My interview with John Lee Hancock and John Fusco of ‘The Highwaymen’

As you should posthaste, I recently watched the highly entertaining Netflix Original ‘The Highwaymen.’ Having enjoyed it so, I couldn’t wait to converse with the men who created the film, director John Lee Hancock and writer John Fusco.

The two are incredibly passionate, inspiring, intellectual, kind and talented as hell.

With films such as ‘Hidalgo,’ ‘Thunderheart’ and ‘Young Guns’ to his name, it only makes sense that John Fusco would write about a Texas Ranger bringing down notorious gangsters. This chat will fill you in as to how, over years of interest and research into crime, these particular felon’s lore developed in young John Fusco’s mind to appear on your screen.  

His partner in the project, John Lee Hancock, who’s from Texas, couldn’t have been a better choice to bring John’s tale to life. Known not to shy away from making ambitious, real-life dramas, Hancock directed ‘The Alamo,’ ‘The Blindside,’ and ‘The Founder’ and now Fusco’s story about Frank Hamer (Kevin Costner) and Maney Gault (Woody Harrelson), which tells us about these two Texas Rangers. They’re friends as well as lawmen who came out of retirement in 1934 to retire the vicious Bonnie and Clyde and the Barrow gang. Unlike the 1967 Arthur Penn film, ‘Bonnie and Clyde,’ we see why it was important that they are stopped rather than praised for who they were. Read here how this film came to be.           

TMC: What inspired you to share this story?

Fusco: I grew up with a real fascination with outlaws and gangsters. I think you can look at my work and realize that. (Smiles) So, when the 1967 Arthur Penn movie came out, I was in my pajamas at the drive-in with my mother and father, and it just continued to fuel my fascination with Bonnie and Clyde. So, I wanted to know everything I could, after that movie, about them. I had these books that my mother didn’t want me to have that graphic crime scene photos… I was obsessed. But as I started researching, I realized ‘Wow. You know what? They 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. But, along with that, the portrayal of the protagonist, Frank Hamer or ‘Hammer’ as they called him in the movie, was so far off the mark that it was troubling to me as a young person. So, I started researching Hamer’s life and saw that no one ever abducted him, tied him up in the back of a car, spit on him, sexually taunted him, put him in a rowboat and shoved him across a lake. He didn’t go out and kill them out of revenge for some vendetta. In actuality, he was one of the greatest law officers of the 20th century. He took on the KKK singlehandedly, kind of exemplifying that one riot, one ranger ethos. He was a really cool western hero to me as a kid.
So, suddenly, here I was going from gangster worship to, ‘Wow! Hamer kinda got a bad deal in this.’ And so, I grew up waiting for someone to do his story on some level and it never happened. Eventually, as my writing career was going on, it was still in the back of my mind. And it had nothing to do with the corrective or answer to the Arthur Penn movie, which, I have to say, I recognize as a watershed film, a cultural touchstone and I’m part of that filmmaking generation who was inspired by it. There’s no denying that. I just felt like the side of the story about two retired Texas Rangers coming out of retirement to enter the gangster era is a really cool western. Kind of that elegiac ride the high-country type of story.

Hancock: For me, John was there from the start and wrote it, so I was just reading the script that came to me and being from Texas, I knew some of Frank Hamer who’s one of the most legendary Texas Ranger. Of course, I knew some of Bonnie and Clyde. But for me, I just… I’m a huge fan of the ’67 film; watched it all the time. It wasn’t so much Bonnie and Clyde, I was really drawn to the dark journey of these two men who have a terrible gift, and their gift is they’re blood hunters. And they know it’s going to be ugly, they know what it’s going to look like; what’s at the end of the road waiting for them. And there’s no one they can talk to but each other. So, it’s kind of a ‘men loving men,’ ‘these two guys together’ that drew me. And I looked at it as, if anything, a companion piece to ‘Bonnie and Clyde.’ Not to say you’re not aware of it while you’re making the film, I mean, of course, you are. You’ve got one of the more famous cinematic scenes is the ambush of Bonnie and Clyde so you approach it and go, ‘What can we do that’s different?’ Not as an answer to it, not as pushback or anything, no. You don’t want the comparison… you can’t outdo the operatic ballet of bullets, which was fantastic. So, you go, ‘Okay. Well, our option is, we’re going to play it in real-time. Nothing’s gonna be slow mo. Everything’s gonna be real. It’s going to be brutally violent. And it’s going to be bloody and it’s gonna be as promised. It’s gonna be worse than promised.’ And then, the heavy weight that carries with these guys. There’s no joy at the end of this. They walk away with more soil on their souls. That’s what drew me to it. That kind of heavy, dark, lonely journey.

Fusco: I think that what John recognized in that, is what we really set out to mine. The story is the weight that these two guys carry from the things they’ve done and the thing they have to do to finish out… that moral gravitas.    

TMC: Did you take poetic license with the conversation between Hamer and Barrow’s father?

Fusco: Well, the conversation actually happened. It happened in a different chronology. It happened in Arcadia, Louisiana, in the aftermath in which he approached Frank and said, ‘You did what had to be done, I don’t hold it against you, and I understand. We’ve all been through hell with this thing.’

TMC: Going to the two leads, Hamer and Gault seemed like an old married couple. They had a friendship but also worked well together. Did one or both of you approach it from that angle? To show on screen more of their friendship or how well they worked with one another? Which was more important?

Hancock:  You’re always hopeful… the thing you don’t want to do it, ‘Let’s flashback to the time when Maney and Frank were in their twenties in south Texas,’ or something like that. You’ve got a certain imperative, even though I’m the first to recognize that it’s not a, ‘will they catch them or not?’ We all know what happens. It’s about trying to make the journey interesting. So, for me it was… I was hopeful that when you saw these guys together, in the car, with the rapport, with the dialogue that John’s written, that we would 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. To me. And then hopefully you can get them on the road and that, that would be inherent.

TMC: I liked how we saw Bonnie and Clyde throughout the entire film and then at the climax, it really resonates on multiple levels visually because of their betrayal. What was the inspiration behind that? Was it in the script? Did it get developed along the way?

Hancock: It’s twofold. It was in the script. John described it in such a way that you never quite got the look that you wanted out of ‘em. When I came on board, I thought this was an exciting opportunity to have two very different visual styles to play that meet up at the ambush site. So, talking to John Schwartzman, our great DP (Director of Photography), I said I wanted to shoot it like a graphic novel. I want all the stuff with Bonnie and Clyde to be highly stylized frames with amazing, beautiful, poppy clothes… shiny cars. I want it to look fast. I want it to look sexy. I want it to all that for two reasons. One, because that’s how the public in 1934 thought of them. And two, the way I might view the movie if I weren’t involved with it is, ‘No. I get this. I’ve seen Penn’s movie. They are sexy and the cars are fast and they’re amazing and beautiful and all that.’ And then when they enter the naturalistic part of the movie, we stay with Frank and Maney through a more naturalistic style when they enter it and they pull up and get a good look at their face, we see that they’re scrawny kids.
So, on the one hand, the public in 1934 has been duped, that we’ve come across, and hopefully the audience has been duped, as well. Saying, ‘It’s not what I expected.’ It’s not like, ‘Ha-ha! I gotcha!’ Pull the rug out. It’s more of a, to me, ‘Everything about this enterprise is ugly and now I’ve got to kill kids on top of it.’

TMC: The movie implicitly condemns Bonnie and Clyde’s violence. The movie also touches upon these men, that they’re also murderers. They’ve done some terrible, bloody things. There’s a moment in the film where one of them rejects an interview about their killing of Bonnie and Clyde but now you’ve made a movie about that. Do you think that the movie runs the risk of sensationalizing the violence that these men carried out?

Hancock: It doesn’t bother me. For one, I would take exception to calling them murderers as a blanket statement because if you’re an officer of the law and there’s a person shooting at you, you need to shoot them.
That didn’t come into the definition we—

Fusco: (Leans in) No, no. ‘Manhunters.’

Hancock. Yeah. They were manhunters. They were going after the bad guy and the bad guy has this and you could go case by case with a hundred different files maybe and find something. I wouldn’t disagree; I’m not a historian. I think calling them blanket murderers is 100% incorrect. Legally.

TMC: Well, yeah, legally. I was referring to the stories of when they broke into a place and shot a bunch of people before they could put their hands up. Some may see that as unethical and more murder than punitive justice.

Hancock: I would go with it being unethical and certainly a gray area. In that time and place, it was, unfortunately, more commonplace than one would think. Did they come to this story without flaws? Without demons? Without their own stuff? No, they don’t. They’re not perfect human beings and I think that’s part of that journey that we’re talking about, that they regret. I think that’s what the story is about. The burden you carry with that terrible gift. So, I would agree that, yes, this is not… these aren’t completely righteous men doing the right thing. They are doing what they think is necessary. Even the governor thinks that their style of doing things is not ‘PC,’ even though that wasn’t a term in 1934.

Fusco: That’s a really thoughtful question. For two years, Barrow and Parker were out there killing. When the law tried to do ‘legal’ roadblocks and get them to surrender, a lot of that was, ‘There’s a woman with him. There’s a girl with him.’ These law officers were killed. They had three-thousand rounds of armor-piercing ammunition in the damn car.

Hancock: When they found them.

Fusco: Yeah. They had three Browning automatic rifles fully loaded, ten Colt automatic pistols, three loaded shotguns, other handguns. I always described it as, kind of, a runaway train with hazardous materials in it. It had to be stopped. Hoover and a 1,000-man dragnet, for two years, was not able to catch them. It got to the point where, ‘We gotta go to a dark place and bring out two guys who come from another era; who come from the old-time Ranger school. But it is interesting because Hamer was a humble, quiet guy who did not want to talk about this stuff. Turned down Tom Mix for a movie offer. Turned down $10,000 for a book deal.

Hancock: I think the reason, and I don’t know this to be true but, in my heart and mind, I think the reason that Frank Hamer took on a job that… he didn’t need the money, why did he take this on? I think it galled him. They were more than small-town heroes. They were national heroes and in the international press. I think it galled him that people were being made famous for things they should be ashamed of. He was an old-school guy. I think that’s what put him behind the wheel of his wife’s car to go out… because he didn’t need the money. And maybe that’s an old fashion sense of right and wrong but I think that’s who Frank Hamer was. Did he always do right? Nope. Like Ma Ferguson says in the movie, ‘You leave me to answer for the blood.’ Yeah. They get the bad guy but it ain’t pretty. The whole thing is an ugly enterprise which is why, at the end of the movie, the thing I really wanted to come across, and why we shot at the actual location, wasn’t just because it was authentic and cool and creepy and all that, which it was, it was that there was a pervasive sense over the crew and the actors, ‘We gotta help them recreate it. One, the anxiety and, ‘Here they come. Here they come. Here they come.’ And I’m gonna keep firing until my gun is empty. It’s overkill. There’s no doubt about it. When that car comes to a stop, there’s no joy in Mudville. By all the reports, ‘It’s done and I’m glad it’s done and it’s worse than I thought it would be.’ Then, as bad as that is, to see what happens in Arcadia. Which, by the way, was toned down in the movie. There were thousands more people. They were trying to cut off Clyde’s trigger finger and his ear. They cut off locks of her hair.

Fusco: They were putting their handkerchiefs in Bonnie’s blood.

Hancock: Taking pieces of the car… it was grotesque. They loved ‘em when they were alive. They loved ‘em when they were dead.

TMC: Would that be the start of a revolution of Bonnie and Clyde’s efforts? And their response… was it revolutionary in terms of how the public perceived what they were doing and how the public perceived what Frank and Maney were doing to try and stop them?

Hancock: Revolutionary in what way, from a police tactic standpoint?

TMC: Yeah. And the way we respond to things. You know, with social media today, something’s on there and the world reacts. Back then, you had to wait two or three days before you read something about what was going on and yet, as you just pointed out, there were dozens of people who were cheering and crying over their deaths. Celebrity status. Their reaction to the law enforcement side of it was very dark and was unprincipled, yet they were both men of moral conviction. I think that signaled a change in the way I think about their tactics and how we react to things.

Hancock: I don’t know. It’s interesting. The legacy of the ambush and everything is…. we could fill this room with historians now who’d disagree about everything, trust me. About every single thing. But the fact that the posse, the six of them, decided never to talk about it and no one could write about it until the last person, everybody was gone except the last person… and who knows how much to believe of what came out or whatever, but we do know that the Parker family and the Barrow family were very open in public. They invited everybody in—

Fusco: (Jumps in) They toured with the crime doctor who bought the death car and went on tour with it, with Bonnie Parker’s mother Emma and Henry Barrow who had little patches of Clyde’s trousers’ that he was killed in, that he’d sell. They traveled, they toured with the car.

Hancock: There’s a funny letter from Bonnie’s mom about Frank Hamer saying, ‘Those guns weren’t stolen. They’re our property. You must return them.’ (Laughs) Yeah, right.

Fusco: They were stolen from an armory. It’s a great question and I don’t know if I’m grasping it right, but public sentiment did start to turn at Grapevine Texas. Easter morning, those two patrolmen on motorcycles who came up… one, it was his first day on the job. He kept his shotgun shells in his pocket, which we reference, but he did that because he was afraid that if he took a spill on his bike, the gun might inadvertently kill somebody. An innocent person. So, he had to try and get his shells and the gun. He was scheduled to be married two weeks later, and his widow wore his wedding gown to his funeral. And, so those stories started to leak and little by little, the public started to feel like, ‘Well, wait a minute.’ My mother remembers her Scottish immigrant father, my grandfather, being obsessed with True Detective magazine following this saga, it was like a Soap Opera. She remembers the day they got Clyde and Bonnie. ‘Really? They’re gone? They’re dead? These lovers on the run.’ No one ever talks about those victims. The Native American, full-blooded Chickasaw, who had worked so hard to become a deputy sheriff in a white town, had a family, and Clyde killed him with a 30-caliber rifle. And all the families who had been left on the breadline. And children raised without fathers during the depression, who had to endure, had to watch this celebrity… like, you know, ‘I’m a young man and I gotta go to work because my dads’ been killed by these two who everybody’s glamorizing. So, there was a certain groundswell of, ‘Wait a minute. Who are these two?’

TMC: Did you purposefully add Hamer waving at the FBI plane and at Hoover because he really only got involved when something was successful?  

Fusco: Yes. That was my intention in the script, yeah. Hoover really resented Frank Hamer and resented the fact that he was on the case. They weren’t the FBI at that point. It was like the fledgling FBI. It was the birth… right at the beginning. There were other FBI on the ground who did recognize, ‘We got a real pro out there and he might be old school but…’ But Hoover resented him and resented the fact that it took him two years… for two years, he couldn’t get him. This guy (Hamer) went out using Comanche tracking skills and caught them. But really got under his skin was that something came up in the press, it was, ‘Dillinger’s still out there and nobody’s got ‘im.’ And Hamer said, ‘Well, Mr. Hoover would like to have a conversation about that.’ Hoover didn’t like him.

TMC: Frank was a tracker. I can barely operate my phone. (They laugh) Is that a lost art or still in practice today because I find that kind of thing fascinating.

Fusco: As do I. I studied tracking. It’s a real passion of mine. Hamer studied with the Comanche and really appreciated that skill. A lot of the old-time Rangers did. It only exists in one law enforcement area right now and that’s a group at the border which is all Native American patrol called the Shadow Wolves. They use traditional tracking methods. So, they train border patrol and federal officers in using those old tracking methods.

TMC: (To Fusco) I was reading in the notes… says you were, to quote you, ‘Always fascinated particularly with what is underneath the veneer and myth of folklore.’ And I’ve seen that in your screenplays. ‘The Highwaymen,’ obviously, ‘Thunderheart’ and ‘Young Guns.’ What drives that for you as a writer? Is it pure curiosity, do you dig into it or are you always looking to—

Fusco: I think it goes back to the first story I told about being a kid and being fascinated by Billy the Kid, Bonnie and Clyde. I used to sit and stare at those photos and say, like, ‘How did this Billy the Kid, this diminutive, little bucktooth outlaw in New Mexico, rise to this iconic level? How did that happen?’ And why were there forty-two movies made about him, where did this legend of the left-handed gun come from and the fact that he was this lone gunfighter who whistled sad ballads. You know? What I found was that if you dig underneath the veneer of the legend, you find the history. It can be a lot uglier and more crude, but it’s always more fascinating. And then to explore how that history becomes myth and why. And I think that really applies to this movie.

TMC: Are there other stories you’re itching to tell?

Fusco: Oh, yeah. There are some coming up.

Hancock: Keep me posted! (They both laugh)

TMC: Some of the towns Frank and Maney drive through are very poor. There are a number of establishing shots, kind of, showing the destitution people are living in. A lot of people who celebrated, even the criminal violent acts of Bonnie and Clyde saw them as the common man’s hero. Someone has a line in the movie about how they hate the banks.

Fusco: Banks are the devil.

Hancock: They rob banks and the banks rob from me.

TMC: So, a lot of people saw them as hitting back at the establishment. What were you trying to convey by showing how poor these towns were while also demonstrating how horrible these crimes were? There’s sort of a disconnect between, ‘They’re robbing from the people who are hurting us but they’re also hurting other people.’

Hancock: I think that they were, kind of, given a pass because hatred was so great for the banks and that was the overriding feeling. You know, the farms, the stores, your houses. The banks were taking them all. Everybody’s hurting. They want them to be Robin Hood. They’re taking from the rich, but they’re not giving to the poor. They’re robbin!’ They’re not Robin Hood. But you need a hero when you’re in that deep, dark place. You want a hero and you want somebody’s who’s going to strike out at ‘The Man.’

Fusco: And I think the ‘Lovers on the Run’ element, that really appealed to the people and Bonnie and Clyde… they played into it. They saw this and were acting out a sick fantasy of being movie stars. Bonnie wanted to be a Broadway star. Clyde wanted to be a famous musician. It was almost like, ‘If we can’t be famous, we’re going to be notorious.’ They were very aware. As John has said before, ‘They were branding before branding.’ If they had Instagram, they would have been on.

Hancock: They’d have a lot of followers. They’d be tweeting every day. Even more than Trump.

Fusco: Like Dillinger at the time… saw himself as a John Gotti. He felt that he had class, and I’ll admit, I didn’t know a lot about Dillinger, but he saw himself as a bona fide Robin Hood. He was robbing big, hardcore banks and was feeding money back to the people. He would write to the papers and say, ‘Please don’t mention Bonnie and Clyde in the same article with me. Those are pintsized punks who are killing gas station attendants.’ Circulation was plummeting during The Depression. Newspapers were going under. Publishers were like, ‘What’s going on?’ People did not want to read about depressing, economic news. They were interested in three things. Sports heroes, movie stars and flashy gangsters.

TMC: If it bleeds, it leads.

Fusco: Yeah. And so, 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 I smoke cigars so please let them know I was just posing with Clyde’s cigar for the shot.’ It’s incredible. It’s… it’s an incredible story.

Yes, it is. ‘The Highwaymen’ is a unique way to look at Bonnie and Clyde. This film is a great example as to why it’s important there are writers like the noble John Fusco out there. He helps us view different angles of every story. Admirably, he gives us a glimpse of this legacy from a standpoint we might not otherwise have marched on to view. He gives us the foundations of it, the truth, the barbarity and John Lee Hancock was the precise ally for him to jump in with. I hope you enjoyed getting to know them a little here.   

HERE IS THE LINK TO MY REVIEW OF THE FILM