An interview with Paul Schrader

By Gerald Peary

Gerald Peary is a film critic for The Boston Phoenix, specializing in his weekly column, "Film Culture," on foreign, independent, revival, and documentary works. A member of the National Society of Film Critics, he has eight film books, the latest of which is John Ford: Interviews from the University Press of Mississippi.

"Auto Focus was made inexpensively, for 7 1/2 million dollars in 33 days of shooting, and it only had one buyer, Sony Classics" Paul Schrader explained of his 70s-set tale of the sordid life and killing of actor Bob Crane, when I interviewed him in September at the Toronto International Film Festival. "That allowed me to do an open-ended film, in which the dots are not all connected."

What's unusual is that Schrader, 56, the famed screenwriter of Taxi Driver and Raging Bull, etc., was working in this case from someone else's script, that of Michael Gerbosi, who had adapted Robert Graysmith's lumbering true-crime book, The Murder of Bob Crane. "The script Gerbosi gave me was a conventional bio pic- -Crane did this, Crane did that-and it had to be considerably rewritten by me." To begin, Schrader was far more interested in Crane's shadow (and probably murderer) John Carpenter than he was in Crane, the bland ex-TV star of Hogan's Heroes. "Carpenter was not focused on enough. I put in 7 or eight Carpenter scenes where there had been three, emphasizing John while getting rid of the Hogan crap. Go with the meat, the connective tissue.

"There's real danger in the bio genre. Some people lives are just boring, and you always need to serve two masters, history and drama. If you can't serve both with a film, don't do it. I had to find a tone that allows you to cruise along with Bob, be in his shorts. Is he tortured? You won't buy that. Is he a good guy? You won't buy that. I don't think there was much good in Bob, it was always a sham. When younger, he lived a life of forced hypocrisy. His first marriage was built on hypocrisy. When culture started shifting in the 70s, he was able to divest himself of all
of that."

Schrader turned up his nose when I mentioned Hogan's Heroes. "I was in college at the time it was on, and the TV program struck me as somewhere between unfunny and offensive, trivializing the Nazis. For research, I watched four or five episodes. Greg watched more! Greg Kinnear is much younger than me, and liked the show. When I got the script, Greg was recommended to me to play Crane. I never looked elsewhere. He's very good at that light comedy. I'm not very good at it, but I know how to get an actor to the deep end of the pool."
Is Auto Focus intended as a Faust story, with Carpenter as a Mephistopholean tempter? "No! Was John Carpenter the dark side of Bob Crane? I'm not sure. Crane might be the dark side of Carpenter. I don't think one was leading the other. Was Carpenter Crane's killer? He's the best fit. The police thought he was the guy. He fits historically. He fits dramatically. But in my movie, it's not Willem Dafoe walking into the room to do the murder. It's someone purposefully anonymous, in Sears pants.

My next movie? The George Reeves story. After that, Robert Blake."

Schrader is joking. His real next project: "My first studio film in twenty years,a prequel to The Exorcist. When John Frankenheimer died, it got offered to me, thanks to the intervention of my agent. It can't be a Christmas release, so it's scheduled for next November. They're still dicking around finding a title."

(Author's note: the Stellan Skarsgard picture has been named since The Exorcist: the Beginning)


                                                                 © FILM JOURNAL 2002