His Perfect World
L.A. is loathsome to some Texas screenwriters, but not to Longview native John Lee Hancock. In fact, it’s exactly where he wants to be.
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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 scripts, Hancock moved to Torrance, California, where his brother Joe was an engineer with a spare bedroom. He got a job as a production assistant on a movie and then, to his surprise, was handed a principal role in the same film.
Hancock had a knack for falling into coveted acting jobs—he was in a Kirin beer commercial with Gene Hackman—but he couldn’t quite focus the full beam of his ambition on it. At heart, he steadily realized, he was a writer and a director. While he cobbled together a living with various movie jobs, he helped form an experimental theater company called Legal Aliens, which produced a one-act play Hancock wrote called Fullfed Beast, as well as a number of character sketches and monologues and a bluesy East Texas reworking of O. Henry’s “Gift of the Magi.”
Somewhere in the midst of all this, he wrote A Perfect World. The inspiration for the character of Phillip, the boy whose bloodless religion forbids him from dressing up for Halloween, percolated up from a childhood memory of watching his brother running around a Longview field in a Casper the Friendly Ghost costume. (Hancock uses that same costume to poignant effect in the movie, when Phillip shoplifts it from a rural five-and-dime store.) “A lot of the stuff I was writing during that period,” he said, “was about what it was to be a man, and how you pass those things along. That kind of thing was very much on my mind, since I was so committed to writing at that time I wasn’t sure it was possible to live a sane life. I still couldn’t quite make up my mind whether I wanted to be a child or an adult.”
Since A Perfect World, Hancock has written a number of as-yet-unproduced screenplays, including an adaptation of A. C. Greene’s book The Santa Claus Bank Robbery. His personal favorite is The Little Things, a grimly unconventional murder mystery that he describes as “kind of like Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane, except Jesus is a fifty-year-old homicide cop.” What is remarkable about The Little Things is the way Hancock manages to resolve the drama without necessarily solving the plot.
It was that same writer’s yen for something resonantly unconventional that attracted him to Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil. “One of the things I most enjoyed about the book,” Hancock told me as we sat in his cluttered Warner Bros. office a few days later, “is that it didn’t have an Agatha Christie—like plot. John Berendt embraced the ambiguity as being perfectly in keeping with Savannah, and I said to myself, ‘Can we do that with the movie too?’”
Before he could embrace the book’s ambiguity, though, he had to figure out a way to rewire its story. A large part of the appeal of Berendt’s book lies in its unhurried, meandering accretion of character and event. Things seem to happen in no particular order, and the book’s narrative momentum gathers slowly of its own weight. But if time hardly exists in Berendt’s Savannah, even the pokiest of movies has a schedule to meet, and finding a way to make this machine run down the track was Hancock’s biggest challenge. “The book has something intangible working for it,” he said, “but when you try to take it apart and look at it in a linear way, you find whole chapters that have nothing to do with one another about people who have never met.”
Hancock’s key strategy was to take the character of Berendt himself, who in the book appears as little more than a pair of eyes, give him the name of John Kelso, and stretch him into a major character. In the movie, Kelso is a writer for Town and Country who has come to Savannah to toss off a five-hundred-word society piece and finds himself lost in a puzzle palace of murder and betrayal. Though the book is based on the real-life murder trial of a prominent antique dealer named Jim Williams, Berendt monkeyed around considerably with the order of events, and Hancock takes dramatic license a step or two further by placing his semi-fictional reporter in the Williams mansion on the night of the murder. “There’s the truth,” he explained, “there’s the movie, and then there’s the absolute truth, which I can tell you from my time in Savannah is an extremely relative notion to begin with.”
“I thought he did a miraculous job,” John Cusack, who plays Kelso, told me. “Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil is a book that you’d be hard-pressed to weave into a dramatic structure with all the proper momentum, but somehow John did it. He made it a new document.”
Now, of course, there would be an even newer document, the movie itself. It remained to be seen whether Midnight would be a mainstream hit or merely join Bronco Billy and White Hunter, Black Heart on the list of Eastwood’s fascinating underachievers. Either way, Hancock had plenty of other things to think about. Besides Rads, the student bombing movie, he was working on a project about the CIA for director Edward Zwick titled Greetings From the Empire and an adaptation of Michael Murphy’s mystic duffer book, Golf in the Kingdom.
Hancock seemed so sunny and uncomplaining, in fact, sitting in his office beneath a poster for an ancient Johnny Mack Brown movie called Texas City, that he hardly seemed like a screenwriter at all. I kept waiting for the conversation to veer into the standard writer’s rant about the basic inanity of the business, the puerility of overpaid stars and studio executives, the routine evisceration of flawless, beautiful scripts.
“I get cynical occasionally,” he told me. “But cynicism is pretty easy to find here, and for the most part it bores me. For instance, a couple of months ago Los Angeles magazine asked me to have my picture taken for this story about Young Hollywood. I didn’t know it till I showed up for the photograph, but they wanted to show everybody jumping on a trampoline. They had this beautiful trampoline, and they had hired this guy for the whole day who was a trampoline expert. But nobody would get on the trampoline! Everybody thought it was too demeaning, and the most difficult people by far were the writers. Everybody was taking themselves a little too seriously. And it got to where I just thought, the hell with that—I’m jumping.”