An interview with “The Highwaymen” director John Lee Hancock and writer John Fusco
Over numerous decades, historians and filmmakers have documented Bonnie and Clyde’s story in papers, books, television, and movies. Arthur Penn’s 1967 film “Bonnie and Clyde” is the most recognized, as it won two Oscars and garnered an additional eight nominations. Obviously, the film centered on the wayward criminals noted in the title, but in 2019, director John Lee Hancock’s and writer John Fusco’s Bonnie and Clyde movie carries a different focus.
“The Highwaymen” is the story of Texas Rangers Frank Hamer and Maney Gault who came out of retirement and chased down the said gangsters. Hollywood superstars Kevin Costner and Woody Harrelson play Hamer and Gault, respectively.
John Lee and John flew into Phoenix and introduced a screening of “The Highwaymen” and participated in a fun and informative Q&A with a grateful Harkins Camelview at Fashion Square audience. In addition, John Lee and John sat down with the Phoenix Film Festival and other movie outlets for an equally fun and informative group interview, and they talked about their inspirations to make this film, Bonnie and Clyde’s popularity during the Depression and much, much more.
“The Highwaymen” arrives in select theatres around the country on Friday, March 22 and on Netflix on Friday, March 29.
Q: Your Bonnie and Clyde film focuses on the two men – Frank Hamer and Maney Gault - who tracked them down. What inspired you to share their story?
JF: I grew up with a real fascination with outlaws and gangsters. So, when the 1967 Arthur Penn movie came out, I was in my pajamas at the drive-in with my mother and father. It just continued to fuel my fascination with Bonnie and Clyde, and I wanted to know everything I could about them after that movie.
I had these books, and my mother didn’t want me to have them, because they had graphic crime scene photos. I was obsessed, but as I started researching, I realized that (Bonnie and Clyde) weren’t Faye Dunaway and Warren Beatty.
They killed a lot of people, left a lot of victims and destroyed a lot of lives during the Depression. Along with that, the portrayal of Frank Hamer was so far off the mark, it was troubling to me as a young person. I started researching Hamer and his life. He didn’t kill (Bonnie and Clyde), because of some vendetta. In actuality, he was one of the greatest law officers of the 20th century, who single-handedly took on the KKK and exemplified the “One Riot, One Ranger” ethos. (He) was a really cool western hero to me as a kid. Suddenly, here I was, going from gangster worship to (thinking) that Hamer got a bad deal in this. So, I grew up waiting for someone to do his story on some level, and it never happened.
(Writing this screenplay) had nothing to do with an answer to Arthur Penn’s movie, which I have to say, I recognize as a watershed film (and) a cultural touchstone. I’m part of that filmmaking generation who was inspired by (it). There’s no denying it, but I just felt like the story (of) two Texas Rangers coming out of retirement to enter the gangster era is a really cool western. An elegiac, ride-the-high-country type of story.
JLH: I’m a huge fan of the ’67 film, and I watch it all the time. I was reading John’s script, and it wasn’t so much the Bonnie and Clyde (story) for me. I was really drawn to the dark journey of these two men who have a terrible gift. They are blood hunters, and they know it’s going to be ugly, and they know what it’s going to look like, and what’s at the end of the road waiting for them.
There's no one who they can talk to but each other, almost like veterans of battle or something. These two guys together drew me in, and I looked at (this movie) as – if anything - a companion piece to “Bonnie and Clyde”.
Q: John Lee, I believe you said that Frank and Maney were like an old married couple. Was it more important to show their friendship or working relationship in the film?
JLH: I am hopeful when you see these guys together in the car - with the rapport and the dialogue that John has written - that we (will) understand the legacy of their friendship. Just the fact that Frank drove all the way to Lubbock to see if Maney might be up for the job speaks to that. Hopefully, you can (see) them on the road (together), and that would be inherent.
Q: Did you purposely have Hamer wave at an FBI plane, because Hoover only got involved when an operation was successful?
JF: Yes, that was my intention in the script. Hoover really resented Frank Hamer, (but) other FBI agents on the ground recognized that (Hamer) was a real pro out there. Hoover resented him and resented the fact that for two years, he couldn’t get (Bonnie and Clyde), and (then Hamer) goes out using Camanche tracking skills and (catches) them. Hoover didn’t like Hamer.
Q: The film is set during the Depression, and a lot of Americans saw Bonnie and Clyde as hitting back at the establishment who has been screwing them over. What were you trying to convey by showing the poverty of the era, while also demonstrating the horrible crimes that Bonnie and Clyde committed?
JLH: Bonnie and Clyde were given a little bit of a pass, because (the) hatred was so great for the banks. That was the overriding feeling. The farms, the stores and your houses…the banks are taking them all. Everybody is hurting. They wanted Bonnie and Clyde to be Robin Hood. Even though they are taking from the rich, they are not giving to the poor. They are just “robin’”, not Robin Hood.
You need a hero, when you are in that deep, dark place. You want a hero, and you want somebody who (will) strike out at The Man. I think in some ways, there’s a little of (that in) Penn’s movie too, in terms of the 60s and the Vietnam War.
JF: I think the lovers-on-the-run element really appealed to people. Bonnie and Clyde played into it. They were acting out a sick fantasy to be movie stars. Bonnie wanted to be a Broadway star, and Clyde wanted to be a famous musician. It was almost like (they thought), “If we can’t be famous, we’re going to be notorious.”
They were very aware. John Lee has said (that) they were branding before branding. If they had Instagram-
JLH: -they would have a lot of followers. (John Lee turns to John) I love when you talk about why Bonnie and Clyde were in the press because of the Depression.
JF: Newspaper circulation was plummeting during the Depression. Newspapers were going under. People did not want to read about depressing, economic news. They were interested in three things: sports heroes, movie stars and flashy gangsters, and that’s what was getting the ink, and Bonnie and Clyde really played into that.
Bonnie always referred to her public. “I don’t want my public to think that I smoke cigars, so please let them know that I just took Clyde’s cigar, and I was posing for the shot, but I only smoke Camels.”
Q: Can you talk about the decision to refrain from showing Bonnie and Clyde’s faces for most of the film? The result is a big visual impact.
JLH: It’s two-fold. (One,) it was in the script. John (wrote the screenplay) in such a way that you never quite got (a) look at Bonnie and Clyde that you (would want).
(Two,) when I came on board, I thought this was an exciting opportunity to have two very different visual styles at play that meet up at the ambush site. I wanted to shoot it like a graphic novel. I wanted all the stuff with Bonnie and Clyde to be highly-stylized frames with amazing, beautiful poppy clothes and shiny cars. I wanted it to look fast. I wanted it to look sexy, and when Bonnie and Clyde enter the naturalistic part (or style) of the movie, (we see that) they are (just) scrawny kids.
John Lee and John talk more about Frank and Maney…
JLH: Do Frank and Maney come to the story without flaws, without demons (and) without their own “stuff”? No, they don’t. They are not perfect human beings, and I think that’s part of the journey. The stuff that they regret.
JF: For two years, Bonnie and Clyde were out there killing. When the law tried to do legal roadblocks to get them to surrender, officers were killed. Hoover and a one-thousand-man dragnet were not able to catch them for two years. It got to the point where “we” (have) to go into a dark place and bring out two guys who come from another era, the old-time ranger school.
JLH: I think that Frank Hamer took on (this) job, (because Bonnie and Clyde) galled him. (Bonnie and Clyde) were more than small-town heroes. They were national heroes and (were featured) in (the) international press, so I think it galled him that they were (becoming) famous for things that they should (have been) ashamed of. Maybe that’s an old-fashioned sense of right and wrong, but I think that’s who Frank Hamer was.
Jeff – a member of the Phoenix Critics Circle – has penned film reviews since 2008 and graduated from ASU’s Walter Cronkite School of Journalism. Follow Jeff and the Phoenix Film Festival on Twitter @MitchFilmCritic and @PhoenixFilmFest, respectively.