Texan filmmaker John Lee Hancock is no stranger to tackling often uncelebrated and sometimes controversial historical figures, but the subjects of his latest reality based project, The Highwaymen (premiering on Netflix on Friday, March 29 and currently seeing a limited run at TIFF Bell Lightbox in Toronto), have been stuck in the omnipresent shadows of the criminals they helped capture in 1934. Come to think of it, the film itself has been stuck in the Hollywood shadows for well over a decade, which might be one of the most ironic things about it.
Hancock, the director behind The Blind Side, Saving Mr. Banks, and The Founder, casts Kevin Costner (who starred in Clint Eastwood’s A Perfect World, which was written by Hancock) and Woody Harrelson as real life lawmen Frank Hamer and Maney Gault. Once proud Texas Rangers, they find themselves in semi-forced retirement after their outfit was dissolved by the state government. Known for their propensity for violence as a major part of their profession, old school techniques, and overwhelming success rate, Texas Governor Ma Ferguson (Kathy Bates) reluctantly requests Hamer’s help in capturing two of the most vexing, violent, and (in)famous criminals of the Great Depression era: Clyde Barrow and Bonnie Parker.
To hear Hancock tell it when we sat down with him during a recent swing through Toronto, the journey of bringing The Highwaymen to the big screen was as arduous as Hamer and Gault’s attempts to corner Bonnie and Clyde. Screenwriter John Fusco (Young Guns, Hidalgo) had been attached to the project for almost eighteen years by the time the film was finally produced, and Hancock had circled the script for about twelve or thirteen years by his own estimation. At one point, The Highwaymen was slated to star silver screen luminaries Paul Newman and Robert Redford, but for a variety of reasons, that version of Hamer and Gault’s tale fell through, and Hancock now thinks it was for the best.
“Newman and Redford would’ve overwhelmed the story a bit,” Hancock muses about the film The Highwaymen almost was. “People would’ve seen it and thought of it as the third in this series of movies they did together, when the other two are unquestionably great as they are. And also, they were too old for the roles, to be honest. Kevin and Woody were way more age appropriate. Kevin actually read and loved the script ten years ago, but said that at the time he wasn’t old enough for it yet, and he was right. There’s a very All-American quality to Kevin. He feels like the guy you grew up down the block from and not a movie star, even though he was, at one point, the biggest movie star in the world. Woody read it about six or seven years ago, and just told me to tell him when I wanted to make it.”
Another major obstacle that Hancock, his cast, and crew struggled to overcome was the fact that the world today looks nothing like the one Bonnie, Clyde, Frank, and Maney inhabited. Long gone were the days of early, boxy V8 Fords, expansive, seemingly never-ending farmlands running throughout the southern and midwestern United States, settler and worker camps, and a limited number of largely untravelled roadways. With the story of Bonnie and Clyde almost reaching the century mark, and the time period they inhabited looking so downtrodden, economically depressed, and distinctive, Hancock had to get creative – and more than a little tech savvy – to recreate what it was like in America circa 1934.
“It’s a challenge, there’s no doubt about it, even just from a physical production standpoint. Picking locations that look like 1934 with minimal signage and things like that is hard. You’re always going to have to go in and take out things like transformers with CG, or yellow lines in the road, or cell towers. On top of that, you’ve got the guns, cars, and lots of clothes. Even the people themselves looked different than they do today, thanks to more first generation immigrants. It takes a lot of extra effort. But beyond that, it’s also a question of how you set an attitude, whether it’s with your extras or actors or anybody to put them in this period mindset, which is also difficult, especially when one considers that this story takes place at what might be the lowest point for America, economically.”
But no matter the long road that it took for Hancock to bring the story of Hamer and Gault to the screen, it paled in comparison to what the detectives had to go through both before and after the demise of Bonnie and Clyde. Barrow and Parker remain two of the most iconic criminals in history: thieves whose romantic coupling and economically depressed backgrounds gave them a celebrity status that was usually reserved for movie stars and athletes of the time. Barrow’s gang redefined how criminal organizations could be perceived in the public eye, and Clyde’s partnership with Bonnie made them a macabre, but likable brand. Bonnie and Clyde murdered numerous police officers, unfortunate bystanders, and everyday business owners during their crime spree, but since they were “sticking it to the banks” that bankrupted most of America, many members of the newspaper buying and radio listening public were keen to turn a blind eye to their transgressions, preferring to accentuate the positive. Not only did Hamer and Gault have to track down some of the savviest and most brutal criminals of the era, but they also had to combat a public perception that saw the murderous duo as heroes.
“It’s just my opinion, but the 1930s was an era of gangsters, and with the Great Depression, the only figures that could be used to sell newspapers were gangsters and athletes,” Hancock begins when talking about his deep dive into the history of the duo Hamer and Gault were tracking across the midwest. “Nobody wanted to hear the bad economic news everyday. What set Bonnie and Clyde apart from the likes of John Dillinger or Baby Face Nelson and Al Capone was Bonnie.”
“You could kind of wrap your brain around this romantic mythology about a guy and his girl out there on the road. The fact that they were from a very depressed area of the country and that they came from nothing only added to it. Banks were foreclosing on houses and farms. There were no jobs. People wanted to work, but they couldn’t. Everybody was saying that they were angry, and they didn’t know who to scream at. Then you have these two from a neighbourhood like many others across the country, and then they stick it to the man. They’re going after the banks.”
“But if you look beyond that, you see they’re also going after mom and pop convenience stores and gas stations. The one thing everyone could rally around was going after the banks. They were the devil at the time. They were ruining the country. That was enough for some people to overlook the fact that these two were killing some people along the way. People knew what Bonnie and Clyde did was dirty work, but many thought they were representing them. They were international in their reach. In a pre-Kardashian way, they realized the importance of branding and maintaining an image.”
“Bonnie talked about people in America as ‘her public,’ as if she were a movie star. She dreamed of herself in that way. She knew that any poem that she wrote and submitted would get published. Clyde knew that if he wrote a letter to Henry Ford saying that he only stole his cars because they were the best that it would get published. There was one particular cop that they took hostage, and they let him go on one condition, and it was from Bonnie. She told him that he had to go to the newspaper and tell them that she didn’t smoke cigars because she wasn’t that type of woman. It wasn’t ‘tell them I don’t kill people,’ but it was still protecting the brand, and that’s definitely the kind of thing that makes Bonnie and Clyde just as relevant today as they were in their time. Bonnie was so fashionable that she inspired her own K-Mart fashion line, and that was how fast their image spread. ”
“There’s that cult of celebrity that followed them,” Hancock continues when asked to expand upon how Bonnie and Clyde’s sphere of influence would be perceived today. “If Bonnie and Clyde were around today, I assure you they would have more Instagram followers than any of the Kardashians, I promise you. They would be tweeting more than Trump. They were those kind of people. And it’s interesting to think about them in the history of crime at the time. At one point, John Dillinger expressly said to never put Bonnie and Clyde together with him in the same sentence. He thought those two were penny ante, and he was the real deal. And honestly, Bonnie and Clyde, for all the mythology around them and what they represented to people, never gave back. They were looked at as Robin Hoods. They might’ve taken from the rich, but when it came to giving to the poor, they never did that. Those feelings were misplaced, but there was always the sense that they were ‘one of us,’ and that’s what draws people to celebrities in every walk of life.”
But The Highwaymen isn’t the story of Bonnie and Clyde, who were cinematically immortalized in Arthur Penn’s 1967 masterpiece starring Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway; a film that Hancock cites as an all time personal favourite and one that changed movies forever. The Highwaymen is resolutely the story of Costner and Harrelson’s characters, and Hancock chose to show the criminals only in fleeting shots and shadows.
“John Fusco, in his draft, always wanted them to be portrayed almost as ghosts that are only seen in wide shots,” Hancock explains when asked about the decision to relegate Bonnie and Clyde to the background of The Highwaymen. “When I read that, I wanted to do even more with that, but in a very specific way. I wanted to mythologize them for the audience, for two reasons. One, that gives us the mindset of the people in 1934 who would’ve idolized them. The other reason was to allow viewers who were familiar with them to put their own image of Bonnie and Clyde onto the film, whether they had seen the pictures, Penn’s great movie, or whatever, and to build into the mythos or everything that came before our movie. I wanted to shoot everything in the world of Frank and Maney naturalistically, but I wanted to film Bonnie and Clyde as if they inhabited a graphic novel. I wanted their frames to be interesting and precise. I wanted their colours to be popping to unreal degrees. I wanted their cars to be as clean as possible, when all the others were dusty and dirty. They are sexier than everyone else. We know how gorgeous they are. They’re fast, romantic, dangerous, well dressed, and I wanted to push all of that until they finally cross over into Frank and Maney’s more naturalistic looking view of the world. We know how this all ends, and that’s never in question. It can’t be about ‘will they or won’t they catch Bonnie and Clyde?’ It has to be about something else. It’s about the journey that these men take, and the toll that it takes on their already ragged souls.”
Hancock understands that, for some, The Highwaymen could be a bit of a tough sell. Bonnie and Clyde are still heralded as heroes today, and their final stand is seen by many as less like a shootout and more like an execution. Bonnie and Clyde are still pop culture icons that are heavily referenced in films, television, and music to this day, partially thanks to Penn’s film about them. Similarly, the methods employed by Frank and Maney haven’t aged well by contemporary social graces, to say the least. Hancock always wanted to tell the story of the people who stopped a pair of mass murderers, but he was constantly cognizant of how such a story would be viewed through modern perspectives. It was a project that both appealed to his admittedly “old school” sensibilities as a filmmaker and storyteller, but also something that he knew he had to treat delicately and fairly.
“What drew me to this story wasn’t Bonnie and Clyde, but these two former Texas Rangers who had become men out of time. They were angry and galled by these two being treated like movie stars for doing things they should’ve been ashamed of. That was real old school thinking. I mean, I’m kind of an old man, so I look and think that a lot of social media is bad for people. I think it’s awful, so I guess that just makes me a ‘get off my lawn’ old man for thinking that. But on both sides of this story are flawed people caught in the middle of a ‘blood in, blood out’ sort of proposition, but there’s definitely that modern parallel there, and that’s one of the most fascinating things about it.”
“I don’t totally know how people will react to the film, and it’s not for me to say how they will, but there’s something about this that I love – and it’s probably because I’m older than you – which is watching someone go totally old school on it. These guys spent most of their careers tracking on horseback, so they have to deal with all this newfangled technology like wiretaps and fast cars, and cops taking heel prints, and no one damaging a crime scene to make sure the evidence isn’t tainted. They operated exactly the same way Bonnie and Clyde did. They got in a car and started driving. They drew a big circle, pinpointed the places Bonnie and Clyde were seen, calculated the gas mileage of the ‘34 Ford at a dollar a gallon, and then figured out which direction they were headed. And I think there’s a certain amount of enjoyment that you can get from watching that unfold amongst grumpy, old men. It’s always satisfying when the idiot in the back has a better answer than the proficient tech-y guy in the front.”
“And the other thing is that you can’t distance yourself from the day when you’re watching the movie and where you are in that moment. Sometimes you bring something personal into a movie or you connect to something in the screenplay, and you have to seriously think about it. Everyone has contemporary optics on whatever they see, which makes this such an interesting subject. You can look at this and think about the worst possible optics on it. Someone could look at this and make a very strong case or argument that this is a story about two old white guys and it’s got a lot of toxic masculinity. And they’re not wrong! But there’s also something about old school masculinity that I admire. I really admire a man who has a code. I admire that Frank Hamer turned down $1,000 in 1934 to do an exclusive interview. Who would ever want to benefit from someone else’s grief, pain, and blood? In today’s world, it seems like everybody does. That’s the kind of old school that I like.”
The Highwaymen premieres on Netflix on Friday, March 29, 2019. It’s also currently playing for a limited run at TIFF Bell Lightbox in Toronto.