by: Christian Niedan
Part two of an eight part series, recounting and expanding upon an array of interviews with an assemblage of Hollywood’s greatest storytellers and cult figures. The series continues with actor, producer and screenwriter Hampton Fancher…
In order to truly appreciate the wondrous talents of Hampton Fancher, you must have a face-to-face conversation with him. And in this conversation, one should never expect Fancher to say the expected, or count on short succinct answers to questions. Rather, know that he will frequently readjust his seat, randomly gesticulate, pace the room, and show you a photograph or a book or a video to demonstrate the point he’s trying to get at. This is just how he is wired. To paraphrase the replicant Roy Batty in Blade Runner: ‘Fancher is not a computer. He’s physical.’ He is also preternaturally articulate. He loves words. Lots of words. So, be sure to clear at least an hour with the man, so he can properly pursue all of the tangents that his mind will inevitably swerve his words towards during your conversation. I have enjoyed two multi-hour conversations with Fancher in the quiet sanctuary of his Brooklyn Heights apartment, a place festooned with books, photos, and artwork. The apartment serves as a long term retreat from Fancher’s hometown spiritual center of Los Angeles. It is that faraway cinematic city that has marked Fancher’s life and defined his career — no more so than the massively influential film that he will forever be most associated with: Blade Runner.
In 2011, I sat down with Fancher for an interview on the topic of his Los Angeles screen career for my film-based website, Camera In The Sun. Among the many topics we covered during that interview were: growing up a mixed race child (Mexican/Yaqui and Anglo) in Boyle Heights, Los Angeles, boarding a freighter to Spain at fifteen to study Flamenco dancing (while renaming himself “Mario Montejo”), his two decades of mostly-TV acting roles, adapting and directing the 1999 thriller starring Owen Wilson The Minus Man, and helping to shepherd Blade Runner from book to screen. In 1977, Fancher used five thousand dollars to option Philip K. Dick’s book, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, then served as the film’s original screenwriter, before ceding that role to David Peoples (while retaining an executive producer credit). Specifically, we discussed an excised portion of Fancher’s original Blade Runner script, known as “The Soup Scene.” As it happened, Fancher had repurposed that scene into one of twelve short stories, 2012’s The Shape of the Final Dog — with details from that story later reappearing in the opening scene of 2017’s Blade Runner: 2049, crafted from a screenplay co-written by Fancher and Michael Green.
In early 2017 (ahead of Blade Runner: 2049’s autumn release, as well as a summer-released documentary about Fancher’s life, titled Escapes), I made a second visit to Fancher’s apartment to record a conversation for my interview show on Radio Free Brooklyn, Talking Paper. This time around, I focused on Fancher’s literary interests, with him even going so far as to read a selection of his own poetry and short stories. As it turns out, Francher’s interest in those formats harkens back to to his East L.A. childhood, as he recounted:
Hampton Fancher: “There was a book that my parents had, tissue thin paper, and it was an old book. I liked the pages. And I didn’t have any restrictions as a kid. I could fuck around with stuff. I broke something, nobody said, ‘Oh, what have you done!’ I was pretty freewheeling in the house. And I used to draw with crayons, like Japanese zeroes being shot down by American Mustang planes, or whatever. You know, bad seven year old stuff. I loved that book to do that in. But it was a little book of poetry. It turned out to be the Oxford Dictionary of English Verse – a 1905 publication of it that my father had, or something. So I knew that book, and there was this poem, little tiny poem… And I was dyslexic, had a hard time reading. But this little paragraph, I used to read it, and I liked it. And it was about a little black boy. And something about that, I only knew one black kid in grammar school, and I guess that got my attention, so I used to like reading that poem. And then, when I tried to be a poet myself, as a teenager, I came across that poem somewhere, and it was Blake. It was William Blake. And it was like, ‘Fuck, I was in good company right off the bat!’ It touched me, and probably geared up my life to go in a certain direction, I think.”
By 1977, Fancher figured that direction was becoming a film producer, and he went on to option works of an assortment of writers whose words touched him. Beyond simply optioning-then-adapting Dick’s book for Blade Runner, Fancher also injected into the film the deep environmental concerns found in another book he admired: The Monkey Wrench Gang by Edward Abbey. He expressed those concerns via the ravaged landscape and ecology in both Blade Runner films. In ’77, Fancher also optioned works by William S. Burroughs and Charles Bukowski. This was a decade before Bar Fly and Naked Lunch made it to the big screen, making the writers, then-relative unknowns, popular to a broad film audience. Fancher began by describing the personal influence of the Burroughs catalog:
Hampton Fancher: “I like most of it. I think it’s had a big influence on me, everything that I’ve read of his. I guess I’ve read everything. Of course, Naked Lunch. Wild Boys is a big one for me. There’s characters in that… I don’t know that they inform me so much as they encourage me, because I think I have those same characters in my head. I just loved him. I loved his writing. It’s been an influence on me. A liminal influence, too. I mean, I think it’s more of an influence than I know. I don’t know that it’s good. There’s no fruition to it, except in my own soul. It’s not like I made any headway or money-way or anything because of it. I don’t think.”
With regard to Bukowski, Fancher thought that less was more — preferring the impact of the author’s short story works:
Hampton Fancher: “Bukowski and poetry is the same thing with the short stories, or his so-called novels. But the short stories do it, and the poetry usually does it. But the short stories always do it. He’ll be talking about jacking off in a garage, or whatever, and eating a can of tuna, and whatever the little four or five pager is, and then the last line, he will slice your head off with a philosophical triumph that you didn’t expect from nowhere, and neither did he, I don’t think. But he always does it. It’s just like, “Whoa!” He just wraps it up. I mean, I enjoyed reading every line, but then at the end, he’s got a way of tying a cosmological ontological bow on that box that you can tell he didn’t expect as well. I mean, it’s subtle. I’m exaggerating maybe. Exaggerating the subtlety? And so, that’s one thing. But it’s the persona. It’s the voice. And there’s a character that comes through, besides whatever character he’s writing about, which is always him. I haven’t read him in years, but I loved him. And I don’t think he’s a major writer. I don’t think he’s a influence on other writers, necessarily. Like, whereas, Burroughs I think is.”
Continue with Part 3— The Collector!