The Price of Eden

Director John Hancock dropped out of Hollywood to return to LaPorte, Indiana. Can he restart his career with a hometown movie?

By Carl Kozlowski

John Hancock never wanted to make the same movie twice. But he didn’t realize that his quest for originality would cost him a decade of filmmaking–and would almost cost him his career. A maverick theater director who seared Broadway stages in the 60s with radical interpretations of Shakespeare and Brecht, he turned to film at 30, scoring an Oscar nomination for best live-action short with his debut, Sticky My Fingers, Fleet My Feet. Over the next two decades he made eight films with the likes of Robert De Niro and Nick Nolte, including one the 1973 Bang the Drum Slowly–that Roger Ebert still considers “the best film ever made about baseball.”

But after directing the prison comedy-drama Weeds in 1987 and the family film Prancer in 1989, Hancock seemed to disappear, working on a film project that never came to fruition. He’s found that if you step too far out of the normal Hollywood career trajectory you might fall into a black hole. People are left to wonder, “Whatever happened to … ?”–if they think of the missing stars, writers, or directors at all.

Some artists sink out of sight forever. But Hancock determined to produce and direct his first film in 11 years from his current home of La Porte, Indiana–A Piece of Eden, released last weekend to mixed reviews. Faced with Hollywood executives who said they “loved the film but … didn’t know how to market live-action family films,” he adopted a unique strategy: he distributed A Piece of Eden himself in Chicago, Indiana, and other midwestern markets to prove its financial viability. If it is viable, Hancock will either distribute it nationally or take it to Hollywood and sell it to a studio.

This family comedy-drama sprang from Hancock’s own experiences. In the film, a young showbiz executive returns to the midwest when tragedy strikes and he has to help with the family apple orchard; largely humorous family battles ensue, as does romance when the tightly wound man slows down for love. The director, raised in Berwyn, spent many summers in La Porte as a child and returned there periodically to help his mother maintain the family orchard after his father died.

Four years ago Hancock moved to La Porte permanently, where he was able to make A Piece of Eden for $4 million. I made this film to fight despair and express my desire to take control of my own destiny instead of waiting for other people to give me permission,” says Hancock, 60. “The mayor’s wife helped build props, and we had a terrific inventor develop absolutely perfect mechanical sheep and had 1,200 extras show up for free one day. You just can’t get that support anywhere else.”

The cast mixes unknowns with Emmy-winner Tyne Daly and veteran character actor Frederic Forrest, acclaimed composer Angelo Badalamenti wrote the score, and Russian cinematographer Misha Suslov contributes luminous imagery.

Hancock was born in 1939 in Kansas City, Missouri. His family moved to Berwyn while he was still a young boy so his dad, a jazz musician, could take a gig playing double bass in the Chicago NBC Orchestra, broadcasting from the old WMAQ studios.

Hancock hoped to be a musician as well, but since he attended Harvard and it had no official music program, he studied English instead. Harvard did have a strong informal theater scene, however, and Hancock soon became hooked on directing. He did a number of American premieres at school, and “people from New York came to see me and helped set me up there when I graduated,” he recalls.

“They got me into the Actors Studio and helped me produce a hip Brecht show, which was a hit off Broadway, when I was 22.”

Hancock created his biggest theatrical stir in 1965 with an Obie-winning interpretation of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. He calls its vision “strange and kind of dark–I brought out the erotic undertones with a female impersonator. But I thought it was true to the author’s intention.’

Gregory Peck took notice, persuading Hancock to apply for a position at the prestigious La Jolla Playhouse. Among the recommendation letters Hancock received was one from Tennessee Williams, whose plays Hancock had directed in New York, Los Angeles, and San Francisco. “Tennessee said I was the most gifted director he’d ever worked with for cuts and transpositions,” Hancock says with bemusement. “He also loved to say, ‘Baby, everybody’s life is a tragedy by the time it’s over.'”

By the age of 30 Hancock had achieved all his theatrical ambitions. Bolstered by the reviews, awards, and recommendations he’d received, he applied for a filmmaking grant from the American Film Institute and secured the funding he needed to make Sticky My Fingers, Fleet My Feet, which he describes as a “warm and humane” portrait, based on a New Yorker story, of businessmen who gather in Central Park to play football.

That short established several trends in Hancock’s career. Its young cast, which included Charles Durning, revealed his knack for finding fresh faces–he gave Robert De Niro his first big break in Bang the Drum Slowly and directs 19-year-old actress Rebecca Harrell (who starred in Prancer as a young girl) in A Piece of Eden. On the other hand, Sticky My Fingers began a pattern of pigeonholing that’s dogged Hancock ever since. Because that film showed a sure touch with the details of everyday life, he became pegged as a director of small, emotionally resonant films–a reputation that made it difficult for him to attract the darker material he’d shown such a sure touch with onstage. In fact, with the Vietnam war at full boil in 1970, the short he really wanted to make was an an antiwar allegory. I wanted to do a story about children who swat dragonflies out of the air to kill them, because it showed the casual cruelty and childishness of war,” he says. “But the AFI said there was no way they were going to fund something like that.”

And as it turned out, Sticky My Fingers landed Hancock not only an Oscar nomination but the kind of exposure most young filmmakers only dream of: it was broadcast nationally by CBS during the halftime of a Thanksgiving Day football game. Among those who caught it was a development executive for movie producer Joseph Levine, who promptly hired Hancock to direct a horror film called Let’s Scare Jessica to Death, about ghostly vampires haunting an ancient apple orchard. It wasn’t high art, but Hancock’s first feature taught him how to goose audiences with an array of emotional jolts and send them home happy.

He also learned that creative financing and releasing plans could help a film thrive outside the usual studio distribution system–and that the creative talents who made a film were not terribly likely to profit from it. “Jessica cost $200,000 to make and grossed $20 million, all thanks to the producers distributing it region by region across the country themselves,” he explains. “We were all promised bonuses off the net profits, but over the years I’ve only made about $70,000 off of it. When you’re talking almost $20 million in profits, something doesn’t add up.”

Hancock was contacted by another viewer of the Sticky My Fingers CBS airing, a Chicago lawyer named Maurice Rosenfield who hoped Hancock’s knack with football would translate to other sports: he wanted to make a movie out of the baseball novel Bang the Drum Slowly.

Hancock auditioned John Lithgow and James Woods for the starring role–a young baseball catcher who develops a terminal illness. But De Niro came in and knocked everyone else off the list. “He was 26 at the time, and I just remember thinking, ‘My God, he’s awfully good for being so young,'” Hancock recalls. “He said, there may be more talented people but no one would work harder, and sure enough he’d shoot for 12 hours, take batting practice a couple hours more, and then get up early to run five miles each day.”

After Bang the Drum Slowly received rapturous reviews nationwide, Hancock was typecast again. He was sent “every sports script going through town.” Instead he followed up with the 1976 Baby Blue Marine; directing Jan-Michael Vincent in the tale of a young marine who suffers a nervous breakdown during World War II. That film and his next, California Dreaming (1979), proved unsatisfying. California Dreaming was supposed to be a nostalgic look at the lost innocence of 60s beach movies, but the producers overpowered the director in the editing room and changed it into “an actual beach movie, layering disco music into it to really make it awful.”

Hancock recalls that film as the worst experience of his career. He determined then that he would return to the director’s chair only when he could oversee a project he was passionate about.

Weeds–a powerful but quirky film starring Nick Nolte that got lost in the box office shuffle as its distributor, DEG, went into bankruptcy–took eight years to complete, during which time Hancock stayed afloat by directing for television, including episodes of Hill Street Blues. De Niro, who at one time was supposed to be in Weeds, ended up “flying around the country doing research at prisons for a year before moving on to another scheduled project,” says Hancock. Mickey Rourke and Danny Aiello were also on board for the lead before Nolte signed on.

The film detailed the true story of hard-core San Quentin prisoners who began performing in plays, rehabilitated themselves, and took their shows on the road. Hancock had participated in a similar program in 1965. “I used to work in San Quentin with inmates, and I’d hire them when they got out to act for me–until they usually self-destructed and went back,” he says. “The prison troupe’s founder, Rick Cluchey, managed to work with Samuel Beckett in Europe after his release, and another member was Robert Poole, who became a screenwriter and wrote one of Richard Pryor’s first films, The Mack.”

For Hancock Weeds was a strong affirmation of his instincts. He’d been determined to create a solid film on his own terms and he’d succeeded, but the result was a barrage of offers to make prison movies. Hancock chose to “zigzag again” and decided to make the Grated Prancer.

The story of a young girl who discovers a reindeer wandering through her town and endures the skepticism of her neighbors for believing it’s Santa’s famous sleigh puller, Prancer was supposed to be shot in Pennsylvania, but Hancock was determined to work back home in La Porte. When the movie attained a modest financial success and critical praise nationwide, Hancock shared in the pride local extras and set builders took in the work.

Hancock’s choice for his next film proved problematic to say the least: “The Klansman” never got made. Based on a true story, it involved a topranking KKK member in Raleigh, North Carolina, who created havoc when he had a change of heart and embraced minorities. Eventually he was elected president of his janitors’ union, winning over a voting bloc that was 80 percent African-American.

The film’s racial subject matter was a sticking point with some studios even as competitors for rights to the story tied up production. Hancock believes the script is strong enough to earn the right team a slew of Oscars, but spending so many years on it hurt his career. “They forgot about me, and then they wondered, ‘What’s the matter? Why’s he taking so long?”‘ he says. “You have to stay in motion. Then there’s the matter of age prejudice, because you’re dealing with guys who are 28 and are development executives.”

He again fell back on television directing, making more than 400 Kmart commercials as well as a few network shows. But the work didn’t provide him much artistic satisfaction, and in 1996 he and his wife–former stage and screen actress and screenwriter Dorothy Tristan–packed up and moved to Indiana. He cracks, “The Malibu fires had destroyed one home, and then an earthquake rocked another. We thought maybe we were being given some signs to leave.”

The rich tales Hancock’s immigrant grandfather had told him about the Italian countryside and Hancocks own memories of the family orchard’s glory days gave him all the inspiration he needed for A Piece of Eden. Tristan–who’d written several films, including Jaws 2–came up with an epic family drama that features the same quirky humor Hancock brought to Weeds. With a completed script in tow and ample publicity about his return to filmmaking from the hometown newspaper, Hancock was able to get A Piece of Eden rolling.

Selecting Harrell as the female lead, a young city woman who follows her seemingly chauvinistic boss home to assist him on the family farm, meant Hancock could work with a multifaceted actress with whom he had a strong rapport. He hired local actor Mark Grapey for the male lead and sent the script out to old Hollywood friends too, securing the involvement of Daly and Forrest. Hancock also auditioned more than 750 actors nationwide for supporting roles.

And when called upon, La Porte’s townspeople were at the ready. “One of the opening scenes required a stampede of sheep over the cliff of an Italian hillside, but of course we couldn’t harm actual sheep,” Hancock says. “I learned about a mechanical whiz from one of the town’s old factories and hired him to build several mechanical sheep which could fall safely over the cliff, take after take, to give the illusion of dozens being lost. I challenge anyone to notice the difference.” Hancock’s invention also served him well in making the Indiana countryside double for Italy.

A Piece of Eden played well at the Sarasota Film Festival last fall, Hancock says, and Regal Cinemas–America’s largest theatrical chain, with over 4,000 screens–has agreed to distribute it where Hancock chooses, though he’s paying for the promotion. Hancock has also been barnstorming throughout the midwest, driving the film to family-owned theaters in small towns and talking the owners into screenings. His tale of a family business finding innovative ways to stay alive parallels not only his own story but that of many theater owners: he hopes to make money in the same grassroots way the producers of Let’s Scare Jessica to Death did.

Hancock and Tristan’s next effort is a snowmobile action thriller called Suspended Animation, to be shot in La Porte next winter. “The film business has to do with luck and how you live with bad luck and randomness,” he says. “But sometimes you can take a stand and change that luck. This is the time to do it.”

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Dan Machnik.