Esopus 23: Talking with Blade Runner Screenwriter Hampton Fancher


Esopus, Brooklyn’s hefty and gorgeously-bound annual arts and letters magazine, has just released its latest edition, Esopus 23. Editor and executive director Tod Lippy founded the non-profit publication in 2003, and, from the get-go, it defied easy classification: each issue is an extensive compilation of visual art, essays, music, fiction, fold-out visuals, posters, little detachable surprises, comics, photo essays, and interviews, from today’s most celebrated authors and art-makers. Together, the collections blur the line between magazine, book, and art; The newest edition is no exception.

Last year’s issue (the publication’s first as an annual) explored the intersections of art and medicine, and, at a live performance of the magazine at The Kitchen, Hampton Fancher (the legendary screenwriter who gave us the dark and beautiful dystopian classic Blade Runner) read a letter by doctor-poet William Carlos Williams about his decision to pursue writing after a career in medicine. This year, Fancher has made two especially exciting contributions to Esopus 23: a pair of film “treatments” birthed from reader-submitted news-clippings. The first is a detective thriller (which, due to Fancher’s wry wit, is also funny) based on a fortune teller who bamboozles a man out of hundreds of thousands of dollars, on the promise of bringing back a love from the dead. The second is based on a single image from Crime Times; from one sheet of mugshots, Fancher creates an engrossing story of love and trust, and how these two emotions interact and evolve together.

I talked to Fancher on the phone about a lot of things, many of them unexpected, which is something I hoped might happen with the man who made Harrison Ford into a Replicant hunter. But as we covered more standard topics like his youth (in which he was a Flamenco dancer in Spain), and why he chose the clippings that became his film treatments, Fancher was, in fact, at work the entire time: after I told him I was talking from inside my nephew’s bedroom in the Midwest, surrounded by toy trucks, out of some unknown coordinates in his brain came a film.

“What if you opened a film with a telephone conversation—two people from New York and Minnesota—and there is a dialogue described, and an exchange in conversation that is kind of sophisticated, and there is humor and it’s intellectual; and then you finally see where the female is—you’ve only seen her face up till then—and just at the end, you see she’s sitting on a toy truck.” Fancher had turned carpeted suburbia into a strange universe I wanted to know all about.

This week, Esopus and Fancher present two exciting events at the Museum of the Moving Image. The first is tonight, a special screening of Blade Runner (I am very sorry to report this is sold out). And, on Wednesday, Fancher returns to MoMI with his directorial debut, Minus Man (1999, with Owen Wilson), and an excerpt from Michael Almereyda’s forthcoming documentary about Fancher’s life. Tickets remain for this one, so get on it. Meanwhile, if you can’t make either, scroll down for more insights into Fancher’s work and imagination, the kind that conjures strange, unforgettable art, mercifully, out of the everyday.

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Wikipedia told me you ran away to Spain when you were a teenager to Flamenco dance, is that true?

Hampton Fancher: I don’t have a Wikipedia page!

BM: Yes, you do!

HF: Well, yes, I started dancing really young. I didn’t function in school; I had learning disabilities and wouldn’t cooperate, but dancing made sense to me as a child. My sister was seven years older than me and my mother was inclined to dance. So I was aware of dancing and when I saw some pretty bad flamenco, it hit—oh, ok, I know what I have to do. I left for Spain but I went as kind of an adult, everybody knew. I started dancing professionally. I was in Spain from 15 to 16 and then moved back to LA. The life I now live started when I was 18: reading, writing, and no arithmetic.

Your dad was a doctor—did you identify with the William Carlos Williams letter you read last year because of that?

HF: I guess I got turned on to Williams when I first really started getting turned on to poetry in my late teens. I got introduced to him through the page through Kerouac and Ginsburg, they went to see him at Columbia in ’44 and ’45. I was intrigued with his name because I’m Mexican also—and so that name, and anybody involved in medicine, of course I have a little connection to. But I never brought it up to my dad; he didn’t read that much. He was light-footed when it came to poetry.

How did you get involved with this edition of Esopus?

HF: Tod and I met and talked about doing something together, and we had a good time doing William Carlos Williams, and he said at some point let’s think of something else to do. And I am a writer and have a lot of poems and stories and all kinds of shit, and he had given me the magazine’s back issues and I like them, and I had self-interest, and so I was up for that. It was inventive of him to pimp the idea out to subscribers and so that’s how it happened.

What drew you to these two newspaper prompts? Generally speaking, are you drawn to detective thrillers?

HF: A film idea needs a motility, a motivation and movement and action. And there needs to be something headed somewhere—it needs a beheading, it needs danger, and threat, you know, and something at stake, loss or murder. But it’s not necessarily detectives and murder I’m interested in; just someone going off to do something that becomes complicated and maybe foolhardy. That’s the kind of stuff that movies are made of, as in the Coen brothers, you know? So the trick is to find something that has anxiety and anticipation in it—it’s almost gotta be kind of physical or actionable.

[Then he backtracks, a bit]

Come to think of it, I really just thought of myself [vis-a-vis the fortune teller bamboozling]. I’m a non-believer, period, but yet once I was so distraught, in a love affair, that I went to a psychic. I was so desperate for somebody to pat me on the back and say everyone is going to be ok, even though he didn’t know me from Adam. And so I went to him, I was crushed and in a depression, and suicidal probably, and couldn’t function and needed reassurance that she would come back—and he got a couple of things right in this reading of me. And then when I read that newspaper I thought, shit, that could happen so easily. It’s a life and death struggle when you’ve been trashed—and, it’s funny.

Well, yours was very funny.

HF: It’s funny-horrible because nothing is funnier than pain and sadness. Beckett said that there is nothing more funny than pain, and nothing is funnier than sadness, a step away and you’re in Clownville. And I started inventing characters around that because I was inspired. I’d done that, I’d been there, and not that you have to be some place to exploit it, but it helps.

What is your writing process? I’ve only written non-fiction, it’s hard for me to imagine inventing these worlds. 

HF: It’s called imagination. There are people who rely on their imaginations to survive, to get through life. That’s the warm spot, that’s the sex, or the food, or the whatever. There are some people—and I’m one of them—that are lazy, and don’t want to do anything except dream. That’s what they’re comfortable doing. I’m a dreamer, like a robot, that’s a natural place to go. Dreaming isn’t hard; what’s hard is rendering it. I can never do what you do. I did it one time. I tried to write a piece and, I did, but it was hard.

But that is exactly how I feel, only in the reverse vis-a-vis fiction.

HF: But you do fantasize—that’s all it is. And I think it’s also the people who depend on fantasizing, like me—you didn’t have to for some reason, maybe you were secure for some reason, I don’t know—these people are all cooped up, it’s safe. The main thing is you have to have those characters think—and you do that through voice.   

I think it’s unfortunate that people talk about voice like it’s an elusive thing, or anything other than who you are, your personality on the page. 

HF: It’s just persona. You’re bringing your impulses, your affections, your repulsions to the thing. Your prejudices, as it were, your judgments. And that’s just de rigueur; that’s gotta be—unless you’re empty.

Right, and if you don’t really care about what you’re working on.

HF: We’ve all done things we’ve failed at miserably because we’re empty in those cases—that’s a horrible thing. That’s also an absence of confidence. It’s a hop-scotch deal, this confidence thing. Some day, you know, it’s better; then bad. I never had confidence. It’s like a mask, at best. It’s like acting—if you put on a costume, you can maybe get through it. That’s why some people are so delighted at Halloween. They have a little confidence, then they pretend to be someone else other than their fucking insecure selves—that’s the same for me.

That’s exactly how I feel when I speak a foreign language, I let loose. 

HF: That’s it, that’s the voice. You got it. It will get you through all kinds of shit. You’ll be laughing and fucking around and the burden will be lifted. That’s why we joke, I guess. Humor is paradise.

Because it means you’re getting over yourself, you’re letting go. 

HF: It’s the most wonderful thing. You’re not taking yourself seriously. It relieves the burden of identity.

After doing all of this fiction, what’s it like to be the subject of a documentary?

HF: It’s not a big separation, any of it. It’s all part of the same thing to me. But it’s all scary—you know, not this, but me. It’s blowhard bullshit and it’s ugly and embarrassing and humiliating and immodest; but that other part of me that’s foot loose and fancy free, I said, fuck it, it’s all the same thing, why not. It’s just like the conversation we’re having right now. I’m talking about myself a lot; a part of me in this conversation is embarrassed you know. It’s embarrassing to me, sometimes.

But I think to open yourself up is brave.

HF: I’m not, but brave I’m perceived as being. That’s another inauthentic thing I’m perceived as being. I would love to be brave; it’s one of my favorite compliments to people.

Well, I’ll agree to disagree that you’re not brave.

HF: I know in my heart of hearts I’m the biggest chicken shit in the world. And it’s all hogwash. I think I’ve played a lot of chicken-shits, or why do they cast me as one? I must be one. But I would like to be brave.


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