"Sexist jerks in beads and bell-bottoms"

"Auto Focus" director Paul Schrader on the banality of sexual obsession, Crane's kinky male pal and why he had to cut out a sex scene that would have flown on "The Sopranos."

By Uju Asika

Published October 18, 2002 8:00PM (EDT)

Bob Crane, the '60s sitcom star and subject of writer-director Paul Schrader's new movie, "Auto Focus," often boasted that he never had to pay for sex. But Crane's all-consuming appetite for flesh and his habit of documenting his exploits on camera would cost him his marriage, his career and, ultimately, his life. In 1978, the man best known for playing the unflappable leading character in "Hogan's Heroes" was found in a motel room, bludgeoned to death with one of his own tripods. (No one was ever convicted in the case.)

"Auto Focus" follows Crane's rise and demise, but it shows only a perfunctory interest in "Hogan's Heroes," the popular comedy about Allied troops cavorting under the noses of their hapless captors in a German POW camp (which was recently voted the fifth-worst show of all time by TV Guide). Instead, Schrader, who specializes in unflinching portraits of men whose lives are spiraling out of control, concentrates on what lies behind Crane's slick black hair and white-picket-fence grin. Specifically, he zooms in on the actor's dangerous liaison with John Carpenter, the video technician who was tried for Crane's murder. (Carpenter was acquitted, although Schrader implicates him almost to the point of slapping on handcuffs.)

Schrader sets up Crane (Greg Kinnear) and Carpenter (Willem Dafoe) as a sort of Lone Ranger and Tonto of do-it-yourself pornography. Socially worlds apart (Dafoe's ravaged features seem like a hall-of-mirrors distortion of Kinnear's clean-cut looks), they share a similar makeup: equal parts tech geek and super-freak. Crane's the type of guy whose play button is always switched on, yet who operates his emotions by remote control. He comes into focus only in front of a camera, while Carpenter comes fully alive only in the reflection of Crane's gaze.

Schrader chips away at the pair's shagadelic veneer to reveal desperately lonely men whose screwing around is clearly symptomatic of something lacking in their lives. By the movie's bloody climax -- showing brain tissue splattering on Schrader's camera lens like the obligatory "money" shot in a hardcore porn flick -- we are left as drained as Crane must have felt after yet another soulless one-night stand.

Yet "Auto Focus" is more than a chilling autopsy report or a cautionary tale about excess: It's a fascinating, tightly wound and occasionally hilarious take on small-time celebrity, which if not quite Schrader's best work, is easily one of his most accessible. Schrader uses Crane's example to explore larger themes: the evolution of male sexuality through the free-love era, the sacrifice of self on the altar of personality, and the devastating effect of long-term addiction. The film is held together by compelling central performances and a strong supporting cast that includes Rita Wilson, Maria Bello and Ron Leibman.

Dafoe, who has previously appeared in Schrader's films "Affliction" and "Light Sleeper," as well as Martin Scorsese's "Last Temptation of Christ" (which Schrader co-wrote), is so raw and needy as Carpenter that it's almost unbearable to watch him. His awkward body language and are-we-having-fun-yet grimace conveys his character's mix of vulnerability and latent rage. Kinnear, in a career-defining role, captures Crane's emotional tics. The vaguely puzzled expression Kinnear wears in all his films works here to underline Crane's lack of self-awareness.

Kinnear bears a passing physical resemblance to his character but actually looks more like Crane's youngest son, Scotty, who is generating controversy (and helping sell movie tickets) through a Web site denouncing Schrader's film as lies. On Scotty's site, you can read the "real truth," including "proof" -- in a pop-up window -- that his father had no need for penile implants, as "Auto Focus" claims. Further, Scotty maintains that there was no shame in Bob's game and that if daddy were alive today he'd probably be running his own pay-per-view porn site.

Indeed, in the aftermath of Rob Lowe, R. Kelly and the Pam and Tommy show, Crane's sexcapades are hardly headline news. What makes "Auto Focus" more than a big-screen peepshow is Schrader's obvious relish for his material (even the Crane family response entertains him) and his adept handling of familiar territory. Although religion in "Auto Focus" is restricted to a brief exchange between Crane and his priest (he's a lapsed Catholic, wouldn't you know), it's hard not to read a biblical subtext in this tale of temptation, transgression and reaping what you sow.

Schrader concedes that elements of his own deeply religious background creep into all his work. "You never outrun your childhood," says the director, although he spent much of his adulthood trying to do precisely that. Raised in Grand Rapids, Mich., in a strict Calvinist community where watching films was forbidden, Schrader rebelled in his late teens, giving up a future in the clergy for a lifetime devoted to the art of motion pictures. His first love was foreign cinema, and at 22, while studying for his master's at UCLA, he wrote what is still regarded as a seminal text on the transcendental style in film, focusing on the works of Robert Bresson, Carl Theodor Dreyer and Yasujiro Ozu.

Starting out as a critic (he was fired by one newspaper for panning "Easy Rider") Schrader switched to fiction with "The Yakuza," sharing a co-writing credit with his brother Leonard ("Kiss of the Spider Woman"). In the early 1970s, while living through a period of homelessness, drug abuse and suicidal despair, he wrote the script for "Taxi Driver" in 10 days. Although Scorsese, the film's director, described it as "too much Good Friday and not enough Easter Sunday," this blistering urban parable had a therapeutic effect on Schrader and sealed his reputation as one of Hollywood's most important screenwriters.

Up next is "Dino," the Dean Martin biopic that Schrader has scripted for Scorsese, and a prequel to "The Exorcist," which will be his first studio feature as a director since "Cat People" 20 years ago. "I'm pretty excited," he says. "It's nice to have a safety net, a big budget and toys at my disposal." It's also a fitting undertaking for a storyteller drawn again and again to parables of sin and salvation, of divinity in humanity, and the devil in the flesh.

When I caught up with Schrader a couple of weeks before the release of "Auto Focus," he was in an unexpectedly jocular mode, punctuating his comments with sly grins and wheezy chuckles. At 56, Schrader no longer writes under the influence and seems at peace with his demons. Yet, scrunched into an armchair and gripping a cup of strong black coffee, he still gives off some of the restless energy of a man taught early on in life that "this earth is not your home." I spoke with him about Crane and Carpenter's odd-couple relationship, sexuality and homoeroticism, his Calvinist background, and his filmmaking approach.

What attracted you to this project?

The first attraction was the relationship of Bob Crane and John Carpenter, which was something like I'd seen in Stephen Frears' movie "Prick Up Your Ears," about the playwright Joe Orton and his lover. I liked that dynamic. I thought it would be cool if I could do an American middle-aged heterosexual TV-star version of the relationship between Joe Orton and Kenneth Halliwell. That first drew me in. And as I got into it, I came to realize that Crane was not dissimilar from other characters I'd created. Like the "Taxi Driver" or Nick Nolte in "Affliction," there was a disconnect between who he thought he was and what he was doing.

Does "Auto Focus" continue what you call the "lonely man in his room" theme that began with Travis Bickle?

In some ways, but when I've dealt with characters like this before, these existential loners, they tend to be introspective. They don't get it, but they're trying to figure out how to get it. The interesting thing to me about Crane was that he was not only clueless, he was clueless about being clueless. And I think his greatest flaw wasn't sex, it was selfishness. Hence the title. I don't think he understood or appreciated how his actions affected other people. It was just sort of blithe egoism. So the challenge then was to try to make a film about a superficial character that wasn't a superficial film.

Crane's obsession with sex seems almost adolescent -- even the Crane and Carpenter affair: the combination of peer pressure and adulation.

Yeah, well, they needed each other. If Crane hadn't found Carpenter, he would have found another Carpenter and vice versa. It's hard to know who was the yin, who was the yang. Was John Carpenter the dark side of Bob Crane, or was Bob Crane the dark side of John Carpenter?

The casting is dead-on.

Greg and Willem are such different types. You know, it's like Oscar and Felix. I mean, what could be more fun? Episode 56: Oscar and Felix make a porn film. With the Pigeon sisters! [Laughs.]

It's interesting how the video camera is both witness and accomplice in their exploits.

Well, you know, there were all these elements going on -- exhibitionism and voyeurism, being seen and being watched, and cataloging it all. Bob Crane Jr. told me that he thought his father got more off on the video aspect than he did on the sexual aspect.

That came across especially with the scene when Crane and Carpenter are masturbating to their own video. Was that in the original script?

No. I love that scene. [Mimics Crane.] "What is it about women, Carp?" You know, two great philosophers here discussing women. "Can't live with 'em, can't live without 'em." "Truer words were never spoken." [Laughs.] I put that in, I thought it was just a hoot. I was biting my tongue behind the camera to keep from laughing. It was my sort of Norman Rockwell tableau of American male sexuality. You take these kind of Rat Pack guys who have to trade in their narrow ties for beads and bell bottoms in order to score chicks. But of course they remain the same sexist jerks they always were. It's a fascinating period in American male sexual identity.

Were you a fan of "Hogan's Heroes" growing up?

Not really. I was in college when it was on and it was the last thing I was interested in. With the various cultural upheavals and changes that were happening in the '60s, sitcoms just weren't where I was.

You didn't get to watch movies until you were 17 or so. What exactly is the Calvinist objection to cinema?

It happened during the '20s, during the Jazz Age. Our church had a synodical decree outlawing what they called the worldly amusements: cinema attendance, dancing, drinking, card playing, smoking and the like. It wasn't just one individual film either, because the movie industry was seen as corrupt; so it was all forbidden. That was just church edict. It's gone now, that whole world is gone now, but that's the way it was when I was growing up.

Are there advantages to being a late bloomer?

Oh, yeah. God, yes. Many advantages. I went to UCLA as a grad student and ran into all these kids who were trying to figure out who they were. I knew exactly who I was and I knew where I was headed. Also it was great growing up with such a strong ethical system and a kind of moral universe. That kind of Calvinism was very intellectual; it was very pro-educational and pro-thought. You know, they almost believed that you could think your way into heaven. When I look at my kids raised on MTV and video games, I wonder who had the better upbringing.

In your book on "Transcendental Cinema" you quoted the Dutch theologian who said, "Art and religion are parallel lines, intersecting at infinity and meeting in God." Do you find a spiritual outlet in film?

Well, of all the arts, I think film is one of the most difficult to be used in a spiritual manner because it is so kinetic, so visceral. If you're going to do something spiritual, it usually involves slowing life down, and it's kind of hard to slow something down that moves at 24 frames per second.

In "Auto Focus," the closest Crane seems to come to an epiphany is when he's with his son, talking about the color orange.

Bobby Crane Jr. is the one who told me about that orange conversation. He overheard that from his father, and I thought, Wow, that's pretty cool. So I put it in. Even though I'm not quite sure what it means. Something about hidden meanings in things.

Bobby Crane Jr. was a consultant on this film (and appears in a cameo). But you've had ongoing trouble with Scotty Crane.

The problem with Scotty began long before the film, in that he and his mother had a competing script, called "Take Off Your Clothes and Smile," which they couldn't get made. And I was told not to deal with them because they were litigious and they would claim that I stole their script. They felt they should have control over any film made about Bob Crane. So the first grievance was one of control, and out of that a number of other grievances have come over the years. And if you go to Scotty's Web site, he'll be more than happy to tell you about them. [Laughs.]

When you're focusing on a real-life subject, how do you handle these types of concerns without compromising your story?

Well, you do have two obligations. You have an obligation to history and you have an obligation to drama, and you've got to find a way to serve both masters. If you have to cheat history to tell a story, you shouldn't make that movie. And if you have to tell a boring story to be true to history, you shouldn't make that movie. So when you achieve a situation where both drama and history are being served, the line between fact and fiction then blurs because your protagonist is a factual character who has the power of fiction.

I went into this film expecting a lot of debauchery, but it wasn't as bad as I anticipated.

Well, I'd agreed to do an R film. I don't think audiences want to see porn in the multiplex. When they want to see porn, they know what they want to see and they know where to get it. They don't want to go to the multiplex and see it with their neighbors. So I think, even if I had had the freedom to be more explicit, I would have still made the same choices.

But there was a groan in the preview audience, when I saw the film, during a scene when one of the home porn shots gets blocked out.

I sort of made a mistake. I'd been watching too much HBO. [Laughs.] I thought I was making an R movie, but apparently the stuff on HBO like "Sex and the City" and "Six Feet Under" wouldn't get an R in the theater. Theatrical is more conservative than cable. So then I had to decide whether to cut the shot out or to obscure the offending area. I decided to pixelate it for two reasons. One was that it would tell the audience this was hardcore footage and not cheesecake. Secondly, down the road it would be changed. In Europe, it wouldn't be there, and on DVD it wouldn't be there. But if I cut it out, it would always be gone.

Can you talk a little about the camera and lighting tricks you use to affect the film's mood?

The idea was to go from clean lines to clutter. We degraded the image and used different cameras, from seamless dolly moves to Steadicam and finally to handheld. It's not a genius idea, but the trick was to pull it off before the audience notices they're watching a different movie from the one they were watching an hour ago.

Crane's nightmare sequence on the set of "Hogan's Heroes" marks a dramatic turning point. Hallucinatory scenes are one of your hallmarks.

Actually, that was in the original script. It was the stroke of genius in Michael Gerbosi's script. The idea that you have a shallow character, so if he's going to have a personal crisis, you can't make it too agonizing. I guess it has to be like a fantasy sequence on the show.

Your films are full of ghosts, although mostly metaphorical. In "Auto Focus," you actually have the dead man talking.

Yeah, I decided to have him narrate the movie. It allows you to move through time and capitalize things. It's also kind of nice to hear his chipper voice trying to explain who he is. At the end, there's a curiosity as to what happened after his death. So you can either do a crawl or he can come back on and explain it himself. Some people said to me, "You need to rewrite that ending to give it a little more perspective." And I said, "Why?" I mean the guy was clueless his whole life, and just because he's dead doesn't mean he gets it. He still doesn't get it.

Don't you think that level of ironic detachment can distance the audience?

No, I think it's kind of cool. I mean, he's a fascinating guy. Slip into his loafers, swing in his shorts, and kind of walk down the road with him. I think the idea of likeability is often overvalued in terms of movie characters. I think what's really important is that a character be fascinating and compulsively watchable.

At the same time, Crane is strangely likeable throughout.

That's the beauty of casting Greg.

You mentioned this is a heterosexual version of "Prick Up Your Ears." But do you think it's possible to have same-sex characters so tangled up with each other without a homoerotic subtext?

No, no. There's a quote by Susanna Moore, who wrote a book called "In the Cut" and "Sleeping Beauties." Quite a good novelist. She's a friend of mine, and after she saw the film she said to me, "You know, whenever there's more than one penis in the room, any sexual act is a homosexual act." It's kind of a feminist reading, but I think it's sort of true.

It reminded me of "The Annabel Chong Story," about the so-called world's biggest gang-bang. I read an interview in which Chong talked about how the majority of the men who turned up just came to watch the other men and get off on it.

Yeah, I know, I know. And so when you have a situation when these two guys are doing this off and on for 10 or 12 years, there's something going on. So Greg said to me, "I don't think Bob was homosexual." And I said, "I don't think he was, either. I think he would have been very offended." On the other hand. they're filming each other, looking at each other. Close-ups of Bob's dick. And Carpenter filming it. And I say, "You know it's not homosexual, Greg, but you tell me, what is it?" [Laughs.]

I don't think that people are either/or anyway. I think that everybody situates themselves on a spectrum of sexuality at different points in their lives. There are heterosexual ramifications of homosexual actions, and vice versa. Life is full of that, people doing heterosexual things for homosexual reasons. So I think it's kind of a simplistic notion that it's possible to be either/or.

The final break-up conversation, when Carpenter's grabbing his crotch and crying, I guess that was making the subtext more explicit.

Well, it wasn't really meant that way. It meant, you know, great pain. It's like pinching yourself. When you're in really emotional pain and you just pinch yourself? That's what he's doing. He's just pinching himself to suppress his agony.

I thought that it was because his identity and sexuality are so wrapped up in Crane.

I think so. But I had one person, only one, who told me he thought that John was getting off on it, and I'm like, what do you mean getting off? The guy is suffering, he's writhing like a little bug on the end of a skewer! It's the most painful conversation anybody ever has in their life, when somebody tells you goodbye over the phone.

Do you think Carpenter killed Crane?

Well, if I were on the jury I would probably have had to acquit him, because the evidence got so screwed up. But it's the best fit, especially in terms of drama.

Uju Asika


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