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Sharon Waxman
Sharon Waxman
(The Post)
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Hollywood & Vine
Hosted by Sharon Waxman
Post Style Correspondent

with special guest: John Lee Hancock
Director, "The Rookie"

Tuesday, April 9, 2002; 2 p.m. EDT

Washington Post Style correspondent Sharon Waxman brings Hollywood & Vine Live Online for a discussion about the inner workings of the movie industry.

There is a whole political universe behind how the movies happen, the tug and pull of egos, financial imperatives, a pecking order for privileges as well as genuine creative impulses.

John Lee Hancock and Dennis Quaid
John Lee Hancock and Dennis Quaid on the set of "The Rookie"
(Walt Disney Pictures)

This week, Waxman hosts special guest John Lee Hancock, director of "The Rookie," starring Dennis Quaid. Based on a true story, the film portrays Jim Morris (Quaid), a teacher and baseball coach who makes a deal with his team to try out for a major-league team after they win the district championship.

Hancock's feature-film work includes producing "My Dog Skip" (2000) with Kevin Bacon, Diane Lane and Frankie Muniz; adapting "Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil" for the screen; and writing the original script for "A Perfect World" (1993), starring Kevin Costner and Clint Eastwood. Hancock is also a television producer whose credits include CBS's "L.A. Doctors" and "Falcone."

Waxman and Hancock were online Tuesday, April 10, to answer your questions and field your comments about the making movies, the industry and succeeding in the entertainment industry.

The transcript follows.

Editor's Note: Washingtonpost.com moderators retain editorial control over Live Online discussions and choose the most relevant questions for guests and hosts; guests and hosts can decline to answer questions.



Sharon Waxman: Welcome, I'm here with the tall drink of water John Lee Hancock, the director of "The Rookie," a movie that is doing amazingly well at the box office, up to $35 million as of last weekend. The movie, as you may know, is the true story of Jim Morris, who at the time was the oldest rookie in the major leagues in the previous 30 years. Dennis Quaid plays the role, and John got the project as his first directing gig.

John Lee Hancock: Hello, thanks for having me here.

Sharon Waxman: OK, we've got a lot of questions already. But I've got one. John was just telling me that he got this job, even though he had intended his first directing gig to be something he'd written. After Disney could not decide on a director they were happy with, producer Mark Johnson encouraged him to throw his hat in the ring. Disney was not entirely convinced, so John had to "audition," and got the project. That's background.

I suppose you're happy you decided to make this your first film?

John Lee Hancock: Absolutely. In retrospect I think it was absolutely the right thing to do. It helped me to develop more distinct directorial skills, working on something someone else had written. You're forced to interpret their scripts in ways you wouldn't interpret your own. You just use different muscles.


Harrisburg, Pa.: You've worked with Kevin Bacon, which gives you the lowest number possible in the Kevin Bacon Game. Is there a particular type of actor you prefer working with? Do you seek certain types of qualities in actors?

John Lee Hancock: I love to work with smart actors who are always challenging you and the material to be the best it can be. It's been my experience that really terrific actors are able to distill scenes and dialogue down to its essence, often making dialogue shorter. Whereas younger, less experienced actors tend to want more dialogue.

As Kevin Spacey once told me with regard to a scene in "Midnight" (in the Garden of Good & Evil), "Let me earn my money. I can say all this in one line."

Sharon Waxman: So you cut dialogue?

John Lee Hancock: All the time. Which is great. A studio movie you tend to overwrite, as a writer or a producer. Because you want to make sure they understand every single thing because they're scared you're leaving something out. And then you can take them all out.

When Clint Eastwood walks in the door, it's not necessary to say, "Oh, someone who's lived a life like you..." Casting the right actor says so much.


Bethesda, Md.: How was it to direct Dennis Quaid?

John Lee Hancock: It was terrific. He's done 45 movies. I hadn't done one. For him to buy into what I was selling from day one, and never question me, made us really good partners in this enterprise, it made the work better.

Sharon Waxman: I can't recall him in a better role in recent years.

John Lee Hancock: It's his best reviewed performance. He says it's his favorite movie.

Sharon Waxman: They always say that.

John Lee Hancock: But he put it on the DVD.

Sharon Waxman: Why do you think that's true?

John Lee Hancock: One, the movie is his to carry. And it's an examination of a life that is pretty acute when you look at different ways he looks at wife, mother, team, father. Deals with each one in separate and different way, the way real people do. I don't think actors often get a chance to do that.


Sharon Waxman: I think the whole movie was exceptionally well cast. Rachel Griffiths as the wife, Brian Cox (from "L.I.E.," which no one saw, but you should have) as the father. [John: Brian Cox was the first Hannibal Lecter in Michael Mann's "Manhunter."]

John Lee Hancock: When I started thinking about the wife, there are a lot of fine actors you could cast, but that you could see coming. the list goes on. For a different movie they'd be great. But I thought I wanted someone more real. I think that Rachel is attractive and sexy partly because she's so real.

Sharon Waxman: We on this discussion site are huge fans of hers, from "Six Feet Under," so you're preaching to the choir.

John Lee Hancock: I saw her in "Hilary and Jackie," and then watched everything she'd done. "Six Feet Under" hadn't even come out.


Somewhere, USA: Hi Sharon and John,

John,

Why was the film marketed like the "Bad News Bears" instead of a film about a great baseball player? Was it to attract the child market?

John Lee Hancock: Disney put together a variety of ad campaigns directed at different markets. Ads that would play on sports channels, lifetime, disney - When we tested it, it tested through the roof with every demographic, so it told us we could go after all demographics, and approach advertising to each one differently. Also, I think they didn't want it to be just a baseball movie. Some of the ads played down the baseball movie. It made good sense; this is the biggest opening a movie has ever had.


Sharon Waxman: On that topic, I wonder if you could comment on the differences between "The Rookie" and one of the worst movies I've seen, maybe ever, "For the Love of the Game," three hours of close-ups of Kevin Costner preening on the mound. Why does your movie work and that one doesn't, and were you at all aware of that film while working on The Rookie?

John Lee Hancock: It's hard for me to speak to what works and what doesn't. I will say that the baseball we were gonna be portraying had not been portrayed in movies before. Ninety-five percent of our baseball was small town, dusty, high school ball. Major and minor league ball have been done in a whole lot of movies, and done very well. I've seen every baseball movie. The ones I closely studied before starting this were Westerns. I wanted to do this like -- What if John Ford were doing a baseball movie?

The other movie I looked at a lot was "The Insider." The reason being was it was also shot with anamorphic lenses (Sharon: Translation -- wide screen.). Michael Mann was able to make the movie very intimate, and a lot of times with a wide screen format you lose intimacy. It's more how our eyes see. We don't see in a 1-8-5 (Translation: like your television). Our eyes take in more periphery, a wider range.

Sharon Waxman: I take it you're a Michael Mann fan? A fan of Mann?

John Lee Hancock: Huge.


Lexington, Ky.: The movie is rated G, which by today's standards told me nothing, really. THANK YOU for not putting in any (that I remember) foul language. It amazes me how much bad language The Industry thinks is acceptable for children (and even adults). I'm no prude, but it truly was refreshing to go to a wholesome movie that was pure entertainment and genuinely good for ANYONE.

John Lee Hancock: What's interesting is I never ever thought about the rating when I read the script, directed the movie, edited the movie. I never intended to make a family film. I had no intention of making a family film. I was completely surprised when we got the G rating. Not that I'd given it a lot of thought. Because I didn't think anything was missing from the movie that needed to be in it. G movies used to mean general audience, now they mean talking dogs.

Sharon Waxman: Talking bears actually, having seen the trailers that ran ahead of The Rookie this weekend. Pretty sad.

John Lee Hancock: If I'm not mistaken "2001" was a G movie. There are G movies that are taught in every film school in America. You can just smell if it feels real or not. If someone said, "Well, high school kids on a baseball team cuss all the time," I'd agree, and I think in scenes that are not in the script and not in the movie they probably do curse. But in every scene in the movie they're with Jimmy Morris, and Jimmy Morris would make them run five miles if they cussed. Because that's what my father was like. That's what Texas coaches were like.


Sharon Waxman: That opens the door to my asking about your background. Your dad was/is a ....

John Lee Hancock: was a high school football coach. He's still alive but retired... and a biology teacher. Just like Jimmy Morris. Jimmy was a chemistry teacher but close enough. I was kind of Angus, the little boy. I was the team mascot when I was very small, I idolized my father. In Texas City, Texas. Population 35,000.

Sharon Waxman: So you had a lot of personal connections to this film.

John Lee Hancock: I had a gut instinct about the movie that I knew would get me through the long days. In some ways that's more important than intellectually understanding how to make a movie.


Austin, Tex.: My family saw this film together and we loved it. [It was the] first movie in a long time that kept me and my kid entertained (husband too.)

Speaking of which my husband played little league with Dennis Quaid in Bellaire, Tex. I have a great team picture. So he can really play ball too. How much of the actual playing was done by the cast?

And if you want a copy of the picture let me know.

John Lee Hancock: I'd love a copy. Dennis trained for four months before we started. He got himself in such great shape that it enabled me lots of options in how I wanted to shoot him. I didn't have to rely on close-ups, I could use wide shots. He'd get on the mound and fire the ball right down the middle, with perfect form. He worked with Jim Gott, former Dodger pitcher.

As far as the high school, 100 percent was the kids I cast. We put them through baseball boot camp.


London, England: Hi guys.

How does John the director deal with John the writer? Is it a tense relationship? And who's your fave screenwriter? (Other than yourself, of course!)

John Lee Hancock: John the director beats John the writer mercilessly.

They're such different jobs that you have to have a line of delineation which can certainly make you schizophrenic. A lot of time I have to say, "Who wrote this crap?" You have to pretend someone else wrote it to analyze it.

In terms of my favorite screenwriters -- a lot of them happen to be friends, fortunately. I love Scott Franks, Steve Kloves, Steve Zaillian, Paul Attanasio, Callie Khourie.


Burke, Va.: John -- I read that you are attached to the big screen version of Rads, a book that focused on the Vietnam activist turned domestic terrorist Carl Armstrong. Who do you envision playing the role?

Also, how do you make a movie that is as real as possible but also is sensitive to the current environment in the U.S.?

John Lee Hancock: Yes I'm attached. Mark Johnson and I optioned the book. I'm not sure who I'll cast. In the script Karl is 21 or 22 for most of the script. I'm less interested in the Weather Underground and more interested in these guys. It's the alchemy of four young guys who believe in something and make a horrible mistake. They believe in making a statement against the Vietnam War by blowing up an army building on campus. And someone dies. Their lives are altered forever. One of them has never been found.

The second part of the question -- portraying in these times -- there's never been a more difficult time to make this movie, but it's never been more relevant, given the interest in, say, Sara Jane Olson.


Lakewood, Colo.: My family and I saw the movie last weekend and loved it. My only cavil was the prologue about the nuns, which didn't strike a chord with me. Was that always part of the movie, or was it added later? I know some reviewers have expressed some confusion about what that was intended to mean.

John Lee Hancock: It was in the script. It was absolutely true. Nuns did invest in Big Lake, it began West Texas oil. Thematically I liked it because there was something great beneath the surface, and it took simple faith in this case -- in this case the nuns' investment -- to draw it out. With Jim Morris there was something that had been suppressed, his dream, and it took the simple faith of his players to draw it out.


Virginia: How much control does a director have over the final product? Can the studio execs exercise their power to, say, change the ending, or replace the soundtrack?

John Lee Hancock: In this case Disney really allowed me to make the movie I wanted. What you see is what I wanted to put out there. Talk to me after the next movie.


Alexandria, Va: Do you have any thoughts on why "Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil" just didn't work on screen? Were you disappointed in the final product?

John Lee Hancock: I think that some storylines in "Midnight" were given more weight than they could carry, and others were cut down to almost nothing. I was always the most interested in the relationship between the characters played by Kevin Spacey and John Cusack. A lot of that ended up on the cutting room floor.

That said, it's a minor miracle when a movie's good. If it is an art form it's so collaborative. Kismet has to sprinkle all over it.

Sharon Waxman: In my years of talking to directors, writers, whatever, I usually find that the failures are as important as the successes. Was that the case in this film, did you learn anything important in it?

John Lee Hancock: With "Midnight" you learn that there's one core theme that you hang your hat on in a movie. It's very easy to be seduced away from it.

My father used to say you don't judge a man's character in the good times but in the bad times. I think how you take failure and turn it into something positive is obviously trying to learn from it. With this movie I"ll probably never get better reviews. But it's a weird thing to have 350 opinions dropped on your doorstep.

Sharon Waxman: Do you read them all?

John Lee Hancock: I'm not gonna lie to you -- I skimmed through them. I try not to read them a second time. If you read the good ones, you've got to read the bad ones.


Washington, D.C.: What is the best way to break into the movie business? How did you do it? I completed my first animated short this past year, and would ultimately like to end up writing and directing feature films in Hollywood. Do you have any specific suggestions to guide me down that path?

Sharon Waxman: John will address this and the next one...


Springfield, Va.: As an aspiring writer, I am having the hardest time getting anyone to read my work without an agent. Many agents don't represent people who don't already have work produced, but you can't get anything produced without an agent. How do I get an agent? Or better yet, how do you break in?

Thanks.

John Lee Hancock: From a writing standpoint it's definitely a Catch-22. But I will say make sure your script is registered and give it to anybody, whether an agent or not, who'll read it. Good scripts have a life of their own.

It's much harder to do it away from Hollywood. There are fewer people that can have influence over the direction a script might take. If you write a truly great script and bury it in your backyard someone'll dig it up and make it. That happened to me.

Sharon Waxman: That sounds hard to believe.

John Lee Hancock: I wrote six scripts before I wrote "A Perfect World." With each one of those scripts I was sure I'd written "Citizen Kane." But I didn't get discouraged, I just moved on to the next one. With "A Perfect World" I handed it out to people, and all of a sudden I started getting calls from agents. Great scripts have a way...

Sharon Waxman: First comment, doesn't sound like you actually buried it in your backyard. And secondly, was this script in your view significantly than the six others?

John Lee Hancock: More than significantly better. Looking back at all the scripts I thought were "Citizen Kane," none were even close to being "Citizen Ruth." Which was also very good, by the way. I'm in a position now where I could make some of those movies but I wouldn't dare. They're not good enough.

How do you get an agent? Write a great script.


Harrisburg, Pa.: It is difficult to become a director. Your success and talents in producing and screenwriting surely assisted in opening the doors for directing. Was it always your career goal to be a director, and how did you navigate your way to a directing career?

Sharon Waxman and John Lee Hancock: Wait there's one more...


Alexandria, Va.: When you think about how hard it is to become a feature film director, do you ever wonder why you made it and others didn't?

Do you think "I am better than those who failed" or "I tried harder than those who failed" or "I was luckier than those who failed" or what?

Also, how do you deal with the insecurity of being in such a competitive field? Do you ever wish that you were at least in TV where a successful series can run for years?

John Lee Hancock: There's no doubt that I'm a very blessed person, that I am really fortunate. That said, I can honestly say that when I moved out here I worked harder than anybody I know. There wasn't a Friday or Saturday night that went by when I didn't think, 'Nobody else is writing, but I am.'

There's two ways to look at it; the one is, seeing a crappy movie and going, "Mine's better than that." Compare your script to "Badlands" or "The Candidate." If you can then say, "Mine's better than that," then you're on to something. This town is absolutely full of people who want to have a pity party. Every time I open the trades and read about some stupid movie that a studio's spending a bunch of money on, instead of being angry I'd say, "If they're buying that, wait till they get a load of my stuff." I'm not an "I'mOKYou'reOK" kind of guy, but so many people out there are so negative. I couldn't do that, you'd start hating yourself. I prefer to look at the best movies that get made.

That said, I do think it's funny that in the 1970s all the B movies were the giant monster movies and men flying around in tights, now those are the A movies.


St. Louis, Mo.: I thought "The Rookie" was excellent -- not just okay, but really above average. The writing was emotional without being overly sentimental or cloying; the acting was down-to-earth and insightful, without pretension or attitude; and the directing was straightforward and also down-to-earth, with just hints and touches of magical realism (the whooshing sounds of the pitches, the speed sign changing numbers, the nuns and the superstitous/religious medallion, etc.), and the story was inspiring, heartwarming, hopeful and uplifting. That said, what was the real-life Jim Morris's reaction to the film -- did he like it or dislike it, and was he cooperative with the filming? Thanks.

John Lee Hancock: Thankfully Jimmy loves the movie. He was there on the set for a lot of the making of the movie and had read the script and approved it. He's a credited consultant on the film as well.

To the first part, thanks for the compliment. One of the hardest things about making this movie was the true story is so beyond belief it could easily fall into Movie of the Week category. I felt very strongly that I wanted to make it cinematic and thematic but in terms of the acting keep it very real and very simple, because I felt if we pushed it too far we'd fall off a cliff and into a river of saccharine.


Sharon Waxman: John, that was so interesting and informative, thank you so much for coming and giving so much of your time. Thanks to all you readers who joined us and brought your intelligent questions. We have to sign off, we've run over time, but this has been a really fun discussion. John, thanks.

John Lee Hancock: Thank you for having me. The questions were insightful, made me realize how fortunate I am to have had the opportunity to direct this movie.

Best of luck to everyone in their endeavors.

Sharon Waxman: Ciao!!


washingtonpost.com:

That wraps up today's show. Thanks to everyone who joined the discussion.


© Copyright 2002 The Washington Post Company