HomeTV and MoviesJohn Lee Hancock On A 30 Year Odyssey Making ‘The Little Things’ With Denzel Washington, Rami Malek & Jared Leto, And The Abrupt HBO Max Pandemic Pivot
John Lee Hancock On A 30 Year Odyssey Making ‘The Little Things’ With Denzel Washington, Rami Malek & Jared Leto, And The Abrupt HBO Max Pandemic Pivot
EXCLUSIVE: As 2020 winds to a close, talent reps are fighting with Warner Bros for back end compensation their clients would have earned had WarnerMedia waited out the pandemic instead of putting a year’s worth of theatrical films on HBO Max alongside U.S. theaters. And only telling filmmakers, casts and even financiers moments before the press release was issued, which went against the time tested discreet heads up rule that is a vital part of the give-and-take between reps and movie studio executives. The Little Things director John Lee Hancock, who discusses here the prospect of being the first movie in this hybrid release configuration, is more familiar than most with the concept of The Blind Side, after writing/directing the Warner Bros drama based on the Michael Lewis book about why the left offensive tackle is most vital to keeping a quarterback in one piece.
After Warner Bros execs executed orders from their tech masters to use a pandemic-marginalized 2021 theatrical slate to drive up lagging HBO Max subscriptions, the ramifications were felt all over town. Talent reps are now making all deals with dual back end deal definitions that anticipate the possibility of a streaming pivot. After all, how is the WarnerMedia bombshell any different than Disney just pulling three 2021 movies from theatrical release for Disney+ premieres, or Paramount selling the Eddie Murphy pic Coming 2 America to Amazon Prime, or Sony dealing the Tom Hanks WWII drama Greyhound to Apple TV+, or Universal selling foreign on Hanks’ News of the World to Netflix? Like the 17 Warner Bros films coming in 2021, those films were also made for the big screen and the pivot was imposed upon talent.
At WB, consultant/former Universal marketing exec Josh Goldstine is now spearheading campaigns for the 2021 hybrid release slate — the WB marketing president post seems his job to lose, but Warner Bros won’t name a successor to Blair Rich until her year-end exit — even as reps of talent hold back the possibility their stars won’t promote these films, unless the back end deals fall closer to Wonder Woman 1984 than the one-size-fits-all formula WB proffered. Battles big and small are being fought on numerous films: Legendary is in a big fight that might result in lawsuits after it financed 75% of tent poles Dune and Godzilla Vs. Kong and was completely blindsided. Rumors have the solution to that breach being to preserve Dune as a traditional theatrical to preserve its franchise potential and since its October 1 release date falls well after the estimated late spring date when Covid vaccines should achieve herd immunity. Godzilla Vs. Kong might stay an HBO Max hybrid in its May 21 slot, but only if Warner Bros makes a deal with Legendary that uses as a base the $250 million value established when the film was shopped earlier to Netflix. There is also King Richard, the Will Smith-starrer that nearly went to Netflix and Barack and Michelle Obama’s Higher Ground. Smith’s deal expressly calls for a theatrical only release, sources say, and while he became the first big star to sign one of those $30 million Netflix salary + pre-negotiated back end deals several years ago on Bright, Warner Bros only won the vigorous King Richard auction because its makers and the family of Venus and Serena Williams wanted to see the underdog story of their father Richard play on the big screen.
Into all this steps Hancock’s January 29 release The Little Things, with Warner Bros continuing to negotiate in an attempt to placate Denzel Washington, Rami Malek and Jared Leto, the trio of Oscar winners who were as blindsided after wrapping the film. The studio badly needs them to promote to make a success of its first hybrid HBO Max/theatrical release. Here, Hancock discusses why it took so long for this chilling murder mystery to get made, and how he is reconciling the WarnerMedia blow as just the latest challenge in a three decade journey that came together with the best cast he could possibly have imagined. Washington and Malek star as overly obsessed cops hunting a suspect in a series of brutal serial murders, zeroing in on a suspect who loves toying with his pursuers. All this happens in 1990, before technological advances like DNA, internet-hooked computers and even cell phones changed the nature of police work.
DEADLINE: How long did it take for you to get this serial killer thriller The Little Things to its status as first 2021 Warner Bros films that will premiere on HBO Max as it opens in U.S. theaters?
HANCOCK: I wrote it before Se7en. I came across a draft the other day that said it was first registered with the Writers Guild in spring of 1993. I wrote it right after A Perfect World.
DEADLINE: For you to direct?
HANCOCK: No. A Perfect World had come out, with Clint Eastwood. I wasn’t directing yet. I had a three-picture deal at Warner Bros based on A Perfect World and one of those was a blind picture deal with Steven Spielberg. At the time, Steven was attached for a bit and then felt it was too dark for him. He had just done Schindler’s List and wanted to do something else. Clint was attached for a bit, I went through many discussions with Warren Beatty about it, then Danny DeVito when he was directing a lot. I started directing in earnest with The Rookie around 2002. Mark Johnson had always been the producer, and he would come to me every two or so years when someone was interested. He’d ask, do you want to direct it? I had little kids at the time and wasn’t sure I wanted to live in that dark a place for two years. Then I had conversations with two friends, Scott Frank and Brian Helgeland, both were big fans of the script, and they encouraged me to direct it. They loved the script.
So I went back and read it. I didn’t know if Warner Bros would necessarily be interested in making it. But they owned it and there was no underlying material. It was something I made up, and way back then, they didn’t pay me a lot to write it. So there wasn’t a lot of money against it. I had just done a movie for Netflix and I thought if Warner Bros doesn’t want to do it, Netflix might, and Warner Bros might let me take it out of there. Then, Warner Bros read it; Courtenay Valenti was the only one who was still around from back then who read it before. She said, before we even consider giving it away in turnaround, we all have to read it. Two weeks later, Courtenay came back and said, I’ve got bad news and good news. Everybody loved the script, but if they don’t make it, I’m not sure they will let it get outside the walls. Then it had a life of its own after 30 years, and next thing you know we were making it.
DEADLINE: What does ‘a life of its own’ mean?
HANCOCK: Well, nobody had read it for a long time. The first stop was Denzel. I had a relationship because I’d done rewrites on Magnificent Seven and also, I’d been in South Africa with Denzel, doing rewrites on Safe House. We had some mutual respect and spent lots of time in a room together talking about story. When Warner Bros asked Mark Johnson and I, who’d you like to play Joe Deacon, we talked about it and said, Denzel would be fantastic. He read the script, we talked about it and he said, let’s do it. It was too good to be true. Next step was, who’ll play Jim Baxter and Denzel and I thought Rami Malek would be an interesting choice. Rami said yes. I had a little bit of a relationship with Jared Leto, who was a fan of a movie I’d directed, The Founder…
DEADLINE: The drama where Michael Keaton played steely McDonald’s pioneer Ray Kroc. How that terrific film did not factor in the Oscar race the year it came out is a puzzler, though rumor was that Harvey Weinstein didn’t have the money to push it properly push it…
HANCOCK: That movie is a separate tragedy story with Harvey Weinstein. Everybody was saying, he’s broke, he’s broke, and they kept moving and moving it, and then we found out later why he was broke. But Jared was a big fan and he’d said, I’m more interested in doing my music now, but if you have something…Hat in hand, I went to Jared and said, it’s not the lead, but an important part. He read it, and said yes. Next thing you know, we’ve got three Academy Award winners and we set a production date and went into prep.
DEADLINE: How close was that 1993 script to the movie I watched? What changed?
HANCOCK: It’s pretty much the same. When Courtenay said, let’s let everyone at Warner Bros read it, I asked for a week and a half to clean it up. When I wrote it, it was a contemporary piece. Now, all these years later, it’s a period piece; 1990, when the story was set, was pre-DNA. A lot has happened with criminology. I went back and culled out some of the CSI-type stuff that at the time was groundbreaking, and people hadn’t seen it before. You see it twice a week now on the TV crime shows. I also took about seven pages out that were repetitive or overwritten. When you write a script for someone else to direct, you have to leave more breadcrumbs, to help them understand what you’re going for, and you can cut that out in post. But when you are the director, you have to know precisely what you’re after and you don’t need to leave breadcrumbs for yourself. It was probably 85-90% what was written in 1993, or ’92.
DEADLINE: What sparked your original idea? Even back in the ‘90s, you’d see a lot of crime movies that climax with everyone showing their colors and you know exactly who did it and why. You don’t do that here.
HANCOCK: I was living in Hollywood at the time, and had some success. It wasn’t the Hollywood of today, it was a lot more run down. Some locations changed, because they were real in 1992, and now are very gentrified. This flophouse, now a Whole Foods is there. I was going for a realistic view of LA at the time, without showing landmarks or anything beautiful. I wanted to show the distant parts of the Valley and East LA; I wanted to show downtown Skid Row, which were as much a part of downtown LA as the Chinese Theater. I was into crime drama. At that time, most of the movies about cops on the trail of a killer, were really fun for the first two acts. In the third, the cop would find out who was doing the killing, and then it would be by rote. Big face-off, and the cop would seemingly be beaten down and would come back and kill the guy in some morbid fashion. That always disappointed me; I thought, must the third act be just running around shooting at each other when the first two acts with all the clues were so interesting? I was trying to turn away from that and come up with a third act that would be surprising and hopefully still be fulfilling.
DEADLINE: We know Denzel drills down on his roles as the lead actor. What did he bring when you had him helping break down the story?
HANCOCK: It was a blast being able to talk to him all through prep. He read the script once and then re-read it over and over, making notes and notes. I’ve saved them all because they’re such a great look back. He would call and leave 30 second messages. ‘I’m re-reading this scene at the flop house. It says I have a coat on. What if I don’t? Then I can drop…’ He comes at it in such a practical way, from staging to wardrobe, and says things like, ‘why am I doing this here?’ He was around so much, I said, I’m going to set you up with an office, when we had prep offices at Warner Bros. He said, Ok and his office was right next to mine, and he would come and go. Both our doors were open and we sat for hours and talked. All that prep work saves you because you have talked about the scene so much, you know what you’re doing. When you’ve dealt with all the extracurricular things, like, does he have a coat on, you’re able to just did into the character and the underlying themes and what the scenes are really about. It helped me and I’m sure it helped him also.
DEADLINE: The most important contribution with a great actor like that brings?
HANCOCK: Once we clicked in and we could look each other in the eye and talk in a real way, he told me very early on, I respect you, you wrote the script and you are the director. If I didn’t respect you I wouldn’t be here, but that doesn’t mean we can’t have frank conversations. Having a partner like Denzel, you don’t want to give him too narrow a lane. He’s so instinctual, and so watchable. I’m a big student of behavior in actors. Sometimes, you’ll have a thing where an actor just scratches his cheek in a way you like. It’s neither here nor there, but to me it serves the character. Once he is that vessel for the character of Joe Deacon, he can’t make a wrong move. Anything he does is Joe Deacon and not giving him too narrow a lane and block in a way that allows him to change things up, is better for the movie, me, and him. He’s a guy who will change things up and give you lots of choices. He’ll go with whatever is in that moment, based on what the other actor gives him. The delivery of a line by Rami, two different ways, will draw two very different responses. Watching Denzel, Rami and Jared work it out together, was really a master class.
DEADLINE: They all seem so different. Rami has such a singular look. You had him after the Bohemian Rhapsody breakout role that won him the Oscar.
HANCOCK: Rami understood that in some ways, his role was the most important, as the straight ahead guy who allows Joe Deacon to come from Bakersfield and for Jared to become his character, Albert Sparma. What I loved about Rami was that he and Joe Deacon didn’t seem like they’d fit together. You could cast someone else and think, I could see them hanging out. I liked the fact that Jim Baxter’s straight-laced and that Rami isn’t who you’d think of for him. And you wouldn’t see these guys hanging out. That’s why, when they form this bond of obsession, it’s just all the more interesting to me, just watching them sitting in the car together. I like that this was set three years before DNA took hold. I wanted it to be harder for these cops, who had to hit the streets and spend time driving around. Nowadays cell phones keep you connected all the time. I liked the stakeout of Sparma’s house and there being a payphone there that the cops would have to use. They would carry around lots of quarters. It all served their obsession in a way, that they had to work so hard. It was very internal, in the minds of these cops, and how they can become so focused and fixed on a suspect.
DEADLINE: Their bond, an internal torment over an unsolved murder and actions taken on a long ago case for Denzel’s character, and Rami’s detective falling into the same rabbit hole as young women are murdered now, is palpable despite their differences. We’ve seen Jared Leto in his Oscar role in Dallas Buyers Club, in Suicide Squad and other movies. What most surprised you about how he played the prime suspect, who is clearly intoxicated by this strange relationship he develops with the detective played by Malek?
HANCOCK: Jared transforms for every role, not only from his voice, to how he walks and what he wears and how he looks. He’s really interested in transformation. We started conversations early, and tried very different things. You always hear about Jared as a true method actor and that is true. I would talk to him using his character’s name and give notes that way, between takes. He was completely open to trying anything and everything that I put in his ear.
DEADLINE: So you get three Oscar winners for your nearly three-decade old script, which is like going from a luckless night to drawing three aces, in the night’s biggest pot. Have you ever had a journey like this before?
HANCOCK: It’s somewhat similar to The Highwaymen. That was a 15 year journey and that felt like a long time. This was twice as long. Suddenly, you’re pinching yourself going, this is a lot, be careful what you ask for. It then falls on me to be sure the movie gels and is as good as we all think it can be.
DEADLINE: And then WarnerMedia makes The Little Things the first of a 2021 slate it will release day and date on HBO Max. Mindful that actors like these can make lots in box office bonuses and cash break gross deals, they propose a replacement formula that is less lucrative than the deals given on Wonder Woman 1984. That film’s soft international opening shows nobody wants to go to the movies while this pandemic rages, but filmmakers like Christopher Nolan and Denis Villenueve were pissed. How did you feel when you heard?
HANCOCK: As the pandemic raged on, and appeared never-ending, and then the news came out about Wonder Woman, I can’t say the thought hadn’t crossed my mind that there might be some similar move for Warner Bros on The Little Things. Anybody could see that coming, but what I didn’t see coming was, no conversation about it. What I didn’t see coming was a call 20 minutes before the press release, which was how I found out about it. The weird thing was, after this phone call with Courtenay Valenti where she laid out for me and Mark Johnson what was going to happen, I hung up. While disappointed and in shock a bit, I felt bad for Courtenay, who had three more calls to make before the press release. What a horrible burden to put on her. The handling of it left something to be desired, and lots of people have spoken about that. I also knew and know that people who work at Warner Bros and do great creative work, were going to step up. If we were going to keep the January 29 date, it made us the first one out of the block next year. Everyone was prepared for Wonder Woman, in a way. To make this grand statement with all these different movies for 2021, we are the test case. I think Warner Bros needs this to succeed, as much as I do. All the work that has been done from that moment, forward, it was all hands on deck.
I’ve been really impressed with the materials, the tack, the publicity and marketing stuff…they’re doing a great job and we are all hoping it can be promoted in a way that makes people understand it’s a really good movie they should see, in movie theaters where available, and if not, during the 31 day window on HBO Max. It’s an odd, weird time and I can’t wait to go back to the movie theaters and make them for movie theaters because there is simply no high like that. That said, these are trying circumstances we are all in and I’ve tried my best to be Zen about it. And go, what are you going to do after you’ve been thrown a curve ball? You’re not happy with how it was handled and transmitted to you. But what are you going to do? The biggest loss would be 30 years, and nobody sees this movie I’m very proud of. We all rolled up our sleeves, Mark Johnson, myself and the hard working people at Warner Bros. Over the last week, I’ve felt better and better at the prospect of people finding the movie and enjoying it.
DEADLINE: You made a streaming movie before, The Highwaymen with Kevin Costner and Woody Harrelson as the Texas Rangers who hunted bank robbers Bonnie and Clyde, for Netflix…
HANCOCK: Casey Silver was the producer and he’d been with it for 17 years and I’d been with it 15. We thought, given the period nature of the movie, Netflix would be a good place for it. Universal owned it forever. They loved the script but could never get it made in a way that made sense for them. Scott Stuber wasn’t even in an office yet at Netflix after taking the job. We met at a conference room in a hotel and he said, I want to make this movie. You take yes for an answer. We were in theaters, kind of like they did with Roma, a couple weeks before it dropped on Netflix. It was the right place for that movie, because so many people saw it. On Netflix, albeit, but so many people saw it that it was a win for that movie. It’s hard for studios, these days. I was proud of Warner Bros for making The Little Things. An adult drama, nobody in spandex; it feels like a movie they would have made 20 years ago.
DEADLINE: Netflix’s viewing audience is much larger than HBO Max, which might draw subscribers because of a star-driven movie like this one. Streamers don’t work with nearly the transparency that box office releases have. What has to happen for you to feel like this was a success?
HANCOCK: It might be anecdotal, in terms of the number of people who see it. There’s a certain dark arts aspect to streaming, where we don’t know what’s going on. With The Highwaymen, there were lots of eyeballs. Netflix passed along numbers when they did their quarterlies. They can’t lie on their quarterly reports or it would be a crime, so we knew we had certain numbers. With this one, it will be anecdotal as well. I’ll hear about it from certain people and expect to have a sense if people are seeing it, or not seeing it. But I don’t know, honestly. I have high hopes that lots of people will sign up for HBO Max to watch this and other movies, so I’ve got fingers crossed. I want people to see it.
DEADLINE: Denzel started on TV, but once he pivoted from St. Elsewhere to the movie screen, he has stayed there. He’s meticulous and methodical and not one to be surprised. He still follows advice he got from Sidney Poitier, that if the public sees you all week, they won’t pay to see you on the weekend. So he vanishes when not promoting his movies. You have his trust. When this happens to him and your two other Oscar-winning stars, what’s that conversation like?
HANCOCK: The actors found out around the same time I did. There were myriad calls to agents and then to filmmakers and actors. It is a curve ball. The difference from me doing The Highwaymen for Netflix was, we knew what the end result was going to be and you pre-negotiate your back end. It may end up that it would have been better to have it at a studio, or better that it went to Netflix. You’ll never know. That is the curve ball aspect of this. Here, none of this was ever talked about, beforehand. There are negotiations, and you hear about Legendary lawyering up and all those things. This was a shock to Denzel and the other actors, who threw up their arms and said, this wasn’t what we signed on for. They’re smart people though and like me, I’m sure it crossed their minds that there might be some streaming aspect to this, given the pandemic and nobody in theaters for a while. We’ve all had to adjust to it, and say, okay, if we’re going to do this, we have to get behind it. He has been great and so have the other actors.
DEADLINE: You expect all of them to go do publicity? There have been rumors on this and other pictures that if WarnerMedia holds to a backout buyout formula inferior to the one given Wonder Woman 1984, they could skip promoting it. Will your cast promote this movie?
HANCOCK: I hope so. That’s the other problem with all this was presenting it as a one size fits all declaration. One size does not fit all here. This will be handled ad hoc, I think. Denzel is directing a movie right now, so I wouldn’t expect him to be available to do tons of stuff. I’m hopeful he’ll do some important pieces and I think Rami and Jared will, as well.
DEADLINE: What a surprise ending to a 30-year journey.
HANCOCK: Yeah. It’s been trying. I try to be as Zen as I can. There’s a part of you that wants to scream, but how does that help me and how does that help the movie? Also, this didn’t come from these people I know from Warner Bros. I felt I should give them a chance and listen to their complaints, because they weren’t at all happy about it, either. But they had a job to do and I thought, I have a job to do, also. We’re all trying to make the best of this and won’t do a lesser than attempt to get people to see this movie. It’s really entertaining, really good and I would hate for it to shadow away.
DEADLINE: This one took 30 years. Where do you go next as a filmmaker?
HANCOCK: I just finished my first draft of something for Netflix, a theatrical/streaming adaptation of the Stephen King novella Mr. Harrigan’s Phone, to write and direct. I’ve got some other things, a script I wrote that’s an adaptation of a book called Dead I Well May Be, that Mark Johnson is producing and I’m co-writing a television show for Skydance and Apple + called Oklahoma!, loosely based on the Rodgers & Hammerstein play. Hopefully, something will make. Someone said about The Little Things, wow this is really dark for you. I said, look, I make the movies that get made. You attach to several things but if someone says, I want to make this, that’s the one that gets made.