A Texas-sized titan of the craft, John Lee Hancock has made a name for himself as both an esteemed writer and a formidable director in the industry. With credits like The Rookie, A Perfect World, and The Blind Side, Hancock has proven himself to be a master storyteller with a knack for creating fantastic films, often outside the walls of Hollywood.
With the Netflix premiere of Hancock’s The Highwaymen right around the corner (set to debut on March 29, 2019), we’re looking back on our many conversations with this longtime AFF alum on the art of writing and directing and the process for telling your story.
Here are eight tips for mastering the craft from revered writer/director John Lee Hancock:
1. WORK HARD—AND WRITE HARDER
I was surrounded by people that were smarter than I was, and I thought, “They’re better writers than I am…I know they are. But…one thing I can say is I know they’re not going to work harder. I know that. I’m not going to make myself smarter, and they won’t care more. They won’t have the depth of feeling that I have about these things…I’ve got a well that I can go to that’s deeper than theirs is. They can be more facile. They can be more clever. But they won’t care more.” And I just tried to keep telling myself that when I was writing.
2. INVITE US IN
You have to look at a script or movie as kind of a pact with an audience. An interactive experience. And so, the dialogue can’t be or shouldn’t be something that lays everything out. There should be the interplay. I’m filling in gaps because I want you to be thinking along with me.
3. FIND THE STORY FOR YOU
It is important to write what moves you, and there’s a way to tell it—there’s a great movie in every story.…. it’s about cracking it and finding the best way to tell that story. The way in…the main character, your point of view, thematically what you want to say.
4. KNOW YOUR CHARACTERS
You know you’re on the right track with a character when…you can put them in a million different circumstances outside the specific circumstances of this story they’re in and know how’ll they’ll behave. That’s a great feeling because then they live for you. They’re not just at your service for this script.
5. TRUST THE AUDIENCE
it’s less a piece of literature and more kind of a handshake blueprint for what it will become.….it’s an interactive experience for the person reading it and you’re saying, “I trust you. I trust your imagination. You come to the party too with your ideas.”
6. FOCUS ON INTERPRETATION
Your job every step of the way is to interpret what came before you. As a writer, it’s coming from the facts. From the book. How it’s happened. How it went down. You’re interpreting it in terms of the scene. As a director, you’re taking it from the page and interpreting it based on the physical world you’re in, whether it’s a location or a set you’re building, and these kinds of things. How you’re blocking it, and the limitations of your space, and how many people are in the scene, and those kinds of things. And then in the editing room, when you’re interpreting it one more time, based on the way to tell the story visually with what we have.
7. WRITE YOUR WAY IN
Writing is kind of the fastest track if you want be in the creative side of it. If you want to write or create or direct…a script can open doors. You can have a script in hand.
8. FUEL YOUR FIRE
Having a game plan is important, but not nearly as important as the fire in your soul. And if you’re a writer, you’ll write, that’s just it. It’s always hard, but it’s occasionally gratifying and you live for those moments where it is.
Want to hear these tips first hand? Join us at this year’s Writers Conference (Oct. 24 – 27, 2019) for a weekend of insider tips and writing advice from the leading voices of film and television. For more information on how to attend, click here.