Auto Focus - Paul Schrader Q&A

Compiled by Jack Foley

An interview with Paul Schrader, director of Auto Focus, who has also worked on films such as Taxi Driver, Raging Bull and Afflication...

Q. You've worked on a lot of films about real life characters - Patty Hearst, Mishima, Jake LaMotta... What made you want to tell the story of Bob Crane?
A. One reason is that it chronicles the evolving notion of American male sexual identity in the critical years from '65 to '78. The second is that it is about a male folie a deux - two men get involved in conduct that probably neither would have done alone. And the conduct escalates.
The third thing was the corrosive effect of celebrity, even minor celebrity, on both the fan and the celebrity himself. Bob was enabled and allowed to pursue this kind of destructive behaviour because he was a minor TV star. It's part of how we feed celebrities and what we expect of them. We tell them that their hijinks are harmless. Implicit is - keep going. It is the interesting role celebrities play in this culture.
The fourth thing that interested me was the desensitizing effect of an addiction, in this case sexual addiction. Crane becomes progressively clueless about how he hurts people, how selfish he is.
If this is a morality tale - and I am not sure that it is - but if it is; the moral of it isn't: 'Don't have sex'. The moral is: 'Don't be selfish'. Bob's crime wasn't that he slept around a lot, it's that he was oblivious to how his behaviour affected others.

Q. Do you think that Crane has any connection to other characters in your movies?
A. He is not self-aware. He doesn't know what he is doing, so in that way, he is a little bit like Travis Bickle, the taxi driver. He's a little bit like Nick Nolte in Affliction. He can't see the pattern that's all around him. Everybody around him sees the pattern - but he doesn't. It is always interesting to take a character who is essentially clueless about his life and make him the centre of a drama, taking his point of view. The viewer is constantly thrown onto the horns of this dilemma, which is: who's perceiving this situation correctly, my protagonist or the other people? Because, normally, you assume that the protagonist knows what he is doing.

Q. I was also wondering whether you're intention was to actually tell Crane's story or create a somewhat fictional character, based on Crane. Specifically, I am reacting to the focus in the movie on Crane and religion, which seems more explicit in the film - and more like your other films - than articles and books I have read about Crane...

A. The biggest license was actually the relationship with Carpenter. Carpenter was a fascinating and ultimately very important figure in his life. But, on a day-to-day basis, he was relatively minor. By focusing on his relationship with Carpenter, you distort the overall picture of his life to a degree. The truth, for me, is that Carpenter was probably the most interesting thing about Crane's life. Much more interesting than Hogan's Heroes. You know, who cares about a movie about the star of Hogan's Heroes?
Carpenter and porn gave Crane's life a larger dimension. He became a symbol, his life became totemic. He became a figure in a larger drama, even if he wasn't aware what an interesting drama it was.
As far as the Catholicism goes, there is a school of thought that says, 'once a Catholic, always a Catholic'. His mother went to Mass, two, three times a week until the day she died and she lived down the block. He was not a very religious guy. He went to church when he was young, and as he became successful, it became less and less important in his life. It's important to know that he began as a young man who played by those rules. Catholics who haven't gone through the door of a church for 30 years are still molded by that upbringing.

Q. The movie is based on the book, The Murder of Bob Crane, by Robert Graysmith. Did you do additional research?
A. Yes, the Graysmith book is primarily interested in the murder and what happened afterwards. I cover nothing that happened afterward, so that I had to do my own research about his life before: and speaking with Bob Crane, Jr, and Mark Dawson, Richard's son and Carpenter's friend, and Diana Carpenter, his widow. I ultimately spoke with Scotty Crane, people who were involved in Crane's showbusiness life, people who knew him in Hollywood at that time.

Q. The first person that Crane interviews on his radio show in the film is a masked man who is a celebrity that nobody knows. Is the intention of the film to take the mask off Bob Crane?
A. Well, a little bit of that, but it was also that the masked man's partner is an Indian.

Q. Crane says the most important thing is 'likeability'. Yet, he really only had one friend...
A. When he says that Eddie Cantor said, 'the most important thing is likeability', he's not talking about being likeable to your friends. He's talking about being likeable to the public. And Bob was likeable to the public. He's one of those guys that you constantly forgive. It wasn't that people would actually like him. In fact, there were very few people who liked him. It's just that he got away with it because he was so 'likeable'.

Q. What did you mean by the title?

A. Self-absorbed. The auto focus device was not yet invented by the time he died. So it doesn't refer to the camera device, although there is that pun in there. But it simply means: Auto (meaning 'self') Focus. Self focus. The title really does speak to the theme, which is selfishness. The title is not 'Sex Addict', it is 'Auto Focus'.

Q. There's a very interesting conversation that Crane has with his son towards the end about the word 'orange'.
A. That came from Bob Jr, who overheard his father having that conversation with another man late into his life, when he didn't quite understand what had happened. But Bob Jr took it to mean that his father was at a point where he was trying to figure out some real basic sorts of things. That things had hidden meanings. So I used it there.

Q. If Crane were alive today, do you think he would have suffered the same kind of career downfall? I think people are now more forgiving about this kind of thing...

A. Thousands of people have nude websites. Home pornography is no longer considered to be outre.

Q. Even celebrity home pornography?
A. Well, you have the case of Pamela Anderson. They stole her home video and put it on the web. And anyone who wants to can see it.

Q. Yet she still has a popular TV show and is on the cover of magazines...
A. Exactly. Times have certainly changed.

Interview taken from the Auto Focus production notes)

RELATED STORIES: Click here for our review of the film...
Click here for the US reaction to the movie...