DATE October 18, 2002 ACCOUNT NUMBER N/A
TIME 12:00 Noon-1:00 PM AUDIENCE N/A
PROGRAM Fresh Air
Interview: Jodie Foster discusses her acting career and her new
movie "The Dangerous Lives of Altar Boys"
DAVID BIANCULLI, host:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm David Bianculli sitting in for Terry Gross.
Jodie Foster has been in the public eye ever since the age of three, when she
was the Coppertone girl on TV commercials. She made Disney movies as a child,
but at the age of 12 1/2, took the bold move of playing a child prostitute in
the now classic film "Taxi Driver." As an adult, she's won two Oscars--one
for her role as a rape victim in "The Accused," the other as FBI Agent Clarice
in "Silence of the Lambs."
From "Taxi Driver" on, Foster's made some bold and unusual career choices like
starting in Carl Sagan's metaphysical space drama "Contact" and not starring
in "Hannibal," the sequel to "Silence of the Lambs." Instead, Julianne Moore
played Clarice while Foster starred in other movies, like the action drama
"Panic Room" now out on video and DVD and the less mainstream "The Dangerous
Lives of Altar Boys" which will be released on video and DVD next month.
When Terry last spoke with Jodie Foster, after "Altar Boys" was completed, she
asked the actress about taking her first serious role in a movie and whether
it was an easy decision.
TERRY GROSS reporting:
When you were 12 1/2 and got the part in "Taxi Driver," was your mother afraid
of what you'd be exposed to playing a child prostitute?
Ms. FOSTER: Well, you know, first of all, I had been an actress since I was
three years old, so I had a long body of experience, and my mom really took me
to all sorts of movies and took me to R-rated movies whenever she could and,
you know, we talked a lot about politics and we talked about deeper things.
And I grew up in Hollywood, so I was exposed to it all over the place. I knew
the work of Martin Scorsese and knew what an artist he was and had seen "Mean
Streets" and had also done "Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore" with him, so I
don't really think it was that big of a consideration. It was a
consideration, for example, for the Board of Education, and at that time, you
know, they really wanted to know that I would not be emotionally damaged by
playing this part. So they brought in a--or actually my lawyers brought in a
psychologist, after an hour of meeting me, to decipher whether I would be, you
know, entirely damaged by my atmosphere.
GROSS: Let me just play a scene from this film.
Ms. FOSTER: OK.
GROSS: In this film, you know, Travis Bickle, played by Robert De Niro, wants
to rescue you from a life of prostitution. He's just kind of taken you as a
cause. You know, you're a 12 1/2-year-old kid or a 13-year-old kid who's
being sold by a pimp played by Harvey Keitel. And so De Niro goes to Keitel
and buys some time with you, not to have sex with you, but to convince you to
let him rescue you from this life. So here you are in a room together for the
first time. He wants to change your life. You want to give him his money's
worth, 'cause he just bought some time with you. Let's hear an excerpt of
(Soundbite from "Taxi Driver")
Mr. ROBERT DE NIRO: (As Travis Bickle) What's your name?
Ms. FOSTER: (As Iris Steinsma) Easy.
Mr. DE NIRO: Well, that's not any kind of name.
Ms. FOSTER: It's easy to remember.
Mr. DE NIRO: Yeah, but what's your real name?
Ms. FOSTER: I don't like my real name.
Mr. DE NIRO: Well, what's your real name?
Ms. FOSTER: Iris.
Mr. DE NIRO: Well, what's wrong with that? That's a nice name.
Ms. FOSTER: That's what you think.
Mr. DE NIRO: Now don't do that. Don't do that. Don't you remember me? I
mean, remember when you got into a taxi--it was a checkered taxi. You got in
and that guy Matthew came by and he said that he wanted to take you away. He
pulled you away.
Ms. FOSTER: I don't remember that.
Mr. DE NIRO: You don't remember any of that?
Ms. FOSTER: No.
Mr. DE NIRO: Well, that's all right. I'm going to get you out of here.
Ms. FOSTER: So we better make it, or Sport will get mad. So how do you want
to make it?
Mr. DE NIRO: I don't want to make it. Who's Sport?
Ms. FOSTER: Oh, that's Matthew. I call him Sport. You want to make it like
GROSS: At the end of this scene, Jodie Foster, you're unzipping De Niro's
fly. Were you old enough yet to get what this was about?
Ms. FOSTER: Yes. Yeah. And 12 year olds are, and I think we're all very
foolish and blind to think that they don't. You know, I lived in LA, I lived
in an urban place and I'd seen a lot of movies and, you know, I had long talks
with my mom and sort of the way I approached my character was this was a
runaway and somebody who probably was taking a lot of drugs and who'd really
been under the influence of an older man and somebody who had run away from
kind of an oppressive family structure. Boy, I understood all that and, you
know, I went to a private school where I wore a little gray skirt and I got
straight A's and spoke different languages. I mean, I don't think I'm
GROSS: I was going to ask you...
Ms. FOSTER: You never know...
Ms. FOSTER: ...but I don't think I'm scarred.
GROSS: I was going to ask you if you felt you walked away with any scars.
Ms. FOSTER: Well, no. And, in fact, I think in some ways it's good to--if
you know your child and if you know your child is ready for having these kinds
of discussion, it's good in some ways to show them the adult world when
they're still open to having conversations about, you know, meaningful paths
and what makes an unmeaningful life and things like that.
GROSS: "Taxi Driver's" such an extraordinary movie. I mean, it's at the top
of--or near the top of so many people's lists...
Ms. FOSTER: Right.
GROSS: ...and so many of us have seen it, you know, over and over again. I'm
thinking, though, at the age of 12 1/2, to work with Scorsese and De Niro and
Keitel, you know, gee...
Ms. FOSTER: Yeah. It really changed my life. At that time I had made many
more movies than either one of them had, but...
GROSS: Oh, God, that's so amazing.
Ms. FOSTER: Yeah. But I had played mostly--you know, people use to ask of
me, you know, `Act naturally. Be yourself. Say that line just as you would
say that line.' And it just never occurred to me that being an actor was ever
going to be some kind of a satisfying career, because it just seemed dumb to
me. You just, you know, read the lines someone else wrote, and there wasn't a
lot of thought into it and there was no building of the character. And it
really wasn't until I met Rob De Niro and he kind of took me under his wing
and sat down with me for hours at a time that I really understood that there
was more to acting than just being a puppet.
GROSS: If you remembered, I'd love to hear some of things he told you in
those talks about acting.
Ms. FOSTER: Well, I wish that he had had some kind of, you know, wonderful,
miraculous things to say. I mean, mostly he would take me to these little
divey coffee shops in different parts of town, sometimes in Spanish Harlem,
and, you know, different parts of town that he found. And he didn't talk to
me much; he just let me sit there. And after a while I realized that this was
his--you know, he was going to do this again, you know, for another hour, so
I'd just look around and I'd talk to other people. And I'd go on my merry
way. And, you know, I'd read the newspaper occasionally. And after a while
he might bring the script and we'd start working on the script and we'd do the
lines over and over and over again. And having been a child actor, of course,
I knew my lines, so now I was really bored, because I'd have to do these lines
over and over again with this adult.
And then by the end of our meetings, he would throw improvisation in, and that
was, I think, a really good lesson, because I suddenly learned that
improvisation was about knowing the text so well that you could deviate from
it in a meaningful way, as if you had been living this conversation, and
always find your way back to the text. And I think that's a lesson that most
young actors don't really get.
GROSS: Do you think that he took you to divey coffee shops, as you described
them, because he thought maybe you'd see characters like the character you
Ms. FOSTER: You know, I think it was just his way of getting me to feel
comfortable with him. And I don't think he really knew what he had in mind.
You know, Robert De Niro then and Robert De Niro now are two very different
guys. Then he was a guy who made one film every two years or three years; he
immersed himself in the character. He barely ever slept when he was doing
"Taxi Driver." He was a mess. I mean, he was living the character of Travis
Bickle, and so his method, in some ways, was just to live in that place and to
try and drag me into it.
GROSS: Did Martin Scorsese give you any advice about your character or about
working with the actors in the film?
Ms. FOSTER: Well, he brought in a girl that he had met that had had similar
circumstances; you know, a very thin, very young girl who had some of the
mannerisms that he wanted me to copy, and he kind of pointed them out to me.
And that's pretty much all he did. And then he did a lot of takes at that
time. He shot a lot of film and did a lot of takes. And I remember--the one
thing that I remember about him that I think is the most inspiring to me as a
director is that he used to sit behind the camera--of course, back then when
there were no video monitors that directors could hide behind, he'd sit behind
the camera and sometimes we'd do--I don't know--30 takes, 40 takes, but every
take he would laugh, he would giggle and have to hold his mouth shut so that
he wouldn't make noise. And not just the first or the second take, but every
take. He actually enjoyed the performances so much that it was almost as if
he was inside the actors' faces.
GROSS: Jodie Foster is my guest.
One of your most popular films is "Silence of the Lambs," in which you play an
FBI agent on the trail of a serial killer. No problems with that film in
terms of the violence in it, or I'm just wondering if it was, like, creepy for
you to deal with that kind of material after the whole Hinckley affair?
Ms. FOSTER: Well, I love "Silence of the Lambs," and certainly, I loved the
book. And it was something that I pursued actively, because I did feel that
the perspective in the movie, the point of view of the film, was from the
point of view of a young person who believed that her destiny was to save
people, and that is the point of the view of the camera of that movie. A very
different point of view than, of course, being the cannibal or the serial
killer himself and looking at the world around him with those eyes on. I did
feel that the film is defendable, that it has the right point of view.
I think "Silence" is a wonderful film, and I really felt like it needed to be
made. And there was a part of me that was terribly drawn to it.
Ms. FOSTER: I had played a lot of victims in my life. And, you know, if you
asked me at the time why I was playing victims, I would have said, `What?
You're crazy. What are you even talking about? I don't play victims.' But
when you look back on my work, you see a pattern, you see an unconscious
pattern. "Silence of the Lambs," in some ways, was the end of that pattern,
because it was the first time that I'd played somebody whose destiny was to
save them, something that she knew as a small girl, something that she knew
before she was born. There's a part of her that was drawn and who's destined
to find those marginalized women out there, or those women who were too fat,
too thin, too small, too quiet, and to be their saviors.
GROSS: Let me play a short scene from "Silence of the Lambs." And you play
an FBI agent who's trying to track down a serial killer. And as part of your
search, you go visit Hannibal Lecter, who is the serial killer who killed and
ate his victims. You're visiting him in prison, where he's serving life, and
you think he'll have clues about this serial killer you're trying to track
down. Hannibal Lecter is played by Anthony Hopkins. This is your first
meeting with him, in which you're trying to get information from him, and he's
both testing you and playing with you at the same time.
(Soundbite of "The Silence of the Lambs")
Sir ANTHONY HOPKINS: (As Dr. Hannibal Lecter) Tell me, what did Miggs say to
you, multiple Miggs in the next cell? He hissed at you. What did he say?
Ms. FOSTER: (As Agent Clarice Starling) He said, `I can smell your
Sir ANTHONY: I see. I, myself, cannot. You use Evyan skin cream, and
sometimes you wear L'Air Du Temps but not today.
Ms. FOSTER: Did you do all these wrongs, Doctor?
Sir ANTHONY: Ah. That is the Duomo seen from the Belvedere. You know
Ms. FOSTER: All that detail just from memory, sir?
Sir ANTHONY: Memory, Agent Starling, is what I have instead of the view.
Ms. FOSTER: Well, perhaps you'd care to lend us your view on this
Sir ANTHONY: Oh, no, no, no, no. You were doing fine. You had been
courteous and receptive to courtesy. You had established trust with the
embarrassing truth about Miggs. And now this ham-handed segue into your
questionnaire. (Makes clicking noise) It won't do.
Ms. FOSTER: I'm only asking you to look at this, Doctor. Either you will or
GROSS: Jodie Foster, can you talk a little bit about working opposite Anthony
Hopkins in these scenes with him?
Ms. FOSTER: Oh, he's such a wonderful actor and such a truly nice man--one
of the great, nice men out there. I was kind of scared to death of him. The
only time that I had met him was at a rehearsal, and we'd started, you know,
rehearsing right away. And, you know, he brought that voice out, and I kind
of got scared of him. And for some reason during the shooting, we were always
behind glass. You know, he was either behind glass or I was behind glass. So
we never really got to hang out together at all. And I was kind of scared of
him the whole movie.
And then one day over tuna fish sandwiches at the end of the film, I admitted
it to him, and finally he admitted to me, `I was kind of scared of you, too.'
And it was sort of a very funny moment. And from then on, I think we've
become much more comfortable with each other.
GROSS: Now you're using a Southern accent. I'm not sure exactly which state
it's supposed to be from.
Ms. FOSTER: She's originally from West Virginia but had been transplanted
to Montana, so has lost her accent slightly.
GROSS: Mm-hmm. So why was it felt that an accent was needed for the role?
Ms. FOSTER: That was a choice of the director and also very much a big part
of the novel. She's somebody who is from the South and is not from the tony
family that others in the FBI have come from. She was, you know, orphaned at
a young age and was thrust into living with people that didn't really want
her. So it creates a character for Clarice who's somebody who is very much
like a lot of these victims that the killer has been killing. That's her
background. She's a nobody from nowhere, and the accent, I think, is very
important. It's also--it's a fuel to Hannibal Lecter because he can glean
parts of her past through her voice, things that she'd love to cover up. It's
GROSS: I want to ask you about one other movie, "The Accused," in which you
play somebody who is raped. I don't know if you're the kind of actress who
does a lot of elaborate preparation before a role or if you just, you know,
kind of go and do it, but...
Ms. FOSTER: Well, it depends, you know?
GROSS: I mean, it's certainly not the role you can prepare for, you know, by
Ms. FOSTER: You can't prepare for a role like that.
Ms. FOSTER: You really can't. I mean, if it was--you know, if you were
playing Henry VIII, you kind of know that you've got to look through some
books and do some stuff. But to play somebody who's in the wrong place at the
Ms. FOSTER: ...there really isn't a lot of research to be done. I mean,
there is the building of a character. You say, `She walks like this, and she
talks like this. And these are the people that she knows, and this is her
education and her background.' And we can't forget that I was young when I
made that movie, so I was doing a lot of unconscious denying. I remember
specifically that I read the script literally once before I went to do the
movie. And I think it was because partly I was scared, and I just didn't want
to even think about how I was going to get there. And that's kind of typical,
I think, of 25-year-olds, that you know you're drawn toward something
psychologically, but you don't really know why and you don't even want to ask
yourself the question. You just kind of dive headfirst. And, of course, had
I been 40, maybe I wouldn't have taken that movie.
GROSS: So did that put you in the position of doing more improvisatory
reaction for the rape scene than you've improvised in other films?
Ms. FOSTER: Well, no, I wouldn't say there wasn't much improvisation. With a
scene like that, you really can't be improvised because you don't want to have
to repeat it 50 times...
Ms. FOSTER: ...it's too painful for everyone, not just me, but for the men
playing the rapists. It was, of course, much harder on them than it was on
me. Typical. And I spent a lot of time kind of getting them through it,
because in some ways I had the self-righteous part. You know, I had the one
who knew that she was on the correct side of the argument, and it was hard for
them to play what they had to play. So I did not want them improvising,
'cause I just didn't want a lot of broken bones and a lot of pain.
Ms. FOSTER: So we did, actually, in rehearsals, kind of go through studiously
and figure out what it was going to be. But at the same time, nobody can
really tell you what that moment's going to be like. And even though every
inch of it was choreographed, through some of the scenes, I absolutely cannot
remember what happened after they said `action' and between `cut.' I just
don't remember. I remember before and I remember after, but I don't remember
GROSS: Can you watch your own films, and are some of your films easier for
you to watch than others? I imagine watching the rape scene in "The Accused"
is not, like, a great time for you.
Ms. FOSTER: Right. Well, I do watch the movies right after I've done them
and through the process of cutting them and, you know, the beginning of the
previews and all that kind of stuff. And then once the movie's out, I never
can watch them again. Occasionally, I'll catch one on, you know, pay per view
or HBO or something, and I kind of cringe and have to turn it off. I just
can't sit through it.
GROSS: Can you explain why?
Ms. FOSTER: I don't know. I guess it's a moment that's passed, and you've
lived it so much and so intensely but you just don't want to go back there
again. There's part of you that just doesn't want to go back there again.
And you do feel self-conscious about it, because you have seen it either so
many times or you've lived it so many times, you've talked about it so many
times, you just are not ready to go through it again.
GROSS: When you went to Yale, I remember it really made news. It was on
TV, it was in the newspapers, and everybody's wondering, `What's it going to
be like for this young movie star to be a student at a university?' So, I
mean, in retrospect, was it possible for you to, like, just be a student there
or did you feel like you were sticking out all the time?
Ms. FOSTER: Well, it was a wonderful moment in my life. I'm so glad that I
did that and it was a big step to take at that time. Really no other young
actress had ever done that, sort of left their careers and said, `I'm going to
get an education,' but it had always been phenomenally important to me and I
just never knew I was going to be an actor when I grew up. In fact, it was
the farthest thing from my mind. I thought, `Oh, well, you know, I'll act for
a few years, when I'm 16 or 17, and then that'll be it. No one will want me
anymore,' which is pretty much what everybody had told me would happen.
Yes, I did think that I was somehow going to have this anonymity, and for the
first time in my life I actually felt that. I really felt like I was living
without any kind of scrutiny, without the eyes of everybody on me. And,
unfortunately, my freshman year, you know, the assassination attempt on Ronald
Reagan kind of shattered that and very quickly I realized that that hadn't
been true at all and that people had been watching me all along.
And then, of course, it became a mad media circus, and my life in college
really kind of changed from then on, but then after that, I sort of moved off
campus and had a new life in college and things did die down somewhat. And it
truly was the best time in my life. I mean, I don't know who I'd be if I
hadn't been there.
GROSS: Did you study acting when you were at Yale?
Ms. FOSTER: I studied no acting when I was at Yale, not that I could have,
because, you know, that's liberal arts education. In their minds, you know,
it's not a trade school. I didn't study any theater at all, although that was
certainly available to me. I really wanted to learn about literature. That
was my passion. I loved reading, I had always loved reading, and that was the
place that I saw for myself. I really wanted to stay as far away from acting
as I could and even as far away from kind of the real world as I could. You
know, I had been paying taxes since I was three years old, and I really wanted
to be in an ivory tower for once.
GROSS: Jodie Foster, it's been a pleasure to have you here. Thank you so
much for talking with us.
Ms. FOSTER: Thank you.
BIANCULLI: Jodie Foster speaking with Terry Gross last spring. Foster's
movie "Panic Room" is out on video and DVD. Her latest film, "The Dangerous
Lives of Altar Boys," will be joining it next month. I'm David Bianculli and
this is FRESH AIR.
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
Interview: Garrison Keillor talks about his new book "Lake
Wobegon Summer 1956" and about his recent heart surgery
DAVID BIANCULLI, host:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm David Bianculli sitting in for Terry Gross.
Best-selling writer and humorist Garrison Keillor's latest novel, "Lake
Wobegon Summer 1956," is now out in paperback. It's set in the fictional town
he made famous on his long-running public radio program, "A Prairie Home
Companion." It's about a 14-year-old named Gary who, like more than a few
boys that age, has discovered pornography and his own sexual urges. In Gary's
case, this comes with a big sense of shame. He hides what he's reading and
what he's thinking and worries that he's headed straight to hell. At the same
time, he's found another lonely but deep passion. He's discovered that he
loves to write. Gary has gotten his hands on his own typewriter. He's
started writing about sports for the local paper and he's started to
experiment with different ways of describing the world around him just for the
fun of it.
Terry spoke with Keillor last year when "Lake Wobegon Summer 1956" was first
published. Their conversation included a brief reading from the book with
Garrison himself setting the scene.
Mr. GARRISON KEILLOR: Here's a boy who's 14 years old sitting on a porch in
the summer of 1956 in Lake Wobegon. He's holding a copy of "Fox's Book of
Martyrs," required reading among the fundamentalists. And tucked into the
book is a magazine, a gift from a classmate, High School Orgies, with
suggestive stories of people who suddenly fell in love and in the next minute
were naked and some photographs of them. This pornographic magazine and the
pictures of naked people makes the boy remember how he, himself, looks in
photographs and in a home movie that Daddy took last Christmas.
(Reading) `I look like a tree toad who has changed into a boy but not
completely. There's still plenty of toadness there; the dark, amphibian eyes
blinking, the pipe-stem arms and wrists, the high-water pants, the flappy
clown shoes, the Herkimer hair(ph), the steel-rimmed glasses. No sensible
woman would marry a guy this creepy. Take a look and you see this person will
never be a normal American. He will live alone and suffer from psoriasis and
hemorrhoids and halitosis and earn dollars at home through taxidermy and
selling salve, and he will never have true friends, only other geeks who
remind him too painfully of himself. But what choice does he have, so he
meets them at the spastic center to compare stamp collections, play chess,
solve algebra problems, do geek-type things.
`He may never obtain a driver's license. He'll ride his Schwinn bike to and
from Ralph's Pretty Good Grocery, and his old classmates will zoom past in
their late-model cars and think, "Whatever happened to old Gary, the creepo,
the spaz? Haven't seen hide nor hair of him for years." Zoom, and there I
am, the old guy on a bike, the old galoot who totes his necessaries around in
a plastic bag, a rubber band around his pants legs, reflective tape plastered
on the sleeves and back of his plaid jacket, a reflector pinned to the back of
his hunting cap.
`Eating a Little Debby's snack cake, "You thrill me so," she whispered, as she
kissed him, her back arched, her luscious orbs gleaming in the moonlight.
This type of thing will not happen for that guy any more than he will sing and
dance in a Broadway musical. That guy's love stick will never be a love stick
that any babe thinks of with anything but mute disgust. The High School
Orgies story about the boy in home ec class; this will not happen for me. The
girls are sewing dresses and the boy sews a tiny, leopard-skinned bathing suit
and models it for them. The girls inspect it closely, admiring the handiwork.
And suddenly he bursts a seam and soon they're all naked. Their love juices
flowing. I find this tremendously exciting; those girlish fingers poking at
`I am going to hell. This is becoming increasingly clear. As Aunt Flo says,
"You don't get to be a Christian by sitting in church anymore than sleeping in
a garage makes you a car." What sort of Christian can open up High School
Orgies to the picture of the home ec girls' breasts with pointy nipples and
feel that happy twitching in his shorts?'
GROSS: Garrison, thanks for reading that. And that's an excerpt of Garrison
Keillor's new novel, "Lake Wobegon Summer 1956." Is this a new turn for you
writing about a boy who's learning about sex and is constantly being aroused
by what he reads and is, of course, constantly guilty by reading it and by
being aroused by it?
Mr. KEILLOR: I just want to sit here and cry for a while, I think. That
passage which you made me read was much too personal and makes me feel
terrible. But that's why I went into radio. And, yes, it is a new turn and
it all started back the last time we talked. And you asked me a question,
which you then sort of withdrew, about my sexual awakening. And it was your
withdrawal of the question, as if this might even be an embarrassing thing to
talk about or too personal or something that made me think, `Maybe I ought to
write about that.' So I did, wrote a book about myself and then surrounded
myself with all of these fictional people.
GROSS: Well, did you have to, like, steal yourself to write about the
discovery of sexuality? Was it really difficult, painful, too personal?
Mr. KEILLOR: It's painful to think of how I looked at the age of 14, but it
was very pleasant to write about this particular summer, a summer in which the
discovery of erotic feelings and a sweet romance with my own cousin was all
tied in with becoming a writer and experiencing life as best you can when
you're 14 in a small town in the Midwest.
GROSS: Garrison, I'm still kind of thinking about what you said; that it was
that question about awaking to your own sexuality that led you to think about
writing this book. I mean, if that's true, I'm wondering, like, when you came
across something that seemed too personal to discuss, is that when you
thought, `Well, maybe if it makes me uncomfortable, I should get deeper into
Mr. KEILLOR: It didn't make me uncomfortable. It made you uncomfortable.
GROSS: Oh, well, it made me uncomfortable...
Mr. KEILLOR: You were the one who was...
GROSS: ...because I thought it made you uncomfortable.
Mr. KEILLOR: No. You were the one who withdrew the question and that made me
think, `Maybe I've become too avuncular in my old age'...
GROSS: I see. I see.
Mr. KEILLOR: ...and people don't think that I am capable of this sort of
thing or think that this never happened, perhaps, because I'm from Minnesota
and grew up in a small town. This Philadelphia sophisticate believes that I'm
not capable of having had these feelings.
GROSS: How misinterpreted.
Mr. KEILLOR: You know, we're used to being patronized out here on the prairie
and--so that was the conclusion I leaped to.
GROSS: Well, I'm really interested in the books that the character in your
novel is reading, which I imagined is similar to the books that you were
reading when you were in your very early teens. And these are books that
describe breasts as orbs and men have their manhood or their joy stick. And
there are many, many other synonyms in there. What were some of the books
that you came across during that era of your life?
Mr. KEILLOR: Pornography, you mean?
Mr. KEILLOR: Oh, I didn't have any. I think that when I was 14, in a used
bookstore, I came across some nudist magazines. These were blurry,
black-and-white photographs of people on a distant hillside who were not
wearing clothes. It took a lot of imagination to be aroused by this sort of
thing, and when I was 14, I had an incredible imagination. So I found that
exciting. But the sort of writing that you're referring to, this antique
pornographic writing, I had to invent in the book. I was a very chaste person
in most ways when I was 14.
GROSS: Well, you know, one of the magazines he's reading is High School
Orgies. And I think there's another one that's, like, Library Orgies, Orgy in
the Library. And, you know, I remember when I was a girl, one of my friends
found a book hidden away in her father's dresser or something that was called
"Wild Orgy." And, of course, we didn't know what an orgy was, and I assumed
that this was about a wild guy named Orgy, kind of like Porgy.
Mr. KEILLOR: Mm-hmm. Yes.
GROSS: I mean, who knew about this stuff? So I was wondering if you had that
experience of ever, like, discovering literature that was really intriguing to
you but was at the same time kind of, you know, like over your head sexually?
Mr. KEILLOR: I discovered a manual in my parent's dresser drawer under some
clothing. I guess I must have been looking for it, right? Why else would I
have gone in there?
GROSS: Looking for Christmas gifts.
Mr. KEILLOR: I guess. I found a manual. And for a manual back then, it was
fairly explicit. And it used those words which I found so exciting, just the
words themselves. I guess that's how you grow up to be a writer is when
simply the word `penis' and the word `coitus' and the word `vagina' are
thrilling to you.
GROSS: No one ever thinks that way about pornography, that it's a wonderful
thing for a young person to stumble on to learn a lot about language and the
power of writing. But do you think that there's actually some real truth to
Mr. KEILLOR: It's writing that has a big effect on you when you're young.
And then you quickly move beyond it, or you're supposed to, or you learn to be
secretive about it. But it has a huge effect--the effect of secrets being
revealed and forbidden things talked about and a door opened on to a scene
that you were not meant to witness. This is a powerful tonic for a young
reader who has read acres of stuff that is pretty predictable and in which a
good moral is painstakingly laid out and you can see it coming a mile ahead.
GROSS: Well, your character decides in advance on some of the words that he
wants to make sure he uses in the story, words like `auspicious,' `thwart,'
`drowse,' `entreaty,' `pliant,' `incipient.' Did you do that when you were
writing about sports, have lists of words you wanted to incorporate into the
Mr. KEILLOR: Oh, sure, because in the Reader's Digest, which we took in our
home, there was this regular monthly feature. What was it called? `Building
Your Word Power.' And each month, they gave you a list with definitions, of
course, of 10 words of that sort; `auspicious,' `hairy,' `sortie.' And it was
your task to work them into conversation. Yes, I did that as a kid. You
know, it was odd to be a little guy sitting around the supper table with your
parents and your siblings and trying to get the word `abstruse' in there
GROSS: And did you ever try to write soft-core porn yourself?
Mr. KEILLOR: I didn't because I knew that I didn't have any experience that
could be put down on paper and that other people would find exciting.
Mr. KEILLOR: That took a while. And then by the time I did have erotic
experience, I had gone down the road of writing humor. And humor and
eroticism don't work together.
Mr. KEILLOR: Did I just make a profound point or...
GROSS: No. I was thinking not necessarily...
Mr. KEILLOR: ...are we changing tapes?
GROSS: No. I was just kind of trying to think whether that was true or not.
And I was thinking they don't work together in an arousing kind of way, but it
can be very funny. I mean, writing about sex can be very funny, as you prove
in the book.
Mr. KEILLOR: If it is funny, then it's not erotic.
GROSS: Right. It's not a turn-on. Right.
Mr. KEILLOR: If a woman having sex laughs out loud to herself...
GROSS: This is not a good thing.
Mr. KEILLOR: ...how does the guy feel about this? Let's stop and think
about that. I've heard of this happening and laughter is not erotic.
GROSS: Your character in the novel kind of falls in love with his slightly
older cousin. And you said you had a cousin who you actually had a
relationship like this with. What happened to her? Am I giving too much away
if I say what happens to the cousin in the novel?
Mr. KEILLOR: No, I don't think so.
GROSS: She has a boyfriend who's part of this, kind of, rebellious,
adventurous, ne'er-do-well-type family. And she gets pregnant out of wedlock
with her boyfriend and, of course, you know, the family is just terrified and
devastated; and suddenly they're going to become, like, the kind of people
they read about in the tabloids where something, you know, very awful has
Mr. KEILLOR: Except the boy's not terrified. The boy...
GROSS: No. No, he's not. It's a big adventure to him.
Mr. KEILLOR: ...thinks to himself, `Go do whatever you're going to do and I
will write about it.'
GROSS: Mm-hmm. Mm-hmm. Did your sister get pregnant like that--or your
cousin, I mean, get pregnant like this?
Mr. KEILLOR: No, no, no.
GROSS: Why did you want this to happen to the character?
Mr. KEILLOR: It simply is what happened to the character. She comes into
the book--at the very beginning, the boy is in love with her and he admires
her. She's a free spirit. She's a rebel. She's not afraid to get into
trouble at school. She enjoys being in trouble, whereas he finds it
humiliating. So he admires her courage, the courage to act up and to
misbehave and to express yourself in flamboyant ways, which she does.
For this girl, in this town, at that time, it seemed to me, writing the book,
the most natural thing in the world...
Mr. KEILLOR: ..that an older boy, who's 19, pitcher for the baseball team,
would fall in love with her and that her next great adventure would be in the
front seat of his Pontiac, and it would have the outcome that all young women
feared back in the 1950s--women who were raised properly, of course.
GROSS: When you started writing and started writing stories based on people
you knew and what your family did and all of that, did you feel that, as a
writer, it kind of gave you permission to not engage as fully in life, but
rather, to stand back and be the recorder of life?
Mr. KEILLOR: If you look, as I looked when I was 14 years old, you have a
tendency to hang back anyway. I was terribly shy--just painfully,
excruciatingly shy as a boy. I had a terrible time just walking into a room.
Opening a door and walking into a room in which I knew there were people was
painful for me. And I was related to those people; I mean, I knew them all.
They were not strangers. They were not a jury. So for a person who is unable
to be a part of social life, you may as well take notes, give yourself
something to do, and then you can go back and rewrite everything that happened
BIANCULLI: Garrison Keillor's autobiographical novel, "Lake Wobegon Summer
1956," is now out in paperback.
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
Review: Movie "Auto Focus"
DAVID BIANCULLI, host:
Paul Schrader's new movie, "Auto Focus," is based on the sexually obsessed
life of TV actor Bob Crane, who was found murdered in 1978. Greg Kinnear
stars as Crane. Film critic David Edelstein has a review.
DAVID EDELSTEIN reporting:
So I walked out of a screening of Paul Schrader's "Auto Focus" the other day
and I heard someone say, `Wow. That was a great movie. I never want to have
sex again.' Now to me those two sentences are mutually exclusive. I'm
frankly suspicious of any movie in which there's absolutely nothing to be said
for consensual recreational sex. And Schrader has a sexy subject here. His
protagonist is Bob Crane, the '60s sitcom actor from "Hogan's Heroes," who was
bludgeoned to death in a hotel room. The murder was technically unsolved, but
the movie tells you who probably did it. More to the point, it tells you why
Crane's life turned out so grimly. It was the lethal combination of sex,
video and celebrity.
As played by Greg Kinnear, this Bob Crane is an easygoing superficial guy who
simply has a leg up on the rest of us. Thanks to his fame, he can go to bed
with a different woman or several every night. And because the mid-'60s
marked the birth of a new technology, home video, and he's pals with a
celebrity hanger-on who works at Sony, played by a prodigiously cretinous
Willem Dafoe, Crane can videotape his conquests and relive them when he wants
to which is basically all the time.
The movie starts out in a breezy style, with lounge lizard music and a palette
like '50s fiesta wear, but as Bob Crane's addiction estranges him from his
family and derails his career, the camera gets shaky and the lighting harsh
and the color like the inside of a latrine. In his last decade, Crane hits
the dinner theater circuit looking more and more pathetic as he trades on his
celebrity to score. In this scene, he spies a pair of attractive women and
directs the bartender to switch the TV set to a channel with reruns of
(Soundbite of "Auto Focus")
Mr. GREG KINNEAR: (As Bob Crane): Hi.
SUSAN: 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 that...
Mr. KINNEAR: Oh, my gosh. That is embarrassing. I didn't even know it was
on. I'm Bob Crane.
SUSAN: I know. I thought so.
Mr. KINNEAR: Yeah.
SUSAN: Bob Crane, gosh, it's nice to meet you.
Mr. KINNEAR: Nice to meet you, too...
Mr. KINNEAR: ...Susan. All right.
SUSAN: I loved your TV show.
Mr. KINNEAR: Well, appreciate that. I'm just in town here to do a little bit
SUSAN: I just wanted to say hi.
Mr. KINNEAR: Sure. Can I get you something: another drink, an autograph, a
Mr. KINNEAR: You know, I'm a real photo nut and how long are you girls in
EDELSTEIN: The come-on actually works. Crane gets laid. But here's what
you don't see in "Auto Focus," the pleasure of the act itself or any human
tenderness in its aftermath. Crane reportedly liked women and had fun with
them. One of the creepiest things about this movie is that they seem more
interchangeable and more expendable to the director than they do to the
In Paul Schrader's interview on FRESH AIR, he cited the obsessive-compulsive
element of Bob Crane's personality. In life, Crane didn't just catalog women
and videotapes; he also cataloged things like his children's games. I
thought, `That's an interesting clue to this guy. Why isn't that in the
movie?' My guess is that Schrader found that too particular to Crane and too
psychological. You can't really moralize about obsessive-compulsive behavior.
A former porn movie addict from a strict Calvinist background, Schrader isn't
interested in this one guy and his individual ticks.
Casting Greg Kinnear is a statement right there. In the "Hogan's Heroes"
scenes, Kinnear has the perfect shallow smirkiness, but in the last third, he
has no depths as an actor to plumb and Schrader has purposefully kept him a
befuddled pip-squeak. The producers are Scott Alexander and Larry
Karaszweski, who wrote "Ed Wood" and "The People Vs. Larry Flynt," and "Man
in the Moon," which were all biopics with a spoofy and facetious tone. What's
depressing about "Auto Focus" isn't its portrait of addiction. It's the
mixture of that facetiousness with Schrader's distaste. They style Bob Crane
a superficial man and then they judge him for it.
In movies, addiction is a tricky business. You don't want to glamorize it,
but if you paint too dire a picture from the start, you raise the question,
`Why would anyone want to do this stuff in the first place?' I'm an admirer
of movies like "Drugstore Cowboy" and "Requiem for a Dream," anti-addiction
movies that have sympathy for the ways in which people seek transcendence and
end up enslaved. There's no sympathy in Schrader's depiction of Bob Crane and
no understanding of what he's trying to get from sex and video.
Schrader has made "Auto Focus" like a reformed addict, who can't admit the
pleasures of what once transfixed him. It's almost as if he wants you to say,
`Wow. That was a great movie. I never want to see a movie again.'
BIANCULLI: David Edelstein is film critic for the online magazine Slate.
BIANCULLI: For Terry Gross, I'm David Bianculli.
Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.