John Lee Hancock, directing and producing The Little Things from a script he wrote almost 30 years ago, wanted to approach the gritty nature of the job as a means of exploring both the intellectual and psychological sides of solving crimes.
“I came up with the story in the early 1990s, when the theaters were full of buddy cop movies,” he says. “I wanted to do something a little different and give it more of a 1970s movie feel.”
At the same time, Hancock subverts the `90s crime genre by unravelling, versus concluding, the story, setting up Deke and Baxter’s prime target’s guilt as inconclusive and evidence against him inconveniently spare.
In The Little Things Joe “Deke” Deacon and Jim Baxter are two cops at very different phases of their lives and careers when they unexpectedly find themselves working together to solve the ongoing case of a killer targeting women in the Los Angeles area. As the case unfolds, they become fixated on a particular suspect, but tracking him causes them both to grapple with their own demons, and for Deke, long-buried secrets rise to the surface.
Baxter relies heavily on Deke’s more seasoned instincts, but soon both cops obsess over questionable details, driving them both from suspicion toward certainty—a risky gray area that propels them to act in a manner that could destroy not only their case, but their lives.
“It was a good read, a really interesting story I hadn’t seen before and a character who was scarred, cynical, guarded…” says Denzel Washington who stars as Deke. “If he ever had any sort of faith, he’s lost it, but he goes on what’s almost a spiritual journey through the sort of hell I think maybe only a cop could understand, and I found that really interesting. I had known about John as a wonderful writer and director and so working with him was a really easy decision.”
To prepare for his role, Washington took a crash course of sorts. “I became a fan of the show ‘The First 48 Hours,’ it was basically like homework for me, watching it over and over and observing the behavior of the different people who investigate the crimes and how they get the so-called smart criminals to fold,” he says. “As an actor, what I do to prepare is similar to what detectives do in that I take my time peeling back the layers to find my way to the core of the character.
“I even told our police tech advisor one day that I could understand how detectives get excited about the work,” he continues. “It’s literally ‘the little things.’ You start building a case with each clue and as it comes together, it’s a strange kind of high.”
Hancock enjoyed watching Washington’s performance unfold. “Denzel gives you a ton of choices, and he’ll make unique choices in any and every scene—something I wouldn’t have thought of in a million years and have never seen him do before,” the director relates. “An expression or a physicality in the smallest moment and it’s just surprising and always great.”
“From the first read I could see this was an extremely powerful thriller, but also much more than that,” says Rami Malek, who stars as rising-through-the-ranks Baxter “Dig into the layers of these characters and you find the profoundly psychological impact the work has on them,” he asserts. Malek adds that “one of the reasons I gravitated to this story is because it doesn’t have your usual Hollywood ending. It leaves you questioning your idea of how we look at people—criminals, even ourselves—and what happens when we get extremely obsessed with something. After I read it, I kept turning it over in my mind.”
“I often gravitate to writer/directors, and John Lee is an extraordinary one,” says Malek “When I read the script, and again when I stepped on set, I instantly felt this was going to be a special movie. The story had a wonderful nostalgic feeling that you don’t often see in films these days, and the character was unlike any other I’ve played. That was something I was excited about, playing the duality of a man having this job that can be so daunting emotionally and psychologically, and then going home to a family where you still have to be the father and husband. There was something in the challenge of that that I thought would be special.”
Hancock found through researching the characters as he was writing that “there are some cops who are better at compartmentalizing than others, who are able to go home, take a shower, put a smile on their face, kiss their kids and have a normal life. That’s Baxter—at least, for now. Then there’s the ones who aren’t like that, and that can be a very dark tunnel to fall into.”
A key element that stirs debate between Deke and Baxter stems from the complex nature of their prime suspect, Albert Sparma. Producer Mark Johnson surmises the film’s suspense grows in part because he keeps both the cops and the audience guessing. “Albert Sparma is a man that we can safely say is culpable,” Johnson states. “The question is: of what?”
Jared Leto, who takes on the oddly inscrutable Sparma, had met with Hancock before and says, “I have wanted to work with John Lee for quite some time, he’s such an incredible writer and director. When I first read the script, I really was taken in by the characters and he did a great job of keeping you on the edge of your seat. The story poses questions not just about guilt or innocence, but assumptions, identity. It was surprising and I think people are going to be shocked by the ending.”
“Albert Sparma could be a villain,” Leto says. “He could be a red herring… He could even be a sort of savior. He’s definitely an outcast who doesn’t really fit into society and probably feels a little underappreciated, but he’s highly intelligent. He sees the world in a different way and the world—the police especially—see him as different, which I liked. He probably gets under the skin of everybody he interacts with, especially the police.”
In preparing for the role, Leto says, “I spent a lot of time on his physicality; I was pretty adamant that it be a real transformation, that we’d go as far as we could without losing the audience, as far as the performance goes. And that was really rewarding. It was a fun character to play because there were no rules. For whatever reasons, he’s not able to have a job that reflects his intelligence and abilities, so I think that’s why Albert is attracted to Rami and Mr. Washington’s characters, because of the complexity of their work. He thinks of himself as a part-time detective, something he does in his free time.”
Considering their collective acting pedigrees, free time is not something Hancock’s cast appears to have much of. “First and foremost as a filmmaker, you want really talented actors, of course,” Hancock comments. “But you don’t really ever dream this big because you’re sure to have your hopes dashed. I can’t imagine better actors in these roles, so it must have just been the perfect time for this movie to be made.”
From Page To Screen
For the filmmakers, “The Little Things’” path to the screen was almost as long and circuitous as the one Sparma leads Deke and Baxter down. Busy with various projects both as a writer and director over the years, Hancock’s own path would nevertheless frequently cross with Johnson’s. Having produced one of Hancock’s earliest scripts, followed by two of his films as director, Johnson never forgot the work they did developing this one in particular. He offers, “‘The Little Things’ script was a producer’s dream: this spectacularly dark crime story that’s really a character study about what it means to be a cop and how the obsessive nature of that job can take over your life, infused with the kind of suspense and anxiety that keeps you turning the pages.”
“Every few years Mark would ask me about this one and I would always tell him I was not quite there yet, not ready to do it,” Hancock reflects. “Then I started having discussions with friends who had loved the script and urged me to revisit it.”
Once they decided to move forward, Hancock and Johnson debated about whether to contemporize it for a modern audience. “That was one of our biggest questions,” Johnson notes. “When he wrote it initially, it was not a period piece. He had done his research based upon detectives working in the L.A. County Sheriff’s Department in the early 1990s, and it’s set in 1990. But we’re making it now, so do we update it? In the end, we left it alone for a lot of reasons,” he smiles.
Primarily, as Hancock elaborates, “One of the main advantages of keeping it in 1990 was from a technology standpoint. We didn’t have cell phones yet, you had to use pay phones or pagers, and it was before widespread use of DNA evidence, which changed everything about crime scene work. So the lack of today’s technology alone, I think, makes this particular story that much more compelling.”
“In the early days of DNA, you had to wait a long time for results,” Johnson furthers, “which isn’t exactly easy for cops like Deke and Baxter, who know that getting a suspect off the streets means you might prevent a killer from killing again.”
No matter the era, the story offers powerful insight into the toll the investigation of these murders takes on both Deke and Baxter’s psyches. Johnson considers, “The story presupposes that you can’t do this kind of work and not have it affect you. Deke and Baxter go into crime scenes where somebody has viciously attacked someone, and that image burns itself into their memory and into their soul. It’s messy, but as cops, they have to look hard at every little detail because the little things are important. It’s the culmination of these images that makes these two men not only who they are but who they are afraid of becoming.”
Hence the title of the film, which held fast throughout the years. Hancock allows, “I don’t know how I came up with the title, but it’s meant to denote the tiny details that will do you in. On the one hand, it speaks to the homicide investigation—some minute detail, whether it’s forensics or something else, can make or break a case. But on the other hand it shines a light on the characters.”
Reflecting on the story, this internal exploration of the cop-suspect dynamic, Hancock says, “By the end of the movie, what I hope audiences will walk away wondering about Albert Sparma is, was he just kind of a creepy weirdo or a killer? But what I hope they also keep thinking about are the actions of Deke and Baxter and those little things they can’t let go of as they do the dirty work no one wants to know about. Two guys trying to do the right thing but sometimes in the wrong way… But they do it anyway, and they live with the consequences.”
Director/Writer/Producer John Lee Hancock
John Lee Hancock has established himself as a distinctive voice in filmmaking with his ability to tell extraordinary stories on screen.
Born in Longview, Texas and raised in Texas City, Texas, Hancock was surrounded by sports growing up. His father played college football for Baylor and had a brief run with the Chicago Cardinals in the NFL. Brothers Joe and Kevin played college football (at Vanderbilt and Baylor, respectively), with Kevin playing professionally for the Indianapolis Colts. When it was time for Hancock to go to college, he focused on his studies entirely.
He graduated from Baylor with an English degree, as well as a law degree from Baylor’s school of Law. Hancock practiced law for four years before he found himself drawn to the world of films.
In 1991, Hancock made his film debut with Hard Time Romance, a romantic comedy set against the backdrop of a rodeo, which he both wrote and directed. In 1993, he wrote the screenplay for A Perfect World, directed by and starring Clint Eastwood, alongside Kevin Costner. Some years later, Eastwood asked Hancock to adapt the book Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil. The film came out in 1997, was directed by Eastwood and starred Kevin Spacey and John Cusack.
Most recently, Hancock directed The Highwaymen, a true story about the two detectives tasked with catching infamous outlaws Bonnie and Clyde, which debuted on Netflix in March 2019.
Previously, Hancock directed The Founder, which tells the story of McDonald’s founder Ray Kroc; and Saving Mr. Banks, about the relationship between Walt Disney and P.L. Travers, and Disney’s desire to adapt Travers’ Mary Poppins into a film.
Hancock also wrote and directed the celebrated feature The Blind Side, based on the 2006 book by Michael Lewis, which told the life story of Baltimore Ravens left tackle, Michael Oher.
In 2002, Hancock helmed The Rookie. The film told the true story of fellow Texan Jim Morris, who at age 35 made his Major League Baseball debut as a pitcher for the Tampa Bay Devil Rays.
Hancock’s other credits include: Snow White and the Huntsman, which he co-wrote with Evan Daugherty and Hossein Amini; TheAlamo, which he directed and co-wrote with Les Bohem and Stephen Gaghan; and My Dog Skip, for which he served as a producer.