By Mical Kasweka

John Lee Hancock Q&A
John Lee Hancock in conversation with RTA School of Media associate professor Michael Coutanche. (Courtesy of Susan Smythe-Bishop)

If students are wondering where to start when entering a career in the film industry, director John Lee Hancock says “start anywhere.”

The American director, screenwriter and producer John Lee Hancock stopped by to speak with Ryerson students for a Q-and-A on the film industry and to talk about his new Netflix film, The Highwaymen.

The film retells the story of Bonnie and Clyde, but moves the focus from the notorious Depression-era bank robbers to the lawmen who were in pursuit.

“Sometimes the most valuable thing is knowing what you don’t want to do,” he said. “I would say the first thing is take whatever job you think you can learn something from.”

Ryerson students gathered in the Rogers Communications Centre on Friday to listen and later participate in a Q-and-A led by associate professor Michael Coutanche from the RTA School of Media.

When Coutanche asked Hancock what inspired him to make this film, he explained that growing up, he heard stories about Bonnie and Clyde and was always triggered by the fascination towards the criminal duo.

“I was blown away when I found out 20,000 people went to her (Bonnie’s) funeral,” he said.

Raised in Texas, Hancock recalled hearing stories that the older generation remembered about Bonnie and Clyde. The notorious pair have been reimagined many times through books and films.

But Hancock said he wanted to tell the story from another perspective.

John Lee Hancock Woody Harrelson
John Lee Hancock works alongside Woody Harrelson on The Highwaymen. (Courtesy of Merrick Morton Photos & Netflix)

The film follows two retired Texas Rangers — Frank Hamer, played by Kevin Costner and Maney Gault, played by Woody Harrelson — that were called back to duty to catch the infamous pair.

When the 1967 film Bonnie and Clyde, directed by Arthur Penn, was released, it received public backlash for being so violent. The film’s ending became iconic as “one of the bloodiest death scenes in cinematic history,” when the criminal pair were gunned down.  

But Hancock explained that it’s the role of art to push boundaries. “That was beautiful,” he said. “It’s a ballet of bullets.”  

Hancock also explained that it’s the job of directors to push films forward.

Although Hancock has directed a number of blockbuster hits such as The Blind Side and Disney’s The Rookie, he admits the journey to creating The Highwaymen wasn’t an easy one.

The best advice Hancock had to offer aspiring directors is to learn from the mistakes he’s made with his past films and to allow others to find those mistakes and learn from them.

“Whenever a friend of mine, somebody I come across or someone that reaches out, asks me for some advice, I tell them, ‘Look at these (his films) and look at all my mistakes.”

For students who have aspirations to become actors, directors, or writers in the industry, Hancock suggested getting an agent.

“What agents are looking for is someone that’s talented that has a unique voice,” he said. “You want to write something that’s personal to you.”

The reality is, as Hancock explained, there is no easy way to become a director, producer or writer.

At the beginning stages of his career, Hancock recalled working for free with hopes that it would help him achieve his dream job — a sentiment many students in creative fields often share.

Students asked questions about proper filming equipment, how to get funding for major projects like The Highwaymen and working with high profile actors.

Hancock explained that he likes to get to know actors before offering leads in film roles.

“I like to sit down and have a conversation with the actors,” he said.

An exclusive screening took place at the TIFF Lightbox on March 21, followed by a Q-and-A led by the Toronto Star’s chief investigative reporter, Kevin Donovan.

The film will stream on Netflix on March 29.

This is a joint byline. Ryersonian staff are responsible for the news website edited and produced by final-year undergraduate and graduate journalism students at Ryerson University. It features all the content from the weekly campus newspaper, The Ryersonian, and distributes news and online multimedia, including video newscasts from RyersonianTV. also provides videos, images, and other interactive material in partnership with the School of Journalism.

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