“I guess the message is, the unexamined life can get you in a lot of trouble. If you don’t have any perspective on who you are and the effects of your behavior, watch out.” That’s the way writer-director Paul Schrader, whose dark, often disturbing scripts and films have been causing controversy and deep discussion ever since “Taxi Driver” in 1976, summed up his newest work “Auto Focus” during a recent visit to Dallas. He was joined in the interview by Greg Kinnear, who appears in the picture as Bob Crane, the chipper star of TV’s “Hogan’s Heroes” who had a distinctly dark side–though supposedly a happily married man, he used his celebrity to arrange an endless string of one-night stands with women, and videotaped his encounters with the help of an equally lascivious buddy named James Carpenter (played by Schrader favorite Willem Dafoe). After Crane’s television popularity ebbed and his career collapsed, he was murdered in an Arizona motel in 1978–a still-unsolved crime, though Carpenter was tried and acquitted of it much later and is still thought by many to have been the killer.
“It’s a character study,” Schrader explained, describing Crane as “not suicidal, but self- destructive. He spent twenty-two years creating something from virtually nothing. And then he reaches a point in his life where things aren’t going too well and his behavior starts to ruin or destroy everything he has accomplished. And he can’t stop. I don’t think you’d need a better definition of addiction than that.” But, he added, what affected the actor was more than just addiction. “Narcissism comes into it,” he opined. “People did say about Bob that the excitement of filming was equal to the excitement of sex. It’s not quite as simple as [his] being a sex addict.”
Schrader distinguished between what he called “good Bob” and “bad Bob” in describing how the picture was eventually edited down to its final length. “The first cut was about fifteen minutes longer,” he recalled. “Besides the normal process of tightening, most of the material that came out of the film came out of the first half. You know, good Bob just wasn’t as interesting as bad Bob. That sort of indicates where my interest [in the story] lay.”
Kinnear took up the distinction in the sides of the Crane character when asked how he prepared for the role. “I couldn’t prepare for the one without the other, because he was a combination of all these things at the end of the day,” he said. “Personality traits in good Bob were present in bad Bob. When he’s towards the latter part of the movie and going through some pretty dark places, he’s still painfully unaware of what’s going on–there’s an obliviousness about the damage that he’s doing to the people around him…. There are these little incremental slips that keep pushing him…little incremental changes in his behavior and in the things that go on around him, and suddenly he finds himself in the trouble that he is.” He added: “Where the sex addiction ends and his using his celebrity to procure women begins is a very blurry line.” Schrader emphasized the “delightful irony” of the character: “This guy prides himself in creating the persona of the guy who’s in on the joke, the hip guy…. Well, the joke finally becomes his life, and he’s the one who doesn’t get it.”
Schrader was also fascinated by the Crane-Carpenter relationship. “One of the things that drew me into [the project] was the similarity of the Crane-Carpenter dynamic to the one in ‘Prick Up Your Ears,’ the Joe Orton-Kenneth [Halliwell] relationship, which was obviously a gay relationship that ended in murder. That dynamic was always under the surface.” Kinnear added: “I think that he did see himself as the all-American heterosexual male…. But there was this kind of co-dependency where they were very needy of each other, and did have this odd friendship. They were each leading the other down this horribly wrong path.”
“Auto Focus” portrays the transition from “good Bob” to “bad Bob” not only in terms of its story arc, but in more subtle cinematic ways, too. The process began when the production designer suggested early in the planning that as the narrative progressed, the sets should get more and more cluttered. “That idea spread through the whole concept of the film,” Schrader said. “In the color palette, the hair and makeup and wardrobe, the change in film stock and camera style, the music, and in some ways even the writing–the writing is much more disconnected at the end than it is at the beginning, and therefore if the writing is more disconnected, the performance gets more disconnected [too]…. The goal was, just like an addict wakes up one day and realizes he’s living a different life–‘What happened to my old life, where did it go, when did it change?’–in a viewer [there’s] ‘Wait a second, this is not the movie I was watching an hour ago–where did that movie go? When did it become this movie?’ That’s [the effect] we were after. It was a fairly simplistic notion in the beginning, but in the execution I think it became more sophisticated.”
Though “Auto Focus” is a serious work, both Kinnear and Schrader could joke in talking about it. When asked how he prepared for his role, Kinnear recalled talking about the late actor with Crane’s oldest son (who appears in the film as an interviewer), and added: “And I watched far too many episodes of ‘Hogan’s Heroes,’ and yes, I did watch ‘Superdad’ [Crane’s 1974 Disney comedy, a notorious bomb]–lest you think I didn’t do my damn research!” And in response to a query about whether he and Kinnear would collaborate again, Schrader said, with a straight face, “Yeah, we’re gonna do the Superman story–the George Reeves story.” After a pause, he added: “And then we’re gonna do the Robert Blake story.”
General laughter ensued.