‘Highwaymen’ director John Lee Hancock on Netflix’s ‘real movies’ and surviving Weinstein Co.

John Lee Hancock photographed at the Langham Hotel in Pasadena, Calif., on March 24, 2019.
(Marcus Yam / Los Angeles Times)

As a filmmaker, John Lee Hancock has a penchant for coming at a real-life story from a surprising angle, whether it’s recounting the bumpy road to Disney’s “Mary Poppins” in 2013’s “Saving Mr. Banks” or revealing the warts-and-all story behind the creation of McDonald’s in 2016’s “The Founder.”

“I’m always on the hunt for a good story, whether it’s made up or whether it’s true, and these are just the ones that got made,” says Hancock, who also directed the 2009 feel-good real-life sports drama “The Blind Side,” which earned a best picture Oscar nomination. “But whenever you have a great story and it says at the end of it, ‘And it’s all true’ — that has weight. It’s like a cherry on top.”

True to form, Hancock’s latest film, the Netflix drama “The Highwaymen” — which is currently playing in limited release and will be available via streaming Friday — recounts the oft-told tale of Depression-era bank robbers Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow from an unfamiliar perspective.

Rather than focus on the young couple whose criminal exploits, most famously depicted in Arthur Penn’s seminal 1967 film “Bonnie and Clyde,” turned them into glamorous folk heroes, Hancock follows the two hard-bitten, dogged Texas Rangers, Frank Hamer (Kevin Costner) and Maney Gault (Woody Harrelson), who pursued the duo — and eventually took them down in a hail of bullets.


For Hancock and his collaborators, the screenwriter John Fusco and producer Casey Silver, “The Highwaymen” has been a long time coming. Originally conceived over a decade ago, the project was in development for years at Universal. At one point Hancock and Silver even met with Paul Newman, who died in 2008, about a role.

The Times spoke with the 62-year-old Hancock — who originally hails from the Gulf Coast of Texas — about how the meaning of Bonnie and Clyde’s story has changed over the years, the place of Netflix in today’s film landscape and why he wishes he had listened to those who told him not to let Weinstein Co. distribute “The Founder.”

Woody Harrelson, left, and Kevin Costner play the lawmen who hunted down outlaws Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow in "The Highwaymen."
(Hilary B Gayle/SMPSP / Netflix)

Most people are primarily familiar with Bonnie and Clyde from the 1967 movie and other representations in pop culture. Growing up in Texas, do you think you had a fuller picture of their story?

Maybe slightly fuller than the average American just because Texas Rangers are huge in Texas lore and they cast a big shadow, and Frank Hamer is the most famous Texas Ranger of all time. But when this script first came to me 13 years ago, in terms of the details of the manhunt, I didn’t know that much. I came kind of knowing some but wanting to know more.

To me, the reason to tell the story wasn’t because it was about the hunt for Bonnie and Clyde. I know that’s the sexy headline but the reason I wanted to be involved was thematic. Here were these two men who had a terrible gift and they go on this lonely journey. They know it’s going to be bloody and violent. They’ve been there before. And what is the toll that takes on their souls?

The other thing that was always interesting to me was the cult of celebrity. Bonnie and Clyde understood branding before the word existed. Bonnie referred to Americans as “her public.” She treated herself almost like a movie star. They fed off the glamorization. And as much as that kind of thing was certainly around 13 years ago, it’s on steroids today.

Frank Hamer is portrayed very differently in Arthur Penn’s film than he is here — he’s a bit bungling and at one point he gets captured and humiliated by Bonnie and Clyde. Do you see “The Highwaymen” as a corrective to that depiction, which took a lot of liberties with the actual story?

No. Man, it’s too hard to make a movie to make one that’s just denying another movie. You want to be a voice, not a response. Yes, there’s a byproduct of this movie that it casts Frank Hamer in a more historical light. But my take on it has always been not as an antidote to “Bonnie and Clyde” but as a companion piece. It was like, “Let’s take the same story and just move the camera over here to look at another part of it, because I think that part’s fascinating too.”

Early on, you hoped to make this movie with Robert Redford and Paul Newman. How far did that idea get?

[Producer] Casey Silver and I spent a day in Westport, Conn., with Paul Newman — which was kind of a highlight of my career, I have to say — talking about not just the script but movies and Newman’s Own sauce and everything else. But it was pretty obvious to us, and to Paul as well, that, because of his health, he was not going to be able to do the movie. So that kind of went away.

This is the kind of movie that, in an earlier era, would have been squarely in the wheelhouse of a major studio. What does it say about the state of the mid-range adult drama that it was ultimately made at Netflix?

Through the years, there’s no doubt the audience has changed for the theatrical experience because, you’re right, this is the kind of movie that 15 years ago would have completely been a studio movie. Part of it is we see how social media and iPhones and all those things have slowly pushed some people away from the theater experience, which is an experience that I dearly love. Because of that, you’re catering to a 25-and-under crowd. I lose count every year of how many “Avengers” type movies there are. But I also understand it because they’re making money and that’s what the viewership demands.

That said, I think at every studio, there is a desire to do more than that. They’re always looking for that one or two they can do that are adult dramas if they can find an audience. When you look at “Dunkirk” and things like that, it’s not as though they’re saying, “We’re not doing them anymore, so we don’t care.” They are trying to do them. It’s just tougher in this model.

[Netflix film chief] Scott Stuber had been at Universal and had been aware of the script and always loved it. We had a meeting and he said, “I want to do it,” and I said yes, being no dummy. Then the question becomes how do you get it to the people?

I’m glad that in some specific cities, people who enjoy the theatrical experience can go see it, because I do think it’s a beautiful big landscape of a movie. But I’m also very happy that a whole lot of people will see it on March 29 all around the world. People in my hometown of Texas City and in Guadalajara, Mexico, and in Toronto and in Topeka, Kan., and everywhere else will, conceivably, be watching it at the same time.

Your last movie, “The Founder,” had a fraught release. Weinstein Co. changed the release date multiple times, and a lot of people felt like the movie didn’t get the audience or the accolades it deserved. At the time, you said Weinstein Co. understood the movie and was doing their best, but looking back, do you wish it had been handled differently?

Oh gosh, yes. I mean, it’s an obvious thing to say now, but I wish the Weinstein Co. hadn’t distributed it. My biggest mistake was agreeing to go with them for distribution when some people around me said, “I don’t know if they have sufficient funds to back this movie.” They just kept changing the date for no reason. I think it was just because they didn’t have the finances. I don’t know that, but we certainly know now that there were a lot of payments going out for some other things other than film during that time period.

A movie like that, in retrospect, I would have loved to have had it on Netflix. People kind of found the movie eventually, but it’s quite obvious a lot more people would have seen it had it had the ability to be streamed.

There’s a lot of debate these days over whether Netflix is, on balance, a force for good in the film ecosystem. Some say it’s undermining the traditional theater-going experience, while others — including a lot of filmmakers who work with the company — say it’s supporting movies that might not otherwise get made. Where do you come down?

I understand the bigger global argument, but from my perspective, with this movie, it’s been nothing but positive. They delivered on everything they promised — and with a lot of joy too.

I don’t think any of us — certainly not me — wants to somehow see the theater-going experience go away. But it’s not as simple as, “What’s a real movie?” — because I tend to think “Roma” is a real movie, and I think Martin Scorsese’s movie coming out on Netflix [“The Irishman”] is probably a real movie. That reduces the argument in a way that I don’t think is helpful.

I’m sure this is a conversation that will continue, and there are smarter people than me who are going to figure it all out in a way that works for everyone.

Everything is being seen these days through a political lens, even movies that seem to have nothing to do with politics. In its day, “Bonnie and Clyde” certainly had political overtones. Do you see “The Highwaymen,” which reframes that story to focus on the law and order side, as political in any way?

I don’t. I just made the movie for the reasons I made the movie. I’m completely aware, though, that in today’s climate, you can have a political agenda that you bring to a movie and that agenda can make you want to love it or want to hate it before it starts. That’s just the world we live in.

Somebody might make an argument that this movie is about two old white guys and it’s a story of toxic masculinity. I don’t approach it that way, but I can understand the argument. I can also understand the point that, yes, some of that is bad and is of a past time, but it’s accurately portrayed, I think.

There are also some things about the code that these guys had that I admire and think we should have more of today — like when Frank Hamer is offered $1,000 in Depression-era Texas for an exclusive interview and he just walks away. These were guys who believed that you should not benefit in any way, monetarily or otherwise, from someone else’s grief, pain and blood. Whereas, today, we call that Tuesday.

This interview has been condensed and edited.

Twitter: @joshrottenberg