The Hoya sat down with director John Lee Hancock and screenwriter John Fusco to discuss the pair’s motivations and approach to crafting “The Highwaymen.” The film is a captivating tale following former Texas Rangers Frank Hamer, played by Kevin Costner, and Maney Gault, played by Woody Harrelson, on their hunt to bring down the infamous criminals Bonnie and Clyde.
The duo shared their insight on topics ranging from the choice to decenter Bonnie and Clyde in the narrative to the moral question the film explores.
You have been working on this project for 16 years, how important was it for you to tell this story and why?
Fusco: It was very important, it’s something I have wanted to do for many years since I learned about Frank Hamer and who he was and that there was another side to the Bonnie and Clyde story with a really interesting flipped perspective, but also an exploration of an American character who few people knew about but had lived an incredible life. I did research into him and eventually tracked down his son who was still alive in his late 80’s. I went to see him to seek his blessing to tell his father’s story and I got that and he became a friend and an ally, so it’s been a long time coming.
What was it like researching the time period and real-life story to prepare for the film?
Fusco: It was absolutely fascinating. I traveled to Texas and not only spent time with Frank Hamer’s relatives, but one of them turned his kitchen into a research hub and put the family tree up on whiteboards and took me through the whole family history. I also worked with three of the foremost Bonnie and Clyde historians and followed their trail. Reading old newspapers from that era was also helpful. I was driving my wife crazy speaking in 30’s lingo but if you’ve done enough research, it just comes out of you naturally when you write it.
Hancock: I have to interpret it visually so I worked intensely with the production designer and costume designer. We previewed locations and looked at places that felt of the period because we didn’t have a budget that allowed us to build tons of stuff, so we had to go out and find 1934. It’s very rare that you just find 1934 and turn on the camera, you instead find it in the houses and structures and things like that but you’re always going to have to go in and use CG to erase transformers and cell towers and yellow stripes on the street and other things like that.
We see in the film how Bonnie and Clyde are sensationalized by the public and the intrigue they hold, yet their characters did not play large roles in the film. How did you come to this stylistic choice?
Hancock: In the script, we are intercutting with Bonnie and Clyde and Fusco says “we never quite get a good look at them” but he describes beautifully tailored fingernails of Bonnie and things like that, so John Schwartzman and I decided to really push that even further. We have a very naturalistic style of photography when it comes to Frank and Maney and their Journey but in shooting Bonnie and Clyde we decided to take a graphic novel approach.
We made the frames really interesting, sometimes off-kilter slightly and very punchy. We made the clothes very poppy and colorful, the cars too clean and shiny, we wanted to build up the sex appeal and the mythos surrounding these people by showing the side of their head, their fingers, their hands, the magazines, the cars, everything about it is just kind of sexy because I think that’s what the public in 1934 felt as well. They were built way up so by the time we see them they enter the naturalistic photography and it becomes what’s real and you see them and their scrawny kids which is the truth. It gives Frank and Maney pause and hopefully gives the audience pause too and they think “that’s not what I was expecting.”
Watching the film, gender stereotypes and assumptions are very prevalent and even obstruct the search for Bonnie and Clyde. How did you determine the portrayal of this tension in the film?
Hancock: There is no doubt about it this is old school masculinity and there are good and bad things about that. The good side was they thought it was shameful to ever earn a penny off of someone else’s pain or blood. There was a nobility to the notion that there are some things you don’t talk about, you don’t go around bragging about killing Bonnie and Clyde, you don’t make money off of that. There’s another part about it which is very testosterone-driven and you know it’s probably going to end bloody. The other thing is I think it’s kind of a quaint notion to us now because we think of it as a million years ago, but when Maney says I’ve never shot a girl before you see it in his face that this is weighing on him more than anything, where as a law enforcer today would think “if she’s killing people and she’s going to kill me, I’m going to kill her first I don’t have any problems with that.” To Maney, who wears his heart on his sleeve, this is taking a terrible toll on him and there is something about that which seems very innocent and of the past.
Fusco: There are quite a few theories out there that Clyde kept Bonnie with him knowing that others weren’t going to shoot if they thought they might hit Bonnie, which then gave him the pause he needed to shoot them first. They would run roadblocks and kill cops, so roadblocks were not an option to stop them. After the Grapevine incident on Easter morning in Texas where Bonnie shoots the patrolman in the head with a shotgun, the public sentiment started to slowly change and people started to say “wait a minute this girl is a killer.”
A recurring motif in the film is the tension between good and evil. An interesting question explored is whether one is born evil or made that way by their circumstances. How did you come to a creative decision in portraying these conflicting human characteristics?
Fusco: We really wanted to have this moral ambiguity. To me, one of the most powerful moments is during the scene between Frank Hamer and Clyde’s father. They are talking about Clyde having stolen a chicken when he was younger and Hamer says “do you ever think that there was something in him that made him steal that chicken in the first place” and Clyde’s father responds “maybe he was hungry maybe we were all hungry.”
Hancock: It was tough times and I can defend the childhoods of Bonnie and Clyde by saying, they were dirt poor, wrong side of the tracks, post-Depression-era kids. Everyone’s in bad shape so you tend to have more of a criminal element from people who don’t have jobs that need money for their families. They’re going to steal chicken or cars and a lot of the times its just low-level crime and that’s how Clyde got started.
Fusco: Even their families admitted that they didn’t like to work and if they weren’t going to be famous they were going to be notorious. Clyde even had a fellow inmate chop off one of his toes in prison so that he could get transferred out of the work detail, so they were taking the easier path towards fame and notoriety and had this twisted vision of themselves as movie actors with guns.
Hancock: Nobody comes into this story clean and nobody leaves it clean, and part of that for me coming from Texas is that Texas is a blood in blood out proposition, it always has been and I think this is a very Texas story in that it is too. Hamer and Gault don’t come in with Clean Hands to this process. I think they come in with a certain righteous indignation about Bonnie and Clyde and wanting to take them off the road, but I think it’s pretty obvious when they do the deed that there’s no joy in this. This is something that we had to do and unfortunately, we’re probably the only ones who can do it.