At the end of an actor’s career, he or she is left with a wealth of images commemorating different phases of his or her life. The progress of receding hairlines, expanding waistlines, and graying temples can all be tracked over time. The life of a bit player who has appeared in hundreds of films and television shows offers a surplus of material for creating this type of visual timeline. These snapshots can illustrate the life path of an individual who rarely gets the opportunity to self-represent with dialogue. Michael Almereyda’s brilliant documentary Escapes presents a massive backlog of images from the career of actor and screenwriter Hampton Fancher, tinging it with Fancher’s own keen self-awareness.
After quitting school at the age of 11, the Los Angeles–born Fancher was drawn to a career in show business. Helping his stripper sister choreograph her routines pointed the young Fancher toward the life of a dancer, and a stint of flamenco dancing in Europe eventually led to the pursuit of acting. Small parts in television Westerns like Bonanza, crime serials like Perry Mason, and B-movies were his bread and butter throughout the 1960s and ’70s. He aspired to become a successful screenwriter, but that goal eluded him until he was finally given an opportunity for his dream project: adapting science-fiction author Philip K. Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, which would eventually become Ridley Scott’s science fiction classic Blade Runner.
Although the story of Fancher’s life is a fairly straightforward example of Hollywood hustling eventually yielding success, Almereyda’s use of images from Fancher’s decades of work makes Escapes unique among film industry documentaries. While Brett Morgen and Nanette Burstein’s 2002 Robert Evans documentary The Kid Stays in the Picture similarly paired archival footage with narration, Escapes is a stand-out due to the fact that Fancher — who boasts 51 actor credits on IMDB — appeared in front of the camera significantly more than Evans, who has 14; Almereyda simply has more source material to use. Whether dressed as a cowboy or a common criminal, the various characters Fancher played are paired with his stories about work and romantic dalliances. The footage often matches the points the actor makes in narration; for example, an anecdote about confronting a girlfriend’s ex-lover is paired with a shot from a Western of the actor walking out of a building, getting a shotgun, and pumping it. These pairings are not always perfect matches. Sometimes they are merely thematic, as when a shot of Fancher mopping accompanies a discussion of his job as a ditch digger, uniting the image and narration only in their common focus on manual labor. While some of Fancher’s famous friends (Teri Garr, Barbara Hershey, David Carradine) are represented with footage from their own roles, others are represented by avatars, like the old man with glasses conversing with our hero represents a boss at his job as a ditch digger. The fact that Almereyda could find so much material appropriate for illustrating Fancher’s experiences might make one question the authenticity of the footage, if the vast expanse of the actor’s pursuits wasn’t so well-documented.
Fancher’s own words tie together the majority of this pop-culture ephemera. The audio of his narration suffices at first, but visual takes of the protagonist as raconteur lengthen as the film progresses. His storytelling is laced with meta-commentary that allows the film to delve deeper into his biography than a straightforward telling would allow. Fancher often stops himself in the middle of a story to change direction; at one point, he discusses cruising for women with Flipper actor Brian Kelly but halts his reminiscence by saying, “Actually, this story is so terrible, I’m not going to tell it.” Our narrator also gets the film back on track when his attention wanders, commenting, “Oh, that’s another story,” as he finds himself straying. These asides mirror the discursive course of Fancher’s overall life, full of fits and starts that saw him constantly escaping any path — whether professional or personal — that might create stability.
Escapes ends with the work that would cement Fancher’s legacy as a Hollywood icon: his screenplay for Blade Runner. Vangelis’s iconic theme for the film heralds Fancher’s discussion about pursuing the rights for Dick’s novel and eventually adapting it. In a clever set-up, the actor had mentioned his identification with Humphrey Bogart earlier in the film; at the end, Almereyda cuts footage of Harrison Ford as the replicant-hunting cop Deckard with images of Bogart’s noir detectives, positioning Blade Runner as the apotheosis of Fancher’s childhood dreams. As in the rest of the film, the director deftly employs appropriated materials to deliver a satisfying character arc for Fancher, who — in his screenwriting (which would continue with the 1989 film The Mighty Quinn, his 1999 directorial debut The Minus Man, and this year’s sequel, Blade Runner 2049) — did eventually find a stability he wasn’t driven to escape.
Escapes premieres at IFC Center (323 6th Avenue, Greenwich Village) on July 26. Almereyda and Fancher will appear in-person for a post-screening Q&A that night at 7:15 pm.