On March 7, just a few days before his latest film, The Highwaymen, premiered at SXSW, filmmaker John Lee Hancock was inducted into the Austin Film Society’s Texas Film Hall of Fame, alongside the cast and crew of Office Space and Rising Star Award winner Brooklyn Decker. During a three-decade career as an in-demand screenwriter and director, Hancock has racked up critical plaudits for films like The Rookie, The Blind Side, and Saving Mr. Banks but not yet an Academy Award.
“For a kid from Texas City, this is better than the Oscars,” Hancock told Texas Monthly on the latest National Podcast of Texas, echoing a line from his acceptance speech at the Hall of Fame gala the night before. “It really is.”
One of Hancock’s signatures is telling true-life stories from a slightly different angle, and The Highwaymen (starring Kevin Costner and Woody Harrelson and dropping March 29 on Netflix) fits the bill. From a script by John Fusco, the film focuses on the Texas Rangers who brought down Bonnie and Clyde. It celebrates the lawmen instead of the bank robbers, a counterpoint to the instant celebrity the outlaws from Dallas enjoyed during their infamous killing spree. For Hancock, who already took on the state’s best-known bit of self-mythologizing with 2004’s The Alamo, this new film was another chance to tell an only-in-Texas story.
“I’m drawn to Texas stories because Texas is so big that it’s an enigma to many people, including myself at times,” says Hancock, who earned a law degree from Baylor University. “And it has such distinct geographic regions and its own sets of accents. And Texans are traditionally great storytellers—not just the novelists, screenwriters, filmmakers, and painters—but just in general, around the kitchen table, the lore of everything kind of looms over Texas. You can never tell all the stories from Texas. So I’m definitely drawn to that.”
On this week’s podcast, Hancock dissects how The Alamo went horribly wrong at the box office, explains the intricate Hollywood process of audience testing, bemoans the difficulty of shooting movies in Texas, and weighs both sides of the debate between releasing films via Netflix vs. traditional cinemas.
Some highlights (condensed and edited for clarity):
On the pre-release politicization of The Alamo
It was fascinating to me because, as politicized as everything is now, it was politicized then as well. I remember getting raked over the coals before the movie came out by both Fox News and NPR saying, “We know what your intentions are, and we don’t trust you.” And I was thinking, “Wow, I’m being attacked by the right and the left—this cannot go well.” NPR and more left-wing politicos didn’t necessarily trust that I was going to to do what I said I was going to do, which is to tell the story of a Mexican civil war and to be as honest and as historically accurate as possible. They didn’t trust that and thought, “This is going to be jingoistic, American flag-waving BS.” . . . Bill O’Reilly came out and said we were saying that [Davy Crockett] surrendered somehow and that was an affront to everything that’s American. And after the movie came out, he said, “Oh, by the way, I saw The Alamo. It’s really good. Never mind.” And I was like, “Yeah, thanks for that, Bill.”
On taking a different view of Bonnie and Clyde
It’s easy to understand the Bonnie and Clyde phenomenon of the thirties, given the Great Depression. They were robbing banks, and banks were the bad guys. But Robin Hood gave his money to the poor, and they didn’t give any money away. They also killed a lot of people. When I read John Fusco’s script, I looked at it as not an antidote to Arthur Penn’s 1967 film, which is one of my favorite films, but as more of a companion piece. We’re just putting the lens in a different place. I don’t think they were looking at that film as a historical document. It was more of an antiestablishment Vietnam-era mood piece. And I got it and loved it, and I think it opened the door for many of my favorite movies. At first it was viewed as too violent, and the toothpaste is out of the tube, and it allowed other filmmakers to make violent films that are masterpieces. So this film owes a debt to Penn’s film, in a way. And I do think of it as a companion piece instead of something that negates it.
On making The Highwaymen for Netflix
I had skin in the game because I’ve been trying to get The Highwaymen made for thirteen years, and it had been at a studio. And everybody always loved the script and wanted to make the movie. It was just a difficult one for them in the traditional theatrical release situation. I understand it’s market driven, and they have a tough gig. And I love that theatrical experience and do not want to see its demise. I do think that studios oftentimes in the past have abdicated their position on adult drama. And I think—The Alamo being the exception—I live in the $20- to $30-million-budget range, and I like to do adult drama. And studios with shareholders and traded shares and quarterly interest and things like that have to look at it and ask, “What does a fifteen-year-old boy want to see?” Because if they don’t want to see it, it’s not necessarily always in the studios’ best interest to do it. I’m not saying that Warner Brothers won’t make an exception to that and do it. Thankfully, Scott Stuber, who was at Universal, remembered The Highwaymen and brought it back to life when he became head of the film division at Netflix.
On the value of Netflix
Netflix said, “Look, we’re less interested in the first weekend than we are in the second, third, fourth, fifth, and sixth.” There’s a lot of movies that, by the time someone tells you that you should see this, it’s out of the theaters. So now you’ve got to wait until it comes out on HBO or Netflix, and you’ve missed your opportunity. We’re on Netflix straightaway, so there’s no opportunity missed. And I kind of liked that. Independent filmmakers bemoan the fact that it’s not like the old days, where you’d put a movie in a theater and you would let it grow, grow, grow, grow, grow and find an audience. It’s too quick now. Now you’re out of there in two or three weeks. But on Netflix it’s always there. And [based on] every movie you select to watch, if they think you’re gonna like The Highwaymen, they’re going to push it to you.
On Bonnie and Clyde’s celebrity
I’m interested in Bonnie and Clyde’s world from a contemporary world standpoint. It’s about the culture of popularity, and media culture was very much alive with Bonnie and Clyde. They were very aware of their branding opportunities, and it’s like they were Kardashians with guns. If the picture of them made it to a newspaper, it would be above the fold and international. If Bonnie wrote a poem, it would be in there. If Clyde wrote a letter to Henry Ford, it was going to be in the paper. So I think they were very aware of all that.