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Into the Deep End

Paul Schrader's film on Bob Crane portrays the late 'Hogan's Heroes' actor as a prisoner of his peccadilloes

September 29, 2002|HUGH HART

The clean-cut star of "Hogan's Heroes" seemed pleasant, witty, outgoing. He appeared to enjoy a picture-book marriage living in Tarzana with his pretty wife and three attractive kids. And after his sitcom was canceled in 1971, he still seemed to charm dinner theater audiences throughout the hinterlands whenever he'd perform the romantic comedy "Beginner's Luck."

What Bob Crane did not seem to be was a compulsive pornographer.

But when "Auto Focus," starring Greg Kinnear, comes out Oct. 18, "real-life sex addict" may turn out to be the role for which Crane is best remembered.

Crane's womanizing destroyed two marriages and damaged his career. With John Carpenter, a video technician who became his best friend and orgy partner, Crane taped hundreds of sexual encounters right up until the summer night in 1978 when he was bludgeoned to death in a Scottsdale, Ariz., motel room. For director Paul Schrader, the Bob Crane story, devoid of redemption, proved irresistible.

"See, I disagree with this whole thing in Hollywood, that characters have to be likable," says Schrader, sipping soup in a Los Angeles restaurant. "I don't know that they have to be likable. They have to be fascinating. Does Travis Bickle really have to have a dog? I don't think so."

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Monday September 30, 2002 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 ..CF: Y 1 inches; 41 words Type of Material: Correction
"Auto Focus" screenwriter--A Sunday Calendar story about "Auto Focus," a movie about "Hogan's Heroes" star Bob Crane, misidentified the writer of the screenplay. He is Michael Gerbosi, not Paul Gerbosi.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Sunday October 06, 2002 Home Edition Sunday Calendar Part F Page 2 Calendar Desk 2 inches; 79 words Type of Material: Correction
"Auto Focus" screenwriter--A story in last Sunday's Calendar about the movie "Auto Focus" gave the wrong first name for the writer of the screenplay. His name is Michael Gerbosi, not Paul Gerbosi.

Schrader should know. In his screenplay for "Taxi Driver" he created the tormented Bickle for Robert De Niro. He also scripted the indelible portrait of wife-beating boxer Jake La Motta in "Raging Bull," and as writer-director of "Affliction," steered James Coburn to an Oscar-winning performance as a sadistic drunken father. Over the course of 20 pictures, the 56-year-old filmmaker has assembled a gallery of obsessive personalities capable of commanding an audience's attention in a slow-motion-train-wreck kind of way.

"The trick," Schrader says, "is to get the audience not to pass judgment too quickly and just sort of stick around for the ride and watch these events unfold and gradually, they get sucked in."

Schrader himself got sucked into Crane's orbit two years ago, despite his resolve to swear off biopics. "Because of 'Raging Bull,' I became one of those writers you'd go to if you have a difficult subject. You're doing John Holmes, ask Schrader. You're doing the Mitchell brothers, ask Schrader," he says of the adult film star and San Francisco porn producers. "I wrote one on Bobby Darin, Doris Duke, Hank Williams--these were never made." Schrader did direct films about Patty Hearst and the suicide of Japanese author Yukio Mishima. "So I was sick of making biopics, sick of watching them. Then my agent said, 'You really ought to read this script.' "

Paul Gerbosi's "Auto Focus" screenplay, based in part on Robert Graysmith's book titled "The Murder of Bob Crane," struck Schrader initially as "a straight-ahead biopic," he says. "But underneath it was this very interesting relationship between Crane and Carpenter."

Referring to Stephen Frears' fact-based 1987 movie about British playwright Joe Orton, who was murdered by his boyfriend, Schrader says, "I saw this kind of a heterosexual, middle-age, TV-star version of 'Prick Up Your Ears.' I was interested in doing a story about the enabling power of certain friendships that allow you to do things you wouldn't do on your own."

Schrader signed on as director, re-worked the script to emphasize the co-dependent Crane-Carpenter dynamic and settled on Kinnear to play Crane. "Greg had the glib, ironic tone, the hip, in-the-know, DJ stuff that is actually kind of hard to do. I'm not very good at that. I am rather good at getting an actor out into the deep end of the pool. So Greg gave me the shallow end of the pool, and I gave him the deep end."

Schrader then picked Willem Dafoe, whom he'd directed in "Affliction" and his 1991 film "Light Sleeper" to portray Carpenter. "If I was going to take Greg someplace where he might be uncomfortable, I needed an actor in those waters beside him. Will had no compunction about playing either the nudity or the oddity of it all. So Greg could look to Will, and Will would say, 'This is fine, don't worry!' "

In tracing the last 14 years of Crane's life, Schrader manipulated film stock, production design and camera movement to mirror his protagonist's dissolution. "The nature of addiction is that it sneaks up on you," he says. "When we first meet him in 1964, the real Bob Crane was doing Photo Play articles with the beautiful house and family. So you take that hypocritical world of the '60s, you saturate it with bright color and then slowly, incrementally, you make this cluttered, washed-out world of the discos. You can't pinpoint the moment when this world changes, just as an addict can't pinpoint the moment he becomes an addict. It's just a little detail here, a little detail there, until finally you're saying, 'Ooh, I don't know when it started, but this is getting kind of creepy.' "

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