Interview with John Lee Hancock

It’s quite a distance from Waco, Texas to Hollywood, but John Lee Hancock not only took the journey, he completed it. Sports was always a focus in the Hancock family. His father, John Lee, Sr. played college ball for Baylor and had a brief run with the Chicago Cardinals in the NFL. Brothers Joe and Kevin also played college ball (at Vanderbilt and Baylor, respectively), with Kevin playing professionally for the Indianapolis Colts. But when John went to college, it was to study. Armed with an English degree from Baylor as well as a law degree from Baylor’s school of law, Hancock practiced law for four years before he found himself drawn to the world of films. In 1991 he wrote and directed a romantic comedy set against the backdrop of the rodeo entitled “Hard Time Romance.” In 1993 he wrote the screenplay for the Clint Eastwood/Kevin Costner film “A Perfect World.” A few years later Eastwood asked him to adapt the book “Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil.” Finally the time came for another shot in the director’s chair and he chose “The Rookie,” the true story of fellow Texan Jim Morris, who at age 35 made his major league debut as a pitcher for the Tampa Bay Devil Rays. He followed “The Rookie” with a tale close to every native Texan’s heart: the story of “The Alamo.” For his third feature he sticks to reality by highlighting the incredible story of Baltimore Raven Michael Oher in the new film, “The Blind Side.”

While preparing for the film’s Nashville premiere Mr. Hancock took the time to talk with Michael Smith:

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Mike Smith: It’s a long way from the Alamo to Tennessee. What attracted you to the project?
John Lee Hancock: I’m a big Michael Lewis fan (Lewis is the author of several books, including “The Blind Side: Evolution of a Game” on which the film is based). I was aware the book was coming out and I was a little bit aware of the story. Gil Netter (a producer on the film) sent it to me to gage my interest and I thought, ‘well it’s got a sports component to it so I doubt I’ll be interested’ because I’d done “The Rookie,” I’d already done a sports movie. But when I started reading it I realized that, to me, like all good movies it was a relationship drama in some ways and it was an unconventional mother-son story that kind of grabbed me so I threw my name in the hat.

MS: With “The Rookie” and “The Alamo” this is your third film dealing with real people and actual events. Is there something about telling a true story that attracts you to them?

JLH: It’s not on purpose. I love true stories. There’s the element of mortality and living days that doesn’t necessarily exist for me quite as much in fiction. That said, I’ve got other scripts that I’ve written and would love to get made that are made up. But these three happened to come to me. I think we as a society embrace true stories because these people are our neighbors or legends from the past. But they are people like us…flesh and blood. So I do have a soft spot for true stories.

MS: You’ve tackled both baseball and football on film, and your father and brothers had pretty successful college football careers. Were you active in sports?

JLH: I played all the way through high school. My football scholarship offers were to junior colleges so I decided I would go off and have a regular university experience as opposed to playing football. My dad and brother Kevin played both in college and in the NFL and my other brother Joe played at Vanderbilt.

MS: Is your interest, and your family’s background, in sports what drew you to “The Rookie” and “The Blind Side?”

JLH: They both have that component…the engine driving the movie is sports. My dad was also a high school football coach and I grew up around it. I’ve always loved sports. But I never thought that I would do a sports movie. I love sports movies but I just never thought I would do one. Then I did “The Rookie.” I enjoyed it and swore I’d never do another one. I kind of look at this (“The Blind Side”) like it’s a sports movie the way “Jerry Maguire” is a sports movie. It’s a relationship drama that has a sub-plot of achievement in sports. What it’s really about is something else. But it certainly has a sports component no doubt about it. I would tell you I’ll never do another sports movie but then I said that after “The Rookie” and I know myself well enough not to lie to you.

MS: Well I have to tell you that “The Rookie” is required viewing for my American Legion baseball team.

JLH: Fantastic.

MS: You’ve written two films for Clint Eastwood. Has he influenced you in your work?

JLH: Oh gosh yes. I consider Clint my film school…my mentor. He was kind enough to allow me to be on the set for both of those movies. I have an English degree and a law degree and I practiced law and never went to film school and Clint became my mentor. Those days on the sets of those two movies I learned a whole lot, from the artistic angle to the “how to run a set” angle. Practical to pragmatic, he’s a legend for a reason and I owe him a lot.

MS: When you were casting “The Blind Side” how easy was it to find someone as large as Michael Oher to play him convincingly. Were you looking for big guys who could act or actors who were big?

JLH: (laughing) It was very difficult. We set out on a nationwide search that took a long time. Because not only do you have to find someone of that stature (Oher is 6’6″ and weighs over 300 pounds) they have to be able to act and they have to have some of the qualities that Michael had at that time in his life…the gentle giant of it all. It was very difficult because you’re playing a certain age as well. We couldn’t just call an agency and say “Hey, send over all of your six foot six African-American kids who are athletic and can play 17-18 years old.” There are actors that big but most of them are older. So it was pretty much going into the realm of the undiscovered. Quentin Aaron (who plays Oher in the film) had done a couple of videos and a few days on the movie “Be Kind, Rewind” so he had a little bit of experience but not a lot.

MS: I was so impressed with Tim McGraw in this film. As good as he was in “Friday Night Lights,” he has grown so much as an actor. Was he easy to cast? Were there other actors that the studio wanted?

JLH: In casting the character of Sean Touhy I knew it would be difficult because Leigh Anne Touhy is such a spitfire that you want a husband that doesn’t become wallpaper. He has to have his own quiet strength and a good sense of humor. And as I hung around Sean I kept thinking gosh, who is like Sean? Southern boy. Ex athlete. Comfortable in his own skin. A good sense of humor and can laugh at himself. And I thought, ‘you know, Tim McGraw can do this.’ I’d really enjoyed his performances in the things I’d seen him in. We had some chats and I knew he could do it. I really liked their (McGraw’s and Sandra Bullock’s) chemistry as a couple.

MS: Were you given any unsolicited advice from your fellow Texans when you were signed to direct “The Alamo?”

JLH: (laughs) I was steamrolled with unsolicited advice! Everybody has their own distinct opinion as to exactly what happened at the Alamo and everybody holds that story so dear that they treat it as if it’s their own. But I love that. That’s why they’re Texans.

MS: Finally, what’s next for you? Any upcoming projects?

JLH: I have several things that I’ve written that I’d love to do. Hopefully one of them will take. I’m currently doing a re-write on something called “The American Can” to direct, which is a true story set in New Orleans. I’m working with Overbrook, which is Will Smith’s company.

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MS: Once again, another true story.

JLH: Another true one. How about that?

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