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The Highwaymen: Director John Lee Hancock on Bonnie and Clyde’s Legacy

"They would be tweeting more than Trump"

Bonnie and Clyde would have more Instagram followers than the Kardashians, I promise you.

  • The Highwaymen director John Lee Hancock

Even in 2019, Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow (aka Bonnie and Clyde) remain two of history’s most notorious crooks. As their infamy grew during the early ‘30s, they became folk heroes. And now their story is the stuff of legend. Bonnie and Clyde died in 1934, and they’re still referenced in movies, music, and video games. But few of us know the tale of Frank Hamer and Maney Gault, the two men tasked with ending one of history’s most notorious crime sprees. The new Netflix movie, The Highwaymen is about to change that.

Directed by John Lee Hancock and written by John Fusco, The Highwaymen tells the story from the perspective of Frank and Maney, a pair of retired Texas Rangers who were well past their best before dates when they were called on to hunt down Bonnie and Clyde. We’re talking about rusty old men who could no longer shoot straight. Frank (Kevin Costner) and Maney (Woody Harrelson) may be played by big-time stars, but their lives were anything but glamorous. And focusing on them isn’t the obvious choices for a story about history’s most infamous crime spree.

Hancock is the perfect filmmaker for the job. When it comes to adapting real life into films, Hancock has the golden touch (The Blindside, Saving Mr. Banks, The Founder). Real life is rarely as exciting as the movies. Taking real people, events, and timelines and then stitching them together into a factually accurate yet entertaining story is no easy feat. But Hancock is an adaptation guru. He can come at a script from every angle until he sees a way to sculpt a compelling narrative.

IMDb lists The Highwaymen as a crime-drama, but it has the spirit of a western. The heroes are a pair of battle-worn Texas Rangers. They’re pulled out of retirement as a couple of hired guns and forced to ply their trade in a world that no longer gets them. The Highwaymen has elements of The Wild Bunch, Unforgiven, and No Country for Old Men. Even though we know how the story ends, Hancock delivers a fresh hook. As Hancock puts it, “It’s about the journey of these men and the toll it takes on their ragged souls.”

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Hancock was recently in Toronto promoting The Highwaymen, and That Shelf sat down with him to discuss his latest movie. The conversation covered Bonnie and Clyde’s mystique, celebrity worship, and of course, what does he have on his shelf?

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In 2019, the news cycle movies ahead at warp speed. There’s too much information for the public to stay on top of. It’s not uncommon for big-time celebrities to drop out of the public consciousness as if they never existed. And we don’t give them further thought until they pop back up on Dancing with the Stars. It’s remarkable that Bonnie and Clyde’s story still resonates with the public after nearly 100 years. I asked Hancock what it is about their story that keeps it alive?

This was an era of gangsters and within the great depression, the only thing that sold newspapers were athletes and gangsters, basically. Sports and flashy gangsters. Nobody wanted to hear bad economic news every day.

I think the thing that set Bonnie and Clyde apart from Dillinger and Pretty Boy Floyd and Babyface Nelson and Al Capone was Bonnie. The fact that you could wrap your brain in a big romantic mythology around a guy and his girl out there on the road. And the fact that they were from a very depressed area and came from nothing and this was the depression era, and banks had foreclosed on farms, foreclosed on houses. There were no jobs. Everybody was saying, “I’m just angry and I don’t know who to scream at because I’m willing to work and I can’t.”

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And then you have these two from the neighbourhood, and they go out, and they stick it to the man, and they’re going after banks. Now they also went after mom and pop convenience stores and things like that, but the convenient story to rally behind is banks. Banks are the bad guys, banks are the devil. They’re ruining this country. And they’re sticking it to the banks. Of course, they also overlook the fact they’re killing some people. “Forget that right now, they’re representing us, and we know it’s dirty work out there, but we’re behind them.”

When they escaped from Joplin Missouri, there was a camera left behind. They [the local newspaper] got it and exposed the negatives inside, and all the famous pictures of Bonnie and Clyde on the road came from that. And immediately they were above the fold in every newspaper in America and even internationally. Bonnie and Clyde at that point, [were] almost like pre-Kardashian realized branding. And they said, “We are a brand.”

Bonnie talked about people in America as her public as though she were a movie star and she dreamed of herself that way. She knew that anything that I write, any poem I write, if I send it in it will be published. Clyde knew that if he wrote a letter to Henry Ford saying, “I only steal your cars because they’re the best,” it’s going to get published. I think they juiced on that and kind of added to it in a strange way.

There was one particular cop that they had shot, but he wasn’t killed. They had taken in hostage and let him go on one condition, and the condition was from Bonnie. “You have to go to the newspaper and tell them that I do not smoke cigars. I am not that kind of woman. That was just a prop. We were having fun with that picture, and I had a cigar. I do not smoke cigars.” It wasn’t like, “Tell them I don’t kill people,” it was, “Tell them I don’t smoke cigars.” She was protecting the brand.

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The fact that there have been songs about Bonnie and Clyde, and even rap songs…it continues. It’s beyond me, to be honest, how this continues on and on. But even my kids are 18, I have twins, they had heard of Bonnie and Clyde. They didn’t know a lot of details but Bonnie and Clyde, robbers, and sexy, and romantic, and all that.

The ‘67 movie put that on steroids, that idea. Because it was Warren and Faye a fantastic watershed movie for American cinema. There’s no doubt it made an impact. It wasn’t a historical movie. They didn’t intend it to be. It was a thematic movie. And it was very much Vietnam-era stick it to the man, we’re young, and we’re mad, and we’re going to do what we want to do. And it was anti-establishment, and it succeeded, wildly. And it opened the door to many of my favourite movies from the ‘70s. So I think that revived that notion of Bonnie and Clyde in a big way.

When that movie first came out, the first response to it from critics was, “It is way too violent. How dare you? This is gratuitous. You created an operatic ballet of bullets.” And then Pauline Kael took a look at it and said, “Whoa, tap the breaks guys. You guys don’t know what it’s saying. This is why it’s important, this is why it’s a great American movie.”

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To why it’s contemporary, one of the things is the cult of celebrity, and that certainly is around when you look at branding and whatever. And Bonnie and Clyde would have more Instagram followers than the Kardashians, I promise you. They would be tweeting more than Trump. They would be those people. They loved it.

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The thing that drew me to it wasn’t Bonnie and Clyde, it was the lonely journey of these two Texas Rangers who were men out of time. They were born 100 years too late. And being angry, being galled, if you will, by these two being like movie stars, doing things they should be ashamed of. And that was very old-school thinking. Some of it’s probably like, I’m an old man, so some of that, I look at today’s society and go, “No, I think a lot of social media is really, really bad for people. I think it’s awful.” But that makes me a get off my lawn old man. These are flawed people. I’m always drawn to flawed… There’s a blood in blood out proposition, it is after all, Texas. And I was drawn to the characters and think they have relevance.

With its focus on Frank and Maney, The Highwaymen keeps the elusive duo on the edges of the story. Hancock shoots their scenes in a manner that makes their presence feel surreal and phantom-like. I asked Hancock about his decision to capture Bonnie and Clyde in such an unconventional way.

I would say, with [screenwriter] John Fusco, in his draft, he was saying, “It’s longshots, it’s this,” cause he wanted them to be almost ghosts. Like who are they, and we’re chasing them. When I read it, I thought I wanted to take it one step further, and I want to, instead of doing less with them, I want to do more, but I want to do it in a very specific way. I want to mythologize them for the audience for two reasons. One, to give us the mindset of the person in 1934 who idolized them – in pencil-thin skirts and berets. She created her own Kmart fashion line. It’s that. It’s how fast it spread. The other thing is I wanted to put the viewer in the mindset of drawing on their own, whatever ideas they have about Bonnie and Clyde whether they’ve seen the pictures, whether they’ve seen Penn’s really good movie.

The way we did it photographically, was I said I want to shoot everything else naturalistically, but I want to shoot them like a graphic novel. I want the frames to be interesting and precise. I want the colours to be so poppy that they’re unreal. And I want the cars to be cleaner than any car possible as though it’s a graphic novel because they are sexier, they’re not of this life. Look at them, you just know how gorgeous they are. And it’s romantic, and they’re fast, and they’re dangerous, and they dress well. And I wanted to just push, push, push that until they come up that road at the ambush site, which we actually shot at the place where Bonnie and Clyde were killed. It’s really eerie.

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When they come up there, and they enter the naturalistic photography of Frank and Maney. They’re entering Frank and Maney’s world, and we see them, and we go, “Oh, they’re little scrawny kids, and this just became sad, in a weird way.” And that was my intention with the ambush, it’s not, “We got them.” This is, “It’s awful, and it’s ugly, and it’s violent.” And it’s brutal, it’s bloody.

And it’s just as promised by Frank Hamer early on, which sounds kind of like a movie line. “We know what’s at the end of the road and it’s always bloody.” We’ve heard these kinds of lines before, and it’s perfectly fine. I wanted to make good on that promise. I wanted people to go, “Oh shit.” You can kill somebody really brutally really quickly, and I wanted to romanticize the guns with Bonnie and Clyde and make them just tools. They’re just a wrench or whatever for these guys because they’re going to kill them dead and they are gonna keep firing until there are no bullets left. And it’s going to be ugly, and it’s going to scar their psyche forever as Candelaria did, and all these other things.

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And then you get to Arcadia, which to me is more grotesque than the ambush because it’s the worst of humanity. We still love them. We love them when they’re alive, and we love them when they’re dead. “Can I cut off his finger?” In the movie, we tamped it down a bit. It was far worse. The town went from 4000 to 10,000 people over the course of two hours because word spread that they were towing them in. They tried to cut off his trigger finger, cut off his ear. They brought scissors. They were taking Bonnie’s hair. We show them trying to take a watch, pull the hair, and dabbing blood, taking the gas cap off the car. Taking anything they could grab; a windshield wiper. Whatever, just to get a piece of it and it’s just gross.

And of course, we couldn’t let Hancock go without asking him the all-important question: What’s on your shelf?

I try to keep little personal things from every movie. I’ll name two. One is, I’ve got a full heavy multi-mixer from The Founder. The one that he lugged around. And damn is it heavy! It’s heavy, it works. I’ve never mixed a soda in it, it just sits on the shelf. And I don’t think I’ll ever move it because getting it up there was hell.

The second one is, I have the baseball [from] at the end of The Rookie when Dennis Quaid gives it to his father. And as soon as we yelled cut, I went up to Brian Cox and go, “I’m taking that.”



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