Director, writer and producer John Lee Hancock has a filmography reflecting a penchant for telling extraordinary human stories, a case in point being that of Michael Oher, a homeless and traumatized boy who became an All-American college football player and first round NFL draft pick of the Baltimore Ravens thanks in large part to a caring woman and her family. Leigh Anne Tuohy and Sean Tuohy adopted Oher, a homeless teenage African American, bringing their family a new son and brother. Hancock wrote the adapted screenplay of the true story based on Michael Lewis’ book “The Blind Side: Evolution of a Game.”
The Hancock-penned and -directed The Blind Side, from Warner Bros. and Alcon Entertainment, went on to earn two Academy Award nominations, including Best Picture, and garnered Sandra Bullock a Best Actress Oscar for her portrayal of Leanne Tuohy.
Among other Hancock-directed films based on true stories are The Rookie, The Founder and Saving Mr. Banks. The Rookie introduces us to Jim Morris (Dennis Quaid) who at age 35 made his Major League Baseball debut as a pitcher for the Tampa Bay Devil Rays. The Founder features a stirring performance by Michael Keaton as McDonald’s founder Ray Kroc. And Saving Mr. Banks stars Tom Hanks and Emma Thompson as Walt Disney and P.L. Travers, respectively. The film chronicles Disney’s quest to adapt Travers’ “Mary Poppins” into a film, battling and eventually overcoming her reluctance. Saving Mr. Banks shed light on the Disney-Travers relationship and how a beloved movie came to fruition.
Back in 1991, Hancock made his film debut with Hard Time Romance, a romantic comedy set against the backdrop of a rodeo, which he both wrote and directed. Two years later, he wrote the screenplay for A Perfect World, directed by and starring Clint Eastwood and Kevin Costner. Some years later, Eastwood asked Hancock to adapt the book “Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil.” The film came out in 1997, was directed by Eastwood and starred Kevin Spacey and John Cusack.
Hancock’s other work includes: Snow White and The Huntsman which he co-wrote with Evan Daugherty and Hossein Amini; The Alamo, which he directed and co-wrote with Les Bohem and Stephen Gaghan; and My Dog Skip for which he served as a producer.
Now Hancock’s latest film is The Highwaymen (Netflix), for which he directed Costner and Woody Harrelson who portray, respectively, Texas Rangers Frank Hamer and Maney Gault. Drawn out of retirement, Hamer and Gault are part of a last-ditch effort to hunt down the bank robbers Bonnie and Clyde. Regarded by state and federal agents as dinosaurs for their old-school, frontier, rough and tumble methods, Hamer and Gault are on their own, eventually bringing an end to Bonnie and Clyde’s bloody spree that gripped the nation.
Hancock reflected on The Highwaymen, his collaborators contributions to the film, and working with Netflix for the first time.
SHOOT: Provide some backstory on The Highwaymen. What drew you to the story?
Hancock: The script came to me about 15 years ago, John Fusco had written a draft. Casey Silver was the producer. (Fusco and Silver stayed involved throughout, until The Highwaymen actually got made.) I took to the story and became involved. To give you an idea of how long ago this was, Paul Newman and Robert Redford was the first potential pairing discussed. The film came together and fell apart several times over the years. It would come back and I’d read it in its latest form again. Every time I read it, I was excited. It all finally came together.
SHOOT: What were the biggest creative challenges that The Highwaymen posed to you as a filmmaker?
Hancock: The challenges involved some of the reasons the film kept falling through over the years. Anytime you have an ambitious period movie like this with cars, old guns, people and extras in period clothing, there’s considerable expense involved. People loved the script and the idea for the movie but we could not get quite enough money to do it correctly. Netflix ultimately gave us the money to do it properly. Also the expense of CG had gone down over the years. There were over 600 CG shots in this movie, shots designed not to be detected, such as removing modern elements out of scenes.
SHOOT: You gravitated toward a long-time collaborator, cinematographer John Schwartzman, ASC, to shoot The Highwaymen. What was your approach to lensing the film?
Hancock: This is my fourth film with John. He shot Saving Mr. Banks, The Founder and The Rookie. You never really get a good look at Bonnie and Clyde until the end of the film. We wanted to shoot it like a graphic novel. We wanted colors to pop. The framing had to be kind of ‘comic-booky’ in a way and heavily stylized. We wanted the audience to start thinking of Bonnie and Clyde as pop culture icons. People during that era kind of thought of them that way, treating them like heroes. By contrast, we took a naturalist approach to shooting the Texas Rangers. They weren’t seen as the heroes. They were more mundane. And then those two ideas come together on a lonely road. Bonnie and Clyde are forced into that naturalistic world at the end of the story.
SHOOT: Other prime collaborators you brought in were, like John, artists you had worked with before. Would you touch upon their contributions to The Highwaymen?
Hancock: I love prep. Movies are made in prep. You get close to your key collaborators and we’re all constantly working to make the same movie. Jonathan (Schwartzman), my costume designer Daniel Orlandi, production designer Michael Corenblith, we’re constantly discussing in prep. (The Highwaymen marks the fifth film Orlandi and Corenblith have done with director Hancock.) We’re talking about the sets Michael is going to build as it relates to the costumes by Daniel, to John’s shooting. We all just work together very well in developing the approach and how the different elements will fit together.
Also fitting in is editor Robert Frazen (who earlier cut The Rookie for Hancock). Our personalities are similar. We have a good work experience in the editing room.
SHOOT: This is your first time working with Netflix. What was that experience like?
Hancock: Netflix was terrific every step of the way. I knew Scott Stuber (head of original films at Netflix) from his days at Universal and his career as a film producer. He was so supportive of us making the movie we wanted to make.
I’d love everyone to see The Highwaymen on the big screen. At the same time, you always want as many people as possible to see your film. Netflix makes that all possible.