Paul Schrader on Bob Crane and Auto Focus
30 years after the shocking death of Hogan's Heroes star, director Paul Schrader looks back on the event with Kevin Jackson.
Paul Schrader's Auto Focus (released in 2002, written for the screen by Michael Gerbosi based on Robert Graysmith's book The Murder of Bob Crane) is a bold, darkly humorous but finally saddening take on the life and death of Crane, the TV sitcom star whose relish of the sexual freedoms of the 1960s and 70s led him into a strange partnership with video technician John Carpenter, and from there to the spiraling of an obsession that would destroy him. In this extract from Faber and Faber's definitive interview book Schrader on Schrader (first published in 1990, revised in 2004), editor/interviewer Kevin Jackson talks to Schrader about his film and its depiction of Crane.
KEVIN JACKSON: One of the most striking things about Auto Focus — a bio-pic about a minor actor called Bob Crane, who's remembered, if at all, as the lead in the sitcom Hogan's Heroes — is that it's about the sort of unreflective, shallow character who, if you met him in real life, would seem silly and boring. And yet watching him on screen is morbidly fascinating. How do you go about the process of making a schmuck interesting?
PAUL SCHRADER: Bob Crane had this very fundamental disconnectedness, which is that he saw himself as a very likeable, normal, one-woman, family kind of guy, but behaved in another fashion. The challenge in making the film is that, when I've done these characters before, they usually have some degree of introspection and a clouded sense of self-awareness, in that they're trying to figure out why it doesn't work, why they can't get what they want, why they can't be what they think they are. In Auto Focus I wanted to do a similar study about a superficial man, who was absolutely clueless from start to finish: but how do you do a film about a superficial man without making a superficial film? So the whole concept of the era and the times comes into play a little more prominently than it would in another character study, because we have to see him in the prism of that environment.
PS: It ran in the late sixties, something like 1965 to 1971, and of course I was in college at that time and involved in the whole counter-culture thing. So I regarded the show as somewhere between offensive and unfunny, and I had no particular fond or nostalgic memories of it.
KJ: You do have a couple of scenes which acknowledge that some people, especially those who'd heard the rumour that it was set in a concentration camp rather than a POW camp, were very strongly offended by the idea of a show about 'funny Nazis'.
PS: That was an element that was much more played up in the original script. One of the things that I regret about the film, although it probably would have hurt its commercial life, was that, in the script I was given, there was a really strong narrative curve which basically said: Hollywood makes Good Bob go Bad. I don't believe Hollywood makes anyone go bad. I think bad people come to Hollywood in order to be bad. And I don't think people change that much, anyway. I think Crane was the same creepy guy at the beginning as he was at the end, and that the only thing that really changed in his life was the level of hypocrisy. When he was in TV, he really played the role of the hypocrite to the hilt, doing all sorts of Photoplay spreads of the all-American dad, and all that, and of course on Hogan's Heroes he had minders from CBS who made sure that his private life was kept private. Greg [Kinnear, playing Crane] and I, when we were doing publicity, ran into an actress from the show, Shirley Jones, and Greg asked 'Did you know what Crane's private life was really like?' And she said, 'Well, you know, you heard stories, but nobody really liked to talk about it back then.' It was like with Jack Kennedy - there were stories, but no one talked about it. Today, of course, it's just the opposite. People make up the stories. But the level of hypocrisy fell when the show ended, Crane's marriage ended, and the sexual revolution kicked in.
As I say, the original script had that whole element of 'he was a good guy who went bad'. Unfortunately, Greg had completely bought into that, and that was one of his motivations for playing the role, that was his character arc. And I toned it down as much as I could, but I still find that he's too good at the beginning. I just don't believe that he was ever like that.
KJ: But what's curious, and gives the performance a richness, is that Kinnear himself does have a fairly likeable on-screen quality.
PS: Oh, but Crane himself was likeable. That's what he was. I mean, he was a hip, flip, disc jockey, ironic, all that. He could be really charming, and obviously that's how, with a mixture of that charm and fame, he procured a whole cavalcade of women.
KJ: Presumably you must have thought quite a bit about what makes a man be driven to want so much sex of a quasi-onanistic kind?
PS: Any addiction is a displacement of some sort. Obviously, he's running from something. After researching into his background, I sort of figured out what it was, which is not really in the movie — there's only one brief reference to it. He had an older brother named Albert, same name as his father, who was a real war hero. His ship was hit and he got burned, and all his life after that, Bob's older brother was a drunk and a layabout, but Bob's father still respected the older brother more. And Bob, who was the good son, who was the successful son, I don't think he ever felt he had respect from his father. I had a scene earlier in the film with him and his wife Anne where he refers to his brother being a drunk and how he has to help him out, but I cut that out because Good Bob was just so boring…
KJ: It's curious that a film which ends in murder and is about degradation and downfall and loss is pretty light-hearted for much of the time, and fun to watch.
PS: Oh yeah. I thought it was a hoot. There were a number of days when I was standing behind the camera biting my lips so I wouldn't start laughing. When the two of them, Crane and Carpenter are sitting there jerking off together, and complaining: 'What is it about women? Can't live with them, can't live without them…' Both banal guys, talking American man-talk…
KJ: There are a lot of jokes in the film about the ways in which Crane and Carpenter are more erotically aroused by technological reproductions of sex than by sex itself. And if this were the 1970s, I'd probably have spent the whole interview asking you about that alone.
PS: In Crane's case, it wasn't just Don Juanism, womanising — part of the addiction had to do with the cataloguing and the technology. As a young father, he would keep records of the scores of all the competitive games his children had played — he was a compulsive record-keeper. His sons told me that he felt that the collecting of sex was as much a turn-on as the sex itself. One interviewer said to me after the movie was released, 'The truest thing about your movie is that, for men, it's not the women, it's the gadgets.' That goes along with the whole Playboy mentality.