Born in Longview and raised in Texas City, John Lee Hancock Jr., BA ’79, JD ’82, loves a great story and from a young age fuelled that passion through writing. Today, he is among the most notable writers, directors and producers in Hollywood—with great stories like The Blind Side and Saving Mr. Banks filling his résumé.
Hancock is the eldest of four children. Both of his parents attended Baylor, where Hancock was a member of Sigma Alpha Epsilon fraternity, played a lot of intramural sports and wrote for The Phoenix, a publication produced by the English department.
Hancock says Baylor helped him to harness “the power of positive thinking and the ability to find inspiration in what you love to do, and to take that out to the world.”
And what Hancock loved was bringing meaningful stories to life and sharing them with the world.
“I had always been writing, from the time I was small—in elementary school, writing a short story a day,” he recalls. “They were very short, short stories, but writing one every day and they were usually sports-
oriented back then. I just didn’t know that I would have a career in it. I didn’t know anyone who was a professional writer.
“So when I was at Baylor, I got an English degree. I started off in premed for about a year and realized I was beating my head against the wall because the thing that I enjoyed the most, and, of course, where I did my best work, was in the English department. So I changed my major and then later went to law school thinking that was a more viable career alternative, which I’m sure it probably was.”
Hancock fondly remembers Dr. Tom Hanks’ Chaucer course and David Guinn’s constitutional law class, among others.
He worked in a prominent Houston law firm after graduation, but he soon decided to pursue screenwriting and moved to Los Angeles, where he became a writer, director and producer.
“I practiced law for three or four years, and all that time I continued to write. I started writing plays and screen plays and got really interested in writing for the theater,” he says.
To quell the temptation to use his legal career as a safety net, Hancock opted not to take the California bar exam. Instead, he held numerous non-legal jobs for the next several years, while taking acting classes and working in local theater.
“The fathers of my best friends—Judge Wyatt Heard, Tom Gray and Milfred Lewis—were some of the Baylor folks who influenced me,” Hancock says. “Later, Kevin Reynolds was also an inspiration to me even though I didn’t know him at Baylor. I only met him after moving to Los Angeles.”
A screenplay he wrote in 1991 was noticed by Clint Eastwood and went on to become A Perfect World, directed by Eastwood and starring Eastwood and Kevin Costner. He also produced the critically acclaimed My Dog Skip before finding widespread recognition as director of The Rookie, which won an ESPY for Best Sports Movie in 2002. He also wrote the screenplay for Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil and directed The Alamo. With The Blind Side, Hancock returned to his football roots. The film, starring Sandra Bullock, received an Academy Award Best Picture nomination. Hancock also worked in television, writing and producing the CBS drama L.A. Doctors (1998) and producing the CBS show Falcone (2000).
His most recent work includes writing the screenplay for Snow White and the Huntsman (2012) and directing Saving Mr. Banks (2013), which was named a Movie of the Year by the American Film Institute.
“Adult dramas are kind of my forte, and so my stories are about ordinary people in extraordinary situations usually, and the complexities of character and life,” Hancock says. “Hollywood doesn’t make many dramas because most of the theater-going audiences are teenagers, so they’re making a whole lot of action movies or superhero movies. The movies I do take longer to get made.”
Hancock says choosing which stories to tell on the big screen is quite a challenge.
“There are tons of great stories, but it comes down to this: you’re applying a story to a very specific medium, and so deciding whether it works for that medium is important,” he explains. “There are so many terrific stories. People will tell me a story about their grandmother or something, and how it should be a movie. When I think about it, maybe somebody else could write it as a movie, but to me it seems like it should be a biography. And, not all books translate to movies, either.
“Making feature films is very specific,” he continues. “You have a very specific length of time to distill a story down and tell it. From a writing standpoint, it’s a long process when you sign on to do something or take something from research completion to handing it in. If you’re directing something, it’s a really long process. It’s got to be more than just a great story; it has to be something on which you want to spend between two and three years of your life.”
For those aspiring to break in to the Hollywood film industry, Hancock has some advice.
“Hollywood is a sticky wicket and difficult to navigate, but the main thing is to stay true to yourself and the stories you want to tell. Don’t cater exclusively to the marketplace and try to predict what’s going to be in favor or in fashion in the future because that’s a recipe for disaster.
“More than anything, tell your stories well. And that goes not just for writers and directors, but also if you want to be a producer or an agent. There is the story of you that you have to understand and use that to sell yourself, and it can’t be false. It has to be really and truly who you are and the things you feel the need to do and to say.”