It would be reasonable to assume that anyone deserving of a feature-length biographical documentary has accomplished great things, or at least is widely admired.
But what about those who are not so driven or well-known yet possess a special talent for living life to the fullest? A documentary focusing on someone like that might be more interesting and instructive than yet another film about perseverance and personal sacrifice — especially if the subject has a knack for storytelling and a lifetime of unique experiences on which to draw.
Here to test that hypothesis is seasoned, sometimes experimental filmmaker Michael Almereyda (Nadja) with Escapes, a documentary about actor, writer and raconteur Hampton Fancher. Best known as co-writer of Ridley Scott's landmark sci-fi film noir Blade Runner — along with the long awaited but soon-to-arrive sequel, Blade Runner 2049 — Fancher appeared in a few Hollywood films before settling into a Westerns-focused, 1960s and '70s TV career, guest-starring on shows like Have Gun — Will Travel and Bonanza. This is hardly the stuff of documentary glory.
But Almereyda is so taken with the 79-year-old Fancher and the stories he tells that the director bookends Escapes with discussions of the Spanish term duende, which has no direct English translation but refers to passion, inspiration and the rare ability to live beyond one's natural limits.
The film may fall short of demonstrating the veracity of that particular tribute. But neither Almereyda nor Fancher seems interested in proving much of anything with Escapes. Breezy and fun to watch, the film marvels at what surely is a charmed life. Fancher seems always to be in the right place at the right time for the chance encounter that will once again change his life forever. His movie-star looks and natural charisma don't hurt, but he also has a talent for generating his own good fortune, in part by maintaining a keen interest in those around him. There's a lesson in there somewhere.
From an early age, Fancher was uniquely self-possessed. He dropped out of school at 11, changed his name to Mario Montejo at 13 and impersonated an adult at 15 to take a boat to Spain and become a flamenco dancer. Back home in Los Angeles and still a teenager, Fancher lived a Hollywood fantasy when a director spotted him on the street and gave him a part in The Brain Eaters. The rest is little-known but quite entertaining history.
Escapes consists of seven chapters, most constructed around a single story or episode from Fancher's life and often featuring one of his movie-star love interests. Teri Garr (Tootsie), Barbara Hershey (Hannah and Her Sisters) and Sue Lyon (star of Stanley Kubrick's Lolita) all came under Fancher's spell and figure prominently in his life story, giving the film Hollywood-insider status it otherwise might lack.
Almereyda illustrates Fancher's stories mostly with clips from the actor's movies and TV shows, along with those of Fancher's actress girlfriends (he was briefly married to Lyon). The clips comment on the action described in the stories, often humorously or with surprising insight. It's an imaginative way of avoiding the dreaded talking-heads approach to documentary filmmaking; Escapes would grow wearisome quickly if we spent 89 minutes watching Fancher weave his yarns.
Onscreen text is used to communicate background information, allowing an uninterrupted flow of vintage clips, photos and music to bring Fancher's stories to life. It's a small and unusually modest film, but one that hits you like a blast of fresh air.