PopMatters Film and TV Editor
Hampton Fancher is classically cool: relaxed, earnest, seductive. Lean and gray-haired, he wears his shoes sockless and takes his coffee decaffeinated. Fancher grew up in L.A., where he watched a lot of movies and dropped out of school around the 7th grade. He’s lived in Spain and New York, been a professional dancer, actor, and acting teacher, though he’s probably best known for writing Blade Runner and marrying Sue Lyons (Stanley Kubrick’s Lolita) when she was 16 and he was in his 20s.
Now, at 61, he’s written and directed The Minus Man, based on Lew McCreary’s 1990 novel about an unusual serial killer named Vann. As reconceived by Fancher and played by Owen Wilson (he of the crooked nose), Vann is a young man so evidently passive that he seems to subtract energy from the people around him. At once absorbing and reflecting his environment, the enigmatic Vann kills from a distance: he poisons his victims and leaves them, sometimes even before they die. Though Vann is a pathological outsider, he also lives vitally inside himself, while observing and desiring the various “insides” around him: the communities, friendships, and connections that he cannot know.
I asked Fancher what attracted him to the book, as his directorial debut.HF:
Outsiders, you know, of questionable mentalities, are interesting to me. I don’t know why they’re interesting to me, they’re interesting to all of us, this mix of good and evil, saints and sinners. Saints don’t interest me that much, actually, unless they’re sinners. But it’s not even that, the good-evil equation. That helps the drama and the moral dilemma for sure, the idea of conscience. But it’s really the outsider, with an innocence that wants to come into the corrupt world, but doesn’t know how to come into it. It’s representative of all of us, we’re kind of incarcerated. We make overtures and gestures, we get inside, but we never really get inside. We’re locked in our own inside. I think of Steppenwolf sitting on the steps, the Stranger in Camus, living without purpose and yet living meticulously. I saw the potential for that in the book. There’s a pathology that unfolds in the book.CF:
You found a literal way to show that, with the two federal agents in Vann’s head.HF:
That started out as a device. Screenplays are about exposition, that’s the bugaboo. That began as a device to give exposition, Vann’s back story. At first, it was like, how am I going to handle this, the guy’s a serial killer. What do I use? Newspapers? Radio reports. Then I realized, these agents weren’t that. I wanted Vann to be in total control of everything, to be very sane, as sane as Huckleberry Finn. So where is the insane? The Hieronymous Bosch, that other self? That was in the cops, but they’re whimsical.CF:
But doesn’t a serial killer provoke the anxiety that he may not be insane? What if he’s the logical product of his and maybe our environment?HF:
Right, like Newt Gingrich or Milosovich. Milosovich loves his dog, he tells you a joke. You end up embracing him. I said that and someone who really knows him said, that’s absolutely true. In person, he’s really intelligent, really funny, a wonderful guy to get along with. That’s always dumbfounded me. I really like Mephistopheles, he’s the most intelligent. Faust is an asshole compared to Mephistopheles.CF:
It seems that there’s not much back story for Vann, explaining his motives or tragic childhood.HF:
Vann is for me, heroic. That’s what I was thinking, to do Shane without shooting anybody.CF:
But Shane was so burdened and so self-conscious about his burden.HF:
Yeah, Shane has the weight of his past. The only time you see Vann’s weight is in Ferrin’s [played by Janeane Garafolo] portrait of the kid shooting himself in the head. But mostly, Vann is a free soul. I think he exemplifies worth emulating. I couldn’t have done it otherwise. He walks through life without taking LSD, on LSD. He looks at details, he’s not concerned about tomorrow.CF:
And his murders are so distanced, there’s not thrill in brains splattering or faces contorting in fear.HF:
Yes, and the murders are random, it’s not like he’s got some hard-on for a particular victim type. He’s even reluctant to do it. Like the jock in the truck, he could very easily have not done it. He doesn’t answer him at first, when the kid asks him, “Is that booze?” It’s too sweet. I don’t care whether anyone else thinks this or not, but I think he’s redeemed. That’s not so I can get cozy with the story, but when the devils get out of hand, he’s redeemed. When he gets violent with Ferrin, for the first time in his life, as I see it, his sins are inflated. And he can’t do it again. And that’s when the cops in his head say, “Adios motherfucker.”CF:
But the jock in the truck, though Vann doesn’t intend the murder, there is a context for him, in the jock’s and Vann’s parallel relationships with Doug [Brian Cox].HF:
Oh sure, I love that. The football hero, and Vann doesn’t play football. He wants to be somebody’s son, and Doug tells him that the football hero is the only thing that’s important to him in his life. And when the jock is dead, that important thing [for Doug] becomes Vann. It’s like sibling rivalry. [The movie’s] central idea has to do with incarceration. I wanted the whole film to look austere, but at the same time, there was this tension and unease growing underneath the surface. It was that duality again, the characters were private in spite of themselves, or their intimacy broke through in spite of their defenses. They’re locked up inside themselves, they have charity, sympathies, but they don’t know how to alleviate the positive pressure of that need to be charitable, to be considerate, to understand. It’s about disarmament. They were all disarmed by Vann’s presence.CF:
That’s something else again: Vann’s extreme passivity, Doug’s masochism and generosity, Jane’s struggle to nurture and control. The characters don’t function according to a typical gender grid.HF:
It’s funny, because that traditional gendering would never have occurred to me. I’m not even in touch with it. I was brought up by women, my girlfriends are in the army of women. I’ve always been the daughter. I like to wash dishes.CF:
Related to that is the way the film messes with the expectation that you have a stable or definite identity. Vann is so fluid. Partly that’s pathologized, as it would be in a more regular serial killer movie, but it’s also, like you say, heroic or desirable.HF:
I wanted him to be a lullaby. His face, his hair, the skin, the way it was shot, the way he moves. He’s a pokey young kid. He’s a Thanatos. I was thinking about the voluptuosity of heroin, the desire to drink wine, make love. I like the after of making love better than making love. I think we all want to get wormy. If it smells good, we like it. It should be sweet, not bitter. Owen was just perfect. You ask him a question, and he’s just huh? The death that pervades the whole film. Everybody in the film is looking for death, quiet, serenity.
Cynthia Fuchs is director of Film & Media Studies and Associate Professor of English, Film & Video Studies, African and African American Studies, Sport & American Culture, and Women and Gender Studies at George Mason University.
Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/feature/fancher-hampton/