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'Blind Side' director John Lee Hancock is out of movie jail

November 24, 2009|By PATRICK GOLDSTEIN

John Lee Hancock thought he was doing a great job of racing through a day of shooting earlier this year on "The Blind Side," the new film that stars Sandra Bullock as Leigh Anne Tuohy, a no-nonsense Memphis supermom who makes room in her life for Michael Oher, a homeless, 350-pound African American teenager who ended up becoming the Baltimore Ravens' first-round pick in this year's NFL draft. But when the real Leigh Anne showed up to visit the set, she found her patience flagging after a few hours.

"If I were in charge," she told Hancock, "we'd get things done a lot faster around here."

As it turns out, Hancock, the talented writer-director who made an impressive directorial debut in 2002 with "The Rookie," was moving at just the right speed. Opening last weekend, "The Blind Side" has become a surprise hit, making more than $34 million and, according to CinemaScore, earning a rare A-plus from moviegoers, a reliable signal that the movie will have a long and profitable life in the multiplexes.

But "The Blind Side's" success raises the question: What took Hancock so long to get back behind the camera? In other words, why hadn't he made a movie since his second feature, "The Alamo," arrived in 2004?

If you ask most people in Hollywood, they'd tell you that Hancock was in movie jail. A costly flop that ended up getting awful reviews and becoming the media's poster film for misguided Hollywood excess, "The Alamo" was an especially painful experience for Hancock. Born and raised in Texas, he was a natural choice to salvage the film after its original director, Ron Howard, bowed out of the production over a variety of budget-related issues. But after a series of dire early screenings, Hancock was forced to make huge cuts in what was originally a nearly three-hour film, sacrificing depth and rich historical texture along the way.

When you have a flop in Hollywood, it hurts, even years later. Of course, if you're a superstar filmmaker, whether you're Steven Spielberg or Michael Mann or Michael Bay, you can have a flop -- even a couple of stinkers -- and still get back into the ring, bloodied but unbowed.

But directors with less invincible reputations feel a different kind of pain. If you ask Hancock, he'll tell you that he has powder burns from "The Alamo" experience. "I'd love the opportunity to do a director's cut of the film, because what people saw in the theaters, even though I'm proud of it, wasn't the fully realized version of the movie. I learned that you should never take on a project where the media has decided that they already have an opinion about it. We were dogged by the same negative press that was directed at the movie before I'd even signed on to write it. The movie had just become a target, even though most of that negativity was directed at [then Disney chief] Michael Eisner."

But Hancock insists that he never felt like he was languishing in a movie jail cell. "After 'The Alamo' I really wanted to get back to doing regular human being stuff, like being a dad, and the best way to do that was to stay home and write," he told me. "So if I was in movie jail, then you'd have to say that everyone let me design the cell. I got plenty of offers to direct, just ones that weren't right for me."

In fact, you'd have to say that if Hancock was in movie jail, he was an awfully productive prisoner. He has a long list of post-"Alamo" projects that he's written or rewritten scripts for or is attached to direct, including an adaptation he's done of a contemporary Irish mob story (based on the book "Dead I Well May Be") as well as a rewrite on "The Goree Girls," a true-life tale about an all-female 1930s Texas prison band.

Still, it wasn't exactly easy getting a green light for "The Blind Side." The film is based on a popular book by Michael Lewis, which followed the Tuohy family's relationship with Oher as well as the story behind the growing importance in the NFL of the offensive left tackle position, which had become crucial in terms of protecting quarterbacks from unseen tacklers coming from the left side of the line, known in football parlance as "the blind side."

20th Century Fox had bought the book in fall 2006, just as it was being published. There was a serious bidding war, with Variety reporting that Fox paid $200,000 against $1.5 million if the film was made. Gil Netter, the film's producer who had a deal at Fox, asked Hancock if he was interested in writing a script. Even though he comes from a family of Texas college football players -- his father even had a brief career in the NFL -- Hancock thought he'd sworn off doing sports films. But he was a fan of Lewis' writing, so he read the book and was hooked.

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