A Talk With John Lee Hancock
Through A Glass

Director John Lee Hancock has established an oeuvre that is distinctly Southern… and yet warrants the use of such a hoity-toity word as “oeuvre.”  After writing and directing his small, independent film debut, Hard Time Romance, his Hollywood coming-of-age was selling his screenplay for A Perfect World—which landed the talents of director Clint Eastwood and star Kevin Costner.  He followed that up with the script for Eastwood’s version of Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil, and then returned to the director’s chair with The Rookie, The Alamo, and this year’s The Blind Side.  All are films that have a distinct sense of regular, middle-American people caught in extraordinary circumstances—from Texas, to Georgia, to Tennessee.

In Los Angeles a couple of weeks ago for a Warner Bros. press junket for The Blind Side, I had the fortune to sit down for a one-on-one interview with Hancock.

Well, this may be a little unusual, but I’d like to specifically talk about three shots in your movie.

John Lee Hancock, director of The Blind SideJohn Lee Hancock: Oh, cool.

Yeah.

JLH: Yeah.

I’m kind of a fan of a restrained fashion of filmmaking, in which not every shot is a Scorsese moment. 

JLH: Right.

So, for instance, at the end of Ridley Scott’s The Duellists

JLH: I love that film.

When he does that dolly zoom at the end, you know that really means something, visually, because he’s saved it for that shot.

JLH: Yeah.

So for me, there were three shots in this film that seemed really deliberate choices on your part, that meant something specific.

JLH: Well, let’s hope so!

I’d like to talk about each of those shots individually, and then go back and talk about what they mean en toto.

The first of these—and again, these are shots that really stood out to me because they seemed like specific choices, and I don’t know how much of this was you and how much was your cinematographer—was when Michael’s in the laundromat.  You close that sequence with a shot from outside through the window looking in, with Michael isolated to the left, facing out of the frame.  What was the motivation for framing that shot?

JLH: Well, there were several motivations.  First, the beginning one, would be the photographs of [William] Eggleston, and looking at some of those.  And the other thing that [director of photography] Alar [Kivilo] and I talked about a lot—we spent a lot of time going through every scene and kind of talking about them philosophically—was that I wanted to look at Michael as a kind of case study, if you will.  And put him behind glass as many times as possible.  So in the movie, you’ll find that there are many examples of reflections or looking at him through glass from one side or the other, or at the end when he’s—

That’s where I’m heading, yeah.

JLH: That’s exactly it.

Oh, good. 

JLH: And we wanted to place him at the side of the frame because things are not all perfect. 

So the second moment that I caught is right in line with that, and is when Michael runs into Marcus at the restaurant, and you do a reverse shot.  First we see the Tuohy family outside the restaurant looking at their embrace through the glass, and then the reverse from inside through the glass while Michael hugs Marcus at the left, and the family is in deep focus in the background, looking on from the right.  And it’s silent.  There’s no sense that either side is communicating or hearing. 

JLH: Right.

So, again, that’s part of the—

JLH: It is.  It is.  And what we were trying to do there was to raise a question: Who is Michael embracing?  Who could this kid be?  Who is this that he’s hugging?  So again the perspective of the glass, and the sense of watching this all from afar, and wanting to know.  And also, from the inside, just kind of getting us a little more insight into it.  So were weren’t strictly and specifically with the Tuohys on this, because in the next scene he’s going to be answering the questions we raised with the shot. So yeah.  But it’s funny, you know, because it was written that Marcus comes out and there’s an outdoor seating area, and he’s over there busing tables.  And we got to this location, and one of the assistants said, “We can create an outdoor seating area over here.”  And I looked at that lighting and that glass, and I said, “Let’s just do it here. This is better.”  It was more in keeping with that whole idea we’d been trying to do.

Yes.  And then the final shot of the three is in the car, when Leigh Anne goes back to have her moment of emotional privacy, Michael comes over—not only does the window come down, erasing the barrier between them, taking them both out of their boxes and brings them finally together, you also choose to use a long lens there.  So the reflection that’s in the window there is very abstract; it looks like an impressionist French painting, with the leaves blurred in the background.  So what’s really striking is that when the window comes down—

JLH: Yeah.

Everything comes completely into—

JLH: Yeah.

Perfect focus.

JLH: I also think it’s that these characters are about— I looked initially and said, “What to Leigh Ann and Michael have in common?”  Seeing them walk down the street, as opposite as they are, height and race and everything, what do they have in common?  And I think Michael’s gift, as is stated in the film, is his ability not to be mad, not to dwell on things but keep moving—his survival instinct.  I think she has that same thing.

She just processes it in different ways.

JLH: Absolutely. 

The retreat.

JLH: Don’t dwell on emotional stuff, just keep moving. Let’s not have a pity party, as Leigh Anne would say.  And throughout the movie she keeps moving away from emotional moments. 

Like at the dinner table when they invite him to join the family.

JLH: Or when he says, “I’ve never had a bed.”  And she says, “Well, you have one now.”  And she goes to her room and closes the door to gather herself.

Which he understands.

JLH: Yeah, which at first is puzzling to him, and he wonders if he’s done something wrong.  But because they share that, when he comes to her at the end and says, “I need the hug,” he’s saying, “It’s okay for both of us”—

Well, and that’s why I particularly struck by those images, because it was a brilliantly set-up metaphor for the lowering of the barrier between them, where they both have the ability to withdraw and isolate themselves emotionally.  And the glass as a metaphor for that progresses from Michael isolated, through to including Leigh Anne and the Tuohys isolated, and then connecting them together.

JLH: Thanks for noticing!

Well, it’s nice to notice these things—but nicer yet to be able to ask you about them, and confirm that I’m on the right track!  But not only the use of the glass as a symbol is nice, you also make the first of the images that I noticed very two-dimensional—like an Eggleston.  And the second one uses deep focus, so it becomes three-dimensional.  But then progressing into the use of the long lens—

JLH: The long lens.

As a metaphor for distance—broken down, and becoming intimacy.  Very interesting, visually, and very striking.

JLH: Oh, cool.  Well, it’s a pleasure to get to talk about images!