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In Disney's The Rookie (2002), director John Lee Hancock shared the true story of Jim Morris, a high school teacher and baseball coach whose shot at pitching in the majors was derailed by injuries—until his young players challenged him to give his dreams one more try. The film was a surprise hit with families and critics alike. A fluke? Hardly. Last fall, a second true-to-life, Hancock-helmed sports biopic blindsided moviegoers with its warmth, wit and charm. Nominated for Best Picture at the 2010 Academy Awards, The Blind Side is the story of Michael Oher, a big kid from the Memphis projects who found love and direction from the Tuohys, an upscale family that took him in, helped him develop a passion for football and eventually adopted him. (Oher recently completed his rookie year with the NFL's Baltimore Ravens.) We talked with Hancock about both of those films, the creative process, the Oscars and more:

Plugged In: We recently ranked the Top 5 most family-friendly baseball movies of all time, and you'll never guess what came in at No. 1.

John Lee Hancock: [laughing] The Rookie, I hope.

Absolutely. We sure appreciate you creating a movie like that that families can enjoy together.

You're welcome. We had a lot of fun making it.

That screenplay was by Mike Rich. You wrote The Blind Side yourself. Having directed both films, could you explain how the process of shooting your own words may be a little bit different from shooting a script written by someone else?

For me there wasn't a whole lot of difference because I had so much respect for Mike's script that it was one that I wished I'd written. It had a cadence that I understood, filmically. I'm very happy that the first movie I didn't write because I was forced to wear the director's cap exclusively. And that's not to say you don't jump in every once in a while and muck with a line or something. So then when you're directing your own work, it gives you the ability to understand that the writing is a separate enterprise, and now you're filming it. It's not a hybrid deal, really at all. You can exclaim to yourself sometimes, "Who wrote this?" even when you know it's yourself, because now you're directing this and it's a completely different enterprise.

I understand. Of course, congratulations on your Best Picture nomination.

Thank you.

I'm sure you're going to give 100 percent of the credit to Sandra Bullock for her Academy Award, but even the best actresses benefit from good dialogue and solid directing. So I think we can give you an "assist" for that one. How did it feel to see one of your actors standing there with an Oscar?

It's pretty great. It's great for two reasons. One, it kind of validates your choices along the way in writing the role, creating the role, in casting the right person, in making decisions and being partners with that actor in this enterprise, working on a day-to-day basis to hone this performance. On the one hand, it's gratifying because it says that sometimes my instincts are correct. It's also gratifying to me because she is a great person and a wonderful partner. I'm just so happy for her. She's been in the industry and has done very good work for a very long time. I'm just happy to see that rewarded.

Beyond the awards, The Blind Side grossed more than $250 million dollars. That had to exceed your expectations. What were you and the folks at Warner Bros. realistically hoping for when the movie came out?

Oh, nothing anywhere close to that. I think The Rookie made about $76 million domestic, and that was looked at as a good success for a sports movie. There had been a saturation point reached over the past few years with sports movies that no matter how good they were, there was a cap on them—with the exception of broad comedies like The Waterboy. But sports drama was pretty much looked at as having a ceiling. So, my hope was that it would do at least what The Rookie did and hopefully a little bit more. I've never written or directed a movie that made over $100 million domestic. That's something I'd always wanted to see one day—what it's like to have three digits instead of two in the domestic box office.

Going back to The Rookie for a second, I remember when it first came out I saw an advance screening and loved it. It was sweet. It was wonderful. And I thought to myself, Critics are going to be cynical and find fault with how too-good-to-be-true the story is, even though it was based on a true story. So I was pleasantly surprised by how everyone seemed to embrace that movie. Were you surprised as well?

Me too. If you've got a movie like this that's inspirational, I think there are a number of people who don't trust it. They watch a movie and they go, "You made me feel something. Therefore, you must have manipulated me, so you're a liar." So just on that, they're going to attack it in some way: "Oh it's smarmy," "Oh it's feel-good," "Oh it's claptrap," "Oh it's Lifetime movie of the week territory." All of that kind of stuff. So, yeah, I was very pleasantly surprised with both The Rookie and also The Blind Side, because I knew it was an even bigger target. But a lot of people put that bias aside and said, "OK, I'm not going to review the trailers. I'm not going to review what I generally think these movies are about. I'm just going to review the movie." So it is great when that happens.

You mention making people feel something. One of the scenes in The Rookie that chokes me up every time I watch it is that moment when Jim Morris is playing in the minor leagues, and he looks into the stands and sees the father and son sharing a ballgame together while he's missing his own family. What is it about sports movies—especially ones that are about relationships first and the on-field action second—that seem to be your wheelhouse, at least at this point in your career? What has attracted you to them?

The reason sports movies work is because the good ones really aren't about the sports themselves, but at the same time that's usually what your 'A' plot is. When an 'A' plot is played out very cleanly between lines with a scoreboard, that works well for us in terms of being a story that we can embrace. And that gives you a lot of room in a 'B' story to pursue theme and relationships and character study. It's harder to do when you've got an 'A' plot that is convoluted. If you've got a spy thriller, it can become very difficult. So, it's an accessible genre, and I think that's why we will continue to have sports movies. That said, because studios now look to international for 75 percent of the money they're going to make, it's been difficult. The Blind Side, hopefully, will help get a few more made. But this is a movie that got turned down by studios. They said, "We love the script. We love the story. We think the movie will be great. But we're discounting up-front 75 percent of the money we're going to make. We can't do that in good conscience with our business model." It makes it tough because there's no international sales on sports movies.

Both The Blind Side and The Rookie are films a lot of families have embraced, in part, because they're accessible. And what I mean by that is that too often mature, inspirational stories throw in gratuitous profanity or other content that gets in the way of the experience. You've avoided that trap better than most people in Hollywood. Is that something you're sensitive to when you're writing or directing stories like these?

Well, yes and no. I think the story is the story. And for instance, The Rookie, when we got our rating back, I was shocked. We got a G rating. There's [virtually] no language. There's no sex in it or anything. But this is a story about a mid-life crisis, essentially. You look at G-rated movies for the most part and you're like, Where's the talking dog? It scared me a little bit because I never gave one second of thought to anything that wasn't true to that story. Somebody asked me, "How realistic is it that the players on this team in the locker room, they never cuss?" And I said, "The only time that we're with them is when we're with Jimmy Morris. They don't cuss in front of their coach or they have to run five miles. Y'know, they probably curse like sailors when we're not around; we just don't have any of those scenes in the movie." I think it's more about being true to the movie. Anything gratuitous is saying that you're doing something for a reason that's not true to the story. … I think if you approach something and say, "I'm going to form-fit this to an audience," I think you pander to that audience. Audiences are smart. If you look at some movies that have tried to pander to, for example, the Christian community and said, "Look, we're doing this for you! We're doing this for you!' and they've failed, a lot of them. Because you know what? I think the consumer smells that. It's like, "Don't try to dupe me." First and foremost, the movie has to be good. Don't try to sell me something that's not good but "we did it for you."

Right. And yet there's the other side. I remember when Cinderella Man came out, it was presented to us as something we were going to embrace. And it was a wonderful film except for the rampant abuse of the Lord's name, which the Christian community said, "Why did you have to go there? We could've gotten fully behind this movie otherwise." Extraordinary Measures is another one with frequent profanity that may have shot itself in the foot because of some things that really weren't necessary.

I think that happens. That said, it'd be one of those things, I mean, you sense it when it feels gratuitous. And there have been movies where I go, "There's a great message and this is a true character and I'm going to try and be true to them." Again, it's hard enough to make a good movie. I don't think about who this is being marketed to. I'm not that smart. I thought after The Blind Side was finished, when Warner Bros. and Alcon came to me and said, "We're going to try and reach out to everyone on this movie. We think this movie will play across all four quadrants. We think it'll play well in Portland, Maine and Portland, Oregon and Birmingham, Alabama and everywhere. And because of that, we want to try all types of outreach and see." One of those was to reach out to the Christian community—pastors, websites and all of those kinds of things. And I said, "Absolutely! I honestly don't know what the response is going to be because there is language in this movie." It is PG-13. It's not for every family. It is a true story. It is correct. I wouldn't take those things out to get a PG. I was very heartened that people were able to look past some of the language and some of the violence in the movie and see that there's a greater message here.

One last question: The two films we've been talking about today have one other thing in common. That is, the real people that they're about, Jim Morris and the Tuohy family, are both Christians. As you studied them in order to tell their stories, did anything strike you in terms of how their faith motivated them or shaped who they are?

In both cases, these are really, really great people, first and foremost. I think their faith kind of fortifies them to be the very best version of the person they already are. It's not as though, if Leigh Anne Tuohy had been raised an atheist, she would have had any less charitableness in her. It's in her nature. I think the fact that she's a Christian, I think fortifies her and gives her the strength to do the things that she would already do.

Click here to read our blog and react to Hancock's closing comment. Also, check out our Movie Night for The Rookie, and enjoy our conversation with Sandra Bullock's Blind Side co-star Quinton Aaron.

Published April 2010