John wanted to be a screenwriter. He was born to public school teachers in Longview, Texas and raised in Texas City, Texas. Eventually he earned an English degree from Baylor in Waco. Then after graduating from law school he became a lawyer in Houston.
What are the odds of John making it as a Hollywood screenwriter?
The odds are against him, right? Well, if you’ve seen The Blind Side, Saving Mr. Banks, The Rookie, or A Perfect World then you’ve seen movies where John from Texas (John Lee Hancock) is credited as writer and/or director.
In an interview with Craig Mazin on Scriptnotes, Episode 27 John unpacked how he made the initial transition from a lawyer/actor in Houston to Hollywood writer/director:
“I really fell in love with movies. Not when I was a kid, but when I was in college and I would go to movies a lot. And so I started thinking hard about kind of movie stories, and how they looked on the page, and — this was back in the days before you could walk into a bookstore and get, like, 17,000 books on how to write a screenplay.They didn’t exist. I mean, and you were lucky, you could — there was no online at that time.”
Hancock just turned 60-years-old so I’m guessing this was the late 70s or early 80s. Not only before the internet, but possibly even before Syd Fields’ book Screenwriting: The Foundations of Screenwriting was originally published in 1979.
So he found a place in the San Fernando Valley (probably Burbank) where he could order a few scripts. After learning the format of a screenplay he wrote his first script on the side while practicing law.
But even before tackling a feature script Hancock was studying acting with a teacher who had been a working actor in Los Angeles. It was there where he first started writing monologues and short scenes. Writing that provided “instant gratification.” (A similar experience that Tarantino had in acting classes. Read the post ‘The way I write’—Tarantino)
Hancock said that first feature script (“a story about a guy in his 20s in Houston, Texas who’s angst-ridden and doesn’t know what to do with his life”) was awful. But that “awful” script changed his life.
He sent it to the newly formed Sundance Institute that was doing a workshop in Austin with John Sayles and Bill Wittliff and others and Hancock thought that would be a great opportunity because he’d “never even met anybody who writes screenplays.” (To keep this in perspective he was probably in his mid-twenties at this time.)
“And I signed up, and it also had a thing that said you could — they were going to select, I think, eight screenwriters to go through an intensive four-day worship with Frank Daniel (who had been the head of Columbia Film School and USC).”
I don’t recall if Hancock says on that interview how he started to get traction and work in L.A. (or when he moved there), but that initial thrust began like many others—a desire to write, then writing a screenplay and sending it to some people, and that writing getting him some recognition and eventually leading to his becoming a working Hollywood screenwriting.
Hancock’s experiece in Houston is an echo of what Diablo Cody did in Minneapolis a decade ago and served as the inspiration for starting this blog. (Read the post Juno Has Another Baby). He may not happen everyday, but it happens.
P.S. Keep in mind that Hancock made that transition began over 30 years ago. If he were a lawyer in Houston today he might connect with some filmmakers in Austin, write something that gets on The Black List, or perhaps fund his own low-budget filmmaking. He would find a different path because times and opportunites change.
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