Found this review this morning of the characters of the Minus Man. I really enjoyed reading this, hope you all do, too.
Vann Siegert at once defies and defines the notion of the modern evildoer in cinema. Like Norman Bates before him, Vann seems incapable of impoliteness, of explosive rage,
of anything even remotely unseemly. Yet wherever he goes, horrific events seem to follow in his wake. Quiet, reflective and kind, Vann attracts the lonely, the lost and the yearning,
and he knows how to make their misery quietly disappear.
Vann fascinates not so much in the way he exists, but that he resists explanation. He is a decent person who finds himself involved in the most sinful acts - yet without
consequences or even complications. He is the ultimate expression of the normal urges to do the kindest thing taken to the extreme.
Acclaimed thriller writer Lew McCreary first wrote about Vann Siegert in his 1990 novel The Minus Man, which was lauded for its haunting portrait of a contemporary criminal who
is truly a nice guy. Critics called the novel a modern tale of horror -- the story of a kind, loveable, oddly appealing monster who challenges the most basic moral assumptions.
Lew McCreary describes Hampton Fancher as "an unusual man, very different from what you might expect to find in a film director. He is a lover of texts. For someone who's spent
most of his life in a visual medium, words mean everything to Hampton."
"So it was pretty easy for me to develop a basic trust of his vision and instincts. I think he understood and respected my book without being a slave to it. In the screenplay he
improvised off the book, jazzlike. I think he made very shrewd choices about what to include and what to exclude. Basically, he took something that I would have said was almost unfilmable and turned it into an entrancing meditation on the weird contagion of evil and the unreliability of innocence."
McCreary concludes, "Among the unexpected dividends I've earned from my writing career, the great pleasure of working with Hampton has been the high point."
Hampton Fancher first came across the book after reading novelist Anne Rice's review in The New York Times. Intrigued by her commentary, he cut the review from the paper and
carried it around with him for years. Long after, he ynchronistically unearthed the out-of-print novel in a used bookstore.
"I read it that night," he recalls, "which was unusual because I'm not generally a fast reader. But this was a page-turner, and I was so fascinated I couldn't stop until the sun was up and the book was on the floor. I realized in the morning that this story encapsulated a theme that had always interested me -- the idea of a person who is essentially very good but who does things that are essentially very bad. I'd always
wanted to do a movie about this concept."
Fancher decided to attempt a screenplay based on McCreary's eerie character. He began to see Vann Siegert as a cross between Psycho's Norman Bates, Melville's Billy Budd
and Being There's Chauncey Gardner. In Fancher's mind, Vann is a fragile innocent who, on the one hand, fulfills people's fantasies about what they want him to be,
and on the other, has a chilling underlying ability to destroy those around him.
"I think Vann is someone who, through really listening to people, can become whatever they want him to be," Fancher comments. "He is the perfect confidant, the perfect reflection, the perfect love. But meanwhile, he actually has this blankness inside of him. He is nothing; he is the man who fell to Earth. Vann is so pure and kind, like a child, not
murky or diluted or filled with ambiguities. You feel like you can look right into him -- and yet he is a stranger."
"Vann calls into question the whole thing about good and evil," Fancher continues. "Here is a person who is totally non-violent, who is completely kind yet is a terrible threat."
Fancher reveled in the idea of inviting audiences to really like Vann Siegert (despite his occasional lapses in behavior) and to take on a visceral and voyeuristic complicity in his crimes. "I wanted the viewer to become a kind of accomplice to him, to not only root for him as we traditionally root for bad guys, but to give him their affections," he says. "I wanted the audience to really be confronted with the shocking and conflicting emotions of witnessing good and evil existing in the same appealing person."
Although raw and unromanticized, Fancher's depiction of Vann is also rife with humor. The design and spirit of the screenplay come from Vann's unusual point of view --
easygoing, sardonic, slightly removed from reality but ultimately devastating. In Vann's world, one moment he can laugh at searching obsessively for a body he himself hid, and the next he can be lost in fear of not being able to connect with his would-be girlfriend.
Fancher's script for THE MINUS MAN found its way into the hands of producers Fida Attieh and Larry Meistrich. Neither was surprised to find lyrical, imaginative writing from the
man who authored the sci-fi classic Blade Runner. But what did take them by surprise was the script's strange power to work its way under the skin.
"The screenplay was a compelling read," states Meistrich. "I found it entertaining how Fancher put a twist on the typical story of a killer. You felt as though Vann could be
anyone; a friend, a neighbor, a lover. That intrigued me."
"I loved the script, loved the way it was written," confirms Attieh. "But what interested me most is that it was completely different from anything else in this genre. It's very much a psychological game that plays with not only the character's heads but with the audience's head as well. You really get drawn into the mind and the heart of someone you
might not have thought you wanted to know."
Producer Dave Bushell adds, "It's so hard to describe or compare with any other movie out there. And what got to me is that usually if there is a bad guy in a movie, you wait
for him to get his due, to be killed or arrested or something. But with this character, every time he does something evil, you're almost mad at him. You're thinking 'No. Don't
do this. Don't do it this one time.' You really fall for this guy in spite of his actions."
In order to capture the audience's affection for Vann, the filmmakers knew it would be essential to cast the right actor. Owen Wilson's name came up early in the casting process.
Hampton Fancher at first resisted using the rising, but still relatively unknown, young actor who made his debut in the critically acclaimed Bottle Rocket. After Wilson read for the
part and blew him away, Fancher did a 180.
"When he walked out, I just looked at everyone and said, 'Do we have to keep doing this, because there he is,'" recalls Fancher. "He was so right for the part, that I began to
believe that if Owen couldn't do it, I wouldn't make the movie. He is utterly compelling, and he's able to mix that with being very funny."
Attieh notes, "You would never ever imagine Owen Wilson as a dark, malevolent protagonist, and that is why he worked so perfectly. We were going for someone who the audience would fall in love with, yet who could also reveal these strange urges that overcome him."
When Wilson read Fancher's script, he too was brought under its disquieting spell. He was reminded of the haunting, enigmatic characters in Terence Malick's Badlands and David Lynch's Blue Velvet.
"Vann is the ultimate detached observer," says Wilson. "He's detached from real life, from people. He is the kind of stranger who comes into town and as he moves through,
strange things start happening around him while he's oblivious to his effect. He's a good listener and curious about people. He's interested and never judgmental, so people just
open up to him. That's what is so disturbing about Vann: he's likeable, he's innocent, he's a great guy. But he also may be insane."
Wilson, possessed with an acute but slightly black-tinged sense of humor, connected well with Fancher's own approach. "Vann is an amazing little guy, he has an awkward way of looking at things and I liked that," says Wilson. "There are a lot of funny moments in this story, humorous in the way that say Badlands or Drugstore Cowboy is humorous.
It's not like the subject is comedic, but there are moments of absurdity and hilarity. That's the kind of stuff I think is really funny."
Two of THE MINUS MAN's most darkly comical characters are Doug and Jane, the troubled couple who rent Vann their missing daughter's room. Each befriends Vann, opens up to him, and sees in him the source of some fulfillment or salvation. Ultimately, Doug and Jane begin to need him to keep their marriage together.
Fancher describes the married couple as a man and a woman "living on the surface, because what is underneath is too gruesome to face." Certainly, that is the case
with Doug, an oddly self-loathing postal worker portrayed by Brian Cox.
"In the script I describe Doug as 'affability with ulcers,"' comments Fancher. "He pretends to be clownish, but that's a cover for something that is really violent and dangerous. And though it looks like his wife dominates him, there is more to it. He is a complex character. There's something almost Faustian about him, and Brian Cox was perfect in the role."
Attieh adds, "There is a certain wonderful irony in that Brian was the first actor to play Hannibal Lector on the screen, in Michael Mann's Manhunter."
Cox was drawn to Fancher's "blackly drawn comedy." He says, "The characters were just so impressive, with so many deep layers. Doug is a man with a dark secret, a man for
whom something fundamental is missing in his marriage. There is so much that goes unsaid in their relationship, and I had to reveal it. That was fascinating to play. I was also intrigued by the relationship between Vann and Doug. To Doug, Vann is kind of an angel -- benign, innocent -- but in a frightening kind of way because he has no emotional involvement. And they both find themselves drawn to violence - one is drawn to the violence that comesout of disappointment, and the other is lulled by the violence that comes out of detached curiosity."
Another enticement for Cox was the chance to work with Mercedes Ruehl, who plays his wife Jane. "Mercedes is a wonderful actress and here she has a terrific role," he notes.
"It's a role that's not all what it appears to be and she brings an enormous amount of texture to it."
Ruehl, Fancher notes, "studies so deeply and she has an ability to completely become the character without losing herself."
The abstract nature of her character Jane -- and the potential to fill in the subtleties with her own original take on this taciturn woman -- intrigued Ruehl. "I thought she was kind of like a Picasso sketch in the script," says Ruehl,
"very minimalist, drawn with just a few lines. But there was just enough essence to be really provocative. It allowed me to fill it in with what I wanted, and that's very rare."
In creating her portrait of Jane, Ruehl also found herself considering the role that Vann Siegert plays as the catalyst that changes so many lives. "I think of Vann as
sort of the axis of a wheel. The characters of Jane and Doug and everyone else are the spokes," she explains. "Vann is the still point at the center of all these swirling emotional stories. He's the magnetic force, a person of total moral upredictability."
In Ruehl's view, Vann has the power to draw out the weaknesses in people, including Jane. "I saw Jane as this sort of sorrowing mother. Her daughter has left, and her husband is not the man she thought he was when they married. She is someone who you play in a minor key, a much subtler character than most of the ones I've played, who
are usually large, urban, crazy, wonderful ladies. Jane is smaller; she's shy and uncomfortable with herself. And that's what Vann sees in her."
Vann sees something else -- chemical attraction -- in Ferrin, the flirtatious postal worker played by Janeane Garofalo. Known for her natural comedic abilities, Garofalo combines them here with an affecting portrait of loneliness and yearning. Says Fancher, "Janeane is like the child of Lenny Bruce or something. She is a comic genius really, and
she can't stop. I worried about that at first, because she's always playing around and I wanted pathos to really permeate this character. Ferrin is a sad girl on the losing end with a lot of heart at stake. But the minute Janeane had to get serious, she was fantastic. And as soon as I went, 'Cut, print,' she was back to joking again."
Garofalo sees her character as a typical "townie who lives in this suburb and doesn't really have many aspirations beyond the confines of the post office." Hoping to spark a rlationship,
when Ferrin meets Vann, she becomes more aggressively ambitious." Garofalo continues: "She's just thrilled to meet any new man who comes into her work space; Vann is cute,
and odd and interesting to her. He appeals to her loneliness."
While Garofalo had no difficulties exploring the two sides of Ferrin -- at once perky and alone -- she discovered that playing a mail sorter carried its own unexpected physical
challenges. "Ferrin is supposed to sort mail really, really fast like she's very talented in mail sorting," she says. "But I had to completely fake it. Of course, I never really took the time to learn how to sort the mail so I had to just put on my rubber thimble and go."
Garofalo's Ferrin may be the most honest and grounded character in THE MINUS MAN -- and it is she who gets the biggest emotional response from Vann. Quite the opposite are the two mysterious, fantastical characters played by Dwight Yoakam and Dennis Haysbert - Blair and Graves, two hard-boiled detectives who are hot on Vann's trail, at least in the noir recesses of his mind.
Explains Fancher, "Blair and Graves are the basement of Vann Siegert's mind, the nightmares within. There is nothing really cruel and morbid and twisted in this movie -- except those
two characters. They are detectives, but they are also devils and angels."
He adds, "Dwight and Dennis were both great choices. Dwight is very funny and very compelling with this insidious side. Dennis is the perfect noble warrior, the man you
wouldn't want to have mad at you. He's a kind of father figure who holds out the promise of rescue."
Attieh observes, "The dynamic between Dennis and Dwight was just so perfect. They are a study in dark and light." Haysbert summarizes: "Dwight and I play detectives who live in Vann's mind. It's a kind of good cop/bad cop situation but entirely in his head. When I first realized what these characters were doing I said ' I've got to do that.' My role is to really stick it to Vann, to really make him look at himself, what he's trying to do and what he's up to. I make him accountable. And Dwight works the opposite way, appealing to his dark side. It's like two-man volleyball. Dwight sets it up for my spike."
In addition to Yoakam, the filmmakers cast another major musical star -- Sheryl Crow in her feature film debut. In fact it was Yoakam who suggested his friend for the role, convinced she had what it takes.
Crow plays Casper, a hard-living woman who finds herself trusting Vann and paying the price. "I was just really curious about acting," she says, "and the timing was right, so I just
decided to try it. I've always been a big movie-lover, and I thought Blade Runner was one of the most amazing movies ever. I was really intrigued after learning that Hampton Fancher wrote it. Then when I read the script, I thought it would be a really cool experience. I get to play a character with dimension who goes through a lot in a very short period of time. Like Vann, you start out thinking she's one thing, and she turns out to be another."
The producers were very excited to get Crow in such a pivotal role, but Fancher was cautious. "I was on pins and needles because she's not a trained actor and no one knew what would happen once we were shooting," he admits. "She seemed so right for the part in terms of her demeanor
and look, but I wasn't sure if I would believe her. Anyway, she worked hard and really came through. I was knocked out. She embodied the part beyond my wildest epectations. She was a director's dream."
THE MINUS MAN takes place in an imaginary West Coast suburb (replete with nearby beaches, a winning football team and a happy-go-lucky post office), a place where the American dream veneer shines over the emptiness and loss within. Fancher specifically chose not to name his picture-perfect town so that it could be Anywhere, USA. Ironically, he shot this peaceful, pretty suburb mostly in the middle of his native, urban Los Angeles.
Having grown up in the thick of L.A., Fancher knew there were plenty of "strange little pockets that are not obviously part of any particular town. Finding the locations was probably harder than casting, because it had to be exactly the right thing, exactly what I had in mind when I was writing. It was hard but exciting."
Ultimately, the locations included a South Central library, Hollywood's Griffith Park, Malibu's Leo Carillo Beach, and a vacant police station in North Hollywood standing in
for the pivotal post office interior.
Fancher has been involved in motion pictures both as a screenwriter and as an actor, but at the age of 60, this was his first outing as director. A renowned advocate of
bohemian lifestyle, there were those who seriously wondered if Fancher would be able to carry off the early-morning set calls required for the man at the helm.
Attieh explains: "Hampton's always had this lifestyle where he lives by his instincts, by his own rhythms. He's always gone to bed really late and woken up really late. So, the first day we kind of wondered if he would get up at 5 am and stick to a regimented schedule. But he just took to it like a duck to water. He was always the first person on the set and the last to leave. Everybody had a blast, and it turned into a truly
The actors found Fancher's style to be full-force yet open, just like the man. Ruehl comments, "He's great but he's intense, so intense you can be blown over by it. He
is very articulate and talks very thoughtfully about each scene. And he's also quite a bit of fun."
Adds Garofalo: "I worried that he was too bohemian, but then I got to know him and realized how very funny and very bright he is. He has this great, dry sense of humor and he's also
got a great bull detector, which is what a good director needs."
For a group of actors tackling some pretty unsettling material, the atmosphere on the set remained as cool as Vann's outward demeanor -- but without any of the underlying contrasts. "It's become such a cliche to say that we all bonded like a family," summarizes Wilson. "But it sure was a nice feeling on the set. It started with Hampton and trickled down to everybody -- Mercedes, Sheryl, Brian, Dennis, Dwight, and Janeane. There were no egos, no
insecurities, just this group of people trying to make a funny, interesting, dark, original movie."