Hampton Fancher and the Plaza of Death

Published September 12, 2012

ABOVE: HAMPTON FANCHER. PHOTO COURTESY OF MARIO GRIGOROV.

“How smart does a rat have to be before killing him constitutes murder?” Ratty pleads in “Narrowing the Divide.” The story is a late-night discussion between a man, Big Jim, and a talking, escapee lab rat. Ratty is by far the most self-aware character in Hampton Fancher’s collection of absurdist stories, The Shape of the Final Dog, but he does not see this as an asset—it is a corruption. Echoing Adam and Eve’s fall from Paradise, Ratty knows that with awareness comes shame, and with shame comes guilt.

At times hilarious and horrific, this biblical loss of innocence is a recurring theme in The Shape of the Final Dog. It is the innocent, however, that present the reader with some of Fancher’s more shocking imagery. In “Black Weasel,” the book’s opening story, Spence, a bartender whose self-involvement and oblivion is almost childlike, covers a man in tar and hair to pass him off as a “wild man” at the circus. It’s a deeply sinister image.

Now in his early 70s, The Shape of the Final Dog is Hampton Fancher’s first book, but he’s hardly been wasting time. Google his name and you might not believe the results—before turning to fiction, Fancher was a professional flamenco dancer, an actor, a critically lauded screenwriter (he wrote the screenplay for Blade Runner), an acting teacher, a director, and a university professor at Columbia and NYU.

Here, Fancher and Interview discuss the pains of screenwriting and the beauty of Bukowski. Fancher is clever and colorful, a delight to talk to.

HAMPTON FANCHER: Interview, oh, Warhol’s paper? That’s still going? I used to buy it a long time ago because there’d be certain things I wanted to look at, that appealed, but I just don’t get around to whatever venue that is—the newsstands or whatever.

EMMA BROWN: Yes, it’s still going and still really big. I read your book.

FANCHER: I’m glad you read my book; you’re the first person maybe I’ve talked to that has.  I mean, except for the cohort; girlfriend, friends, editor, PR. But out there in the world… you can’t trust close friends.

BROWN: How long has The Shape of the Final Dog been in the works?

FANCHER: God, I’m so bad with time! I think either two years or three. But even then it was slow, because a couple of those stories I had written years ago—I had a leg up and I was still slow.  Although they told me I wasn’t as slow as some. It’s different than Hollywood, because Hollywood’s always saying, “Yesterday!” and scares you to death with all that deadline and yelling and impatience stuff, and this was easy: “I’m sorry I’m a year late,” “No problem.”

BROWN: So when you started writing these stories, you didn’t have a collection of short stories in mind?

FANCHER:  No, no, I didn’t.  I had never thought of such a thing. I’m a writer, I’ve always been writing, but I never thought of myself as a short story writer. It was Sarah Hochman, the editor, who I suppose you know. A friend of mine, an actor, Jason Patric, ran into her and called me and said, “I just talked to a wonderful, intelligent editor and she’s really interested in what you do,” and I said “What is that, what do I do?” He had pimped me to her for some reason. I never asked him, but I can’t even imagine this guy talking about me—he never even read me, except for screenplays. He must have said something enticing about what I do, or am capable of doing, because then she got a hold of me.

BROWN: When you asked Jason Patric, “What is it that I do,” how did he respond?

FANCHER: He didn’t… if you play poker with him, you lose. I never even asked him, ‘cause I didn’t want to say to him, “What are you doing? You don’t even read, how could you out me to somebody who’s an expert at writing?” I will ask [Sarah]. I’m going to meet her tomorrow and I’m gonna ask her, “What did Jason Patric say to you that made you get in touch with me?”

BROWN: Did you write the first story after meeting with Sarah? Or had you already written a few?

FANCHER: I was writing a screenplay for myself to direct and I wasn’t making any headway with it, but I had a specific idea and it was written for a specific person, for Dwight Yoakam—the singer, actor, cowboy. He was in a movie that I did, and I couldn’t stop thinking about him, so I wanted to write this funny story and screenplay.  I was making so little headway with it, I got depressed. Then a friend of mine, a novelist, was visiting me and said, “How are you?” and I said, “I’m really fucked up, I’m depressed.” And that’s not usually how I am about writing, well, I am, I guess. [laughs] He said, “Why don’t you write it in first person,” and I dismissed that idea ‘cause I was too down on the whole thing at that point.  But then when he left my apartment I started thinking about it and I sat down and suddenly the voice of that character came through, Spencer, Spence, in “The Black Weasel.”

I wonder if these editors, why they’re not writers sometimes, because they know so much about writing. Did you read the Max Perkins biography?

BROWN: Yes, I did.

FANCHER: These people are so brilliant, and Sarah’s like that.  I can barely keep one thing in my mind—I’m a sieve—but she juggles so much.  It’s almost intimidating to me.

BROWN: Are you going to write another book with her as your editor?

FANCHER: I’d love to. I hope to. It’s so much more interesting to me than the kind of writing that I do, have done professionally, which is screenwriting. Screenwriting is almost impossible; it’s so fucking hard, and so little fun. I just realized I’m saying a lot of haphazard things, but I guess that’s what an interview is.

I never thought of myself as a short-story writer. I’ve been working on a novel all my life, I mean, not all my life, but a lot of it. And it just gets bigger and bigger…

BROWN: What do you like the most about the short story form?

FANCHER: I don’t know, I guess the freedom—poetic freedom—because the poetic part of it is an attempt to say something that’s unsayable about one’s incarcerated existence, and it’s fun to come up with words to represent that condition, and it’s fun to pull the tail of absurdity and rile it up, where you giggle at what you do or you get enthralled and in the short story.

It’s like [Charles] Bukowski—there’ll be a two-pager of Bukowski, some guy jacking off in a garage or something, and then in the last two lines is this philosophical hand grenade. [laughs] You pause and say, “Whoa. That was an ending. ” If you come up with an ending in the short form…

BROWN: There are some quite sinister aspects to some of your stories.

FANCHER: Sinister. Life is sinister. I don’t know if I am representing life exactly, but sinister, I think it has to do with dreams. You’re dreaming when you’re awake: you’re sitting on the subway and you look around, and you can think of sinister things that are kind of delightful to think of because they’re not really happening, but they are in your mind. They’re about wishes, desires—sexy, dangerous, hopeful, the way it could be, maybe.

BROWN: Do you think it’s easier to do that when you’re writing a short story than when you’re writing a screenplay?

FANCHER: Oh God, yeah, because you can do anything.  I can say that right there—I’ll start a short story with a quote, “You can do anything” and then the old lady says, “What did you say?” and then you can just go on. Preston Sturges, who wrote The Palm Beach Story (1942), said screenplay writing is architecture. That’s why it’s so rare to read one that’s any good—all the Coen brothers’ are good—but it’s rare. It’s really hard to write a screenplay, it’s nauseating. All those great writers that tried to write screenplays, they couldn’t do it, most of them—Faulkner, whoever, Huxley. I don’t mean to talk so much about screenplay writing. Who wants to talk about screenplay writing? I’ve taught it and I felt like a charlatan because what I was teaching I probably couldn’t do.

BROWN: I’m curious about Duke, the doctor in “The Flame and the Arrow.” There’s also a peripheral character named Duke in the first story, “The Black Weasel,” a midget who works at the circus. I assumed that they were the same person, but they’re not at all.

FANCHER: Oh, it’s different. Yeah, there’s a midget named Duke in “The Black Weasel.” Duke was hard because the Duke in “The Flame and the Arrow” was supposed to be Doc, but there was a Doc in “The Black Weasel.”

BROWN: They’re both one-eyed—that’s what threw me off. with Duke the doctor, I was waiting for them to mention something about him being a midget.

FANCHER: [Laughs] I forgot that they’re both one-eyed. That’s funny. That doctor is my dad, and he would love that. He would laugh so hard. He’s been dead a long time, but that’s funny to me you were waiting for him to be a midget—my dad was tall, a boxer, anything but a midget.

BROWN: Are most of your stories autobiographical?

FANCHER: There’s a lot of autobiography in “The Black Weasel.” “The Flame and the Arrow” is totally [autobiographical].

BROWN:  I really liked “Narrowing the Divide.”

FANCHER: Oh, “Narrowing the Divide” is Ratty. I want to do Ratty as a play.  See, I’d like to get some young, skinny actor to play the rat—do it without any makeup or anything—and have the appropriate actor—angry, frustrated, with a certain kind of intelligence—play Big Jim and do it naked on stage. That’s how it started, that particular story.  I was teaching an acting class a long time ago and I decided to set that up as an improvisation. I said, “I want everybody here to have some kind of animal that they can translate into human behavior. I don’t care if it’s a fucking potato bug, an ant, whatever it is, but get it and keep it for a week, and then I want to see it next week.” And John [Blyth] Barrymore came in with this rat and it was fantastic. That’s where I got that idea.

BROWN: Ratty’s loss of innocence, when he learned to talk, is rather biblical. He says, “I been compromised. If I hadn’t learned to talk I wouldn’t be ashamed.”

FANCHER: Yeah, that got me. It still gets me.  Just now when you said it, I kind of got choked up, because of that loss of innocence, when you become aware of yourself, self conscious.

BROWN: I heard that you were once a flamenco dancer…

FANCHER: I was a flamenco dancer. I still am a flamenco dancer, but in the front room. I grew up as a dancer.  I fell in love with dancing very young. My mother is an amateur dancer, my sister was a professional dancer—she was a stripper—and my parents had friends who were in the ballet, so I was aware of modern dance and traditional dancing. Then, when I was about 10, I saw a film that had flamenco in it—I mean some semblance of it, it was just some Hollywood Spanish dancing. I went nuts, I fell in love for the first and deepest time in my life. I couldn’t breathe except to do that.

BROWN: And how did you transition from flamenco dancing to acting?

FANCHER: I got discovered, I guess, and I went to LA because my parents were there and somebody asked me if I wanted to be in a movie. It was easy, it wasn’t easy to do, but I fell into it. I made a living as an actor for a long time, but I didn’t think of myself as an actor, I thought I was a writer. I tried to write things, but they were so ridiculous and stupid and impossible and I had not a clue what they were, so that delusion went on for a long time. Maybe it’s still going on, only somehow I sucked some people in. It was a long time of writing things that didn’t make sense in the real world, and I’m embarrassed about them now in a jocular way. I tried to write a novel when I was 13 and I hadn’t even read one. It was called Plaza of Death. [laughs]

BROWN: Pretty dramatic title.

FANCHER: [laughs] Yeah, it’s like I’ve always been writing the Plaza of Death.

BROWN: Is that what your novel is called now?

FANCHER: No, although it’s probably in there somewhere.

BROWN: You can put it on the cover page: “Formerly known as Plaza of Death.”

FANCHER: [laughs] Formerly known as the Plaza… [laughs] That’s good.

HAMPTON FANCHER IS READING FROM THE SHAPE OF THE FINAL DOG TONIGHT AT BOOKCOURT IN BROOKLYN, NEW YORK. THE SHAPE OF THE FINAL DOG IS OUT TODAY.