The Fabulist Logo

Interview with Hampton Fancher

  • Interview by David Gordon
  • Issue 17
  • Free RadicalOctober 2017

Hampton Fancher is perhaps best known as the original screenwriter of Blade Runner and the writer-director of The Minus Man. However, that barely puts a dent in his life story. Born in East Los Angeles in 1938 to a half-Mexican, half-Danish mother and an American father, Fancher has spent time in juvenile hall and in the flamenco clubs of Spain. In 1963, he married Sue Lyon, who was at the height of her fame for playing Lolita in Stanley Kubrick’s film adaptation of the Nabokov novel. They divorced after two years. He has appeared in TV shows such as Gunsmoke and Father Knows Best and published a collection of short stories, and is now writing an opera. I met with Fancher this summer, first at his home in Brooklyn Heights and then over dinner nearby. While reluctant to rehash old Blade Runner stories, he was eager to talk about other adventures, and to discuss his work on Blade Runner 2, which began shooting this summer.

David Gordon

How did you get your start as an actor?

Hampton Fancher

When I was twelve, I decided to present myself to the biggest film guy in the world, Cecil B. DeMille. I took the bus and then walked to Paramount Studios—it’s funny because ten years later I was walking into that same place, working—anyway, I went in through a side entrance, not the big gate, there was just a door, two steps, and a room there, so I went in that door, and I said, “I have to see Cecil B. DeMille.” They said, “Who are you?” “Hampton Lamsden Fancher III.” “One minute … Okay, it’s room whatever, go through.” I walked down a hall and there was a big reception room and a lady sitting behind a desk, and I said, “I’m Hampton Lamsden Fancher III and I have to see Mr. DeMille.” “About what?” I talked for a while. And eventually she picked up the phone and said, “Mr. DeMille, there’s a Hampton here, he’s twelve, and said he has an idea he thinks you’re going to like.” So, all I know is she waves and I walk in. And now this room, it’s dark, it’s full of warm light, with a mahogany desk, and it’s him. I knew what he looked like. He was encouraging, he told me, you know, “Finish school, learn acting, go to college,” like that. I was kind of thrilled that he talked to me but at the same time I felt it was natural. It didn’t seem extraordinary.

But you didn’t go to school, correct?

Right. I always thought I was going to be a writer. I met this writer in New York when I moved there as a teenager, and he gave me some stuff to read. I had good luck that way. You know, you run into a little Rimbaud, this crazy boy who is going his own way. It’s Darwinian. It’s teaching. So I had that happen to me a lot. Henry Miller turned me on to Rimbaud, and it was like, “Fuck me!” Another friend turned me on to François Villon. This guy was in a tower with ink that was frozen and he had to try to get a candle to melt it so he could write! He killed a guy! And then I read Dostoevsky. I was unstable myself. I was committable almost. I did crazy things. The brain hadn’t formed yet. I was a little nuts. More than a little nuts. This was 1956, ’57, ’58.

What kind of crazy stuff?

Dressing strangely. Always. Wearing women’s pedal pushers that zipped up the side. Having wild hair. Sailor-suit tops with the sleeves cut off in wintertime. And having people look at me and going, “Fuck you!” Sleeping on the street. I’d sleep on benches and women would pick me up on the street and we’d go and have sex. But that’s not crazy. One woman did that with me and I decided to set her house on fire. Because I didn’t like it.

Raskolnikovian.

That’s what I’m saying. I was trying to figure out how to kill my grandmother. This was a little old Mexican lady, and I’d look at her and think, How can I do it? With poison? I thought about that for a few months. I went to jail a bunch of times. I was a strange-looking guy, but I guess I seemed soulful to some people. Like one time the judge, this intelligent woman, said, “Okay, three days or fifteen dollars.” And I said, “I’ll take the three days.” And she said, “You don’t have fifteen dollars?” I said no. So I get remanded to county jail and I go and sit on the bench with the other guys. After court’s over we all get up and we’re marched out. And then the marshal says, “Wait, the judge wants to see you.” And I’m not like, Oh good, I’m just like, I’m the king here. They bring me into her office and she looks at me and says, “What’s wrong with you? Something’s wrong with you. You don’t belong here.” She gets her purse and gives me fifteen dollars and says I should give it to the clerk. I said, “Keep your fucking money.” Then later I thought, What am I doing? She was a nice woman.

Where did acting come in?

I was living with my first wife, Joann McNabb, and my parents had moved to Mexico. When I had the baby, I was crazy, I threw my parents out of the house. So my parents were scared, I hadn’t given that a thought, but they said, “You want to be a poet?” They were probably thinking, You’re not a poet, you’re an asshole, but they said, “Come bring your baby and your wife and be a poet in Mexico.” So I said to my wife, “You want to go to Mexico?” She said no. I said, “We’re going to Mexico!” Before that I didn’t want to go. And so, that’s on Thursday. On Friday, I think: I need stuff if I’m going to go to Mexico. I decide I’ve got to go down to the drugstore and steal a toothbrush. So I walk down to Thrifty’s on Fairfax and Sunset, and this station wagon stops on that corner, and somebody says something to me, and I said, “What?” It’s this big fat guy, and he’s in the back seat with a driver in the front. It’s a fucked-up station wagon and he’s rolling down the window and he said, “Wolfboy!” I said, “What did you say?” “Wolfboy! Wolfboy! Come here.” I said, “What?” He said, “You want to be in the movies?” “What movie?” “We’re making a movie. You’d be good in it as Wolfboy. You want to come? Be here tomorrow morning at six o’clock.” I said, “Why?” He said, “You look good. You look crazy.” I said, “I know another guy who looks crazier than me and I’ll do it if he can do it.” He said, “Bring him too.” So we showed up, and it was some fly-by-night little movie. I’ve got it right here. It’s called The Brain Eaters. I played a monster. They picked us up in a truck and took us way out to West Covina, in Los Angeles County, with a bunch of other people who were going to be in the movie, and stopped at a construction site. He said, “Go get some of that lumber.” We stole lumber to make a set. And we shot for three days and they gave me forty-five dollars a day in cash.

You’d never acted?

No. But all I did was see movies as a kid. I used to see three movies a week. I’d get busted in the movie houses by truant officers. I thought my life was a movie. So when that guy gave me three times forty-five dollars, I said: “I want to be a fucking movie star! I want to direct! Fuck Mexico!” A few days after that, I was out in Malibu, in this 1936 Plymouth convertible with no roof I had bought for twenty-five dollars. I was up all night by myself playing guitar on the sand, and the sun came up, and down the beach there was a little crew of film people. A tripod, a camera, eight or nine people. And now I’d been in a movie, so I thought they’d probably want me in this one. I really thought that, I was so stupid … and it happened! I walked by and the director said, “Hey, come over here.” It turned out he was an editor who was making a little movie; I thought it was a big movie. And he said, “Come by my office.” So I went to his office on Sunset Boulevard, and he had editing machines and stuff in there and he had a little production company. I thought he was this big-time director, but he was a little-time editor. At that point, I went back to the little cabin where I lived with my wife and I drew pictures of me, like one with a gun, one punching somebody, and I cut out photos of me, and I pasted them onto the drawing and folded it up and put it in an envelope. Then I didn’t know what to do with the envelope. So I bought a newspaper—a rare occurrence—and the biggest movie, a whole page in the paper, was The Sound and the Fury. I knew Faulkner, I’d read him, so I thought, that looks like a good movie. And it said, “Jerry Wald Productions, 20th Century Fox.” So I wrote that on the envelope and sent it. Two or three days went by, and a telegram appeared: come to 20th century fox. So I go there, and Jerry Wald didn’t want to see me, it was his VP. He said, “We’ve got to do something with you. Do you know how to act?” I said, “No, I don’t know anything, but I’ve made a movie.” He said, “Okay, we’ll give you a hundred dollars a week.” I was thinking, Wow! But I said, “Okay, fine. I’ll take it.” I would go there every week and he’d give me a hundred dollars. One week, he says, “Have you ever seen a porno film?” I said, “What’s that?” He tells me. And I said, “No, I don’t do that.” He said, “Okay, what about television?” There was a show called Traffic Court. He told me there was no script; the producers tell you the parameters of the case and you just talk. I said, “I’ve been to court a lot. I can do that.” They used a photograph of me in the newspaper ad: “Wednesday at eight o’clock, Traffic Court!” And then I got a telegram from Cornel Wilde, a big star and also a director, come to paramount, i saw traffic court, i want to talk to you. And he’s nice. I loved Cornel Wilde. I couldn’t believe he was talking to me seriously. I told him about Jerry Wald’s VP and he said, “Those guys are assholes. He’s just trying to fuck you.” I said, “What do you mean? He gave me money.” He said, “No, he’s trying to fuck you!” “You mean have sex with me?” “Yes!” He said, “Look, I’m going to get you an agent.” Eventually I signed with Sid Gold, who had a very powerful boutique agency. At this point I wasn’t living anywhere. I’d broken up with my wife and was staying kind of on the street, and Sid said, “You’ve got an audition.” Have Gun Will Travel. He took me there and I did okay. He had me wait in his Cadillac convertible, and then he came out and smiled and said, “You got it. A hundred dollars a day.” The smallest rate for a television show, but it was 1958 and a hundred dollars a day felt like a lot of money. Everything was so new. Absolutely fresh.

How did you meet Burroughs?

I had ten thousand dollars that somebody had given me. I’d stopped acting. I was going to be a writer-director. My plan was to get three guys who hadn’t made movies and I’d produce their work: Burroughs, Philip K. Dick, and Charles Bukowski. This was 1975, and nobody would touch them in Hollywood. I thought, I’ll give William Burroughs two, three thousand dollars and he’ll write a screenplay for me. I went to New York. Burroughs’ agent told me not to come. He said, “Trust me, he’s not going to be interested.” I said, “I’m coming!” He was one of the big agents. I liked this guy a lot, a handsome baby-faced motherfucker, and he said, “I can’t believe you did this. This is stupid.” I said, “No, it’s not.” He said, “Okay, I can’t give you Burroughs. James, his partner and assistant, is going to come over here and talk to you and decide.” Really what James was assessing was, Is Burroughs going to like this guy sexually? I was good then, in that way. So he picks up the phone and says, “William, I think you should meet this Hampton. “ He asked where I was staying and I told him the Drake, because Sue Lyon and I used to stay there when we had money, her money. Burroughs met me in the lobby. Tweedy, kind of, but with a Moroccan vest and a tie. Uptight but not uptight, just cold, not real interested in me. Sat on a couch. And we talked and I passed that test. So then it was, Let’s go to dinner. We got into a cab, drove over to some joint, kind of a funky place on the east side. He said, “I don’t think you can afford me. How much are you paying?” I realize he’s having me on, he’s not really serious, and I say, “I don’t know. How much would you charge?” He said, “One hundred thousand dollars. I’d have a screenplay for you in six weeks.” I said, “What about … a lot cheaper than that?” We had bottle of wine, something to eat. It was goodbye time. We hailed a cab and suddenly it’s a storm. Rain. I stopped Burroughs as he was getting in the car and I said, “I know who your favorite author is.” And that offended him. Here’s this extremely well-read man. And he said, “Pray tell.” I said, “It’s Conrad. And I know why.” That took him aback. I was right! I got in and he said, “Well?” I said, “Because you are Mr. Jones.” He looked at James and said, “This man is rather interesting.” He asked, “What were you doing in Spain?” This was the first time he was curious about me. I said, “I was a dancer.” He said, “What do you mean dancer, what kind of dance?” I said, “Flamenco.” Some ice got broken. We went up to the suite at my hotel and got very high and they didn’t leave until sunup.

This was dope?

Grass. And drinking. But because I was high, I could not stop talking. I had stories to tell. I had questions to ask. Burroughs didn’t like that. He would say, probably six times in the whole course of the night, “Why don’t you shut up, Fancher?” And each time I said, “Oh, excuse me! Of course. I will!” And then I’d forget and be back at it, and then an hour later: “Why don’t you shut up?” Because Burroughs, I realized after that, could have sat and not said anything for five or six hours and he would have been fine. I’d never done it. It was impossible for me then.

How about Philip K. Dick and Bukowski?

A friend recommended Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? to me. I read it and I thought, “Okay, there’s a through-line. A detective chasing androids: Good. Everyone else says: No, bad. No one’s going to do science fiction in Hollywood. You might as well do soapbox-derby races. I decided to take some of the ten thousand dollars I had and buy the book from Philip K. Dick, if I could find him. I couldn’t find him. For Bukowski, I thought I could put together a bunch of his stories from Black Sparrow Press. I called him. He was not very interested. He said, “Bring some beer.” I got a six-pack and I went to his house. He’s got a bad place. It’s like a cube. You know those little Hollywood houses, there’s like three or four cubes with an aisle down the middle? Like two blocks east of Western and a block south of Sunset or Melrose. Screen door. Little room. Couch. Dinette. Bedroom through there. Bad kitchen! When I have to take a piss, I ask, “Where’s the bathroom?” He points. I get up. I walk through the little dinette and the kitchen, and then I walk into the bathroom. He stayed there for a few years and one thing’s for sure, that bathroom had never, ever been cleaned. When I saw that toilet, immediately I heard cackling in the front room. He’s laughing. He knows what I’m seeing and what I’m thinking.

How did you find Philip K. Dick?

I gave up on him. When I went to New York, I had gone to meet Dick’s agent and even he didn’t know where he was. I’m back in L.A., walking down Rodeo Drive with [longtime girlfriend] Barbara Hershey, and it’s the middle of the afternoon, and somebody’s yelling my name. I see this little guy and keep walking. Barbara goes, “Look, you’ve got to talk to that guy.” I said, “I don’t know him.” “But he knows you.” I turn to him and he says, “Hampton, you don’t remember me.” I said, “Who are you?” He said, “I’m Ray Bradbury.”

You did know him?

I’d forgotten him. He was doing a play, Moby Dick in space. I auditioned for it. I used to see him at the Beverly Hilton, which had a coffee shop where I’d go with my cohorts. I’d be high and get a choco-mocha malt. I thought he was just some guy trolling, like a chicken hawk. Anyway, he asked me, “What are you doing these days?” I say, “I don’t act anymore. I’m trying to make a movie. In fact, do you know a guy named Philip K. Dick?” “What do you want with him?” I said, “I want his fucking phone number. I don’t know where he is.” And Bradbury gave me his number. There would be no Blade Runner without that. But that’s life, always. Barbara was really instrumental in that. I never thought about it that way before.

She’s like your Jiminy Cricket. There are so many stories where she is giving you some sound advice.

Always let your conscience be your guide! And then the Blade Runner 2 story. You want that now?

Yes. How did that happen?

I was writing a book of short stories, and I’d finished editing, and my editor calls me and says, “Hampton, we’re good. I just checked everything and we have enough stories. We’re ready. Unless … We have room if you want to do one more.” I didn’t want to, in a way, because I wanted to be free of it, but at the same time I had just come up with an idea. I said, “What do you think about this? What if I do one more about Blade Runner? Because I have a scene that I love that was never used. I could dive into it for this story.” I told her the idea and she said, “Give yourself a month.”

And what was the scene?

The scene opens the new movie. It was something Ridley Scott told me a long time ago, when I was on my eighth draft of Blade Runner. He thinks it’s my fault, which it probably is, but it’s also his fault, because he kept coming up with new ideas. This time, he said to me, “What did Deckard do before he was doing this?” I said, “He was doing what he was doing, but not on such a high level. He was retiring androids that weren’t quite like Nexus Sixes, like Nexus Fives, kind of dumb androids.” He said, “So, why don’t we start the movie like that?” He always had a new beginning he wanted to try. Let’s start it on a train, let’s start it on a plane. Let’s start in the snow. Let’s start in the desert. I was writing all that. He said, “What if Deckard is retiring an old version of Nexus?” Right away I was feeling him, like fate, and he said, “There’s a cabin, with soup bubbling on the stove …” When he said soup boiling on the stove, I said, “Don’t say any more! Let me get home.” I wrote a scene that night. Just three or four pages. Deckard retires this not-very-bright droid, and you feel sorry for him. It’s like Steinbeck, Of Mice and Men. It’s just those two guys, with Deckard as the George character and the droid as the Lennie, and Deckard doesn’t want to do it. But then the droid gets mad, and then Deckard has to do it. The audience thinks he killed someone—he reaches into the guy’s mouth and pulls off his whole jaw and we see it says made by tyrell industries or whatever. I wrote that scene and took it to Ridley. I was proud of it. I remember standing and watching him read the whole thing. He loved it, but no. There are a lot of scenes that didn’t get in, but I never forgot that one. I wrote it as the beginning to this new short story called “The Shape of the Final Dog.” I’d always wanted to have a dog that wasn’t real, so I wrote one into the scene at the cabin. After Deckard retires the droid, he’s getting ready to take off and he wants the dog to come with him. The dog rolls over and keeps barking with his mouth closed. The dog’s an android dog. I thought, If there’s ever a new Blade Runner, we’ll have to use this scene. Three weeks go by, and I’m working on the story and it’s ready to hand in. The phone rings. Someone with a posh English accent says, “Would you be available in ten minutes for a call with Ridley Scott?” These people are so important they don’t waste their time on voicemail. I said, “I’ll be here.” Ten minutes go by and Ridley calls. “Hampton! Did you know, I think we’ve got it together to do Blade Runner a second time?” I said, “You finally got so hard up you’re calling me.” I knew they’d been looking for a year. People had been telling me, “You’ve got to call Ridley,” but I was a little chagrined or embarrassed. I thought, He’ll call me if he wants. Ridley said, “We’re interested in whether you have any ideas.” I said, “Funny you should ask that question. Let me read you a paragraph.” I walk over there with the phone and I read him the opening paragraph. And he says, “Fuck me. Can you come to London tomorrow?”

David Gordon has worked in film, fashion, and pornography. His first novel, The Serialist, was translated into Japanese by Aoki Chizuru and later adapted into a feature film by Toei, directed by Izaki Nobuaki.

Photo of Hampton Fancher © Boru O’Brien O’Connell