An interview with filmmakers John Lee Hancock and John Fusco about their new film, The Highwaymen, as well as a baseball-themed movie series and a new animated children’s pic.
Over the years, the writer-director John Lee Hancock has unobtrusively built up an interesting body of auteurist work. In films like The Rookie, The Blind Side and The Founder, he shows an affinity for wholesome Americana gently counterpointed by underlying shadows and tensions. Screenwriter John Fusco is experienced at the treatment of American icons, like Billy the Kid in Young Guns or Babe Ruth in The Babe.
These sensibilities make Fusco and Hancock’s current collaboration a natural: The Highwaymen, an account of the 1934 hunt for Bonnie and Clyde. Fusco’s sixteen-year-old script, once considered as a potential swansong partnering of Paul Newman and Robert Redford, has been realized with Hancock behind the camera. It stars Kevin Costner as Frank Hamer and Woody Harrelson as Maney Gault, aging Texas Rangers pulled out of retirement to locate the infamous outlaws and prototypical “reality stars.”
I had the opportunity to chat with Hancock and Fusco when they visited the Valley recently, about the intersection of history and legend in the movies (answers have been edited for length):
Phoenix Magazine: How did this project start?
John Fusco: As a young guy I had a real interest in outlaws and gangsters, and so of course when Bonnie and Clyde came out  I went with my mother and father and saw it at the drive-in. It fueled that fascination. I kind of grew up in the slipstream of the ’60s, and my sister was kind of a young hippie, and she was like “This is the movie, this is great.” And as I started reading about Bonnie and Clyde, one of the things that hit me is that they weren’t really Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway. There wasn’t a whole lot of glamour there, and they killed a lot of people. The other thing was that the lawman, Frank Hamer, when I learned more about him, I realized that he was not a mustache-twirling villain; in fact, he was the opposite.
PM: To what extent, if any is this film meant as a corrective or a reproach to the 1967 movie?
JF: Look, I want to say, that movie, Bonnie and Clyde, Arthur Penn’s movie, that was a watershed cultural touchstone that opened the gateway to a whole new wave, and I’m one of the filmmakers that was influenced by it. My Young Guns, you know? So it’s an amazing, amazing movie. But I found it to be a sad irony that Clyde Barrow, amongst the 13 people he killed was a Native American deputy sheriff, while Frank Hamer was out there taking on the Ku Klux Klan in Texas by himself. And yet that movie was recognized as the Vietnam-era, civil rights-era protest. So I became fascinated by Hamer’s story, learned a lot about the kind of pain his family went through, but more than that, I saw that his story was a great Western, you know, an elegiac Ride the High Country. It’s amazing, a retired Texas Ranger pulled out of retirement to hunt down these two.
John Lee Hancock: I’m not going to spend thirteen years making a movie as a response to something. I want to do something that’s new and exciting. I was more interested in the personal dark journey of these two guys, and the toll it takes on their souls. That was what drew me to it. I happen to love Bonnie and Clyde [the film]…it was never intended to be a historical document; if you asked [Bonnie and Clyde screenwriter] Robert Benton, he’d say, this is anti-establishment, Vietnam-era, stick-it-to-the-man, which is not that different from 1934. So I look at [The Highwaymen] as a potential companion piece, where instead of putting the camera over here, you shifted it over there a little.
PM: Alright then, to what extent is it a commentary on modern celebrity worship?
JLH: I’m game for that one. And when I read [Fusco’s script] thirteen years ago, it was existing, that cult of celebrity, and it’s only gotten worse. There are people that do things they should be embarrassed by, that gain Instagram followers.
JF: Bonnie referred to “her public.”
JLH: And she got it. They were aware of branding before branding.
JF: Here we are in the Great Depression, newspaper circulation was plummeting, newspapers were going under, and they came to realize that no one wants to read depressing economic news; they’re interested in sports stars, movie stars or flashy gangsters like Dillinger, Baby Face Nelson, Bonnie and Clyde. Bonnie and Clyde played into that; they were a young couple who felt like if they couldn’t be famous, they’d be infamous. There was a kind of sick twisted thing, that they were movie stars out there on the road doing their thing, Bonnie writing poetry and getting it published, and Clyde sending a letter to Henry Ford saying how much he loved stealing his cars, that they were the best model to steal.
JLH: They knew they were going to be above the fold in every newspaper in America.
PM: How much of this movie is accurate, and how much is invented?
JLH: There’s never been an accurate movie made. Not even a documentary. What are the percentages? I don’t know.
JF: One of the great things about [Frank Hamer] was that he was just legendary with his reticence. He was offered $10,000 for a book deal, and he said get out of here. Tom Mix came to see him, gave him a big pitch, said I want to play you, he said you’re doing alright with your cowboy stuff, you don’t need to play me…But I did have access to his papers. The 102 days that they spent on the road, we don’t know a whole lot about what went on, but we have our signposts.
JLH: Having done a whole lot of true stories, you get that question every time, and I think it’s a completely fair question, by the way, how much of it is true. What I usually kind of do is say, “a lot of it is true.”
The Highwaymen is scheduled to open March 22 at IPIC in Scottsdale; it will also be available on Netflix on March 29.
Harkins Home Run Series—If Cactus League Spring Training isn’t enough to relieve your impatience for Opening Day, Harkins Theatres is here to help with this series of baseball flicks, running from March 15 to March 21 at seven Harkins locations throughout the Valley. It includes two of the best baseball movies, Moneyball and the peerless Major League, one of the most overrated, Field of Dreams, the stirring Jackie Robinson biopic 42, the amusing kids-eye-view nostalgia of The Sandlot and the enjoyable period hokum of The Natural.
The series is a lot cheaper than Spring Training, too; $5 per movie, or an all-access pass for $20. Go to harkins.com/home-run-series for details.
Wonder Park—This CGI animated feature concerns a young girl, June (Brianna Denski), who collaborates with her doting mother (Jennifer Garner) on a whimsical imaginary amusement park. It’s staffed by her stuffed animals, who are voiced by the likes of Kenan Thompson, Ken Jeong, Norbert Leo Butz, John Oliver and Mila Kunis.
When June’s Mom falls ill, June shuts down the park, puts away her toys and focuses on worry and pragmatism. But she soon finds herself back in her imaginative world, helping her fuzzy pals liberate the park from a relentless army of stuffed monkey toys gone rogue.
It’s a sweet story for a kiddie matinee on a slow afternoon; there are many funny moments, but it’s maybe a little on the corny side. As so often with CGI movies, the scenes with the animal characters seem to work much better than those involving the humans. My favorite of the animals was John Oliver’s porcupine; a pleasant enough sort, but when it comes to the safety of the park’s guests, a bit of a stickler.