Original-Cin Interview: Highwaymen Director John Lee Hancock on Gangsters, Netflix and How to Sell a Movie

By Liam Lacey

The Highwaymen is a U.S. $49 million historical drama about the capture of Bonnie and Clyde, the young gangster couple destroyed in a police ambush 85 years ago. The movie, which focuses on Frank Hamer (Kevin Costner) and Maney Gault (Woody Harrelson) — the lawmen who brought Bonnie and Clyde down — is another example of Netflix’s increasing clout in the movie world.

Thirteen years in the making — it was originally scheduled to star Robert Redford and the late Paul Newman — The Highwaymen finally got the go-ahead when Netflix came on board in 2017. It’s available for streaming on Friday (March 29), after a brief theatrical run.

A scene from The Highwaymen.

A scene from The Highwaymen.

“Over the years, a lot of people liked this movie but they didn’t like it enough to provide the budget it needed,” says director John Lee Hancock. “I’m incredibly grateful that I can have a film that can be seen in my hometown of Texasville or Toronto or Cartagena, all watching the movie at the same time. If you work with a studio, you have to have a film that can have a long theatrical run, and without Spandex these days, that’s difficult.”

Hancock, a 62-year-old former lawyer, is most famous for his sports movies: The Rookie (2002) and The Blind Side (2009) and his scripts for Clint Eastwood’s A Perfect World (1993) and Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil (1997). He has also made historical films including Saving Mr. Banks (2013), The Alamo (2004) and The Founder (2016), starring Michael Keaton as the founder of McDonald’s, a film he wishes had been picked up by Netflix rather than mishandled in distribution. (“Good reviews but people only saw it only airplanes,” he notes.)

Read our review of The Highwaymen

Hancock has been associated with The Highwaymen film for a long time, and has worked through a half-dozen drafts with writer John Fusco. Given that the film comes down on the side of the law, and not the outlaw — and also that it arrives in polarized times — Hancock was fully prepared for some political criticism.

“People are going to try to read into my intentions from the left and the right and either embrace or shove it away, based on what they’re thinking and I can't control that.”

Still, a New York Times review which denounced the film’s “vengeful, murderous, politically terrifying convictions” struck Hancock as absurd.

“I wondered if he saw the same movie. I mean, these are guys that come to the story with unclean hands and that's part of it. There's Maney Gault saying, 'I don't sleep and I self-medicate and I hate myself. And at the same time we have a terrible gift and that gift is we're really good at hunting and killing people and there's no joy in this.’”

Another element shaping audience response to the film is the existence of the 1967 Arthur Penn-directed film, Bonnie and Clyde, widely regarded as pivotal in the birth of the so-called New Hollywood cinema of the late sixties and seventies.

In that film, the criminals, played by the beautiful Faye Dunaway and Warren Beatty, are destroyed by the bumbling but vengeful Hamer and his henchman. The culminating ambush scene today seems almost risible in its blatant eroticism of those beautiful, twitching bodies. It opened the door to a new era of onscreen violence.

“I never saw our film as a counterpoint or a 'let's correct the record film,’” says Hancock. “I don't think when they made that movie they intended it as an historical document. It was very much about sticking it to the man, and the Vietnam era and the frustration with what our country was standing for and why people were losing their lives. At that time, young people said, ‘We don't care that these are the rules, we're gonna do it our way.' It was incredibly affecting and effective and opened the door for many of my favorite films in the 70s that wouldn't have been made otherwise.

The Highwaymen is a different story,” he continues. “It’s about the examination of a lonely journey of these two men who were flawed and have wounds. And we'll see how they expose those wounds, knowing that this is a dirty job. This is not a righteous endeavour. In fact, it's just the opposite.

“I completely understand someone saying, 'Oh it's chapter-and-verse toxic masculinity’ and there's validity to that. But there's also something about a personal code that I wish we had more of, like when Frank turns down a thousand dollars from the Associated Press in 1934 — Depression-era dollars — because it is unseemly to take money for something that is sad and to benefit from the blood and grief of others.

“I never see characters as examples of what you should emulate or push away from them. I just want them to be complicated and conflicted, like most people. These guys are our sin eaters. We want these people dead and you're the ones who will do it and you're going to have sleepless nights so we can sleep soundly.”

In Hancock’s film, Bonnie and Clyde are typically seen only in brief glimpses, from behind or through windows. Hancock cast two stunt people (Emily Brobst and Edward Bossert) in the parts, because they were good at driving, shooting guns and triggering the squibs (the small explosives used to simulate bullet impacts) during the death scene, which is fast, brutal and devoid of slow-motion ballet.

“I wanted to mythologize them on steroids. I wanted to shoot part of them at a time, to make it look like a graphic novel. I wanted interesting frames. I wanted colours that popped. Their cars were shiny and clean and her fingernails are perfect and she’s reading a movie magazine and he wears a nice watch and two-tone saddle shoes. Everything about them is ‘Wow!’ The idea was how people in the thirties saw them, or perhaps, for modern audiences, fans of the 1967 movie.

"And then they enter the naturalistic photography of the ambush and they come into Frank and make his world and we see we see them for who they are. They're scrawny kids. And there's something about that, at least to me, which is unexpected and makes it all the more sad. It ain't Warren and Faye.”