By Jeremy Carr.
Escapes, a new documentary from director Michael Almereyda and executive producer Wes Anderson, begins with Philip K. Dick’s ruminations on “counterfeit worlds…Semi-real worlds as well as deranged private worlds, inhabited often by just one person.” The acclaimed author’s role in the movie Almereyda develops is an important one, but for now, his words serve as stage setting for the wild life story of the film’s subject: the actor, writer, and director Hampton Fancher.
Most famously known as the screenwriter who adapted Dick’s “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?,” the text that formed the foundation for Ridley Scott’s groundbreaking 1982 science fiction film Blade Runner, Fancher had quite the career prior to this cinematic apex, and he lived quite the intriguing life. Eclectic and enigmatic – like its subject – Escapes covers a good deal in just 90 minutes’ time, beginning with a brisk tour of Fancher’s initial acting stints (primarily television Westerns like Bonanza, Have Gun – Will Travel, The Rifleman, Maverick, and Rawhide), his occupational hardships (ditch-digging in Laurel Canyon), and his budding romances (with Teri Garr, for one).
It’s about 15 minutes into the film before we ever actually see Fancher in his current state, though; that’s when the first chapter ends. Structurally, Escapes is divided into seven distinct segments and a coda, and its second phase, titled “The Brain Eaters” (so named for Fancher’s uncredited screen debut in 1958), goes back several years to the actor’s childhood, as he was growing up during World War II, moving from place to place, getting in trouble at school, studying dance, experimenting with drugs and alcohol, dropping out of school, etc. On the romantic front, Almereyda and Fancher spotlight the star’s short-lived marriage to Joann McNabb and his similarly short-lived fling with Lolita’s Sue Lyon.
Formally, no two chapters are exactly the same (this second episode is told entirely through photographs and printed text), which makes for an unconventional, indeterminate chronicle – this is no standard beat-by-beat biography. Some of the prolonged anecdotes don’t appear instantly meaningful or altogether relevant, but in time, the work to build this portrait pays off with a sketch that ultimately proves rather revealing, personally, professionally, or even just topically. One such instance is Fancher’s extended recollection concerning a promotional trip to Pennsylvania, an experience involving the dubious manipulation of a young woman, an averted catastrophe, and a wonderful punchline. Another large narrative swath is devoted to Brian Kelly, star of the Flipper television series. For a surprising amount of time, Almereyda allows Fancher opportunity to gush about the womanizing he-man. Like many elements of Escapes, it is only gradually that Kelly’s role in Fancher’s life is fully determined.
As it turns out, it was Kelly and Barbara Hershey, Fancher’s great love, who helped push the fledgling scriptwriter into his most prominent achievement, adapting Blade Runner (Kelly would also act as the film’s executive producer). Fancher had started writing screenplays in the 1960s, sending projects to the likes of Michelangelo Antonioni and Oskar Werner, and it was in 1974 that he visited Dick to discuss the novelist’s 1968 source. Drawing on his film noir fondness, a year of writing and 10 drafts later, the result was one of the most astonishing science fiction films ever made. In this particular regard, however, given Fancher’s Blade Runner connection is arguably the principal selling point of Escapes, the film pulls back from a deep dive into the production. Fancher fondly recalls a visit to the elaborate set and goes into some detail concerning his preliminary contributions, but what could have been an insightful first-hand account of the adaptation process and the related Hollywood finagling is left underdeveloped. What was altered from the book, and why? What did David Peoples’ rewrite add to the project? What was/is Fancher’s personal response to involvement in such an iconic film?
The coda to Escapes concludes with slight reference of Fancher’s 2012 book, The Shape of the Final Dog and Other Stories, and all-too-brief mentions of his 1989 script for The Mighty Quinn (dir. Carl Schenkel) and his 1999 screenplay for The Minus Man, which Fancher himself directed. For a film that obviously aims to present Fancher as more than just the writer of Blade Runner (and the upcoming sequel, Blade Runner 2049), Escapes dwindles down rather drastically after that point.
Working with editor Piibe Kolka, Almereyda loads Escapes with a surplus of archival footage and unidentified clips, clips that often comment as fictive illustrations for Fancher’s stories. For example, if he talks about getting in a fight, a suitably symbolic fight scene will appear; if he speaks of translating a text for a day laborer, we see a man putting on his glasses to read; there is talk of cops, police show up on TV. In one of the cleverest ways to suggest the passage of time, as well as the breadth of Fancher’s acting experience, Almereyda presses on through the years with a montage of screen credits showing Fancher’s name; no branded scene from the show or movie, just his name in the cast.
Escapes is a curious film with a unique approach. It’s a vivid, lively record of a man with all his faults, successes, fears, and regrets (he wishes he had directed more than one film – we wish he would have said why he didn’t). Fancher may have more acting credits than writing, but he is a natural-born wordsmith, and it’s wise for Almereyda to allow him the freedom to converse as necessary. His unaffected recollections are engaging and earnest, showing both pride and guilt, and no matter how seemingly inconsequential an account may seem (as noted, they seldom stay that way), Fancher’s lucid musings form a fascinating verbalized tapestry. It’s hard to say what drew Almereyda to the relatively obscure world of Hampton Fancher, but it was worth the attention. He is no ordinary subject and Escapes is no ordinary documentary. Like one of Fancher’s cowboy shows, it may not leave viewers profoundly enlightened or inspired, but it’s a ripping good yarn well worth the time.
Jeremy Carr is a Faculty Associate at Arizona State University and a visiting research fellow with the ASU Center for Film, Media and Popular Culture. He has written for the publications Cineaste, CineAction, Senses of Cinema, MUBI’s Notebook, Bright Lights Film Journal, The Moving Image, and Moving Pictures Magazine.