Yesterday, I posted the trailer for a movie that looks quite wonderful to me, Saving Mr. Banks, about the contentious making of the film Mary Poppins. It was directed by John Lee Hooker, who been developing a fine career as a director in recent years -- but he began his career as a screenwriter. And indeed often directs his own screenplays. (Though he didn't in this case. Saving Mr. Banks was written by Kelly Marcel and Sue Smith.) I just thought that that would make it a fine time to offer this Email Interview with the fellow.
As I've often noted, these Email Interviews were generally the same, standard questions about writing that I'd send to writers, and they'd do the hard work. On occasion I'd throw in a few different, specific questions, and this is one of those cases.
John Lee Hancock
Edited by Robert J. Elisberg
Screenwriter John Lee Hancock most recently wrote Snow White and the Huntsman. Previous to that, he both wrote and directed The Blind Side, which was nominated for a Best Picture Oscar (and won Sandra Bullock the Academy Award for Best Actress). He wrote and directed The Alamo.
Among his other credits are the screenplay for Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil and A Perfect World, both directed by Clint Eastwood. He also produced the film, My Dog Skip starring Diane Lane, Kevin Bacon and Frankie Muniz.
[Subsequent to this interview, John Lee Hancokc directed the film, Saving Mr. Banks.]
>> Were there any movies, TV shows or books that first got you interested in writing?
JLH: In elementary school I read all of Matt Christopher's sports books, which were basically mortality tales set on the gridiron or hardwood. Sometime after that I began writing short stories, one a day, all describing football games that were played only in the head -- a hybrid (real people,fictitious games) sports report, I suppose.
As for books, my mother read Mark Twain aloud to me and my two brothers. It seemed unreal that this world essentially existed in Clemens's head; that he created characters and made up things for them to say. Buoyed by this revelation, I set out, in fifth grade, to write a spy novel. I made it through two chapters before I realized my skills weren't sufficient to finish. Someday, perbaps, when I've reached that level, I'll try again.
As for movies, my family really didn't make a habit of going, but my mother's favorite was "Lonely Are The Brave," and I must say it had an effect on me and exposed themes that still appear in almost every screenplay I write. During high school and college I fell in love with movies and some of those movies are still my favorites -- "Badlands," "The Conversation," "The Candidate," Downhill Racer," "Network," "All The President's Men," etc.
>> When you write, how do you generally work?
JLH: I'm fortunate enough to have an office on the Warner Burbank lot, so I have a place to go every day that means work to me. Before the office I worked at home, usually at ungodly hours of the night, when it was quiet.
If I'm in the middle of something, I come in at a reasonable hour, have some coffee, read the trades and work a couple of hours betore lunch. After lunch I work until I wear out. When this happens I'll return calls and take care of correspondence before I leave for the day. If I'm working under deadline, I'll go home for dinner (only 10 minutes away) and return to work for a few more hours,
>>> Do you have any specific kind of music playing?
JLH: I prefer silence when I'm writing but, as all writers know, when you're in the middle of something, you're always "working" on it. So when I'm driving around or relaxing at home I try to play music that relates either thematically or nostalgically to what I'm working on.
>>> What sort of characters and stories interest you?
JLH: Flawed characters, real characters. The problem I have with most movies today is you know immediately what archetype a character represents -- she's the hero or the villain. Because of this, most characters in films are celluloid instead ot flesh and bone. I tend toward writing antiheroes, underdogs and the great unwashed. I have no time or tolerance for movie heroes unless they're extremely flawed.
As for stories, I like the ones where the character's struggle informs the plot. I like to see movies where even if I hate them, I want to discuss them over a cup of coffee. I like earnest characters, I hate earnest movies. I like sappy characters, I hate sappy movies. I like characters with agendas, I hate movies with agendas. I like romantic characters. I hate romantic movies.
This will offend some people but what the hell.' I hate comic book movies (I hated comic books as a kid -- I'd never met a single person in real life who dressed up in silly outfits and fought bad guys). I hate insect and alien movies whether they're dramatic, satirical or comedic. (Funny, isn't it, how there was a time when studios made character movies that informed our lives and B-film-makers made insect and alien movies?) I hate a lot of what's out there, but I also admire a lot.
>> How do you work through parts of scripts where you hit a roadblock in the story?
JLH: If I'm not under intense deadline pressures, I'll give the problem a few days to solve itself in my head while I'm working on something else. If I'm under deadline I try to write my way through it. As for tricks, sometimes I'll try and turn a character or a scene upside down, to make it the opposite of what I'd intended, as an exercise. Or sometimes I'll rewrite a scene that's not working as if it were the first or last scene in the movie. Sometimes that exposes the flab and gives it more of an edge.
>> What were the particular challenges of adapting a book like "Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil"?
JLH: When the book was offered to me, I read it, loved it and turned it down. I thought it was a borderline impossible task. Then a waek later I was trying to describe to someone how much I enjoyed the book and I thought, just maybe, I could embrace what I loved for the very different medium of film.
The most difficult part of the adaptation, I think, was creating a linear, narrative spine that was malleable enough to support the free-flow feel of Savannah and her amazing citizenry. For anyone that thinks the Characters I wrote were over the top, please know that they are extremely toned down from the real people on whom they're based.
A magazine writer said that this book resists adaptation like a cat resists a bath. I have to agree. I knew this going in. I also knew that many critics would, instead of reviewing the film, editorialize on the differences between the critically well-received book and the movie. It goes with the territory. No one but other writers will ever understand the difficulty of this adaptation. I also knew that going in. But for me, thaf's enough. If you don't challenge yourself, you don't grow.
As is the case with any movie, there are changes that occur from script to screen, even when you direct the film yourself. There will always be some changes you like, and others you don't. It's the big leagues -- high risk, high return. You don't bitch, you don't moan and you don't talk out of school. You take the criticism as discreetly as you accept the praise. You learn. You grow. You write again. You did it for free for a long time and you'll do it again if you have to.
>> What is your most memorable experience as a writer?
JLH: When I first moved to Los Angeles, I started a theater company with Brandon Lee and George Davis. Sadly, they are both now gone. But when we were together and doing plays (I was writing, directing, building sets, designing lights, taking tickets, working the booth and cleaning toilets), I felt more alive than at any time in my life.
>> Was there any particular writer who acted as a sort of mentor to you?
JLH: When I moved here eleven years ago, I was in search of a mentor, I had several things in common with Kevin Reynolds (writer/director), including the fact that we went to the same law school and both practiced before starting new careers in Los Angeles. After a few phone calls (I pestered him, I admit), he agreed to have lunch with me. When I explained my search for a mentor he told me that you usually get a mentor when you really don't need one anymore. My dreams of mentorship now dashed, I went to plan B, which was to extract any advice from him that I could. Before he gave it he asked me it I would take it. I enthusiastically agreed to heed his words of wisdom. "Okay," he said, "go back to Houston and practice law." I was stunned and replied that I wouldn't do that; that I would write ferociously and prove him wrong. He smiled and paid for lunch.
If you think you need a mentor before you can write, you're not a writer. If you'll give up your dreams for a more obvious, more traditional, and for me, less fulfilling life, then you lack the strength to be a writer. If you're a writer, regardless of talent, regardless of advice, regardless of financial pressures, you write.
So, in a strange way, my mentors have been great writers, most of whom I've never met, for they challenged me through their skills to became a better writer. As for favorites,
I'll go with Flannery O'Connor. I learn something from her each time I read her work.
>> Why do you write?
JLH: If my leg didn't itch I wouldn't need to scratch it. If I could answer this question, I probably wouldn't need to write anymore. So, if you know the answer, please keep it to yourself, I have an approaching deadline.
Robert J. Elisberg is a political commentator, screenwriter, novelist, tech writer and also some other things that I just tend to keep forgetting.
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