As Hollywood premieres go, it was low-key. No string of limos. No paparazzi. Standing quietly in front of me was Barbara Hershey, with either her son or a very young escort. Bridget Fonda walked by looking younger and smaller than I'd imagined. Celebs made small talk with mere mortals, all waiting to see The Minus Man, the directorial debut of 61-year-old Hampton Fancher.
Fancher is something of a legend in Hollywood. The co-author and executive producer of Blade Runner, he can write the socks off most screenwriters in Tinseltown. Not to mention that his road to the director's chair would make a pretty terrific movie.
Fancher grew up in East LA, the product of a Mexican mother and a roustabout father who later became a doctor. A "dance-prone kid," Fancher recalled: "I saw some flamenco in a movie when I was 10, and that was it. I fell in love for the first and last time that deeply."
With his mother's encouragement, he devoted himself to dance, abandoning school by the seventh grade. "I was already pretending to be a man by the time I was 14, so I went on the road," Fancher added. That road led him to Spain, where he called himself Mario Montejo and became a successful flamenco dancer.
In his late teens he migrated back to the states and took up acting, making guest appearances on TV shows, including Rawhide, Maverick, Gunsmoke, Perry Mason, and The Fugitive.
Always an avid reader, he went through a Vladmir Nabokov addiction in his 20s and was captivated by Lolita. When the film adaptation came out, he was equally captivated by Sue Lyon, the teenager who played the title role. In an "only in Hollywood" chain of events, a mutual friend introduced them and they eventually married. She was 17, he was 26. The press gored him. He was labeled a Svengali. The marriage lasted eight months.
Looking back on the relationship, Fancher explained: "The only thing we had in common was my love of the book. She hadn't even read the book probably ... She was a sweet person, but it wasn't a sincere compatibility. It was a fantasy about the book."
Fancher's obsession with the written word prompted him to switch professions yet again. He started writing. He hung out off-and-on with writer Charles Bukowski, hoping to adapt several of his works into screenplays. It didn't pan out. Fancher then tried to get the rights to Naked Lunch from William Burroughs. Strike two. But a chance encounter with sci-fi writer Ray Bradbury on a Beverly Hills street helped him track down another favorite author, Philip K. Dick.
Fancher helped broker a deal with Dick for the rights to Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, which he adapted into Blade Runner. "I stuck with Dick's book for the first three drafts and then, by the time I finished the fourth draft, there was nothing left of the book except the Voight-Kampff test that's used for testing the androids."
The Minus Man is also based loosely on a book: a novel by Lew McCreary. The black comedy follows the exploits of a drifter who's the picture of likable innocence, except for one bad habit: He poisons people. As the sinister story unfolds, he settles into an unnamed coastal town, winning people over with his disarming charm, all the while pursuing his lethal pastime. "There are a lot of funny moments in the story," remarked Owen Wilson, who plays the killer. "Humorous in the way that, say, Badlands or Drugstore Cowboy is humorous."
Added Fancher, "I wanted to get the contradictions, like in Truffaut's Shoot the Piano Player, the drollness of going from tragedy to comedy, but without the bang-bang style. I went for the sonata."
At the post-screening party in West Hollywood, a throng of well-dressed hipsters quaffed drinks and exchanged enthusiastic hugs with the director. Leonardo Di Caprio, whom everyone seemed afraid to talk to, had an entourage of greasy-looking sycophants in tow. Marilyn Manson and Rose McGowan did a five-minute pit stop, seemingly unaware of what the party was all about. When I asked Hampton what he thought of the audience, which seemed to miss a lot of the film's humor, he pointed to Bridget Fonda and said: "I used to swing her around when she was two years old. Hers was the only opinion of the film that really mattered to me tonight. And she got it."
The Minus Man, starring Owen Wilson, Mercedes Ruehl, Brian Cox, Janeane Garofalo, Dwight Yoakum and Sheryl Crow opens in NY and LA September 10, and nationwide on September 24.
John McCormick is a screenwriter whose credits include Living on Tokyo Time, Russ Meyer's The Bra of God and John Woo's forthcoming King's Ransom.