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Director John Hancock

John D. Hancock grew up in the Midwest, graduated from Harvard, and studied theater in Europe on a grant from Harvard. He directed plays for 15 years, winning numerous awards, until becoming a movie director in 1970.

I spoke by phone with director John D. Hancock March 5, 2002.

John: "I got a grant from the American Film Institute in 1970 to do a short, Sticky My Fingers... Fleet my Feet, which was nominated for an Academy Award. CBS bought it and showed it at halftime of their Thanksgiving football game. It played all over the country with Woody Allen's feature Bananas.

"Then in 1971 I made a horror picture, Let's Scare Jessica to Death, followed by Bang the Drum Slowly." Time magazine critic Richard Schickel called it "possibly the best film made about sport in this country."

Hancock lived in Los Angeles from 1974 to 1993. "I was determined to like it and I succeeded for about six months. Our Malibu house was burned up in a big fire in 1993 and we moved to Indiana."

John married actress-screenwriter Dorothy Tristan in 1975.

John: "I had several lucrative deals from Columbia following Bang the Drum that fell through. I made Baby Blue Marine for Columbia."

Hancock wasn't happy with the result. He didn't want to cast lead Jan-Michael Vincent, preferring Adam Arkin.

"I was fired on Jaws 2. I was Dick Zanuck's choice for it. And he and Sydney Sheinberg still had scores to settle on the overages [profit sharing] on the first Jaws. Sheinberg had my wife and I over to dinner. She was writing the screenplay. Sheinberg made a strong case that his wife Lorraine Gary, who played Roy Scheider's wife in the first Jaws, should go out on a boat in the second Jaws to rescue the kids. We went back and relayed this to Zanuck and he said, 'Over my dead body.'

"Not being used to dealing in a bureaucracy with powerful people, used to just running my own ship, I did not know that the thing to do at this point was to get the two of them in a room and say, 'Now you guys need to tell me which way we have to do this.' Instead, I thought that Zanuck is a person I've always liked. I've liked the pictures he's made. He's the son of a fabulous producer-director-studio head Daryl Zanuck. I thought Sid Sheinberg, he's just some lawyer. He'll come and go.

"So we turned in the next draft without Lorraine Gary going out on the boat to rescue the kids. Sheinberg never met my eyes in the commissary again. During rehearsals, I fired an actress for a small part. She turned out to be the girlfriend of another executive at Universal. That spelled my demise. Verna Fields [1918-1982, second unit director of 1975's Jaws, longtime editor] had a role in it. She felt she should have been offered the directorship based on her editing. It was politics and I made enough mistakes that I got in trouble. Directors are like baseball managers - they get fired sometimes.

"We were shooting Jaws 2 on Martha's Vineyard in 1977. A Lear jet landed and the next day my wife and I were on our way to Rome to recover. I figured I should pull back. What was I doing doing Jaws 2 anyway? That's not the kind of thing I went into business to do. So my wife and I sat down and wrote Weeds [1987] which took a long time to get made."

Luke: "California Dreaming [1979]. Why did you do that?"

John: "That was right after Jaws. I wanted to show that I could get other jobs. It was recut by AIP (American International Pictures owned by Sam Arkoff and his son Lou). I wasn't happy with it."

Over the next few years, Hancock directed several TV shows including Hill Street Blues and The Twilight Zone.

"I enjoyed the switch to television. I liked the pace of the work."

Luke: "Why did Weeds take so long to get made?"

John: "Because it is difficult material.

"When I was running the San Francisco Actor's Workshop [in the mid'60s], I used to go regularly to San Quentin to work with a drama group there. I inherited that job. When the guys would get out [of San Quentin], we would employ them sometimes. One particular inmate, [white guy] Joe Couthey, was in for life without possibility of parole. He robbed and kidnapped a businessman and shot him [not fatally].

"Joe and I exchanged letters. He wrote a play, The Cage, which we produced. It was influenced by Genet and Beckett.

"Eventually, a number of us wrote letters on his behalf and he got out. He got his ex-inmates together and they took The Cage on a national tour. He ended up being directed by Beckett in a couple of things in Europe.

"I knew a lot of the members of Joe's group, some of them black kids. One guy, Bobby Poole, wrote Richard Pryor's first movie [1973's The Mack]."

Robert J. Poole served five years in prison for 12 years of pimping.

From a description of The Mack on Imdb.com: "Goldie returns from five years at the state pen and winds up king of the pimping game. Trouble comes in the form of two corrupt white cops and a crime lord who wants him to return to the small time."

Ahertz writes on Imdb.com: If you want to get an insider's glimpse into the world of pimpin', look no further than "The Mack." Often compared to the other, better known black movies of the 1970's, which tend to focus more on drugs and street justice, "The Mack" incorporates both of those elements, but with a heavy focus on pimpin'. It gives outsiders a glimpse into the life of a pimp through the eyes of 1973's official Pimp of the Year, Goldie ("The Mack" shows that this dubious title is actually given out in an annual event, one similar to the Oscars). Goldie's strengths are his strong pimp hand, which he uses early and often, and the fact that he always gets his percentage on time (as in "woman better have my percentage"). Although his brother (fyi: one of magnum p.i.'s sidekicks) dedicates his life warning people about pimps and drug pushers, Goldie continues his lavish lifestyle, going so far as to bring his women to the annual Pimp Softball and Barbeque Outing (for a pimp, Goldie sure knows how to swing the lumber). But, with a tragic ending, Goldie must examine his life and is forced to make a huge decision.

If you are looking for great acting, a movie where you can hear what the people are saying (everyone speaks really softly), or good music, look elsewhere. Also, although Richard Pryor gets second billing in this movie, he is seen in the movie less than a pimp in daylight.

I think the strengths of this movie are the costumes and the "pimp insight" one can gain. If you want a crash course on what it takes to be a respected pimp (fine clothes, ability to wear sunglasses during all hours, have an unruly afro, kill people using dynamite, play a lot of craps and three card monty), then look no further than "The Mack". However, if that is not your intended goal, look further, look much much further.

John: "We built Weeds [1987] on their story. We wrote it for Robert DeNiro. When the deal fell through with De Niro, we tried to get it done with Mickey Rourke but nobody wanted him. We tried Danny Aiello and nobody wanted him. Dino De Laurentiis finally financed the [$12 million] picture. He'd just raised a lot of money and was looking for pictures to make.

"Dino went broke before we could release the movie and that curtailed promotion and the box office gross. Dino's daughter Rafaella De Laurentiis brought me on to direct Prancer. It wasn't the type of picture that I really wanted to do, but in the course of doing it, I got into it. And it's enabled me to raise money locally for the picture I've just finished, Suspended Animation. Prancer was a big deal here in Indiana. I used a lot of locals.

"A Piece of Eden [2000] was a personal movie. My family was in the fruit business here. And the movie is based on stories of my family and my relationship with my father. We shot this movie and Prancer [1989] on our farm.

"We shot the 1988 HBO movie Steal the Sky in Israel during the first Intifada. We mainly shot around the West Bank. We had the Israeli army around us. We'd think we should shoot in Jericho. We'd drive in that direction and see a huge column of smoke rising from Jericho.

"I want to do an action picture. With Bang the Drum Slowly, I got typed as warm and human. I'm not."

Luke: "You're cold and inhuman?"

John: "Yes."

Luke: "Did it change you making Bang the Drum Slowly?"

John: "It changed my salability in the business enormously but no it didn't change me. I don't think it changed me inside."

Luke: "Has any movie you've made changed you on the inside?"

John: "I was formed as a director working in the theater. I did so much Brecht, then I did a production of A Midsummer Night's Dream that won an Obie. I changed from a Brechtian to the guy who did A Midsummer Night's Dream. With the movies, I've just tried to master the camera. I feel like I've been doing the same thing I was 19. Movies are not that much from the theater."

Luke: "Does it hurt or help a marriage to work so closely with one's spouse?"

John: "In this case it's been very good. We admired each other's work separately before we got together."

Luke: "Do you prefer working on independent or studio films?"

John: "I just prefer working."