Interview: John Lee Hancock - a conductor of the stars
Writer/director John Lee Hancock reveals the secret of getting the best out of some of Hollywood's finest actors
Published 25/11/2013 | 01:00
Writer/Director John Lee Hancock is long-limbed and angular. He looks like a pencil sketch of a man, all sharp lines, masculine brow, geek-specs and comic book hair.
He has an open, congenial face and a soft rhythmic southern drawl (he grew up in Texas) that one can imagine him using to good effect to soothe skittish actors, like a horse whisperer.
His conversation seems temperature controlled. Just like, by the sound of things, the atmosphere on his sets.
On his latest film, Saving Mr Banks, he had a directors' dream toolkit of Tom Hanks playing Walt Disney, and Emma Thompson playing prickly, difficult Mary Poppins author PL Travers.
"There are some actors that you wanna have longer conversations with about something. There are some actors that you wanna whisper one word in their ear," he says. "There are some actors that respond to hugs and others that respond really well to, like, a slap on the ass."
Which begs the question, is Thompson the slap on the ass kind? Probably not, let's face it. With actors like these, Lee Hancock's job sounds comparable to an orchestral conductor, gently moving things along, setting a pace and a mood to bring out the best in his cast.
"It's not something where you come in and go: 'Ok! Here's how you play,' at all. What you want is to present, as simply as possible, a scenario for the scene to take place... and stay ahead, delicately. And then you want to just start doing it, and doing it, and finding it. With Emma and Tom, they do it, and then it might just be the slightest adjustment. See what they bring to it, because sometimes it might be something that you hadn't even imagined."
He does a nice Thompson impression, turning on her arch, clipped tones to conjure the nuances of shooting with her. "I'd come in and Emma would say, 'yes Darling?' and I would say 'that turned bitter sweet there', and she'd say, 'And did we like that?' And I'd say, 'yes, very much,' and she'd say, 'shall we do it again?'"
It's not as if Lee Hancock hasn't marshaled great talent to heights of achievement before – he was the gentle guiding hand behind Sandra Bullock's Oscar-winning performance in The Blind Side in 2009, a film he wrote. But dealing with two of Hollywood's finest represented an extra challenge.
"I was a very blessed person to have all these terrific actors. But it's also a double-edged sword because you wake up with the cold shakes at 3am – 'Oh my god, I've got Tom Hanks and Emma Thompson in a scene tomorrow.' I better bring my A game. Which, in the case of them, bringing your A game means staying out of the way, providing a good atmosphere for them and hopefully just tonally shifting things along the way."
Lee Hancock learned from the best. Clint Eastwood directed the first film he worked on, A Perfect World. Even better, it was his own script. He started his career as a lawyer, before jacking that in, moving to LA and setting up a theatre company there, and double jobbing in admin and assistant roles to get by.
" I selected jobs that would allow me [to say], 'OK, if I work two weeks, then I'll have two weeks to write, and I can still pay my rent'," he says.
"When I wrote A Perfect World, it somehow caught fire. 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. And there's a part of you that's empowered, and there's a part of you that's going, I think I can do better. Oh, that's over? That scene's over? I'll never get to write it again?"
Eastwood, he says, was his film school. "I mean, I went to law school not film school. So he became my film school. So being able to sit by his side for two movies, and watch the way he prepared and he shot. It gave me great insight into one way to make movies."
It was The Blind Side, however, that really put him on the map. The film was a game changer for him, the Hollywood holy grail – a small budget indie that conquers the mainstream.
"If The Blind Side had happened when I was 25 years old and then here comes the next, 'do this superhero movie!' I probably would have jumped all over it and made a lot of money and been far wealthier than I am." But this outcome, he thinks, would not have been for the best.
"It's one of those things that, if it's not satisfying, if you're going to bed and thinking, I have to wake in five hours and sit on a stage with a whole bunch of blue screen and people in tights flying around. I'd go, this is no life. I mean, it's great for somebody else, and I love those movies for entertainment value, but it's not where I live."
Clearly he was happy then to live with Disney and Travers for the last few years. And one can understand why. Both characters are, by turns endearing and infuriating with flashes of wit and insight.
"Emma Thompson ... . said it was the most complicated and difficult character she's ever played." Lee Hancock says. On paper, the elevator pitch for the movie doesn't sound like much – the story of the adaptation of the beloved Mary Poppins book into the landmark movie – but it's the characters who make the drama, their constant butting heads, delusions, passions, loyalties and secret motivations. The film is underpinned by Travers' own troubled background, growing up in rural Australia, with a poetic, heavy-drinking Irish father, played (pitch perfect) by Colin Farrell.
"I've known Colin for several years, and I've always found him to be very winning and very charming." Lee Hancock says.
"When he fixates on you with something, he needs you to understand this. And he looks into your eye... That type of charisma I felt was something we needed. Because you can't just make this a Eugene O'Neill back-story or something like that, where it's the abusive father who drank himself to death. Because that's been told many, many times. It needed to be – 'I can see why a little girl would think her dad was the greatest thing in the world.'"
Parental duty is a bit of a theme here. Travers' father's dereliction of duty, contrasted with Walt Disney's keen sense of it – his dogged pursuit of the Mary Poppins story is motivated by a 20-year promise he made to his daughters, that he would turn their favourite book into a film. As he's a father of twins, I wonder if this is something Lee Hancock can relate to. Would he ever make a movie just because his kids asked him to?
"I can understand that idea. I don't think I would be quite as persistent as Walt. At some point, if it wasn't gonna happen, I'd just have to go to the kids and go, that's not going to happen. Because by the way, my kids have tons of suggestions of movies I should do. A 13-year-old-daughter and the books she reads – it's like I should just be doing young adult movies. That's it."
Any chance it's going to happen?
"No. It's like, look, I would love to give you that gift, but it's a year-and-a-half of my life gift. And I'd rather spend the time with you doing something else."
Saving Mr Banks is in cinemas from Friday.