Director John Hancock on his criminally-underrated ode to absurdist theater WEEDS (1987)

John Hancock director
Writer/Director John Hancock talks with Justin Bozung for TV Store Online about the criminally-underrated film WEEDS (1987).

director john hancock weeds
Director John Hancock
TV STORE ONLINE:  I wanted to ask you about your film Weeds...I believe the inspiration for the film came out of your days working in the theater...

:  Well, my first experience with the subject matter was when I was the Artistic Director of the San Francisco Actor's Workshop--which was the big regional theater in town around that time. My predecessor in that position had gone into San Quentin  every week, or every other week, to work with their prison drama group.    They had taken a production of Waiting For Godot in there.    Their production became pretty famous and it won an award in Brussels.    The inmates got very excited about it, in  particular, one inmate named Rich Cluchey.   He was in San Quentin for armed robbery for life without the possibility of parole.    So, I, in that role of Artistic Director started going in to work with the group in San Quentin myself.  I liked Cluchey.   He was very sympathetic and soft-spoken.   Plus, I felt that he had some talent as an actor.    Cluchey wrote a play called The Cage and I put it on at the San Francisco Actor's Workshop.    Cluchey, obviously couldn't attend, but the play got good reviews and it did some good business.   

When members of the San Quentin drama group would get released I would employ them.   Either they did well, or they did badly,  got drunk, and I had to fire them.    I got to know many of them though.   One of them, Bobby Poole, wrote the screenplay for Richard Pryor's first movie The Mack (1972).    He was a very colorful and extremely interesting guy.   Poole had wanted me to get involved as a producer and director of his subsequent scripts, and as the years pasted, and as I started to make films--it occurred to me that the Cluchey story could make an interesting film.   So I got together with my partner, who was the Managing Director for the Actor's Workshop, Ken Kitch, and we tracked down Cluchey and acquired the rights to his life story.   My wife [actress Dorothy Tristan] and I took out a second mortgage on our house in Malibu so that we could have the time to write the script for Weeds.   We researched it extensively with all the different members of the ex-con drama group.   We wrote the film with Robert De Niro or Al Pacino in mind for the role of "Lee Umstetter."    And Bobby De Niro wanted to do the film.   We had the film set -up with United Artists  for a year or two but then it all fell apart.   Then we tried to set it up with Mickey Rourke but no would buy him.   Finally we got it going with Nick Nolte...

TV STORE ONLINE:  Is Cluchey the same inmate that befriended Samuel Beckett famously...

  Yeah, that's Cluchey.   When we tracked him down he was in Chicago.  He was doing his own play or a Beckett play at the Goodman.  When we decided to sit down to talk with him we had to go over to Essen, Germany to see him.  Because he was over there working with Beckett. 

cluchey waiting for godot beckett
TV STORE ONLINE:   Did you have to get a permission from Beckett to include those couple scenes from Waiting for Godot in Weeds?

   We did.

TV STORE ONLINE:  How did that go?   He wasn't against it as he was once famously against giving actress Shelley Winters the rights to do the play years before...

No, it was easy.  We paid him a little bit of money as I recall.     Weeds was well-financed by Dino De Laurentiis.  So we had plenty of money for that kind of thing.

TV STORE ONLINE:   But you didn't actually shoot inside of San Quentin prison, did you?   Were all of those interiors built on a sound stage in North Carolina at De Laurentiis Studios?

HANCOCK:  We shot at the studio, but we did shoot the exterior of San Quentin.   At that time, San Quentin was too dangerous for us to work in.    It has supposedly changed now.  I guess they've sent a lot of the violent inmates off to other places.   Back then, that prison was almost run by the inmates.   There were so many stabbings, and we were strongly advised by the Warden not to shoot there.    We shot some interiors at a couple prisons in North Carolina.  And then we shot for about three weeks at Stateville Prison. Which is in Joilet, Illinois.

Nick Nolte in Weeds
TV STORE ONLINE:   One of the things that I admire about Weeds is the film's direction.  It has a theater-inside-a-theater aesthetic to it.   There's a theatricality in the direction of the film.  In particular, in the opening sequence of the film...

HANCOCK:  Do you mean with the opening shot of all the cell doors...

TV STORE ONLINE:  Right, with that wide shot when all the inmates exit their cells.  It's very musical in a way.   Was that always the plan going into the film? To give it a sort of theatricality?

HANCOCK:   Yeah, it was.  But, in general, the film is about redemption through art for me.  It's about the positive power of art on people and their lives.  That particular shot, the opening, that you're mentioning--that was suggested to me by the Director of Photography Jan Weincke.

TV STORE ONLINE:   One of the most interesting aspects of Weeds for me is the sort of Dostoyevskian idea running throughout the narrative. That there is a duality in man himself.   There is an artist and a criminal in every man.  Was that sort of how you saw these characters while yourself and Dorothy were writing?

HANCOCK:  I did, and I still do today.   One of the crucial passages in the film....It's in the Nick Nolte's voice-over speech when he's writing a letter to the critic to con her into coming to visit him.     He says: "Could it be that in the least of us, there are crumbs in all potentials..."   To me, I feel that.   I once wrote a screenplay about Hitler's attempts to get into art school as a young man.    That's the complete opposite of Weeds, but what that tried to show was what happens to the artist when he is thwarted.  The Hitler story is much more complex than that, but that was one of the things that it touched on.

Weeds (1987) San Quentin
The opening shot of Weeds.
TV STORE ONLINE:   Another idea in Weeds that is interesting...Is the criminality a metaphor in the film?  For the sake of the frustrated artist?    There's the idea that influence begets inspiration, right?    Is the film trying to say that it's okay to plagiarize?   Is it okay to find inspiration in influence?

HANCOCK:  I think so.   The role of plagiarism in the modern world is huge.

  We're living in a Post-Modernist world!

HANCOCK:  Right. Brecht felt that private-property didn't extend to literature and plays, right?

TV STORE ONLINE:  (laughing)  With the inclusion of the mentions in the film of Jean Genet's Deathwatch, Godot, and the notion of the Theatre of the Absurd--this is a dumb and loaded question...But what do you think it about about the respected works of the Absurd that allows inmates to respond to it, more so, than how an outsider may respond to it?

HANCOCK:  Well, I think that inmates are living in an extreme world.  In which, there is tension.   You become a fantasy figure in someone's dream where he stabs you.   Plus there is a comradery and verbal banner between inmates too.   It's all a little bit like Godot.     A lot of those Absurd works, in particular, the works of Genet have a extreme aspect to them as well.   I think, that it must seem like a mirror up to life for some inmates.   And there's a snobbery to it all, isn't there?  After all, Umstetter didn't get excited about The Sound Of Music [1965], you know?

Cluchey play The Cage
TV STORE ONLINE:  In the first thirty-minutes of Weeds--you give us no exterior shots of the outside world.   We are trapped in the prison, and it's almost dream-like in a way.   It is very Genet-like with the maze-like architecture of the prison and all the blues and grays in the visuals, which seem, at times to be on the edge of making the film almost black-and-white.   Those first thirty-minutes of Weeds remind me in a strange way of Genet's own prison film:  Un Chant d'Amour (1950).

HANCOCK: Right, and we tried to shoot the film with a color progression.  We wanted to start with those blues and grays and progress as Lee Umstetter was released out into the outside world.

TV STORE ONLINE:  I'm a huge Charlie Rich fan.  I was curious to see how Charlie Rich got involved in the film....

HANCOCK:  I was a huge country music fan, and I thought that his song "Behind Closed Doors" would have some meaning for these characters.  So I tracked him down and asked him to come and be in the film.

Nick Nolte and Lane Smith Weeds (1987)
TV STORE ONLINE:  In the end credits of Weeds, you give Garth Hudson from the musical group The Band a special thanks...

HANCOCK:  Yes, at that time I had all of these symphonic Mahler-esque musical cues, one of which was plagiarized from Wagner.  I felt that they needed tapifiying a little bit, to bring them into the inmate world.  So I had Garth come in and improvise tracks on his accordion--to give the Mahler a sort of tic-tact type of quality.    I was very happy with his work on the music for the film...

TV STORE ONLINE:   The musical score gives Weeds a special quality.   I don't know what it is about the music, but for me, it conveys this notion that the film is very big and special....

  That's the way that I felt.   I felt that this was a big story, and these characters could experience anything.  They could even experience the ecstasy of Mahler.  I thought that was an important thing to show and convey.

actor Ernie Hudson Weeds (1987)
Ernie Hudson in Weeds.
TV STORE ONLINE:  What was your approach toward the actors?   You've got some big actors in the film, actors that have a ton of theater experience.   Lane Smith comes from the theater.  Ernie Hudson too...

HANCOCK:  And Joe Mantegna as well.   We rehearsed the film for four weeks prior to shooting.   We built the cell and put some tape on the floor and we rehearsed it like we were doing a play for the stage.  And of course, we rehearsed the play-within-a-play too, due to all of the dance numbers. 

TV STORE ONLINE:   Were you open as a director to encouraging any improvisation by the actors during the shooting of the film?

HANCOCK:  Of course, but maybe less than I have been in the past.  Dorothy and I worked so long on the writing of the script that we really wanted the dialogue set accurately.

TV STORE ONLINE:  How about actor William Forsythe?    He's known today for playing these tough-guy creeps in many action films of the 80's, and today--he's work a lot playing much of the same kind of character in contemporary exploitation films... But Weeds, for me, features the best work of his career.  He's so brilliant in the film...

Bill Forsythe Weeds (1987)
Publicity still of William Forsythe
HANCOCK:  You know, Bill feels the same. It's his favorite.   He was actually very difficult.  He didn't want to say the lines in the script as they were written.   I threw him off the set once during the shooting of the film.  In the end though, he was very complementary about the film.  Would I work with him again?  Sure.

TV STORE ONLINE:  And musician Melissa Etheridge had some involvement in the music for Weeds?

HANCOCK:  I had done a television pilot at Warner Brothers for a show that was going to be called My Three Wives.   There was a party scene or something, and the casting director at Warner Brothers asked me to listen to her work.  I listened to it, and loved it right away.  So I asked her to work on the film.   I kind of had a crush on her, but I didn't know that she was a lesbian.  I wasn't deterred by her motorcycle leathers or boots...(laughing)

TV STORE ONLINE:   Some of the music for Weeds was done by Angelo Badalamenti.   There's a David Lynch connection to Weeds as well.   One of the Badalamenti pieces you use in Weeds is the Lynch/Badalamenti  musical collaboration "Mysteries of Love."

HANCOCK:  Right, and I used that same piece again in my film Prancer [1989] and I just used it again in the film I just finished called Looking Glass [2015].

Nick Nolte best performances
TV STORE ONLINE:  Weeds got some mixed-reviews from critics when it was released.   Did those have any effect on you?

Yeah, I wish Roger Ebert's review of the film would have been better.  I wrote him a letter asking him to see the film again, but I don't think he did.  I wrote him because he had always said good things about my films in the past.

TV STORE ONLINE:  Going back to Cluchey for a moment...In the film, Lee Umstetter is accused of plagiarizing his play.  Was that something that happened to Cluchey with The Cage?

HANCOCK: It was by me.  I accused him of plagiarizing Genet's Deathwatch.   I put it on the stage but I knew it was a rip-off of Deathwatch.  He denied it and said, "No, no. I ripped off something else..." (laughing)   He claimed that he had took his inspiration from some other French book.  His play was very similar to Deathwatch and when I first saw it, the actors spoke in a French accents in a French prison, and gradually as he re-wrote it to disguise those elements, he introduced American things into it--like prison jokes.    I'm not sure if he ever married her, but as it happened in the film, Cluchey did end up living with a critic in the San Francisco Bay area.    She, I, and many others did write letters to the parole board to get him out of prison.   And when he was released he took his play on the road, ending up in New York where his play was savaged by the New York critic Clive Barnes.

TV STORE ONLINE:  Could you talk about the shooting of the riot sequence that closes the film?

HANCOCK:  It was intense.   We built that auditorium in a cement factory in Wilmington, North Carolina.  It was very cold during the shooting.  The working conditions were difficult because of that.  I was very happy with all of the extras that we used in that sequence.   Ken Kitch, my partner from San Francisco, who had worked with inmates a lot, and who had actually re-directed Cluchey's play on its cross-country tour--he ran the school we set up for the extras.  I've always been unhappy with extras in films.    They all yell "Yay!" at the same time in films.   I really wanted to show the details in the sequence. I wanted to show people that might not be enjoying the play.   We had a lot of ex-cons as extras for that sequence.   There was one African-American guy, who had been a very famous Black Nationalist who had done a lot of time.

TV STORE ONLINE:  Did you storyboard that sequence out?

HANCOCK:  No, I didn't.    I had visualized it all in my mind, which you do sometimes when you write.

TV STORE ONLINE:   Weeds also suggests an empathy for the imprisoned man as well.  I mean, some of those guys were murderers and rapists...

Yeah, and one of the interesting things about that...When Dorothy and I were writing the script we experienced an armed robbery in Malibu.    That was like the whole other side of it.   There we were, writing this script that sympathized with the inmate and we get robbed.   We really had to put that to the back of our minds.    We did so much research, and we really became close with a lot of inmates.   We talked with inmates in prisons in New Jersey and at San Quentin.  There is a humanity there.   It was important to us that we find the humanity in these characters while at the same time, we didn't want to lose their criminal edge.    Ken Kitch, my partner, who was re-directing Cluchey's play, once told me about the time when they were in New York together rehearsing.   Ken yelled at Cluchey.   He  said, "No, no. Don't do that.."  And he said the Cluchey gave me a look that just chilled him to the bone.  He said, "My god, this guy could kill me..."

TV STORE ONLINE:  Were there things that you left on the cutting room floor during the editing of Weeds?

HANCOCK:  So much.  There were performances of the play at various colleges that I left out.  When the plays gets that terrible review in the film, we shot a scene with Ernie Hudson, where he goes to the critics house with plans to kill him.  Some of the others follow him there and convince him not to kill the critic.   I don't know why I took the scene out, but at the time, it just felt like it slowed the film up.  

 TV STORE ONLINE:  What are you working on now?

HANCOCK:  I'm trying to make a film about steel workers that I'm going to call American Steel.  About ten years ago I really wanted to make this film, and I announced it in the paper.  I had a bunch of steel workers come to me with basically the same story.    I heard a lot of stories like: "I've been laid off from Bethlehem Steel, I have no insurance, and now my wife and I  are dying of cancer..."  I thought it was an important story, but it was very depressing.   But I've also been in touch with steel workers that are really proud of their job.  They think that they make the best steel in the world and they have this hilarious comradery. They send each other up.  They work at the furnace and they help and protect each other. 

Interview Conducted By: Justin Bozung
For more with Director John Hancock please visit his official website here.

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