Writer and director Paul Schrader
Writer and director Paul Schrader directed the new film Autofocus, about the life of actor Bob Crane. Schrader wrote the screenplays for a number of classic films, including Taxi Driver and Raging Bull (Martin Scorsese directed). Films he directed include Affliction, The Comfort of Strangers and American Gigolo.
Other segments from the episode on October 14, 2002
DATE October 14, 2002 ACCOUNT NUMBER N/A
TIME 12:00 Noon-1:00 PM AUDIENCE N/A
PROGRAM Fresh Air
Interview: Paul Schrader discusses his new movie "Auto Focus"
TERRY GROSS, host:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.
Paul Schrader has a new movie called "Auto Focus." Schrader also wrote the
screenplays to the films "Taxi Driver," "Raging Bull" and "The Last Temptation
of Christ," and directed the films "Affliction," "American Gigolo" and
Hardcore." His new film, "Auto Focus," had its world premiere last month at
the Telluride Film Festival where Schrader was the subject of a special
"Auto Focus" is about sexual obsession and how it can be fed by the adulation
that comes with celebrity. It's based on the true story of a minor celebrity,
Bob Crane. He starred in "Hogan's Heroes," the '60s sitcom set in the
unlikely place of a World War II prisoner of war camp run by the Germans.
Here's a scene from the actual sitcom, featuring the characters of Sergeant
Schultz, Colonel Klink and the American POW Hogan, played by Bob Crane.
(Soundbite of "Hogan's Heroes")
Mr. JOHN BANNER: (As Sergeant Hans Schultz): Up, up, up, up, up, everybody.
Up, up, up, up.
(Unintelligible comments from group of men)
Mr. BANNER: (As Schultz) You're going to be counted, everybody. Up.
Unidentified Man #1: ...counted.
Unidentified Man #2: What do you mean? This is ridiculous.
Mr. WERNER KLEMPERER: (As Colonel Wilhelm Klink) Gentlemen, gentlemen, sorry
to disturb your beauty sleep. This won't take very long. Count them,
Mr. BANNER: (As Schultz) Jawohl, Herr Commandant.
Mr. BOB CRANE: (As Colonel Robert Hogan) Hey, hey, hey! What's all the
Mr. KLEMPERER: (As Klink) Ah, Colonel Hogan, good evening.
Mr. CRANE: (As Hogan) Don't you Germans ever knock?
Mr. KLEMPERER: (As Klink) I wanted to keep it a surprise.
Mr. CRANE: (As Hogan) It's bad taste waking people up in the middle of a
Mr. KLEMPERER: (As Klink) Just a minute, Hogan, the count is not over yet.
Mr. CRANE: (As Hogan) All right, get on with it.
Mr. KLEMPERER: (As Klink) What's your rush? You're not going anywhere.
Mr. CRANE: (As Hogan) As a matter of fact, I have a date in town.
Mr. KLEMPERER: (As Klink) Oh, really? Who's the lucky girl?
Mr. CRANE: (As Hogan) It's not a girl. It's an Eskimo.
Mr. KLEMPERER: (As Klink) Good old Yankee sense of humor.
Mr. CRANE: (As Hogan) Right. We're going to laugh all the way to Berlin.
GROSS: The viewers of "Hogan's Heroes" didn't know that actor Bob Crane was
obsessed with sex. He used his fame to attract women and would often record
his adventures with them on early state-of-the-art home video.
After "Hogan's Heroes" ended in 1971, Crane had trouble finding work. He
toured the country doing dinner theater.
In this scene from "Auto Focus," Crane is washed up and still trying to
impress women with whatever celebrity remains from his "Hogan's Heroes" days.
Sitting at a hotel bar with his eye on a woman, he asks the bartender to
switch the TV to the channel showing a "Hogan's Heroes" rerun. Crane is
played by Greg Kinnear.
(Soundbite of "Auto Focus")
Unidentified Woman: I'm sorry to bother you. It's just that I was sitting
over there and I noticed the TV, and I--well, is that you on the TV? Is it?
Mr. GREG KINNEAR (As Bob Crane): Oh, my gosh. That is embarrassing. I
didn't even know it was on. I'm Bob Crane.
Unidentified Woman: I know. I thought so.
Mr. KINNEAR: Yeah.
Unidentified Woman: Bob Crane, gosh, it's nice to meet you.
Mr. KINNEAR: Nice to meet you, too.
Unidentified Woman: I--Susan.
Mr. KINNEAR: Susan, all right.
Unidentified Woman: I loved your TV show.
Mr. KINNEAR: Well, appreciate that. I'm just in town here to do a little
bit of theater.
Unidentified Woman: I just wanted to say hi.
Mr. KINNEAR: Sure. Can I get you something? Another drink, an autograph...
Unidentified Woman: Well, I...
Mr. KINNEAR: ...a nude swim?
Unidentified Woman: (Laughs) Bob.
Mr. KINNEAR: You know, I'm a real photo nut. And how long are you girls in
GROSS: Bob Crane was beaten to death in his hotel room in 1978. His secret
life was uncovered during his murder trial. I spoke with Paul Schrader about
directing his new film, "Auto Focus."
What are the parts of Bob Crane's story that most interested you?
Mr. PAUL SCHRADER (Director): There were a number of things that attracted
me to the story and to the life of Bob Crane, but at the base of it, it had
the power of fiction, and I think that's the starting point of any film
biography. If you wouldn't tell this story, if it wasn't about a real person,
then you should have second thoughts about telling it at all. And so what I
found in Crane's life was a kind of emblematic or totemic American male life
from 1965 to 1980, and a man who was going through the flip side of female
liberation. And he--I realized he was a character like many other characters
that attracted me, which is essentially a person who wants to do one thing, or
wants to think he is one thing and behaves in the opposite way. And you know,
this is the heart and soul of psychoanalysis, you know, if we want to be
happy, why do we things that make us unhappy? And so when you run into a
character who lives that dilemma large, who comes at you like, you know, two
bright headlights of contradiction, that's quite attractive.
GROSS: Now you said you see the Bob Crane story as being the flip side of
women's liberation, and it seems to me like the women's liberation movement
and the whole sexual revolution of the '60s and early '70s was about, you
know, undoing certain repressions, feeling more free, testing certain limits.
But with the Bob Crane story, I mean, it's a compulsion. It's something he
has no control over, and he may see it as fitting into like the whole like
sexual revolution and cultural revolution of the '60s but what he's got is a
serious compulsion. It's a problem that's out of control.
Mr. SCHRADER: Yeah, but, as he says, `I'm normal.' Says he's normal.
GROSS: Well, that's what he thinks.
Mr. SCHRADER: Yeah, that's good for you.
Mr. SCHRADER: Which is sort of a delightful conundrum, and since he was
living in that climate of liberated feelings all across the board whether it
be, you know, political or sexual or drug or civil rights, he just felt that
he was, you know, in the groove. But what was interesting in some ways that
he was that kind of '60s hepcat, that kind of Rat Pack, sort of jazz mentality
who had to put on, you know, beads and bell-bottoms to keep scoring chicks,
and, in the end, remained every inch the sexist he ever was.
GROSS: Right. How do you see the character of Bob Crane connecting with
other characters you've made movies about, like Travis in "Taxi Driver" or the
character in "American Gigolo" or the father in "Hardcore"?
Mr. SCHRADER: Well, I mean, I think that like beginning with Travis, the
first script I wrote, or going to "Affliction," one--a more recent movie, you
have a person who is, again, acting at cross-purposes, and so Bob Crane is
saying, you know, `I'm a one-woman man, I'm a family man,' and all the while
this tail is growing out of his backside. Usually when I make these kind of
characters, at some point, at the end, they have a brief moment where they get
it, you know, because essentially they're kind of clueless and they're out of
sync. And all of a sudden they get it for a moment. Wade Whitehouse in
"Affliction" gets the fact that he has to kill his father. But Bob Crane
never gets it. He's as clueless on the day he dies as he was on the day we
GROSS: Yes, the Bob Crane character in your movie is delusional, he's
clueless, he thinks he's kind of happily indulging in sex, not realizing the
depth that he's sinking to, but he also narrates the movie, so what are some
of the tricky issues you have to deal with when the main character is
narrating their own story but they're kind of totally delusional and clueless
about what's really happening to their life?
Mr. SCHRADER: Well, you've just touched on something that I really love
doing, which is the unreliable narrator, because narration works sort of like
intravenous feeding. You're getting nourishment but you don't taste it, so it
seeps into your consciousness and so therefore you assume that your narrator
is reliable. Well, when he's unreliable, it creates a nice little frisson
between what you're seeing and what you're hearing. And again, it goes back
to "Taxi Driver," you know, my first script, where you have an unreliable
narrator who's telling you how the world worked and you are seeing that world
and it wasn't working the way he was telling you it worked. Again, the same
here with Mr. Crane. So the narration does a number of things. It helps you
expositionally because you're covering 15 years. It also allows you to hear
how this man thinks, but it also creates an odd dislocation between what
you're hearing and what you're seeing.
GROSS: In your movie the character of Bob Crane has a friend named John
Carpenter who's based on a real character in Crane's life and he's a high-end
video salesman and repairman who's in on all the new technology of the '60s,
so you have--you know, he's selling these emerging videotape recorders that
you can use at home and video cameras and this is kind of revolutionary for
home recording equipment and the celebrities, the rich people, are the first
people who can afford to buy it. So Crane's really thrilled to get into this.
Tell us a little bit about the John Carpenter character and his role in the
Mr. SCHRADER: Carpenter worked for a company called Sonycom at that time,
and they were issuing the first VTRs, which was a videotape recorder before
they were VCRs, and he kind of freelanced and he tried to place this equipment
in the hands of celebrities, as they often do when they have a new product.
And he had sold one to Richard Dawson, who was a gadget freak, and
then--Dawson was on the same show, "Hogan's," as Bob Crane--and he met Bob
Crane. Well, they became pals, and Bob's eldest son, you know, told me that
he thought John Carpenter was his father's only friend. And they hunted
chicks together and they hunted chicks for a dozen years, and they videotaped
and catalogued their exploits. And you know, they became a kind of a
symbiotic team. When Crane was murdered, it was the police theory that
Carpenter killed him because Crane was trying to break off the relationship.
They subsequently took John to trial and he was acquitted. They had--it was a
good fit for them. It was motive, means and opportunity, unfortunately they
just didn't have the evidence, and the jury was out about 20 minutes and he
GROSS: You know, in a way, I mean, like, celebrity enables people to indulge
their appetites in the extreme, as it did for Bob Crane. I'm wondering if
that's something you've seen happen a lot in Hollywood, you know, where people
indulge appetites that aren't necessarily healthy, at least not at that level.
Mr. SCHRADER: Well, it's not just Hollywood. You know, it's--every community
has its star, too.
GROSS: True. Right.
Mr. SCHRADER: And--but, you know, most of us, most of them, you know, who
are successful, have pretty strong governors, you know, ways they know that
how they have to control their behavior if they are going to maintain this
fame and financial security that they have struggled so hard to achieve. And
the irony in Crane's case, you know, he struggles 20-some years to come from
nowhere to become a TV star and a hit disc jockey. And then he reaches a
point where his behavior is undermining that and he can't stop.
GROSS: Paul Schrader, have you thought a lot about how a sexual drive can get
so out of control?
Mr. SCHRADER: Well, I don't know whether it's sex, per se, or it's just
addictive behavior. And whenever you have addictive behavior, there's a big
displacement going on. Something else is being replaced. You know, it's
like the drug addict who says, `I used to have a lot of problems but now I've
only got one.'
Mr. SCHRADER: And also part of his sexual addiction was a kind of
cataloging. When he was a family man with young children he used to catalog
all the games they played. When he became the home-porn freak, he cataloged
all the women. There was something going on there that was beyond simple, you
know, sexual release. It was a kind of obsessive-compulsive addictive force
that was blotting out or replacing some other insecurity, you know, and that
is when, you know, sex becomes problematic is when it becomes
counterproductive to your life. You know, I don't think of someone like Hugh
Hefner as being a sex addict because I think that it's an absolutely
functional way for him to live. Crane, it didn't work that way, and he was
really of that same generation.
GROSS: My guest is Paul Schrader. He directed the new film "Auto Focus."
More after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
GROSS: My guest is Paul Schrader. He directed the new movie "Auto Focus."
Another interesting thing about Bob Crane is that here he is a celebrity
indulging this sexual--overindulging this sexual appetite, but he's a kind of
small-time celebrity. He's kind of like a one-hit wonder. And you know, at a
certain point in his life, he's--he has to go to, like, hotel bars to find
women who will recognize him. So it's another really interesting angle of it
that it's not this big celebrity he has, it's kind of small-time.
Mr. SCHRADER: Well, he ended up on the dinner theater circuit, which, you
know, was quite lucrative and it brought him into, you know, all the bedroom
communities of America, and...
GROSS: And their bedrooms.
Mr. SCHRADER: ...he had--yeah. And he had, you know, a regular routine, you
know. They would do the show and then he would come out afterward and speak
to the audience and sort of work them up and tell them where he was going to
be and he had it down.
GROSS: And in terms of like small-time celebrity, John Carpenter, the video
salesman, is always bragging about how he sold video equipment to Tommy
Smothers, Dick Rowan and Elvis, and I love hearing their names all mentioned
in the same sentence. Like Dick Rowan and Elvis on the same level.
Mr. SCHRADER: Actually, he also sold it to Jay Silverheels who played Tonto
and there's a whole kind of Lone Ranger and Tonto motif in the film because
Carpenter was half-Indian and, of course, Bob Crane was the masked man.
GROSS: Right. Right. As you explained, because John Carpenter is this video
whiz, he hooks up this videotaping system where he and Bob Crane can secretly
tape their sexual adventures with the women they bring over, and then they can
get aroused again by watching back the tapes. And they often watched the
tapes together and they get aroused together and they masturbate while
watching these tapes. You have a scene in which that happens. That's a
really interesting scene and I would like you to talk about shooting that
scene, directing that scene, and what kind of tone you were aiming for in that
scene, because you have to strike the right tone.
Mr. SCHRADER: Yeah, I like that scene. I think it's an absolute hoot.
While we were shooting it I had to sort of bite my tongue to keep from
laughing. You know, they're two--they're sitting there watching the videos
and complaining about women, you know, and Crane says, `What is it about
women, Carp? You know, they get you and they change their minds,' and all the
while, you know, they're jerking off and can't quite figure out why women
don't understand them. And I just thought this was just delicious in the
extreme, and I ended up the scene and fell back and did a kind of tableau,
which I sort of like to think of as my Norman Rockwell, you know, the
all-American scene, only in this case it's these two home-porn pioneers
complaining about women and watching their videos.
GROSS: Instead of drinking beer and watching the football game...
Mr. SCHRADER: Yeah.
GROSS: ...and complaining about women. Right. So what was it like directing
that scene? What did you tell Willem Dafoe and Greg Kinnear before shooting?
Mr. SCHRADER: Well, as in everything in this particular film, you want to
keep underplaying it always because it's the accretion of underplaying that
finally, you know, gets under your skin and feels really creepy. And so
that--you're always understating it. And so I think Greg at one point wanted
to separate the women talk and the masturbation. And I said, you know, if you
do that, then you lose the underplaying. The truly sort of funny odd thing
about it is that, you know, both these activities can happen at the same time
and they don't see the connection.
GROSS: No, that's how clueless they really are. The look of the earlier
scenes in the movie--in which Bob Crane is still a family man and he hosts a
very popular morning radio show in Los Angeles and then starts on "Hogan's
Heroes," which becomes very successful--the look of those earlier scenes is
much different than the look of the later scenes as he descends deeper and
deeper into this sexual obsession. Can you talk a little bit about the
difference in shooting the earlier scenes and the later scenes?
Mr. SCHRADER: Well, we came up with an idea called the accretion of clutter
which is that life just gets messier and messier, and it originally began as
an idea for set design and then we applied it right across the board--color
scheme, film stock, camera style, hair, makeup, wardrobe, music, camera
technique, and so that by the end of the film, you know, you become aware that
you are watching a different movie than you were watching an hour ago, and
therefore there's a kind of incremental shift in all the elements of the film,
trying to obscure the exact point where it shifts into another sensibility,
you know, much like an addiction itself, you know? An addict can't really
tell you the moment it all changed.
GROSS: And what's different about the camera technique?
Mr. SCHRADER: Well, it starts out very fluid, you know, dollies and--locked
off and dollies and then it moves to steady cam and then it moves to a kind of
handheld pretending to be steady and then it moves to a handheld not
pretending to be steady and then it moves into hard-core shaky cam where
you're going out of focus and everything.
GROSS: And what about the visual clutter you were talking about, you know,
the theory of clutter? What's--how does the visual clutter change as the
Mr. SCHRADER: Well, that first just came out of the idea of cords, of TV
electronic cords, and everybody who's had video in the house knows what a mess
that technology makes in your house. And so just using that idea and taking
it forward, so that, you now, the neat, well-ordered house of 1965 becomes the
video clutter of 1978.
GROSS: Paul Schrader directed the new movie "Auto Focus." Here's another
scene. Bob Crane and John Carpenter, his sidekick in his sexual adventures,
are sitting at a bar. Carpenter is played by Willem Dafoe.
(Soundbite of "Auto Focus")
Mr. KINNEAR: (As Crane) She's a fox. Look at the caboose on her.
Mr. WILLEM DAFOE: (As John Carpenter) A day without sex is a day wasted.
Mr. KINNEAR: (As Crane) ...a day wasted.
This place is dead.
Mr. DAFOE: (As Carpenter) Yeah, we still got time to hit a strip joint.
Mr. KINNEAR: (As Crane) And we need to talk
Mr. DAFOE: (As Carpenter) I don't like the sound of that. `We got to talk,'
that's what a chick says when she's going to lower the boom.
Mr. KINNEAR: (As Crane) Thinking about getting out.
Mr. DAFOE: (As Carpenter) Of what?
Mr. KINNEAR: (As Crane) Whole scene.
Mr. DAFOE: (As Carpenter) Whole what scene?
Mr. KINNEAR: (As Crane) The dinner theater, all the rest.
Mr. DAFOE: (As Carpenter) Excuse me. I'm confused.
Mr. KINNEAR: (As Crane) The road, the hustling, the broads, the whole thing.
Mr. DAFOE: (As Carpenter) You mean me? I'm part of the whole thing?
Mr. KINNEAR: (As Crane) Well, without the dinner theater, we'd see each other
less. I want to restart my career.
Mr. DAFOE: (As Carpenter) You're kidding, right?
GROSS: We'll talk more with director Paul Schrader in the second half of the
show. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross, back with Paul Schrader. He
wrote the screenplays for "Taxi Driver," "Raging Bull" and "The Last
Temptation of Christ," and directed the films "American Gigolo," "Hardcore"
and "Affliction." His new movie, "Auto Focus," is based on the secret life of
actor Bob Crane, the star of the '60s sitcom "Hogan's Heroes." Crane had a
sexual obsession and used his celebrity to attract women. Crane is played in
the movie by Greg Kinnear.
Now I have to say Greg Kinnear is very good in the role of Bob Crane, and he's
somebody who started off doing, you know, "Talk Soup" on the E! channel, being
a kind of smug comic, making fun of television shows. He's evolved into a
really interesting actor. Did you have any doubts at first about his ability
to pull this off?
Mr. SCHRADER: No. When I first got involved with this film, someone
mentioned his name to me, and I thought about five seconds and said, `That is
a great idea.'
Mr. SCHRADER: Because he has all the equipment that Bob Crane had when he
walks in the door. He has that glib sensibility, has that smirking, funny,
ironic tone. He knows light comedy. These are not easy things to teach an
actor, so I had the--the actor had these, and I'd been watching his
performances and I'd seen him grow better, and I felt quite sure that I could
take him out in the deep end of the pool and he would be all right. And I'm
comfortable out in the deep end. I'm comfortable out there with an actor in
the deep end, and he's comfortable in the shallow end, so it seemed like the
best of both worlds and it actually worked out that way.
GROSS: In directing the film "Auto Focus," it's a film about sexuality that's
gone out of control, so you have to depict, as realistically as you can, the
sex lives of these main characters. On the other hand, you have to be able to
screen it in multiplexes. So what was your approach to figuring out what to
show and what not to show?
Mr. SCHRADER: Well, you know, it's about the birth of home porn, so you got
to let the audience know that's what you're doing. The ratings board is
rather restrictive at the moment, and I thought I was working within the R,
and I wasn't, because I was sort of basing my thing--my take on it on HBO and
on "Six Feet Under" and "The Sopranos," and that's sort of the kind of stuff I
was shooting. Well, it turns out you couldn't show "Six Feet Under" in a
multiplex. It wouldn't be rated R. So I had a number of scenes that I had to
deal with in that way, and I chose to obscure, or pixelate, the offending
areas, which is, you know, an unfortunate compromise, and when it goes to
Europe, you know, the simulated sex will be as it was shot.
But when you see it in a multiplex, it'll be pixelated, and I left it
pixelated so that the viewer would know that, yes, Bob was shooting hard-core
at this time, it wasn't cheesecake, and no, we can't show it to you now.
GROSS: Do you wish that you could?
Mr. SCHRADER: Well, I mean, it is simulated, and it's not that different
than--it's pretty much the same kind of stuff they're showing on "Six Feet
Under," so I was a little thrown when I realized I couldn't.
GROSS: Now there's a scene early on in the movie where Bob Crane meets with a
priest. This is when he's still kind of holding to the fiction of his life,
and the priest says `It's not easy to resist temptation. You must remove
yourself from the occasion of sin.' I thought of two things when the priest
says that. One is when he says `It's not easy to resist temptation,' I
thought of your film "The Last Temptation of Christ," obviously. And then I
also thought a little bit about your own life, since you grew up in a
fundamentalist family, in a family where even dancing and going to see movies
was forbidden. So I guess I'm wondering if when you broke away from that,
where so much that we would consider ordinary and commonplace was forbidden,
if it was ever easy to swing to the other extreme and overindulge in things
that had been forbidden?
Mr. SCHRADER: No, I don't think so, for me, because I had a Calvinist
background and that ethic is pretty rigorous and it's pretty hard to escape,
this whole sense that you are put on this Earth for a reason; there is moral
certainty; at the end of your life you will be called into account. Even when
you leave that world, even when you break away from it, those elements still
stay with you, you know. You really can't run far away enough to run away
from that. So you know, even though, you know, I became so-called liberated
and lived in Los Angeles, my primary drive was the work and to do things that
I felt would be worthy of my talents.
GROSS: You said that Pauline Kael convinced you to become a film critic
instead of a minister, which was what you were originally studying to be.
What did she say to you that convinced you?
Mr. SCHRADER: Well, she just validated, you know, something that was
probably pretty obvious from talking to me. No, I was in pre-sem, and I had
met her through one of those serendipities of life that changes one's life,
and I had come to New York for a summer to see movies, because movies were
forbidden and I wanted to know more about them. And after meeting her, you
know, she said, `You know, you want to be a film critic, and we are going to
keep in touch.' And we did, and she became my mentor and eventually she got
me into UCLA Film School and got me a job as a critic.
GROSS: My guest is Paul Schrader. He directed the new movie "Auto Focus."
We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Paul Schrader. He wrote "Taxi
Driver," Raging Bull," "The Last Temptation of Christ." He directed "Blue
Collar," "American Gigolo," "The Comfort of Strangers," "Affliction." His new
film is called "Auto Focus," and it's based on the true story of the actor Bob
Crane, who starred in the TV sitcom "Hogan's Heroes" in the '60s and early
'70s, and it turned out that he was leading a very kind of obsessive, sordid
Your first produced screenplay was "Taxi Driver." And in the book "Schrader on
Schrader," in which you're interviewed and also some of your early work is
reprinted, you said that when you were writing "Taxi Driver," you were very
enamored of guns, you were very suicidal, you were drinking heavily and you
were obsessed with pornography in the way a lonely person is. Can you talk a
little bit about that obsession with pornography and how, if at all, it
figures into the new movie "Auto Focus."
Mr. SCHRADER: Well, I was wandering. And at that time in Los Angeles where
I was living, you know, the pussycat theaters were open all night long. And
so it was kind of a loner's paradise. And also, it really is such a strong
visual world that it kind of is like a narcotic or alcoholic kind of, you
know, blurs and blasts out all the other pain in your life. So I think that
was really more of the function than any overheated prurience.
GROSS: Now I have to say--you said that you didn't go to extremes after
leaving--after leaving the Calvinist religion, but you must have felt like you
were doing something very taboo when you were going to strip clubs.
Mr. SCHRADER: Well, I don't think anything's taboo.
GROSS: No, but you came up in a world where that was taboo.
Mr. SCHRADER: Yeah. Yeah. No--you know, once you leave a closed community,
like Grand Rapids, Michigan, was at that time, you in a way sort of fall off
the edge of the table. The people you've left behind aren't interested in who
you've become. When you return home, you know, they don't ask you where
you've been and they don't pay attention, in my case, to your career. And so
it's almost like you've walked through a doorway into another world. You're
still bringing your old world with you, but then a lot of the reference points
are simply gone.
GROSS: I want to just get back to that quote from the book "Schrader on
Schrader" where you said that, you know, when you were writing "Taxi Driver,"
among other things, you were very enamored of guns and you were suicidal. You
owned a gun then. Was the gun for possible suicide or for self-protection?
Mr. SCHRADER: I thing again you're talking about blotting out a certain level
of emotional pain and the--and just the fantasy that you can end your life is
a palliative and an anesthetic. So that kind of drifted around in the back of
my consciousness for a number of years, in greater and lesser degrees. And
then when I got married and I had a daughter, I remember quite well this--you
know, shortly after she was born I was lying in bed and I realized all the
suicidal fantasies were gone. They were just gone now, and I had suddenly
been jolted into a reality where I realized how selfish and silly all these
fantasies were and that I could proceed now without them. And I have,
although a friend--I told this story to a friend and he reminded me, he said,
`Don't worry. They come back.'
GROSS: Wasn't that reassuring? That's what friends are for.
But I imagine you've used some of those fantasies of your past for characters
or at least used them to help you understand marginal characters.
Mr. SCHRADER: Yeah. I mean, you know, the secret of the creative life is how
to feel at ease with your own embarrassment, you know.
GROSS: So that's interesting.
Mr. SCHRADER: Yeah. Because, you know, we're all in, you know, the dirty
laundry business and we're being paid, you know, to take risks and look silly.
You know, some people like race car drivers get paid to risk their lives in a
more concrete way; we get paid to risk our lives in an emotional way.
GROSS: Since writing and directing a film is risky business in that respect,
do you have to banish the film critic in you when you're working on a movie?
You know, because a film critic is very critical and that kind of criticism
can paralyze you while you're in the creative process.
Mr. SCHRADER: Yeah, absolutely. The analogy I like to draw is that, you
know, the film critic is like a medical examiner. He gets the cadaver on a
table, you know, he opens it up and tries to figure out how it lived or why it
died. And the filmmaker is like a pregnant mother who is just simply trying
to nourish this thing and trying to make sure that it is not born stillborn.
So that you have to keep the medical examiner out of the delivery room,
because he will get in there and he will kill that baby.
GROSS: That's a great analogy. I really like that.
Did you ever talk about that with Pauline Kael, your good friend and mentor
who was a film critic?
Mr. SCHRADER: No, I don't think so.
GROSS: You like a lot of great movies that weren't necessarily commercial
successes, and then you realized as a filmmaker and former critic that a
commercial success isn't necessarily the sign of a good movie. How much does
commercial success mean to you? Like if "Auto Focus" is not a big box-office
hit, will that affect your view of the film or not?
Mr. SCHRADER: Well, you know, Jean Luc Godard once said, `No great movie is
successful for the right reason.' And I think that's true, you know. And
sometimes these films become successful in fluky ways.
I have a pretty good feeling about "Auto Focus." I think that it's going to do
really quite well. It wasn't that expensive a film, and so I think it will
help me. You know, it's hard to finance films. It gets no easier as you get
older, particularly now with the stock market where it is. You know, there
aren't many crumbs falling off the table and there's a lot of scavenger dogs
out there going for those crumbs. And so that obviously any commercial
success gives you--you know, puts you at the head of the pack.
On top of which, I'm off in nine weeks to shoot my first studio film in 20
years, a prequel to "The Exorcist." So perhaps if I don't completely screw
that up, it might be possible, you know, for me to end my career standing on
my own feet, rather than groveling for coins.
GROSS: Well, Paul Schrader, thank you so much for talking with us.
Mr. SCHRADER: Thank you, Terry.
GROSS: Paul Schrader directed the new film "Auto Focus." It opens this
weekend in New York and LA and opens nationwide in November.
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
Interview: Stephen Ambrose, the late historical writer, discusses
his book "The Wild Blue" and writing historical works
TERRY GROSS, host:
Best-selling historian Stephen Ambrose died yesterday at the age of 66. He
had lung cancer. He played a major part in renewing interest in the history
of World War II. His best-sellers about the war include "D-Day" and "Band of
Brothers." His best-seller, "Undaunted Courage," told the story of Lewis and
Clark. He was very prolific, with about 35 books to his name. But earlier
this year, he was accused of having plagiarized some passages of his books.
In August of 2001, FRESH AIR guest host Neal Conan spoke with Ambrose about
the book he had just published, "The Wild Blue: The Men and Boys Who Flew the
B-24s Over Germany."
NEAL CONAN: You tell this story mostly through the experiences of one pilot
and his crew, and the pilot is George McGovern--I guess I should say
Ambassador McGovern, the former US senator, the Democratic Party's
presidential candidate in 1972. Why did you pick George McGovern?
Mr. STEPHEN AMBROSE (Historian, Author): I had been with McGovern in Austria
at Innsbruck in 1988 when he was asked to participate in a television
documentary that the Austrians were producing because he had been a bomber
pilot, and he was reluctant, but he accepted finally and went to do the
interview. And it was a woman who was sitting at the desk, and she said,
`Now, Senator McGovern, you're world famous for your opposition to war and
especially to the bombing in Vietnam. Yet, you were a bomber pilot in World
War II. You destroyed our beautiful cities. You killed our women and
children. Don't you regret that?' And George said, `No, I don't regret it at
all. I wanted to liberate your country, Austria, and Europe from Hitler, and
I wanted to do my part, and so I was a bomber pilot. No, I don't regret it at
Well, she was very distressed to hear that and disappointed, and McGovern then
added, `There is one bomb that I do think about quite a lot and I regret a
lot,' and she--`What was that?' She said, `What was that?' Well, he was
flying back from a mission over Vienna, back to his base in Italy, and the
crew called up, `Skipper, we've got a bomb, the last bomb, stuck in the bomb
bay door,' half in and half out of this airplane.
CONAN: This is a 500-pound bomb.
Mr. AMBROSE: Five hundred pound bomb, and George immediately said, `Well, we
can't land with a bomb sticking out of the bomb bay. You've got to either get
that thing out of there, drop it, or we're going to all have to bail out when
we get over Italy.'
CONAN: And nobody wanted to bail out.
Mr. AMBROSE: Nobody wanted to bail out. So a couple--the navigator and the
radio man went to work on that bomb, and they finally got it free and dropped.
Now by this time, McGovern was down at about 10,000 feet above the ground and
it was a clear day, and they could watch the bomb go. It hit a farm and just
blew it to smithereens, the house and the barn, big fire and so on. And
George looked at his watch. It was high noon. And he said, `Oh, oh.' He
came from South Dakota. He knows what time farmers eat lunch. And he
thought, `Oh, Lordy, this is a peaceful little farm. It's not bothering
anybody and I've just killed some people,' and oh, he just felt terrible. And
he thought about that a lot over the years between the war--and this happened
in 1945--and 1988 when he was on the Austrian TV.
Cut. And then a couple weeks or months later, whenever, they showed it on the
television in Austria, and the station got a call from a farmer who said, `It
was my farm. I know exactly what had happened. I know it was a single bomber
up there, and I want you to tell Senator McGovern nobody got killed. We saw
that bomb and we got into the air raid shelter,' he and his wife and his two
daughters, `and nobody got killed. So please tell Senator McGovern that.'
`OK. We will.' And then he said, `But one other thing I want you to tell
him. I don't care what other Austrians say today, I hated Hitler. And my
thought as I watched my farm go up in smoke was, if this shortens the war by
one minute, it's worth it.' Well, the station called George and gave him that
message, and as George says today, it just wiped the slate clean.
Well, that story has always stuck with me, and then a couple years ago, I was
having dinner with George, and he said that a reporter had been interviewing
him and wanted to do a book on his career in the Second World War; 35 missions
he flew, got a Distinguished Flying Cross. And I said, `Great, tell the
reporter to start with that story of that bomb stuck in the bomb bay door.'
And George looked at me and said, `I wish you were writing it.' And I said,
`Well, George, I would love to do that, but this other guy's already gotten
started.' George said, `I'll talk to him.' And he did and I got the
assignment, and so I did this book.
GROSS: We're listening to Stephen Ambrose, speaking with Neal Conan on FRESH
AIR. Ambrose died yesterday. We'll hear more of this interview, which was
recorded in 2001, after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
GROSS: Best-selling historian Stephen Ambrose died yesterday at the age of
66. We're listening back to an interview he recorded in August of 2001 when
Neal Conan was guest hosting FRESH AIR. Ambrose had just published "The Wild
Blue," the story of B-24s and the men and boys who flew these heavy bombers in
World War II. It focused on the experiences of one crew and its pilot, George
McGovern, who was later elected to the Senate and ran for president.
CONAN: McGovern's crew got its first taste of real combat on their second
mission, and it's something you describe in your book. And I was wondering if
you could read us an excerpt. It's about their second mission together as a
crew and they're flying to a target in Austria called Linz.
Mr. AMBROSE: Hitler's birthplace. `It was at Linz on this their second
mission that McGovern said, "We got introduced to combat." The flak was
heavy. Up to that point, McGovern had thought that exploding flak looked like
firecrackers and rockets going off. He learned better when a big slug of flak
came right through the windshield "high into my right. It hit just above my
right shoulder into the right of my head and then fell down on to the floor
between Rounds and me."' Rounds was his co-pilot.
`McGovern and Rounds looked down at it. Rounds looked over to McGovern and
just shook his head. McGovern did the same. "The shrapnel was," McGovern
later said, "the angriest-looking piece of metal, just jagged on every edge
and big enough to tear your head off if it hit a few inches to the left or
maybe a few more inches on Bill Rounds' side." It was freezing at 25,000
feet, 50 degrees below zero Fahrenheit, and the cold rush of wind, despite all
the sheep-skinned lined jackets and pants they had on and despite their
electrically heated suits, it was just ferocious, that cold rush of wind.'
McGovern managed to keep his plane in formation but barely. "All I could do
was just sit there and do my job," he said.'
CONAN: There must have been an awful feeling of lack of control when you're
up there being fired at by cannon 88s, those famous German guns from the
ground. There's no way to dodge. There's nowhere to hide.
Mr. AMBROSE: The Germans developed a system in which they would shoot up to
the altitude the planes were coming in on, 20,000, 22,000, whatever. And they
would shoot up and create a box of exploding shells, all of them sending out
shrapnel that could kill as much as 50 feet or even more away. And they would
have a box that would be 2,000 feet or more wide, 2,000 or more feet deep, and
this is the words of the pilots, `It just looked like hell up there.' And the
idea of flying into that terrified everybody, but if you were going to drop
your bombs where you were supposed to, you had to fly into that flak. And
CONAN: Stephen Ambrose, a lot of people must wonder--you never served in the
US military yourself.
Mr. AMBROSE: No, I did not. There's an explanation. I was born in January
of 1936. Now every man alive from the beginning of time always has a question
on his mind: Am I a coward? And the only way you're ever going to find out
is to go into combat, but most men are born at a time that they're never going
to see combat. I was too young for World War II. I graduated high school in
1953, and I was going to join the Marines but Eisenhower shut down the Korean
War, so I went to college instead. And by the time of Vietnam, I had five
kids and I was much too old. That's the experience of most men. I don't know
if I'm a coward or not. I've never been confronted with it. I never was in
CONAN: Why did you get so interested in writing about it? You've
written--I'm not going to tote them up, but, you know, many of the best books
about World War II.
Mr. AMBROSE: I got into it because I was a historian trained at the
University of Wisconsin. And it seemed to me then and does now that war is
always decisive. The thing that drives me as a writer is curiosity. I want
to know, how did Dwight Eisenhower rise from a man that, had he died in 1941,
when he was 51 years old, nobody would've ever heard his name? How did he
rise from that to be the supreme commander and our leader in war and in peace?
Or how did the men who jumped out of airplanes--you talk about crazy. These
guys jump out of perfectly good airplanes. How did they do that and with what
effect? So, my curiosity drives me and I never have considered doing anything
else than satisfying that curiosity and that means--the only way I can really
find--I did a book on the building of the transcontinental railroad, for
example, and my question there was the same: How did they do that? How, from
between 1863 and 1869, in that short space of time, did they do something that
had never been done before: build a railroad across a continent?
Well, I can only find the answer to that question by writing about it. The
research is what I learn from and then also the writing. And I'll think,
`Jeez, what does the reader need to know next to be able to follow this
story?' Or, `I'm doing a little repetition here, I've got to cut that out,'
or whatever. But I learn from the act of writing, and it's what I've always
wanted to do, is learn.
GROSS: Historian Stephen Ambrose, speaking with Neal Conan in August of 2001
when Neal was guest hosting FRESH AIR. Ambrose died yesterday at the age of
GROSS: I'm Terry Gross.
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