Writer-director John Lee Hancock is best known for crowd-pleasing, mainstream films like “The Blind Side” and “Saving Mr. Banks,” which makes his new film “The Little Things” something of a shock. A noir drama starring Denzel Washington in one of the weariest, least flashy and most affecting performances he’s ever given, it’s a meditation on blurred lines and questionable morality; it looks like a whodunnit, but it’s less interested in the answer than in the toll it takes to find that answer.
Washington plays a small-town California detective who returns to Los Angeles, where he worked before leaving under troubling circumstances, and is drawn into a serial-killer investigation by a young hotshot played by Rami Malek. Jared Leto plays a creepy local who might be the killer, or might just enjoy stringing the cops along.
“The Little Things” is the blackest thing Hancock has been part of since he wrote the script for Clint Eastwood’s 1993 film “A Perfect World.” And that was a big reason why the project has been on his shelf for almost three decades, he told TheWrap in an interview this week.
This is something you’ve been working on for quite a while, isn’t it?
I don’t know if I’ve been working on it, but I wrote it 27 or 28 years ago, and it almost got made several times. At first other people were going to direct it, but when I started directing in earnest around 2000, (producer) Mark (Johnson) would ask me about it every couple of years. I always said, “It’s a dark world to live in for two years, and I’ve got little kids and I don’t know about that.”
But my kids are in college now, and Mark said, “You know, that excuse won’t fly anymore.” And so I reread it, and much to my surprise, I really liked it.
What was the initial impetus that made you want to tell this story?
I just remember really liking crime dramas and psychological thrillers, but also feeling that especially some of the ones in the ’80s had become a little paint-by-numbers. I would like all the clues and the misdirects and the complications, and then you’d get to the third act where the bad guy is identified and the good guys give chase. And usually there’s some kind of action set piece, and then there’s a face-off and the good guy heroically defeats the bad guy.
And I thought, “Why does the third act have to be less interesting than the first two?” So I wanted to see if I could have something that unravels in a way that is non-formulaic but also satisfying. I was living in a crappy apartment in Hollywood, and I was looking at the streets a lot and observing things around me, and there it was.
It does end on a note of real ambiguity.
Right. I remember at one point, somebody at Warner Bros. said, “We’ll make this movie if you’ll change the ending so we know for a fact that the good guy is victorious.” And I said, “Well, that’s the whole reason I wrote the script, so I can’t do that.”
That kind of misses the entire point, doesn’t it?
It does. I was trying to embrace the genre as a world we know, and then little by little let the viewer know that it’s not a genre movie per se. Embracing the genre and subverting it, hopefully without thumbing our nose at the audience or being too cute.
You said you didn’t want to make in the past because it was too dark. So when you finally did make it, did it take you to that dark place you were worried about?
Yeah, I would say it did. It was the hardest movie I’ve ever directed, for a variety of reasons. It’s dark and somber and there were lots and lots of nights shoots, which nobody likes to do. When you’re a young writer, you’re not thinking that if you write a night scene, somebody will be out there all night long. But when you’re the director, you go, “Oh, man, I wrote a lot of nights in this.” And also, it was three really challenging actors, challenging in all the most exciting ways. It was a hard month.
Were there certain keys for you as to how you wanted to shoot the film?
I wanted it to be as realistic as possible. I didn’t want to neon the noir, if you will. I didn’t want it to be too stylized in the lighting. My DP John Schwartzman and myself talked a lot about embracing hot sunlight and letting it be right overhead and baking down, and embracing a whole lot of practical lighting instead of overly stylized stuff. We looked at (Wim Wenders 1974 film) “The American Friend” a few times, and even though we don’t go as stylized as that. That’s a movie that certainly embraced lime-green neons and blue neons and things like that.
I kind of wanted to do a ’70s movie set in October 1990. When I wrote it, it was a contemporary piece. And all these years later, it’s a period piece. But that was the look we were going for. And we weren’t afraid of shadows and people falling off into the darkness. For a second there, we thought about making it contemporary, just because you save a lot of money doing that. But I liked it set in that period, because visually I thought there would be more to accomplish and more of a challenge. Also, it puts more of a burden on the detectives because this is pre-DNA and pre-cellphones. So every cop had to carry a roll of quarters around with him and know where the payphones were.
What the biggest challenges for you?
Well, anytime you’ve got actors of this caliber, especially in the interrogation room scene, where all three of them are in a room together, I probably overprepared for it. And when I got in there, it just kind of evolved at its own pace. It was a lot to shoot in one day, and I just said, “Let the performances carry the day instead of a whole lot of movement with the camera. So I just leaned heavily on the performances — but, you know, but that was something I probably lost some sleep thinking about.
So you have other dark scripts sitting on a shelf waiting to be made?
I’ve got lots of other scripts that haven’t been made that are also dark. Probably not as dark as this one, but darker than what I’ve been doing. But, you know, you do the movies that get made. Sometimes it’s “The Blind Side” and sometimes it’s “The Little Things.”