By Hillel Aron
By Joseph Tsidulko
By Patrick Range McDonald
By David Futch
By Hillel Aron
By Dennis Romero
By Jill Stewart
By Dennis Romero
“Who really gives a shit about Bob Crane or Hogan‘s Heroes?” he says as we head into the dubbing studio. “In themselves, they’re not interesting.” And indeed, for all Schrader‘s Freudian fascination with the dynamics of bad behavior, the movie deliberately makes no attempt at all to take us “inside” Crane or offer us a histrionic psychodrama about addiction. Quite the contrary -- which is why he cast Greg Kinnear.
“You know,” he says, “there were no dark nights of the soul for Bob Crane. It was very hard to go that deeply into him. It couldn’t be The Lost Weekend. It couldn‘t even be Leaving Las Vegas. You had a glib, kind of clueless guy, so you had to get a glib actor. If I had hired someone like John Cusack, it would’ve been a much different movie. It would‘ve been, Let’s go to this dark place together and have a dark night of the soul together. With Greg it‘s, Let’s pretend we‘re normal.”
Schrader’s detractors have long insisted that he talks a better film than he actually makes, and you can see what they mean. He‘s a riveting conversationalist who can happily hopscotch from the films of Yasujiro Ozu to rock & roll to the Belgian Congo under King Leopold. He is widely thought to have a big mouth, especially after a couple of drinks (“My, that’s good,” he says, sipping a glass of pouilly-fuisse), when his inner censors weaken and he grows expansive. Then, he‘ll start telling you how clever Steven Soderbergh’s people were to have passed off Traffic as an original film instead of a remake. He‘ll say that he’s looking forward to seeing About Schmidt but that he‘s worried about Jack Nicholson’s performance -- “He‘s such an old warhorse, it’s hard to imagine him doing something new.” Or he‘ll chide longtime colleague Robert De Niro for greedily frittering away his talent:
“He’s never done me any real favors. Bobby used to agonize over roles, and [superagent] Mike [Ovitz] said, ‘You know, if you’ll let me control your life, I will remove this from you.‘ And that’s where it all started. Bobby wasn‘t so discriminate anymore -- he did one film after another. And he still has not, to this day, ever cut his price for anybody for anything, and that price is now, what, 8, 9 million bucks? When your motivation as an actor is to get your food, your creative language is in trouble. Maybe if you’re Tom Hanks you can get your fee doing only what you a wish to do. But if you‘re De Niro, you get your fee by doing what they offer you.”
Just from listening to Schrader’s brutal, sometimes self-serving frankness about old friends, big stars and the film business, you can tell that he understands -- from very deep inside -- how seductive it is to break loose of all constraints and let ‘er rip. Even if the things you do come back and bite you.
“The greatest thing for an artistic enterprise,” he says, “is the exploration of self-destructive behavior. Bob Crane was a guy who wanted to be one thing, and his behavior was doing the opposite. When a guy’s living this contradiction large, like two bright headlights coming at you -- well, I‘m crazy about that character all day, every day.”
On a good day, Hollywood can be the most cheerful place on the planet (just ask Bob Crane). As we enter the dubbing studio just off Melrose, we’re greeted by the affable Brit who‘s making the DVD extras and by a beaming exec. They smile as Schrader jokes about the penny-pinching of Sony Pictures Classics (which is distributing Auto Focus) and laugh when he gets going on company co-president Tom Bernard: “He’s a hockey player, and he has a hockey player‘s take on interpersonal relations.”
I dutifully write all this down, but don’t doubt he‘s said worse to Bernard’s face.
Moments later, Schrader‘s whisked into the recording studio, the tape starts to roll, and he’s explaining the film. Again. Driving over, he told me he wanted to get in and out in an hour, but he quickly grasps it‘s hopeless. “At this rate,” he grumbles over the loudspeaker, “I’m talking through the whole fucking movie, right?”
As he discusses the parallels between Auto Focus and the film Prick Up Your Ears (another story of a celebrity killed by a friend), I find myself pondering the parallels between Crane‘s career and Schrader’s, even though he‘d earlier brushed off that comparison with a smile: “I wasn’t that kind of minor celebrity.”
Despite all their similarities -- both men enjoyed show-biz success, both had personal lives that spun out of control, and both faced the challenge of sustaining a career long after they‘d gone out of fashion -- Schrader had a point. For what makes Crane’s story distressing is his relentless descent into sexual scuzziness and, if I may be allowed an oxymoron, ever-deeper levels of shallowness. There‘s no redemption, no self-consciousness, no search for transcendence, just the endless quest for more pussy -- “A day without sex,” Crane liked to say, “is a day wasted.” In contrast, Schrader put himself right. He married actress Mary Beth Hurt, started a family and learned to shoot movies on budgets vastly lower than those he’d grown accustomed to in his glory days. He may not have conquered his obsessions, but neither did he let them devour him.