The average screenplay for a feature film is 118 pages long. It is printed on three-hole-punch paper that is held together by one-and-a-half-inch brass fasteners. It weighs just under two pounds. There is no denying its physical reality, but anyone who has ever worked as a screenwriter knows that a screenplay is less a solid tome than a kind of floating proposition, an ever-evolving set of instructions for how a particular movie should be made. Along the way there are usually so many drafts by so many writers—such a constant flurry of rewritten dialogue and restructured scenes—that the script itself can hardly be said to exist at all.
To survive this process, a writer’s voice has to be exceptionally strong. It has to have sufficient authority and bite as to seem irreplaceable. Here, for instance, are the first words of John Lee Hancock’s screenplay for A Perfect World: “ MUSIC UP. It’s a tad eerie. If a Mambo band died in a bus crash this is the kind of music they’d play in heaven.”
A Perfect World, the story of an eight-year-old Jehovah’s Witness whose existence is frighteningly enlarged when he is abducted by an escaped convict, is one of those rare scripts that do not just display talent but announce it. Among its many striking qualities are an exact rendering of the bygone Texas of 1963 and a willingness to follow the morally complex story into its darkest corners. Even before Clint Eastwood filmed it in 1993, it had elevated Hancock from his catchall career as sometime actor, playwright, and production assistant to A-list screen-writer—one most recently entrusted with Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil, John Berendt’s best-seller about murder and decrepit mores in Savannah, Georgia.
“It was night and day,” Hancock told me recently in a tapas restaurant in Beverly Hills. “You’re struggling to get people to read things, and all of a sudden you’re being offered jobs. I felt a little like Ray Liotta in GoodFellas. You remember that incredible shot where he and his girlfriend pull up in front of that nightclub? They walk right past all these people outside, who are waiting in line, and go in through the kitchen. All the cooks and busboys are smiling at them and clearing a path, and then they come out onto the floor of the club, and just as Henny Youngman is coming to the punch line of a joke, these waiters glide up and set down a table at the foot of the stage just for them. That was exactly the feeling: I’d been standing in that line all my life, and all of a sudden I was in.”
John Lee Hancock is about as in as you can get. Texas screenwriters traditionally have a crotchety relationship with Los Angeles, preferring to avoid living in the heart of the evil empire at all costs, but Hancock and his wife, Holly, and dog, Beulah, are unapologetic denizens of the Hollywood Hills. Their home is a ten-minute drive from Hancock’s office on the Warner Bros. lot. At forty, he appears seasoned, ascetically handsome, and perfectly mannered. On the night we met, The Peacemaker—for which Hancock had traveled to Slovakia to do an uncredited rewrite—had just opened. He was leaving the next week for a film conference in France (where Un Monde Parfait is revered) and after that to Madison to research a script he’s planning to write and direct based on a book about the student bombing of a University of Wisconsin building in 1970.
But of his many projects, the most imminent, and the most tricky, is Midnight, which was also directed by Eastwood. “I was constantly futzing and changing things,” said Hancock, who had been on the set almost every day during the filming in Savannah. “I don’t think Clint minds having me around. One advantage of having the writer on the set is that he can turn to me and say, ‘What’s the story on this guy?’ and I can tell him.” And Eastwood clearly regards Hancock’s opinions on such matters as authoritative. “All of his characters seem real,” he said. “He has a clear view of human nature—both the light and the dark sides.”
John Hancock—he uses the “Lee” not just to avoid Declaration of Independence jokes but to distinguish himself from another writer-director of that name—was born in Longview, the son of a high school football coach and a sixth-grade English teacher. “My mother was very big on reading to us,” Hancock said. “She’d read Huck Finn and books like that when we were little. She’d do all the accents and everything. And she made going to the library an adventure: ‘What book do you want to take home today?’”
The family moved to Texas City when John was in the second grade, and he was soon cranking out short stories at the rate of one a day. “All of them were about football,” he said. “They had titles like ‘Packers 3, Cowboys 0,’ and the point was to describe the whole game in one page. But there were subtle differences. ‘Packers 3, Cowboys 0’ was obviously a defensive story, so it was kind of a character piece. Whereas when you’ve got ‘Lions 49, Colts 44,’ you’re dealing more with plot and action.”
Hancock embarked on a full-length spy novel in the fifth grade—“I was Roosevelt Elementary’s answer to Graham Greene”—and continued to write fiction in college at Baylor University. He had a practical streak, though, and after an early misadventure with pre-med, he graduated with a degree in English and then entered Baylor Law School. “Everybody said I should practice for three years, and that’s what I did. I was an okay lawyer. I wasn’t afraid of the work. But I didn’t have a passion for it.”
What he did have a passion for were movies, particularly mordant seventies classics like Badlands, The Candidate, and The Conversation. After taking informal acting classes at Houston’s University of St. Thomas and writing a few