AUTO FOCUS is a 2002 drama directed by Paul Schrader (the writer of TAXI DRIVER and RAGING BULL, the director of BLUE COLLAR, MISHIMA and AFFLICTION), produced by Larry Karaszewski and Scott Alexander (the writers of ED WOOD, MAN ON THE MOON and THE PEOPLE VS. LARRY FLYNT) and written by Michael Gerbosi, whose first produced screenplay this was. The film is a darkly funny, disturbing and compelling piece of work, based on the true story of Hogan's Heroes star Bob Crane's downfall into sex addiction, aided by his close friend John Carpenter. In the first part of a two-part interview, I spoke to Gerbosi about his experiences creating the screenplay and the road to bringing it to the screen.

When did you first become familiar with the story? 
Bringing AUTO FOCUS to the screen began when I made a food delivery to Todd Rosken, one of the producers of the film.  I was working as a delivery driver at a well-known deli in Los Angeles, and an order came in from the house literally next door to where I was living.  When I dropped the food delivery off at Todd’s house, I told him I was his next door neighbor and that led to a discussion that eventually  weeks later led to him handing me the book The Murder of Bob Crane that he had found in a bargain bin at Samuel French bookstore.  Todd and I ended up optioning the rights to the book together and outlining a proposal that we would later run by Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski.  More on that later. 

What attracted you to turning the story into a screenplay? 
Bob’s life had a lot of elements that I believed would make a compelling story.  There was lots of sex, an unsolved murder, a cutting edge technology, and a weird symbiotic relationship between two men who otherwise probably would have had nothing in common.  Most of all I was fascinated by this person who was the star of a sitcom and had made Disney movies, but behind the scenes was in a spiritual freefall. 

Did you intend a moralistic approach to the story? 
I only intended a moralistic approach in the sense that the film is structured in a way that Bob’s career ebbs in direct proportion to the distance he falls from a 'normal' life.  That’s how it really happened, it’s not some sort of moralistic mirror I was trying to hold up to him or anyone else.  Here’s a man who by all accounts was a family man, had a guest starring role on The Donna Reed Show, lived a quiet suburban life while he single-mindedly pursued his career.  He was working two jobs when he started Hogan’s Heroes, because he had a family to support and wanted to hold onto his radio job in case his career in television didn’t take off.  So from this jumping off point, as the film documents, he slowly throws all of his values away and ends up traveling around the United States with a dinner theater show so he can meet women and film himself having sex with them.  And he winds up murdered.  So yes, you could say there’s a moral to this story.  But it’s baked into the cake, so to speak. 

How many screenplays had you written up to this point? Had any of them gotten any traction in Hollywood? 
Concurrent with the development of AUTO FOCUS, I left the food delivery job and my next job was working as an assistant to the producers on Star Trek: Deep Space Nine.  One of my responsibilities there, besides ordering lunch, was to go into the writer’s room and listen to that room of writers debate what elements belonged in each story, and then write down all the episode story beats on a giant dry erase board.  And then one of the staff members would take that outline and create a script for an episode.  Almost every writer in that room would later go on to run their own shows, so the level of talent in that room was amazing.  That was really the first good storytelling seminar that had a direct influence on my development as a writer.  After working there a few years I understood exactly why some things go into a story, and why some things don’t.  I’ve heard learning how to write described as a process of learning what not to write.  If you can learn what not to write, and why – this gives you the best understanding of what belongs in any given story. 

Why and how did you get Larry Karaszewski and Scott Alexander on the project? 
Larry and Scott were and are the kings of the biopic.  They pioneered making a film about a subject who doesn’t deserve a film.  So naturally we wanted to meet with them and hear what they thought about our idea to turn the life of Bob Crane into a feature film.  Todd and I didn’t have a track record making films, Todd was working in music and I was working in television, so we decided we should try to contact Scott and Larry through their agent.  But agents don’t just accept calls from people they don’t know, so we decided to fax their agent a brief outline of our project and ask if Scott and Larry would take a lunch with us to discuss it.  To hear Scott and Larry tell their side of the story, what happened next is their agent called them up and said, “I have a fax here from two people I’ve never heard of with a proposal for a movie about someone I’ve never heard of.”  When they heard the proposal was about Bob Crane, they laughed.  They didn’t think anyone would ever finance a film about Bob Crane, but they wanted to meet the two people crazy enough to think this was a viable subject for a movie.  So they agreed to meet us for lunch, with the sole intention of seeing how crazy we were. 

What was your first meeting like? 
Todd and I showed up for the lunch meeting like we had just won the lottery.  We were giddy with excitement.  Within about a minute of meeting Larry and Scott they told us we were insane and nobody would ever finance this movie.  On top of this, they didn’t like my outline, where a modern-day detective was chasing down clues in an attempt to solve the unsolved murder mystery.  They didn’t like the narrator, they didn’t like the flashbacks.  They literally hated my outline.  But then something interesting happened.  Instead of getting discouraged, I asked them what elements of the story interested them and what device would work better?  This began a discussion that lasted the rest of the lunch and broke the three acts down into manageable parts.  ''Focus on Bob, '' is what they told me.  Follow him in real time.  Condense all the decades down into the few years that really mattered.  This was the seed that germinated into the screenplay I went off to write.

The book focuses on the police detectives who examined the murder scene.  It’s all about trying to solve the unsolved crime by taking a deep dive into the clues.  So this was the structure I used for my first outline.  One of the most important things Larry and Scott told me at our original lunch meeting I just described was that in this particular story nobody cares about a fictional detective, and the crime is unlikely to be solved.  Even if the detective has an interesting story arc, which most detectives in these kinds of stories never do, this is Bob’s story and you have to stay with Bob.  The structure is just the unfolding of the dark path, which ultimately eclipses and engulfs everything that came before. Here’s a guy who doesn’t smoke or drink and goes to church every Sunday with his wife and kids.  And then he ends up murdered in a small town surrounded by a mini-production studio he’s set up to make, edit and watch homemade pornography.  Like the David Byrne - Talking Heads song says – ''How did I get here? ''  That was the movie Larry and Scott wanted to see, and that was my second outline based on the contents in the book. 

How did Larry and Scott respond to the next draft of the script? 
After our initial lunch meeting, I didn’t contact Scott and Larry again until I had a first draft of the screenplay finished.  The story of how they came to possess the draft is almost as interesting as the story of our first lunch meeting.  When I finished the first draft of the script, they were working at Todd A/O West, doing post-production on a film they directed called SCREWED.  Todd Rosken and I drove two copies of the script over to Todd A/O West and we were ushered into the theater-sized room where Scott and Larry were making post-production decisions as their movie played on a movie screen in front of them -- they were literally putting the finishing touches on their new film.  So naturally we didn’t want to interrupt them and disturb what looked like a very delicate creative moment.  We were there to ask them to read my script, which we didn’t know if they had any interest in doing or not.  So the last thing we wanted to do was piss them off.  So we left the script in a manila envelope at the front desk of Todd A/O West with the instructions to hand the package to Scott and Larry when they broke for lunch.  Fast forward four weeks later, no word back from Scott and Larry.  After about two weeks Todd is calling me every day saying we have to call them and follow up about the script.  But I knew they were finishing post-production on a movie, I figured they were very busy.  I wanted to give them more time.  But after a month I had to call.  So I called them up and asked them why they hated the script.  There was silence on the other end, they didn’t know how to respond.  Because they never got the script.  It turned out the receptionist at Todd A/O West was out to lunch when Scott and Larry broke for lunch and no one ever handed them the manila envelope!  I drove back to Todd A/O West that same day and found the manila envelope sitting in the exact same spot I had set it down a month before.  This is a true story.  Then I drove the package over to Scott and Larry’s office and handed it to them as they called me an idiot.  A few days later they called me up to tell me they loved the script and wanted to help develop it.  So the wait was worth it. 

How did you enjoy working with Larry and Scott? 
I think I answered this before, but I’ll add that Larry and Scott are about the nicest guys you can hope to meet in the film industry.  I’m a better person just by taking their advice on many things, not just the script for AUTO FOCUS.  If you want to meet them, try faxing their agent a request for lunch to discuss a laughable topic for a biopic.  That’s what worked for me. 

Was Robert Graysmith, the author of the original book, involved at all? 
I called Robert several times with questions about the timeline, the story.  He took all my calls and was very helpful.  Another story to tell on this subject: well into the development of the movie Robert calls me up and tells me that the rights to another one of his books called Zodiac are going to be available again after being tied up by Disney for many, many years.  He wanted to know if I was interested in the rights?  To make a long story short, it was another story without an ending!  Another unsolved murder mystery.  I honestly didn’t know how to end the Zodiac story, so I passed on the rights. 

What was the experience of writing the script and getting inside the head of these dark characters? 
The third act where Bob really falls apart was hard to write.  But some people who were there tell a story of Bob having an awakening and seeing the error of his ways and trying to get his life back together right around the time he was murdered.  Whether he was sincere about turning over a new leaf, or just telling people what he thought they needed to hear to resurrect his career we will never know.  But I like to think Bob would have turned his life around had he not been murdered.  I like to believe in second chances. 

Did you feel humor was necessary to offset the dark elements of the story? 
I will say this.  There was more humor in my original drafts.  I think something in Paul is more comfortable with the darker shades than the lighter shades, and the finished film is darker thanks to his input. 

What did the long but ultimately successful road to getting the film made teach you about how Hollywood works, and how one has to operate? 
You have to remember, this film was financed at a time when it was possible to get a studio film made for adults.  The marketplace has changed so dramatically in the past 20 years.  Today the studios want a tentpole or a superhero film or both.  Or animation, little kids movies.  No studio is financing what I would call films with a difficult tone or certainly a shifting tone.  I think today is very much like the late 1960’s, early 1970’s when the movie studios were putting out very tried and true formula films and audiences had grown tired of those films.  Audiences were ready to embrace new ideas and forms.  That led to a renewal with a new generation of filmmakers in the 1970’s that took films into exciting new places.  I look at the recent success of Blumhouse as something the studios will try to copy.  Blumhouse is making genre films on a budget and taking creative risks most studios won’t take, giving the creators freedom to try new things.  And audiences have been responding.

Part two of the interview.  

AUTO FOCUS is available on Blu-ray in the US and can be ordered from Twilight Time and Screen Archives. 

Photographs featuring Paul Schrader from his website.  

Interview by Paul Rowlands. Copyright © Paul Rowlands, 2018. All rights reserved.

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