Unsung Auteurs: John Lee Hancock

November 4, 2021
FilmInk salutes the work of directors who have never truly received the credit that they deserve. In this installment: Texas-born John Lee Hancock, who has a strong affinity for truly American stories.

The name John Lee Hancock doesn’t soar too high in Australia, even though he has made a film with very strong local connections. Hancock makes feels that are deeply, richly ingrained with a distinctively American sensibility, and despite that nation’s considerable pop cultural influence on Australia, that sensibility – and the subjects and interests that it umbrellas – doesn’t always travel too well. As a result, several of the writer/director’s films have seen small theatrical releases here, or have moved straight to the home entertainment sphere. All of which is a damn shame because John Lee Hancock is a terrific filmmaker (and excellent screenwriter) with a host of strong and profoundly engaging movies to his credit.

Unsurprisingly, John Lee Hancock’s pedigree is pure American. Born in 1956 in Texas City, his father was a one-time NFL player and successful high school football coach, which means a lot more in Texas than it does here in Australia. Along with his brothers, Hancock was a skilled athlete, and worked in his grandfather’s pipe fabrication shop before studying English and Law at college. A successful graduate, Hancock worked at a Houston law firm for four years before deciding that he wanted to forge a very different path and become a screenwriter. He headed off for Los Angeles, worked a variety of non-legal jobs, wrote non-stop, started a small theatre company, and eventually made his debut as a writer/director with the barely released 1991 drama Hard Time Romance, which starred Leon Rippy as a cowboy pursuing the love of his life, portrayed by eventual Law & Order: SVU star Mariska Hargitay.

John Lee Hancock on set.

The film made no impact, but Hancock continued to write, and eventually struck gold in 1993 with his screenplay for A Perfect World, a neo-western about a kidnapped boy, a hardened but inherently decent criminal, and the venerable Texas Ranger on his trail. “When I wrote A Perfect World, it somehow caught fire,” Hancock told Independent. “And the next thing I know, Clint Eastwood’s going to direct it and Kevin Costner, who at that point was the biggest movie star in the world, was going to star in it. And then next thing I know, I’m on the set and they’re saying the words.”

Hancock was a welcome visitor to the set, where he received guidance and advice from both Eastwood (who had just won an Oscar for Unforgiven) and Kevin Costner (who had won his own directing Oscar in 1990 for Dances With Wolves). Eastwood also engaged Hancock to pen the 1997 adaptation of John Berendt’s complex true crime book Midnight In The Garden Of Good And Evil. “I went to law school, not film school, so Clint Eastwood became my film school,” Hancock told Independent. “I was able to sit by his side for two movies, and watch the way that he prepared and he shot. It gave me great insight into one way to make movies.”

John Lee Hancock with Dennis Quaid on the set of The Rookie.

After directing some episodic television, Hancock took the lessons that he’d learned from Clint Eastwood and Kevin Costner into his second film as a director. Coursing with an earthy, distinctly American authenticity not too dissimilar from Eastwood’s 2001’s The Rookie (barely released in Australia) is a deeply moving, beautifully realised sports movie starring Dennis Quaid as a Texas high school baseball coach who makes a very, very late entry into the big leagues. The film was written by Mike Rich, with Hancock just on directing duty. “I had the great benefit of directing someone else’s script for my first movie,” Hancock told Script Mag in 2020, interestingly discounting 1991’s Hard Time Romance. “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.”

The Rookie was well reviewed, and along with the cache created by A Perfect World, Hancock upped the ante for his next film, which tracked right back to his Texan roots. With surprising brutality and far-from-jingoistic revisionism, Hancock (who took on the project after Ron Howard had developed it, but left over budget disputes with Disney) impressively tore apart a seminal piece of Texan history with 2004’s The Alamo, a bloodstained mini-epic which bravely looked at both sides of the famous 1836 military conflict. Starring Billy Bob Thornton, Dennis Quaid and Jason Patric, the powerful, intelligent film was highly divisive and failed horribly at the box office. “If everyone in Texas made his or her own Alamo, there would be that many different versions of the story,” Hancock said upon the release of the film. “It’s like somebody making a movie about my mother: I’d want the facts to be right, but I’d want it to be shiny in some places and dull in others. I’d be protective. I hope everyone who sees the movie will understand that our hearts are in the right place.”

Jonh Lee Hancock with Sandra Bullock on the set of The Blind Side.

Hancock was in safer territory with his next film. Based on the true story of Leigh Ann Tuohy, a bold, defiant, wonderfully self-possessed woman who took in disadvantaged teen Michael Oher and guided him to a successful career in the NFL, 2009’s The Blind Side was a much-loved smash hit in the US and saw leading lady Sandra Bullock pick up a well-deserved Oscar for her feisty, full-bodied performance. “Sandy was understandably frustrated with my inability to describe the character, but that’s because Leigh Anne is indescribable,” Hancock told film writer Emanuel Levy. “It’s one of the wonderful things about her. Finally I said, ‘Sandy, you just have to meet her.’ It turned into a full day spent with Leigh Anne and everything that involves: craziness and mayhem and fun and laughter and getting a lot of stuff done in very short order. At the end of the day, Sandy turned to me and said, ‘Okay, I get it.’ She had experienced firsthand the tornado that is ‘Tuohy time’, and we were off and running.”

True stories proved to be a rich creative mine for Hancock, who next took on the unlikely project of 2013’s Saving Mr. Banks, which told the story of Queensland-born author P.L Travers, who warred with Walt Disney over his adaptation of her classic novel Mary Poppins. Starring the perfectly cast Emma Thompson and Tom Hanks – both at the top of their game – the film was well received, did very well at the box office, and scored a few award nominations, but is still somewhat underrated. Reverberating with a soulful sense of melancholy, Saving Mr. Banks (which Hancock didn’t script) is a brilliant meditation on the creative impulse and an artist’s ownership of their works. “I had only seen the movie of Mary Poppins,” Hancock told Screen Rant. “I had not read the books before the script landed on my desk.  When it did, I thought, ‘Well, there’s not going to be anything here for me.’ But when I read it, I was exposed to the tragic origins story from PL Travers childhood and there is a little detective story in there in a weird way, which was cool.”

John Lee Hancock with Tom Hanks and Sandra Bullock on the set of Savng Mr. Banks.

The only thing more pop culturally American than Walt Disney is McDonald’s, and that’s where Hancock went next with 2016’s The Founder, the infuriating true story of the insidious Ray Kroc (a career-best Michael Keaton), a ruthless monster who teamed with the creators of an innovative fast food restaurant and then robbed them of just about everything in order to create the giant corporation that is now McDonald’s. Both a savage salvo against the heartlessness of big business and a complex portrait of a man who takes America’s love of money and success to its moral end point, The Founder is another underrated gem from Hancock that should have staked its claim at the Oscars (at least for Michael Keaton), but instead made just a middling impact. “When I read Rob Siegel’s script, I was quite taken by the idea that I was actively rooting for Ray – until a point where I started to question his motives and actions,” Hancock told Flickering Myth. “Then by the end thought, ‘I don’t think I like this guy.’ I had never read a script like that before. I thought it would be a bit of a high wire act to pull off on screen, but I knew it was something that would keep me interested for the couple of years it would take to make it.”

The concept of grand American legend continued to fascinate Hancock on his richly burnished, highly involving 2019 Netflix drama, The Highwaymen, which looks at the true story of Bonnie & Clyde. Wiping away their folkloric status (the bank robbers and their gang are mere cyphers in the film), and instead painting Bonnie & Clyde as cowardly cop killers, the film plays out from the viewpoint of real life lawmen Frank Hamer (Hancock gets a wonderfully taciturn and world-weary performance from his A Perfect World mentor Kevin Costner) and Maney Gault (Woody Harrelson, brilliant as ever), who were charged with tracking down the crew, and did it with merciless precision and extreme prejudice. “They both know this job,” Hancock told Roger Ebert.com. “They have a terrible job and a terrible gift, and they know the toll it’s going to take on their soul because they have done it before.”

John Lee Hancock with Rami Malek on the set of The Little Things.

After his run of true stories, Hancock returned to his own past for 2021’s dark thriller The Little Things. Written back in 1993, the script had attracted the interest of a number of very big names over the years, with Steven Spielberg, Clint Eastwood, Warren Beatty and Danny De Vito all attached at various stages through the film’s torturous development. Starring Oscar winning heavy hitters Denzel Washington, Rami Malek and Jared Leto, Hancock’s finished product is bleak, uncompromising and very dark, perhaps hinting at why it was so difficult to get made as originally envisioned. “The thematic intentions are different than people thought they would be…there’s no joy in Mudville at the end of this movie,” Hancock told Indiewire, appropriately using a famous American sports term for overpowering disappointment.

Next tackling an adaptation of essential American author Stephen King with the currently in production Mr. Harrigan’s Phone, John Lee Hancock continues to document the distinct complexities of his homeland with quiet power and real filmmaking finesse, all while never getting the attention that he truly deserves…

If you liked this story, check out our features on other unsung auteurs Allison Anders, Daniel Petrie Sr.Katt SheaFrank PerryAmy Holden JonesStuart RosenbergPenelope SpheerisCharles B. PierceTamra DavisNorman TaurogJennifer LeePaul WendkosMarisa SilverJohn MackenzieIda LupinoJohn V. SotoMartha Coolidge, Peter HyamsTim Hunter, Stephanie RothmanBetty ThomasJohn FlynnLizzie BordenLionel JeffriesLexi AlexanderAlkinos TsilimidosStewart RaffillLamont JohnsonMaggie Greenwald and Tamara Jenkins.


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