficial film.
Did you want to portray this character’s sex life in a fundamentally different way than the through-a-lens-darkly approach of Light Sleeper and American Gigolo?
Let me make a different comparison: Take Wade Whitehouse in Affliction. He’s got a disconnection in his life, and he displaces it with this conspiracy theory. Bob Crane has a disconnection in his life, and he displaces it with home porn. I always think the subject is a disconnected character a guy who thinks he’s one thing while he’s doing another; the guy who acts in a counterproductive way. That Crane’s story ends in such violence, well, that’s the manifestation. It’s not the character. I don’t know how much this is really about sex; it’s about a guy who’s running from something and trying to fill up the dead air in his life.
Did you watch any of Crane’s productions?
Yeah, and you can watch them too. They’re on the web.
Yeah, his son Scotty put it up, which was actually very fortuitous. I was trying to figure out exactly what it was like, how simplistic it was, whether he just put the camera up there and did his business. While I was trying to figure it out, lo and behold, boom, there it all was.
Did you meet with Scotty Crane?
Yeah, but the whole relationship with Scotty was kind of tortured because of his own script. Originally, I was told to stay away from him, because he had claimed that I’d stolen his script. So I didn’t really meet him until I was shooting. Then it would be impossible for me to say I’d stolen his idea. So the original dispute between Scotty, his mother and the film was over power: who gets to control the Bob Crane movie? Out of that original grievance, I think other grievances have sprung. If you go to BobCrane.com, you can read about it.
Scotty Crane was interviewed for the recent New York Times Magazine piece about the film. It’s obvious that he views his father as a heroic sexual pioneer. But the film portrays Bob as haunted by compulsions.
Well, he was compulsive about showing his porn to people. But it was all within that kind of closed world. It’s one thing to invite Carroll O’Connor over to the basement and show him dirty movies. It’s another thing to sell it on the internet. I don’t know whether Bob would have agreed with that leap. You know, Crane had a big investment in hypocrisy. Finally it was his downfall. But I think the biggest change in his life was the degree of hypocrisy, not that somehow he became bad.
In the Times Magazine piece, Scotty contends that your film has ruined his father’s reputation.
That’s a very peculiar comment, “You’ve ruined my father’s reputation.” As what? You know, the world would not have seen this porn if Scotty had not given it to them. The Scottsdale police gave these tapes, after John Carpenter died, to Patty Crane. Patty gave them to her son; her son is selling them on the web. [pauses] I don’t get it; I’m sorry, I don’t.
Greg Kinnear: your idea?
When I signed on, he had been approached, and he asked me what I thought. I said I thought it was a terrific idea. I never looked for another actor and I never regretted that choice.
Why weren’t you more explicit with the sex?
Two reasons. The first was that I agreed to make an R-rated film. In fact, I thought all along that I was making an R-rated film, and I guess I’d been watching too much Sex and the City. I had to end up pixillating one image and blurring another just to get the R. So that’s one reason. The other is that I don’t think people go to multiplexes to see porn. If you want to see porn, I think people know exactly where to get it, and they know how much they want to see. They don’t want to go to the multiplex to see it with the neighbors. So even if I were allowed to be more explicit, I don’t think it would have been a very wise choice.
I read an overview of your career that claims your films are primarily concerned with dissecting modern masculinity.
Well, I have created a kind of an interesting collection of male protagonists, that’s true. I’ve done some women as well, but I guess the men seem more memorable.
Where does Bob Crane fit in among your other male protagonists?
Part of the fun of doing this was that Bob wasn’t a soul searcher. There were no dark nights of the soul in the Crane household. He was funny and he was likable. His kind of denial was much more superficial. Then the challenge became, “How do I arrange events in such a way that the audience can put it together, because the main character is not going to take you there.” Part of the challenge is doing something different than you’ve done before.
Did Boogie Nights‘ approach to the porn-related period piece affect your take on this material?
Oh, I love Boogie Nights. It was definitely fabulous. And no, it didn’t affect the approach, because Boogie Nights is a big canvas, a tapestry, with all these characters coming in and out. Auto Focus is essentially a character study of these two men different genres.
The ’60s art direction was impressive. You once worked with the designer Charles Eames, is that right?
Well, I knew Charles. My ex-wife worked for him. I was writing an article on Charles, I introduced them, and she ultimately became one of his designers. He played an important role in my life, because I’d been raised in a community that believed that ideas were the products of words, that if you had something to say, you used words to say it. Charles was the first person who made me understand that images were also ideas. It was a radical, eye-opening realization. This coffee cup: you can frame it, you can hang it on a wall. It’s a statement. I never really thought of images as having independent intellectual lives.
Ever applied the Eames aesthetic to shooting sex scenes?
Nope, no connection there at all.
I was trying to think of a through-line, and I couldn’t come up with one.
[laughs] Well, there isn’t always a through-line. n°
© 2002 Michael Martin and Nerve.com.