INTERVIEW: Writer/Director John Lee Hancock on Adaptations, Breaking In, and "The Little Things"
Randy Rudder interviews John L. Hancock on writing, directing, streaming platforms, and the effects of the COVID-19 outbreak on the film industry.
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It seems that most screenwriters aspire to direct, but it takes a special breed of individual to be successful at both. One of those who has done so is John Lee Hancock, who has written and/or produced such blockbuster films as The Blind Side (which garnered an Oscar for Sandra Bullock), The Alamo, Saving Mr. Banks, The Rookie, as well as Netflix Originals The Founder (on McDonalds founder Ray Kroc), and The Highwaymen. Hancock also wrote Infinite, the upcoming film starring Mark Wahlberg. John was born in Texas and studied English literature and law at Baylor University before pursuing his writing directing career in Hollywood. Script Magazine contributor Randy Rudder recently interviewed John on writing, directing, streaming platforms, and the effects of the COVID-19 outbreak on the film industry.
Script: You've written original screenplays and adapted books as well. What are some of the keys to successfully adapting a nonfiction book like Michael Lewis' The Blind Side or John Berendt's Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil?
John Lee Hancock: Adaptations are tough in that you'll essentially be deciding which 60% (of the book) to excise, if you're, for instance, writing a two-hour film. I try to read the book several times before I break out a pen and start making notes in the margins—underlining scenes and dialogue that I feel absolutely must be in the script. Then I start to outline and find the shape of the piece, which is usually somewhat different from the flow of the book. Finally, when I can't think of any other way to delay, I begin to write, and rewrite and rewrite.
Script: Obviously knowing what to cut is crucial, but are there times when you have added scenes or dialogue that were not in the book? When is that necessary?
JLH: There are times when additional scenes not featured in the book are necessary to provide an overt plot. In a book, a person's feelings can be described and oftentimes, in a first-person accounting, these thoughts move the story forward in a logical way. Of course, you can do a first person voice-over in your script but that often feels like you're telling instead of showing.
Script: When you first started your career, were your aspirations more to become a writer or director?
JLH: A writer, though I was interested in directing as well. I don't think you can be so cynical as to say, “I'll do this writing thing so I can be a director.” The Muse will know and only half your energy will be committed to your writing. You have to be ‘all in’ on both jobs.
Script: As someone who has been successful at both writing and directing, what are some of those different skill sets that are necessary?
JLH: I always thought if I directed it would be a script I'd written. Looking back. I had the great benefit of directing someone else’s script for my first movie (The Rookie, written by the talented Mike Rich). It forced me to wear the director’s hat and fully embrace the idea that a script is a blueprint and that pragmatic decisions must be made every day during prep, shoot and post that enhance or even alter the locations, the scenes, the dialogue, the specific casting decisions, etc. When I direct something I've written, I try to look at the script as though it were written by someone else, lest I stay too deeply in love with something I've written just because I wrote it.
Script: You've directed two sports films (The Blind Side and The Rookie). What are the unique challenges with doing a sports films as opposed to others? Do you hope to ever do another sports film?
JLH: I enjoyed working on both films but it is doubtful I'll do another. There is no international on sports films (even soccer!) and losing that revenue source results in a lower budget to work with, which can be a challenge. In casting, you sometimes have to find athletes that can act instead of actors that are athletic. It has to look believable and sometimes you sacrifice a better actor for one that is capable and a believable athlete. As for crowd scenes, nowadays it is less expensive to put people in the stands using CG, but when we did The Rookie and The Blind Side, we couldn't afford it so we used real extras and had to get creative with promotions, etc. to keep them in the stands.
Script: We often hear that every film gets packaged differently. How did you get attached to Saving Mr. Banks? Did Disney hire you directly or did it come about some other way?
JLH: The script for Banks was sent to me by my agent. It didn't sound like anything I'd be interested in but when I read Kelly Marcel's script, I was desperate to do it. So, yes, it was sent by Disney to gauge my interest, but the script was completely developed outside the walls of Disney by Alison Owen and Kelly Marcel. Had it been developed by Disney it would have been a very different story. In fact, I think Disney sent a cease-and-desist letter to Alison when they heard she was developing the script. It was only later, when it was on the Black List and people read and loved it, that Disney decided to make it.
Script: What was it like trying to recreate that symbiotic but also dysfunctional relationship between P.L. Travers and Disney on the screen?
JLH: The script worked so well on the page that casting it correctly was the most important thing.
Script: You've worked with Kevin Costner on two very different films (Highwaymen and A Perfect World—which you also wrote.) What is Kevin like to work with, and how did directing such a tragic story as Bonnie and Clyde affect you?
JLH: Kevin was very kind to me on my first movie, A Perfect World. Clint [Eastwood] allowed me to be on set, and Kevin took me under his wing and gave insight into the directing process. Keep in mind that Clint and Kevin had both recently won Best Director Oscars. Dark stories do take a toll on you, since you're in that world for a couple of years, minimum. Not to say we don't have fun making it—just that there aren't a ton of laughs to be had when you need to protect the tone both on the set and the screen.
Script: Are there many differences in shooting a Netflix Original versus a theatrical film?
JLH: I'd been attached to the (Highwaymen) script for almost 15 years and had done several rewrites on John Fusco's great script along the way. Casey Silver, the producer took it to Netflix as Scott Stuber was familiar with the project from his time at Universal. As far as The Highwaymen, there was no difference in it being a Netflix Original. We prepped, shot, did post, all just like any other studio film. We also had a theatrical release a few weeks before it dropped on Netflix. That shortened theatrical window is the only difference.
Script: Would you like to comment on the explosion of Netflix Originals and the inclusion in the Oscar categories?
JLH: It's all an argument over the theatrical window. I love theaters and want them to thrive; however there are some films that can play for a 90-day window and others that lose their steam after two or three weeks. The ones that can't sustain that window just sit until they can be sold to cable or a streaming outfit. As for the Oscars, all Netflix movies, that Netflix feels deserve Awards consideration, are given more screenings in theaters than the Academy requires to be considered, so that shouldn't be an issue. As to some people saying that they “aren't real movies,” I think that Martin Scorsese and Noah Baumbach (and myself) would take issue with that. Smart people should be able to get in a room together and come up with a plan that keeps theaters thriving and satisfies the Academy and its membership.
Script: Are the streaming platforms opening doors for new writers, and in what ways?
JLH: I believe so. This is, in some ways, the golden age of entertainment (as least in terms of the amount of content). So there are more opportunities for content creators. That said, wages for these endeavors is not at the same level as when there were fewer entertainment options. I suspect that COVID-19 and the quarantine will result in a bevy of spec scripts hitting the market and when Production reopens there will be, I believe, tons of work.
Script: Is there a release date yet for Infinite, starring Mark Walhberg?
JLH: I came onboard Infinite to do a rewrite for a couple of weeks. I'd worked with Lorenzo [di Bonaventura] and Antoine [Fuqua] many times, and I wrote one draft, I believe, before I headed off to do The Little Things. Other writers came on after me and there were cast changes as well. Don't know where the release is set now.
Script: You also recently wrapped on The Little Things, a crime thriller, starring Denzel Washington, which you wrote and directed. What is the status of that?
JLH: COVID-19 has thrown a wrench in all release date plans. I know we won't come out now until next year as a ton of films have been pushed into the 4th quarter of the year. I'm in post now, trying to work remotely, which is hard.
Script: How is it different when writing dialogue for real people (like Leigh Anne Tuohy or Walt Disney) versus writing it for fictional characters?
JLH: With real people, you want to capture their cadence and musicality while making up words for them to say. If a person is famous, like Disney, you really want to write to how they actually speak. With Leigh Anne, her speech pattern and accent were so great, we just tried to mimic them as closely as possible.
Script: You've also written and directed for TV. What are the main differences between writing episodic television and film projects?
JLH: I prefer film because it seems that the oversight committee is much smaller. Especially with a new series, the number of crazy notes you get is mind-numbing. On most TV schedules, you are shooting so fast that it can be difficult to dig deeper. Once your show is a hit, I've heard that you get more time and fewer notes.
Script: How many scripts have you written in your life? How many had you written when you made your first sale?
JLH: Gosh, I have no idea how many in total. I'd written three, I believe, before I wrote A Perfect World. I had an agent for playwriting at the time—I was involved with a theatre company and wrote and directed plays in addition to writing screenplays—but no agent for screenwriting. I was a reader at Triad, a large agency that later merged with William Morris and came across Ronda Gomez, who became my first agent. Ronda was really responsible for my success as she got the script in the hands of major producers in town and my career took off. One of the producers, Mark Johnson, wanted to make A Perfect World and it came about very quickly.
Script: Is the old adage about having to move to L.A. to write for TV still applicable or not?
JLH: You do not have to live in L.A. to write. You do have to be connected in L.A. to get work. By connected, I mean have an agent that is in the mix and be available for meetings, etc. in L.A. So it is not necessary for everyone, but for me, it was essential.
Script: Any advice to new writers on breaking in, acquiring an agent, or getting pitch meetings?
JLH: Just write and keep writing. When you have a script that is so good that everyone who reads it passes it along to someone else—“You have to read this!”—then things will start happening. It's harder than ever for young writers to get an agent as agents no longer really foster young writers. It was different when I started.