The M/C Interview: John Lee Hancock discusses 'The Blind Side'
How do you turn a real-life story into a feel-good Hollywood movie?
John Lee Hancock's track record so far is a solid one. Imagine having two of your earliest scripts directed by Clint Eastwood. Hancock wrote both "A Perfect World" and "Midnight In The Garden Of Good And Evil" for the legendary filmmaker before he moved into directing himself with "The Rookie," a generally well-liked Dennis Quaid movie based on a true story about a guy who was, by most standards, over the hill, but who managed to get a shot in Major League Baseball.
"The Rookie" worked because it never wallowed in sentiment, and it seemed like a film that managed to avoid the most cloying tendencies of the sports drama. If I'd known before I walked into the theater that Hancock was the director of "The Blind Side," I probably would have been more interested in it, but maybe that was a good thing. It let the film sneak up on me, and I ended up enjoying it a lot. As a result, I was pleased to sit down and chat with Hancock about the film and his work on it:
JOHN LEE HANCOCK: Hi, Drew.
DREW MCWEENY: Hi, John, how are you?
JLH: I’m well. You?
DM: Very well, thanks.
DM: Wanted to tell you what a pleasant surprise the film was, sir.
JLH: Oh thank you.
DM: Yeah, really enjoyed it.
JLH: Thank you.
DM: And it’s funny, my parents both graduated Ole Miss and both came from Memphis, and I thought what you got really right in the film was a regional flavor.
JLH: Oh good.
DM: And especially in Leigh Anne herself, because she is such a southern archetype, and if you know that woman, you know what an unstoppable force they are.
DM: And that is such a southern woman thing.
DM: But I really... the things that I liked about it is the way it avoids a lot of the clichés that almost seem inherent to doing movies set in the sports world at all.
DM: I love that there’s no big game in the film.
JLH: Yeah, I mean it’s structured... it’s not structured like a sports movie. It’s structured more like a relationship drama so, yeah, there’s no big game, and the one game there is ends with him helping some kid up, so there’s no big finale.
DM: At what point did you become involved with it? Did you read the book and take it to the studio, or was it the studio had optioned the book and came to you?
JLH: Yeah, it was the latter. Gil Netter, the producer, had gotten Fox to secure the rights to the book, and I’m a big Michael Lewis fan so I was anticipating the book coming out and reading it anyway, and it got passed on to me to gauge interest and I read it. And at first, because I had done “The Rookie,” a sports movie, I didn’t think I wanted to do another sports movie. When I started reading it, I realized that it was more of a mother/son relationship, and an unconventional one at that, so I don’t know, it kind of piqued my interest.
DM: Well, it’s very much... just on a larger scale, obviously, it’s a very specific picture about how they found Michael and welcomed him into the family, but it almost serves as a metaphor for adoption in general and the idea of opening your home.
DM: And you’re right, it really does feel like even if you took the sports material out, the movie itself is so strong and the relationship is so strong…
JLH: Oh good. Yeah, that's the reason they wanted to end the movie with him arriving at Old Miss, because to me the football of it all is gravy. I mean, it’s just kind of a miracle that this kid from the projects, you know, ends up going to college, much less making the Dean’s list and everything. You know, it’s an examination of nature vs. nurture, I think.
DM: Now, in terms of the casting process, 99% of this movie’s success depends on you guys finding Quinton Aaron.
DM: Can you talk about how you went about finding him, and then tell me about Quinton himself?
JLH: Sure. When the movie was at Fox they ponied up for a nation-wide search, which we knew we were going to have to do since you can’t exactly call CAA and say send over somebody of this stature to play this age and all that. And it was really difficult trying to get the casting directors to understand that I needed someone who was tall but not just tall, but they couldn’t be obese and they had to look like an athlete at least and to play a certain age, and so it’s literally a big task. And I would get rail thin guys, you know, but they’d go “but he’s 6-7” Yes but he weighs 200 lbs. He’s a small forward, not a left tackle. And finally the casting director out of New York, whose name was Twinkie, and Twinkie called me and said “I’ve got him” and I’ve heard that many times before, but she sent the tape out and I watched it and I thought that Quinton had real possibilities. And the main thing about Quinton... he took his very first plane flight to come out to Los Angeles to audition.
DM: Oh wow.
JLH: He walked in the door with those size 23 feet and he... the main thing about him that kind of differentiated him from a lot of the other people that I thought were good, was that he was not kind of girded for the street. He didn’t have that kind of... his survival mode didn’t extend to being a tough guy. So when he walked in the door, you just kind of wanted to hug him. I mean, he’s a gentle giant. And so I had a good feeling about that and then the movie wasn’t going to get made at Fox, so it took a while to get it out of there to negotiate turn-around and once the movie was a “go” again at Alcon and Warner Brothers, I brought Quinton back out and auditioned him again and he was the only one I brought out this time and I didn’t tell him that. And at the end of the audition and interview we chatted for awhile. He stood up and he said, “I know this is a really, really long shot, so if I don’t get the role and I know I probably won’t...” He pulled out a card and handed it to me and he said, “... I work security and I’d love to at least work security on the movie”. And so I still have the card. And there was a part of me that just wanted to go, “You’ve got it! It’s yours!” But I wanted my partners to see the tape and everything and then to call him. But he left the room not knowing if he had the role or not, but hoping for a security job.
DM: Well, and Tim McGraw is another case where if I didn’t know that Tim had another career as a country music performer and I just saw the film, I'd be blown away. I really like him as a performer in this.
DM: And there’s a real natural charm between he and Sandra Bullock that... I mean he’s acted on and off for like some of the 2000’s but he’s really, really good on-camera and I think it belies that he has the other career as well. Was he somebody that you had your eye on from the start? How did he end up in the movie?
JLH: No not necessarily. I mean, when I wrote it I never thought about how difficult it was going to be to cast it and how much thought was going to go into it because I realized when you’ve got this force of nature in Leigh Anne Touhy that you’ve got to cast someone who doesn’t become wallpaper. And so I kind of took my lead from the real Sean Touhy, who is obviously very successful. Self-made millionaire business-man guy, who was a point guard at Old Miss. Still holds the assist record, I think in the SEC. So obviously a Type A person himself and an overachiever. But as Sean puts it, I get 49% of the vote. He said “And I keep voting as if I think it’s somehow going to change the outcome”. And so I said, “Okay, who is Sean—the real Sean?” and I thought he is a southern boy. He is an ex-athlete and he’s got a good sense of humor and he can laugh at himself. And I started thinking of it that way and I said, you know, “Tim McGraw.” Southern boy, ex-athlete, good sense of humor, laughs at himself. And I chatted with Tim and he said, "Oh, I get that 51-49. It’s the same ratio at my house." And I’d seen a lot of Tim’s work and I thought this was going to a good challenge for him because in some of the other movies and Pete Berg’s stuff and everything there was more of an anger and a rage and a darkness and this isn’t that guy. And it’s hard not to disappear in this movie and I think Tim’s really, really good in it.
DM: So much of the family dynamic is about making Michael feel comfortable and about how Michael is welcomed into the family, his relationship with SJ is a big part of the film. And that actor is, again, sort of a force of nature. That kid is a dynamo.
JLH: Yeah. Jae Head.
DM: And just steals every moment he possibly can.
JLH: Yes, he can. Yes. It’s one of those things where there were dozens more S.J. moments that I just kept kind of cutting because I said boy I could just make this the S.J. comedy show.
JLH: And lose the reality of the movie. But he’s great. I read a lot of kids and lot of really good actor kids and S.J. is 10 in the movie, and I’d realized I’d written probably a kid with a 12-year old voice and that makes it difficult to cast because the kids you would get were precocious in all the wrong ways. And so then this kid…you know doing this search again, and this kid had been in the “Friday Night Lights” TV show and also was in “Hancock”—the movie—and Pete Berg knew him in casting and his dad’s a high school football coach. So one of the scenes has them showing Michael using condiments to show Michael how he’s going to play offensive tackle and all the other kids I would have to do everything. I’d have to explain this is the offensive line, this is the defensive line and Jae jumped right in and said “Oh I know exactly how this works. Let me line them up for you.” So that was helpful that he was a sports kid from a sports family.
DM: And then how much of that was putting him in a room with Quinton to see what their chemistry was like?
JLH: It was a lot. I mean, we flew Jae out because we were about a week or so before we were supposed to start shooting and we still hadn’t cast it, and not for lack of trying. And so we brought Jae out and put him with Quinton and there was another kid we were looking at that was really, really good but his energy…he was a lower energy kid and I thought we can’t do that. I have to have someone that’s going to drive this thing a little bit. And Jae came in and he’s just a bundle of energy. So he and Quinton together were pretty great.
DM: Well, and visually they’re outrageous together.
JLH: Yeah, I mean it’s a sight gag. There’s no doubt about it.
DM: Well, it’s interesting because like you said “The Rookie” is obviously the film you’re best known for before this, and is beloved. I know a lot of people really, really loved “The Rookie” and again, it’s the human side of the story. The movie I compared “The Blind Side” to when I walked out was “Rudy”, which is a movie that for me isn’t about the sports accomplishment. It’s just about a little guy wanting his day.
DM: And here, I think that the movies that work best in the genre are the ones that has something else that drives them and then the sports tends to be simply, as you put it, the gravy.
DM: In terms of developing the story, how involved were you guys in conversations with the real Leigh Anne? I know I’m talking to her later today and that’s…
JLH: Oh that’s a treat.
DM: It’s rare that I do that when we do these kinds of interviews that we actually speak to the real people. So was she involved all the way through?
JLH: Yes and no. I mean, I went…obviously once I read the book and started having meetings and I said I’ve got to meet this person. And Michael Lewis did a great job of capturing her voice in the book and identifying her and he’s from New Orleans. He gets the south as well. I’m from Texas, which is not the south, but a cousin to it. So I’ve been, like you said, around Leigh Anne Touhy’s all my life. And knew that a lot of people would look at it as a cartoon character if you didn’t get that. So I needed to go down and hear her voice and just see her operate. And I did and she was great. We got along very well and I loved the family and I think we’re in one another’s lives for ever now because they’re good friends. And meeting them and then passing along the script once it was completed, and Leigh Anne essentially said “I’ve never read a script before but it seems good and we trust you.” And I went, “Oh boy, that’s a big responsibility” and it is whenever you’re writing and making a movie about somebody’s life because so many people get to know them strictly through this movie and exclusively through this movie, so you want your portrayal to be as accurate as you can make it, warts and all of course. So she pretty much stayed out of it and she said, “I’m just too busy to mess with that Hollywood stuff”. And then she was very helpful with the art department and production designer stuff in sending pictures and swatches and everything from her house. In terms of wardrobe, we had pictures of everything in her closet. All her jewelry, watches, and we used the same clothes, the same designers, the same shoes, the same watch, the same Bedazzled phone.
DM: It’s really interesting at the end when you do the photos of the actual family because you realize how dead-on the aesthetic of the movie is that you guys really….it’s them. You really got them on film.
JLH: And I almost didn’t do it because I thought is this gilding the lily? I mean I did like the NFL network stuff just to show…on purpose I didn’t put “based on a true story” upfront.
JLH: Because I wanted it, for some people, to be a little bit of surprise perhaps as opposed to based on a true story that you always see. And so I had the NFL footage and that was the cherry on top, and then Gil Netter had said “What about family photos through the credits?” and I said, “Gosh are we overstating our welcome here?” And then the pictures….and so we asked Leigh Anne. I said send them on. Let’s see. I looked at the pictures and the first 2 pictures I saw one was that picture of Michael when he was a child and that’s the earliest picture they have of him—at age 11 with the shirt that says something like “Winners always win” or something, you know? It’s just so…and there was this sweet smile on his face and you go, God that poor kid. And the other one was on the stage at the NFL draft with Leigh Anne and Michael hugging.
JLH: And her eyes closed. And I thought this, you know, okay this is part of the movie. And also I thought that people might run right past Sandy’s performance and not understand how dead-on it is. And when you hear Leigh Anne and Sandy in a room together—we had dueling Leigh Anne’s for an interview one time—and it’s spot on. I mean not that that makes any difference but I thought that I wanted her to be rewarded a little bit for the effort. I thought the pictures at least took you half the way there.
DM: Now two last quick questions and I’ll let you go. First, has Michael seen the movie?
JLH: He has not. He has not. We’ve tried to set up a couple of different screenings but with the NFL schedule it’s brutal. He was supposed to come to the set and one day and it was a day that we were filming a very emotional scene with Quinton and I thought, no that’s not the day to expose him or put Quinton out there with Michael there and everything. And he was preparing for the combine and everything else, so I suspect that….and he says look, I’m sure it’s great. I’m busy. And I think he wants to see it on his own, and I’m not sure when that’ll be, you know? He didn’t read the book for 4 years, so.
JLH: You know?
DM: And then the last one. Were you trying to make me faint by showing the Theismann leg break three times in your opening few minutes?
JLH: We negotiated with the NFL and negotiations ended up with us putting it in real time, but I just….I don’t know. I just thought that was the fastest way to explain to non-sports fans why having a left-tackle is important.
DM: It’s an incredibly clear explanation. It also made me want to faint.
JLH: Ha ha ha ha. I guess that’s good. I don’t know.
DM: Well, listen thank you, man. And I really….I enjoyed it quite a bit and I wish you well with it. I really hope it finds its audience this fall.
JLH: I hope so too. Thanks Drew. I really appreciate it.
DM: Take care, sir.
JLH: Good bye.
Thanks to John Lee Hancock for his time, and Warner Bros. for putting us together.
"The Blind Side" opens everywhere this Friday.
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