An Interview With Film Director
John Hancock

by Gloria Glickstein Brame

When directing fine actors, the key
is knowing when to leave them alone."

John Hancock

Published in Arts Indiana, November 1994, Volume 16, No. 8
Republished on SirS Renaissance CD-ROM, 1995

© 1994-1996 by Gloria G. Brame

Director John Hancock is best known for his films (Bang the Drum Slowly, Weeds, Baby Blue Marine, Let's Scare Jessica to Death, Prancer, and California Dreaming). Bang the Drum Slowly opened to wildly enthusiastic reviews, including Richard Schickel's rave that it was "very possibly the best movie about sport ever made in this country." Hancock has directed numerous television shows, written many screenplays, and served on the Board of Trustees of the American Film Institute.

His theatrical work includes direction of both classic and contemporary plays, from Shakespeare to Saul Bellow. Of his production of "A Midsummer Night's Dream," Cue magazine noted, "This brutal, vulgar, and erotic production of Shakespeare's sex fantasy is the most original and arresting I've ever witnessed....This is the best of all the Dreams and an important pioneering effort in re-interpreting the play."

Winner of an Obie and an Academy Award nominee, Hancock has received the Brandeis Citation in Film, the Christopher medal, First Prize at Karlovy Vary, and many other honors and awards.

In addition to his achievements in theater and film, Hancock is a master gardener, who owned and oversaw a successful fruit farm for decades, a professional bee-keeper, and a prize-winning violinist. A Hoosier by birth and by choice, he returns each summer to his Indiana farm, no doubt to contemplate his artistic fate. Here, then, are some of his thoughts on directing, gardening, boyhood in rural America, and making it big in Hollywood.

GGB: Can you tell us a little about growing up in Indiana? You were born in 1939, seven months before the outbreak of war in Europe. Were you aware of the events overseas?

JH: I don't remember much of the war. I do remember being reassured by my mother that we were not a target for enemy bombs, since there was nothing worth bombing. A mixed blessing! And I remember (oddly) the Battle of the Bulge. I was staring out a frosted window at the snowy road, dim in the pre-dawn, while my mother made breakfast and listened to radio reports of our troops in Europe trapped in the snow. I also remember learning of the end of the war in Europe, driving into Chicago with my family, and seeing, as we were coming up the Outer Drive, paper streaming from every window on Michigan Boulevard.

GGB: Did your family keep a Victory Garden?

JH: Yes of course we had a Victory Garden... and Victory Chickens, and a Victory Cow.

GGB: What was your boyhood like? What did your parents do?

JH: My father was a musician. He played the bass violin (and doubled on the tuba) with the NBC orchestra in Chicago. My mother had been a school teacher. Both had college degrees.

Indiana was weekends and summers. So my childhood there is associated with happy if somewhat lonely times. There was no one to play with. I mean no one my age. There were six adoring adults: grandparents, aunt and uncle, and parents, all living in the same farm house where I'm living now. Which, believe me, is weird, each floorboard being charged with a million memories. For example the table where I work is where my grandparents' bed was. For reasons of their own they employed what they called "spit-papers," newspapers on the floor by the bed. I remember running joyously into their room to wake my grandmother up, and running afoul of the night's offering in my bare feet. Nasty!

GGB: You were graduated from Harvard. When you enrolled, did you plan to study dramatic arts?

JH: I didn't go to Harvard intending to study theater. I was planning to be a musician. I played the violin fairly well; well enough to be the Assistant Concertmaster of the Chicago Youth Orchestra. But I didn't really go to Harvard to study music either. There was a strong belief in my family, which I shared (still do!), in Liberal Education. You don't go to school to learn a trade: you go to college to become an educated person whose life will be richer thereby, whatever you decide to do to earn a living.

I suppose the Great Books Program coming out of the University of Chicago was an influence in instilling this attitude. My parents led a Great Books Group for many years. When I was in high school, I attended the training course for group leaders with them. (Ha, ha, and learned the Socratic Method for controlling small groups! Very valuable later, since casts are often the size of Great Book Groups.)

At any rate, in that program there's a strong emphasis on the classics, on liberal education, and on the presumption that common people are perfectly able to assimilate the great ideas of the best thinkers of all the ages; and specifically that they can make something of them that relates to their lives. We were taught in the leadership course to ask questions at three levels. First, what does Plato or Locke or whoever say about X? Second, how does that compare to what Tolstoy or Marx said about X? And third, from your own experience, is what they said true?

GGB: When did the inspiration strike you to train your ambitions on the theater?

JH: When I was a freshman at Harvard, I took a course in the plays of William Shakespeare. It changed my life. So much for music. A year later, I fell under the spell of the works of Bertolt Brecht, as disseminated in this country by Eric Bentley.

I immediately went to New York to see the production of "3-Penny Opera" at the Theater de Lys. I devoured their views that theater could mean something to life! I discovered that the theater wasn't a separate entity but could actually influence the world. Bentley's first book, The Playwright as Thinker particularly influenced me. He started out as a Shaw enthusiast--the book is half about Shaw, and touched on the works of Brecht and O'Casey; they were all playwrights with a program.

GGB: Are you a director with a program?

JH: Yes, I felt so. I was politically active. I was against testing bombs in the atmosphere, against Kennedy's Cuba policies. In fact, I received major publicity for protesting the bomb tests Kennedy had just approved. The New York Times ran a photo on the front page showing myself, Julian Beck, Judith Malina, and Joe Chaikin beaten until bloody by the police in Times Square. The police arrested us and threw us in a paddy wagon, still bleeding. That's when the photographer snapped the shot. We were hauled down to the Tombs. Later, we were defended by Mark Lane for free. Six grisly hours in the New York City Tombs, and the court appearances, were enough to ensure an end to my peace activism.

GGB: What do Brecht's and Bentley's work mean to you now? Is the Left still relevant to the theater?

JH: I'm not sure. On good days I still feel bloody but unbowed. As for whether the Left is still relevant--what Left? There's a shambles for you! It's a big story yet to be written. Whither in the wake of the failure of the Soviet Union.

GGB: Have you replaced your old heroes with new ones? Can someone who works in Hollywood even afford to have heroes--and who are the villains?

JH: Sure, my heroes are Stanley Kubrick, David Lean, and Ingmar Bergman. The villains in Hollywood are the self-important middlemen. And the tyranny of grosses.

GGB: You once said that you fled from Indiana as a young man. Now, as a grown one, you return to Indiana every year. What brings you back?

JH: I feel at home here. It looks the way things should look. Green. Or snowy. I was so shocked when I moved to California. When I arrived, it was spring and everything was a wonderful green. A couple of months later, it all turned brown. Bummer. I can't imagine being buried out there. Not that I want to be buried here, but you know what I mean.

GGB: John, where would you like to be buried?

JH: Gee, I don't know. Could you make a place up for me?

GGB: How about Atlanta? This way I could pay my respects. But back to Hollywood...most films never step outside of suburbia. It's rare to find a director with a powerful sense of non-urban American lives. Your films all sensitively document these experiences. Do you consider the American "Everyman" to be fundamentally non-urban?

JH: I guess you could say the heartland is in my blood, but I don't consider the American "Everyman" to be fundamentally non-urban. On the contrary, I think Spielberg and Lucas and those guys have it right demographically: the audience is suburban; they live where E.T. is set. That doesn't mean that that's the world I particularly want to depict.

GGB: I wonder how a boyhood on an apple farm influenced you. How important is landscape to you in the design of a film?

JH: I'm not sure how life on an apple farm influenced my artistic vision. It certainly influenced the setting of my pictures, since two of them take place on apple farms. And now that I think of it, there was also an apple farm sequence in a third picture, Weeds. We cut it. It was funny stuff with some of the criminals in their fancy shoes helping with the harvest. The others refuse to get out of the van. "A farm?" says one of them, "I'd rather go back to Quentin than spend five minutes on a fucking farm." Maybe I'll use it in something else sometime.

GGB: As a gardener, you control and improve the natural world. Is there an aesthetic connection between gardening and directing films? Do you think your ability in the former influences your talents in the latter?

JH: A lot of gardening has to do with trying to find the right blend of the natural and the artificial without getting fussy. I hope that would also describe my directorial style. Then too a benignly non-interventionist stance is usually best in both gardening and directing. Except for those times when you have to get in there and root out the emotions, or the weeds. Then gardening is better because the plants are less inclined to answer back.

GGB: If they ever do, let me know! It sounds like it isn't coincidence that a gardener directed a film titled Weeds. That film picked up a pervasive theme in your work: the classic struggle between the individual and the institution. Though your protagonists are anti-heroes, they are nonetheless more valorous even in their weaknesses than institutions. What do you have against institutions?

JH: I think this aspect of my work emerges more from the dynamics of dramatic construction rather than any personal bias I have against institutions. Actually it might be fun to make something pro-institution and anti-individual, wouldn't it? Like Power and the Glory, Glory?

GGB: Ahem. In viewing your films, I feel your compassion more than your anger, even as you dissect social injustices and expose hypocrisy. Your cynicism is tempered by your sense of humor; every tragedy has its comic side. Unfortunately, some critics have mistaken this light touch for light technique. Does that make you angry?

JH: You describe my work well. I do like to see the other side of things. To me everything seems to also contain its opposite. Yet on the other hand--ha, ha--it doesn't. But seriously, yes, to me every tragedy has its comic side and vice versa: I prefer Chekhov to Racine. I don't like things (and don't choose to do them) that have just one color, are only funny, only sad. The blend, I've noticed over the years, is what interests me. And I pride myself on the way I'm able to make those transitions. It's what I think I do best, slide into the other color.

So, yes, when once in a while critics misunderstand, it bothers me. It doesn't so much make me angry as hurt my feelings. And it surprises me. There are a lot of people writing movie criticism across the country who really started in another area. Like the drama critic in Weeds who turns out to be the San Francisco Chronicle's food critic.

GGB: One thing no critic could fault you for is your range. The diversity of your work is enormous, from highly political, experimental plays--Brecht, Buchner, Anouilh, Ionesco, even a play by Robert Lowell--to Prancer, a contemporary Christmas fable about childhood innocence.

JH: I've always enjoyed a certain eclecticism, and tried to resist being typed. That is difficult. After Bang the Drum Slowly, I must have been offered two dozen sports projects. After Weeds, the same with prison stories. Then animal stories after Prancer But I find it fun, and theatrical, and personally refreshing to switch worlds.

GGB: One of the most remarkable things about your career is your unfailing instinct for selecting brilliant but unknown actors. You gave De Niro his breakthrough role, and many others--Michael Moriarty, Danny Aiello, Richard Gere--debuted in your films. What do you think you were able to teach them--or elicit from them--that makes their work in your movies so memorable?

JH: Yes, I've discovered a lot of actors who went on to later success. I suppose it has to do with trusting your own emotions. Sitting watching a reading, after days of readings, hundreds of actors, knowing when someone has really caught your interest, and when they haven't. When directing fine actors, the key is knowing when to leave them alone. Most directors do too much directing. The idea that you're going to _get a performance_ out of someone is the sin of pride. You do much better when you're able to find actors who could do their roles without you. Then maybe you can make a few suggestions, help them shape what they're doing. But you don't take away their magic.

GGB: Does a director learn from his actors?

JH: I learned several things from Robert De Niro. One, to pay attention to every detail, because if you don't, you'll kick yourself later. Two, how valuable simple physical things can be to prepare for a scene--like whirling until you're uncontrollably dizzy before a scene where you're supposed to be sick. And finally how tough you have to be, how hard you must drive yourself.

GGB: What projects are you currently working on? Would you care to mention your wife, by the way, since you occasionally collaborate?

JH: My wife, Dorothy Tristan, and I wrote the screenplay for Weeds together. She co-wrote (for credit) Steal the Sky, and did an intentionally uncredited polish on Prancer. She also acted in End of the Road, Klute, Man on a Swing, and others, including my film, California Dreaming. Right now, I'm finishing a screenplay about a woman who survives the attack of a serial killer. And Dorothy is on the home stretch of a snow-mobile story. We'd love to find something to shoot in Indiana.

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