INTERVIEW with "Blade Runner" Screenwriter Hampton Fancher
Updated: Jul 26, 2019
by Dianne Bennett
Hampton Fancher, the principal writer of just-released “Blade Runner 2049” and its iconic 1982 predecessor “Blade Runner,” has led a life that could be the stuff of fiction. His full name — Hampton Lansden Fancher III — hints of illusion. That name, along with his looks — handsome, tall, dark and distinctive — opened doors for him.
Fancher was born in East Los Angeles in 1938 to a half-Mexican, half-Danish mother and an American physician father. He was in and out of school, a truant, and also in and out of juvenile detention. He quit school in his early teens to become a Flamenco dancer. By 15 he was dancing in Spain, renaming himself Mario Montejo. Before he was 20 he was married. “She was older and turned me on to a lot of things,” he says. Those “things” included Henry Miller.
Though not formally educated, the young Fancher began reading widely, starting with a 1905 edition of “The Oxford Book of English Verse” he found in his parents’ house (“I loved the cover, the paper it was printed on”). Not knowing how to borrow a book, he stole Ernest Hemingway’s “Death in the Afternoon” from the public library by dropping it out of a bathroom window. He saw three movies a week.
Fancher fell into the acting business when someone saw him on the street and said, “Hey ‘Wolfboy,’ want to be in a movie?” That first movie — “The Brain Eaters” (1958) — led to a 20-year acting career, mostly as sidekick, an enemy, or a character, but never the male lead. He was in numerous films, including “Rome Adventure,” with Troy Donahue, shot on location in 1962, and TV series, such as “Gunsmoke.” His acting career lasted until the late 1970s.
In 2012, he published “The Shape of the Final Dog and Other Stories,” his first foray into writing aside from screenwriting. In a story titled “The Climacteric of Zachary Ray,” Fancher could be describing himself. He describes fictional character Ray as being “famous for playing conniving characters, half craven, half courageous, and never showing their hands.” But Ray then hits a wall. “A slump is what he called it, and it spread. For about twelve years running, he was among the best of the bad guys, but then they had seen enough.”
At the time Fancher’s stories were published, he hadn’t acted since 1978 and hadn’t written a screenplay until “Blade Runner” in 1982. But he’d been dogged in obtaining the rights to “Blade Runner.” Early on he had identified William Burroughs, Philip K. Dick, and Charles Bukowski as potential sources for screenplays, and he maneuvered his way into all their homes. In a first visit to the home of sci-fi writer Dick, he asked, even begged, for the rights to Dick’s book, “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?” Three years later he was instrumental in getting the rights by sending his persuasive friend Brian Kelly (of TV’s “Flipper” fame) to Dick. Kelly succeeded.
From “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?,” Fancher developed the basic story for director Ridley Scott’s 1982 “Blade Runner,” and it was his first writing credit. He was also a producer on that film, no doubt for his efforts in obtaining the rights. After that he had occasional success with screenwriting. He wrote “The Mighty Quinn” (1989) and “The Minus Man” (1999), which he also directed. Both films received critical acclaim and some awards.
Women have long been attracted to Fancher. His first wife, Joann McNabb, the older woman, with whom he had a daughter; and his second wife, actress Sue Lyon (of “Lolita” fame) — whom he tried to get to read Sartre’s “Nausea.” And more actresses: Teri Garr, who supported him — to his dismay — for some time; and a long-time girlfriend and still good friend, Barbara Hershey, whom he escorted to the recent Hollywood opening of “Blade Runner 2049.”
Fancher’s life is a story of risk-taking, whether running away to Spain at 15 or persistently knocking on Philip K. Dick’s door. He says he was always doing what seemed practical to him, though others might not see it that way. Some of this peripatetic life is captured in a new documentary on Fancher, “Escapes,” produced by Wes Anderson.
I caught up with Fancher in the afterglow of the “Blade Runner 2049” premier. He had returned to his home in New York City, where he was on the other end of a lengthy telephone conversation.
You’ve previously relayed the story about how you were working on a final piece in your book of short stories, “The Shape of the Final Dog”, when Ridley Scott (director of “Blade Runner” and producer of “Blade Runner 2049”) called you. You gave him the outlines of the story and he said, “Come to London,” as in right now. Is that how “Blade Runner 2049” began? I thought of a scene that didn’t make it into the first “Blade Runner.” And then I got a call from Ridley’s office. I got excited. I didn’t miss that what I was doing was maybe a new “Blade Runner” idea. So when he called, I read him the first paragraph.
Do you and Scott keep in touch? It had been a couple years since we last talked. We have a relationship. Well, Scott didn’t literally call me. I don’t call people, he doesn’t call people — except for work. People like Scott don’t call you. An assistant calls and says he’s ready to talk to you. Oh, yes, once he called me. When I was in Paris and he was in London. He would call. He would worry about me, I think. I was working on a film he was interested in, not involved in, just interested in. He said, “Are you okay?” I said, “no, I’m f***ed.”And he said, “You’re not; because you have talent.” This wasn’t just Pop saying it … (His) saying your talent will see you through, you can rely on your talent — that was very important to me.
The book of short stories contains the story — “The Shape of the Final Dog” — that’s basically the opening scene of “Blade Runner 2049,” where the main character K tracks down an old replicant and kills him. You published that story in 2012. Did people see it as the beginning of a Blade Runner sequel? No. No one read it. No one saw it as the genesis of “Blade Runner 2049.”
Reviews of the book describe you, the writer, as “misanthropic.” I’m misanthropic? I don’t think I’ve ever been accused of that. I’m the opposite. I’m a humanist through and through. What else do they say?
They use the term “surreal.” Surreal? I have an imagination, but I’ve never cared for the Surrealists too much. I can admire their techniques, abilities. I do like “outré things.” Maybe “phantasmagoric.” I wouldn’t use that term, but (William) Burroughs used it and he’s had an influence on me.
You used the word “genesis,” and a child is at the center of “Blade Runner 2049.” The child distinguishes the plot from the 1982 film. I wasn’t saying it as exactly Biblical, but the story has to do with a lineage, the unfolding of a lineage, of a line. The child was a breakthrough thought. I had it [the thought] on the plane to London and I knew that was it.
“Blade Runner”— both films — seem to me like good sci-fi in that they use science fiction to comment on contemporary issues. Climate change was inflated, strengthened, and improved on in Michael Green’s [his co-writer] version. The salient thing for me in my draft is that the ocean ends at Westwood now. [Westwood is a western section of Los Angeles about five miles from the Pacific.] It’s prophetic. That was the beginning of my vision of the “brave new world.” Always, from the beginning, the hook the story hangs on is ecological —whether human life or animal life in general. That was the trigger.
Another contemporary theme seems to be race. There’s a discourse in the film on what it means to be less than human, and whom we can enslave or kill. It was very touching to me that there was a man at one of the screenings who was wheelchair bound. He said, “This thing is about me.” I was very moved.
You are commenting on another theme I see: empathy with the other. That’s given importance in the film. It better be, that’s what it is. But the equation is bigger than this. When I saw the film for the first time the other day, to me the belly of the film, the heart of the film is “she”/”Joi”, a digital entity [Joi is K’s virtual reality girlfriend in the film], her performance and what she represented and her fate was everything in this film. And also Gosling, the way he’s standing off, watching everything, trying to add it up, to find something he lacks.
Harrison Ford, the original Blade Runner from the 1982 film, who also appears in “Blade Runner 2049,” and Ryan Gosling, the Blade Runner for “2049,” seem very different characters. How do you view the two actors and their roles? There is a mold for Harrison. He goes way back in literature to detective stories. We know Harrison, we want to be Harrison. But Gosling … I thought of him in the first place. He’s a prototype. Period. Not a predecessor. He’s a one-off. He can play many things. That’s the reason I said, “I want Gosling.” Because, I whispered to someone, “He’s from Mars.” Harrison is a more eclectic Gary Cooper. Gosling is not anybody. Harrison is a solitary existential figure, but in a tradition — William Holden, etcetera, but Gosling stands alone to be alone in perfect company. Harrison is a lion; Gosling is a panther. Do you get what I mean?
You seem to have a complex relationship with the people listed as your co-writers. David Peoples in the original film, who came in after you wrote something like 10 drafts, and Michael Green in the current film. They’re not really co-writers but re-writers. This time, without Michael Green I don’t know if there would be this film. I turned in a very small script, 79-80 pages; it needed more complexities. I don’t know what it needed, but it needed more complexities. They said, “We want to put more action in.” I said, “I can’t think of anything.” I would’ve loved to have gone on, but I was happy to be finished. I liked the script a lot; it was good; it’s still good. But then Denis [Villeneuve, the director] was not involved yet; Ridley [Scott] was still going to do it. Ridley wrote me a letter about the screenplay, and he said, “Now we’re going to go fishing.” I said, “You want me to come up with some shit you’ll like, but you want someone to do more,” and that’s what happened. I heard a couple months later this guy Michael Green had signed on. He did great things and is a great guy and I adore him. We write differently. This time I knew what was happening. In [the origina “Blade Runner” I wasn’t cooperating.
Your personal story is the stuff of movies, literally. A new documentary about you came out this year, “Escapes.” It says you quit school at 11. I never did well in school. I couldn’t do school. I was truant. Formally I got to seventh or eighth grade. Then I was in a school for theatrical kids. I never had to go, because I was a dancer. So I was in school in name only. I finished all my schooling by the time I was 14. I didn’t learn anything, couldn’t do math, couldn’t spell, had no interest in subjects. I heard the word “incorrigible”; now it would be” learning disabilities.” I was kicked out.
And you are noted in the Internet Movie Data Base (IMDB)as a principal actor in “Rome Adventure,” a 1962 film with Troy Donahue, where you play an Etruscologist. Tell me about your time in Rome. It was “La Dolce Vita” time, a great Rome. I met de Chirico [painter Giorgio de Chirico]. He lived near the Spanish Steps. Some Danish beauty took me up. And there’s an incident that actually happened. It’s in one of the short stories … which one? Here, “The Climacteric of Zachary Ray”: [Fancher reading] “He had been out with a group of Swedes and wound up at Giorgio de Chirico’s apartment at the bottom of the Spanish Steps. He and the old painter sat on a couch discussing Mussolini, bananas, and trains.”
Did you go to Rome again? I didn’t go back to Rome for a long time. I was there in the late 1960s filming two German movies. I was with [German actor] Helmut Berger and [Italian director] Franco Zeffirelli and my manager Rudy Altobelli when Sally Kellerman called our hotel lobby to tell us about the Sharon Tate murder [Aug. 9, 1969]. Sharon was renting Rudy’s house in Beverly Hills.
Let’s go back to the ending of “Blade Runner 2049.” I think it’s ambiguous as to who is the child, and in fact, there are two children, twins. Was this concept of the child being twins in your original script? Is there a personal angle here? The character [in Fancher’s script] didn’t have twins, but who is the child is ambiguous. Maybe a lot of us have had this happen. I was told I was my parents’ child, but then I was basically orphaned [his parents let him go where and do what he wanted] and then I wasn’t and then I was. And I know I’m not orphaned. Kids are into this. It’s beautiful and terrible. You want to be free — “but don’t let me be too free.”