Netflix’s latest feature, “The Highwaymen”, tells the story of Bonnie and Clyde’s demise through the eyes of the two former Texas Rangers that tracked them down. It’s a fascinating and vastly different experience from the 1967 “Bonnie and Clyde” classic. I and a handful of other journalists spoke with Director John Lee Hancock and Writer John Fusco about their unique approach to this story.
TCF: One of the things I really loved was how we see Bonnie and Clyde throughout the entire film. And then at the climax, it really resonates on multiple levels because of their betrayal visually. What was the inspiration behind that? Like was it in the script, did it get developed along the way?
JohnLee Hancock: It’s twofold.
John Fusco: Yeah.
Hancock: It was in the script. John described them in such a way that you never quite got the look you wanted at ’em. And so then when I came on board, I thought this was an exciting opportunity to have two very different visual styles at play that meet at the ambush site. And so talking to John Schwartzman, our great DP, 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, and shiny cars. I wanted it to look fast. I want it to look sexy. I want it to do 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, I get this. I’ve seen Penn’s movie. They are sexy and fast, and the cars are fast and they’re amazing, they’re beautiful and all that. And then when they enter the naturalistic part of the movie, we stay with Frank and Manny through more of a naturalistic style when they enter it and they pull up and we get a good look at their face, they’re scrawny kids.
So, on the one hand, the public in 1934 has been duped that we’ve come across and, you know, and hopefully the audience has been duped as well, saying, It’s not what I expected. And there’s that also. It’s not like ha-ha, gotcha, pulled the rug out. It’s more of an everything about this enterprise is ugly. And now I’ve gotta kill kids on top of it.
What inspired you to share this story?
Fusco: I grew up with a real fascination with outlaws. Gangsters. I think if you look at my work you’ll realize that. And, 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. And so I wanted to know everything I could after that movie about them. And I remember I had these books that had really, my mother didn’t want me to have them ’cause it had graphic crime scene photos, but I was like obsessed. But as I started researching, I realized, Wow, you know what, they’re not, they weren’t Faye Dunaway and Warren Beatty. And 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 antagonist, Frank Hamer, 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 and his life and saw that no one ever abducted him and tied him up in the back of a car and spit on him and sexually taunted him, put him in a row boat 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, who had, took on the KKK single handedly, out of exemplifying that one-riot-one-Ranger ethos. And was like a really cool western hero to me as a kid. So suddenly here I was, you know, going from the gangster worship to, Wow. Hamer kind of 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 and eventually as my writing career is going on, it was still in the back of my mind that, you know. And it had nothing to do with a corrective or an 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 film-making generation who was inspired by it. There’s no denying that. I just felt like, Wow, that, that side of the story about two retired Texas Rangers, coming out of retirement to enter the gangster era is a really cool Western. And kind of elegiac, ride the high country type of story.
What I found was if you dig underneath the veneer of the legend you find that the history can be a lot uglier and more crude, but it’s always more fascinating.
Hancock: For me, you know John, was there from the start, wrote it, and so I was just reading the script that came to me. And being from Texas, I knew some of Frank Hamer, who is the most legendary Texas Ranger. Of course, knew some about Bonnie and Clyde. But for me, I was just, I mean, I’m a huge fan of the ’67 film. And I watch it all the time. But it wasn’t so much the Bonnie and Clyde of it for me. 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 and they know what it’s going to look like and what’s at the end of the road waiting for them. And there’s no one they can talk to. Almost like veterans of battle or something. There’s no one they can talk to but each other.
And so it was kind of the men-loving-men, these two guys together, that drew me in. And I looked at as, if anything, a companion piece to Bonnie and Clyde. I mean, not to say that you’re not aware of it when you’re making the film. Of course you are. I mean, you’ve got one of the more famous cinematic scenes is the ambushing Bonnie and Clyde, and so you approach it and go, What can we do that’s different. Not as an answer to it. Or not as pushback or anything. I think it’s like, No, you don’t want the comparison. You can’t outdo the operatic ballet of bullets. You know, which was fantastic.
So you go, Okay, our option is we’re going to play it in real time. Nothing’s going to be slow-mo. Everything is going to be real. It’s going to be brutally violent. And it’s going to be bloody and it’s going to be as promised. It’s going to be worse than promised. And so, 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. So anyway, that was what drew me to it, was that kind of heavy, dark, lonely journey.
Fusco: I think what John recognized in that, and is what we really set out to mind, is that this story, the weight that these two guys carry, things that they’ve done and now the thing they have to do to finish out that moral gravitas.
I loved the friendship they had but then they also worked well together. Did either of you want those angles to show on the screen, more of their friendship or how well they worked together, and which one was more important?
Hancock: You’re always hopeful that you don’t, the thing you don’t want to do is, let’s flashback to when Manny and Frank were in their 20s in South Texas or something like that. You’ve got a certain imparity, 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 repertoire and 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 Manny might be up for the job, speaks to that, to me. And then hopefully you can get them on the road and then that would be inherent.
The film deals closely with sensationalizing violence and how the papers reporting constantly on Bonnie and Clyde’s escapades was sort of making them into small-town heroes. Unless I’m reading your movie wrong, the movie sort of complicity condemns that, the sensationalizing of Bonnie and Clyde’s violence.
You’ve also talked about these men, and the movie touches on this too, they’re also murderers. They’ve done some pretty terrible, bloody things. There’s a moment in the film where one of them rejects an interview with a newspaper about their killing of Bonnie and Clyde. But now you’ve made a movie about them. Do you think that this film runs the risk of sensationalizing the violence that these men carried out?
Hancock: It doesn’t bother me. I would take exception to calling them murderers as a blanket statement because, you know, if you’re an officer of the law and there’s a person shooting at you and you shoot them, that didn’t come into the definition legally of murders.
Fusco: They were known as manhunters.
Hancock: Yeah. They were man hunters; they’re going after a bad guy and the bad guy has this and, you know, and you could go case by case with a hundred different files maybe, and maybe find something. I’m not disagreeing because I’m not a historian. I think calling them blanket murderers is 100 percent incorrect. Legally.
I was referring to the story that has a big dramatic speech is when they talk about how they broke into a place and shot a bunch of people before they could put their hands up. Some might see that as unethical and more murder than punitive justice.
Hancock: I would go with it being unethical and certainly a gray area. And in that time and place it was unfortunately more common place than one would think. Um, yeah. Do they come to this story without flaws, without demons, without their own stuff. No they don’t. They are dustied up. There’s no doubt about it. They’re not perfect human beings. And I think that’s part of that journey we’re talking about, is this stuff that they regret.
And you know, I think that story Candelaria is a prime example. It’s like maybe we could have handled that differently. Now granted, they killed some of our men and they were firing at us for two days. Maybe we could have handled that differently. And I think that is what the story is kind of about, the burden you carry with that terrible gift. So I would agree that, yes, this is not a, this is not, these aren’t completely righteous men doing the right thing. They are doing kind of 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: For two years, Barrow and Parker were out there and killing, you know, when the law tried to do legal road blocks and get them to surrender, and a lot of that was, no, there’s a woman with him, a girl with him. And these law officers were killed. They had 3,000 rounds of armor-piercing ammunition in that car.
They had three Browning automatic rifles, fully loaded, 10 Colt automatic pistols, three loaded shotguns, other handguns. It was like, I always describe it as, It’s kind of a runaway train with hazardous materials in it. Had to be stopped. Hoover and a 1,000-man dragnet for two years was not able to catch them and it got to the point where we’ve got to go into a dark place and bring out two guys and, you know, who come from another era, come from the old time Ranger school. And so, but it is interesting because, yeah, Hamer was, he was very, he was a humble, quiet guy who did not want to talk about the stuff. Turned down Tom Micks, a movie author. Turned down $10,000 for a book deal.
Hancock: And I think the reason, I mean, 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, he didn’t need the money, why did he take this on. And I think it galled him. And I think they were more than small-town heroes, they were national heroes and then international perhaps. So 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 his wife’s car. The wheel of his wife’s car to go out. Because he didn’t need the money. And maybe that’s an old-fashioned sense of right and wrong, but I think that’s kind of who Frank Hamer was. And did he always do right? Nope. You know, like Ma Ferguson says in the movie, “they 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 wanted really to have come across and why we shot in 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 sense, there was a pervasive sense of the crew and the actors that kind of helped 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. Because it’s this. Over and over and over.
And the other thing, is that when that car comes to a stop, you know there’s no joy in Mudville. It’s not like, “We got ’em! Whoo!” at all. And that’s by all the reports, it’s like it’s done and I’m glad it’s done and it was worse than I thought it would be. And then, as bad as that is, then to see what happens in Arcadia, which, by the way, is 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 dipping handkerchiefs in Bonnie’s blood, putting it in their [inaudible].
Hancock: Taking pieces of the car. It was grotesque. And so, they loved them when they were alive; they loved them when they were dead.
Would that be the start of a revolution? 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 your characters, Woody Harrelson and Kevin Costner, were doing to try to stop them? Their reaction to the law enforcement side of it was very dark and was very unprincipled, and yet they were both men of moral conviction. And I think that signalled a change in the way that 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, we could fill this room with historians and they all 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 for the last person. And you know, 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 and public and invited everybody in.
John Fusco: They toured with a guy, the crime doctor who bought the death car. They went on tour with it with Bonnie Parker’s mother, Emma, and Henry Barrow, Mr. Barrow, who had little cut up little patches of Clyde’s trousers that he was killed in that he’d sell.
Hancock: There’s a funny letter from Bonnie’s mom, right, to Frank Hamer, saying, Those guns weren’t stolen. They’re our property, you must return them. Yeah. Right.
John Fusco: Public sentiment did start to turn. You know, at Grapevine, Texas, Easter morning, April 1st, we’re approaching that anniversary. Those two patrolmen on motorcycles came up. One, it was his first day on the job, and he kept his shotgun shells in his pocket, which we reference. But he did that because he was afraid if he took a spill on his bike the gun might inadvertently kill somebody, an innocent person. So he had to try to get his shells in the gun.
He was scheduled to be married two weeks later, and his widow wore her wedding gown to his funeral. And so those stories started to leak out. Little by little, the public started to feel like, Oh, wait a minute. I mean, my mother remembers her Scottish immigrant father, my grandfather, being obsessed with True Detective magazine, following the saga. It was like a soap opera. She remembers the day where he said, “I didn’t think they got Clyde and Bonnie.” They got them. And it was like [inaudible] They’re done. They’re dead. These lovers on the run.
Hancock: I think you’re right. I think they had a good two-year run when Hoover was chasing them to no avail, where their popularity was high, and I think Grapevine was kind of that last chapter, where all of a sudden they go- Wait a minute…
Fusco: That’s the other thing, the victims, we really, no one ever talks about them, those victims. You know the native American, cold-blooded Chickasaw who had worked so hard to become a deputy sheriff in a white town. Had a family and Clyde killed him, 30-caliber rifle. And all the families who had been left on the bread line. Children raised without fathers during the depression and who had to endure, had to watch the celebrity. Like you know, I’m a young man and I have to go to work ’cause my dad’s been killed by these two, who everybody’s glamorizing. So there was sort of a groundswell, Well wait a minute. Wait a minute. Who are these two?
Did you add Hamer waving at the FBI plane with Hoover because Hoover only really got involved when something was successful?
Fusco: That was my intention in the script, yeah.
Hancock: Hoover really resented Frank Hamer and resented the fact that he was on the case. The other FBI, they weren’t the FBI at that point. There was like a fledgling FBI, which is like the birthright at the beginning. They were other FBI on the ground who did recognize that we’ve got a real pro out there. He might be old school but. Hoover resented him and resented the fact that it took him, for two years he couldn’t get at ’em. This guy went out, using Comanche tracking skills, and caught them. But what really got under his skin was that something came up in the press, it was like, you know, we still got, Dillinger’s still out there and nobody’s got him. Hamer said, well Mr. Hoover would like to have a conversation with you on that.
Fusco: He didn’t like that.
Hancock: He didn’t like Hamer.
With the onset of this creative process, were you setting out to make more of a dramatic feature or more of an action film?
Hancock: I don’t know that our answers are the same, but go ahead.
Fusco: I mean, it’s definitely the drama. You know. It was, really when it comes down to it, you know, that I say ride the high country with that kind of elegiac story of two men who time has passed by and who are carrying the moral weight of things that they had done and something that they have to do.
Hancock: It’s certainly for me the drama because again, we know the outcome. There’s no like are we going to win the big game or not. We know historically what happens, so you hope that you can make the journey interesting enough and about something else thematically so that it’s entertaining.
Fusco: Yeah, it’s not an actioner. And I think we committed to that, to tell you the story on its own terms.
Hancock: And it’s like I was quite taken with the idea. It’s the idea of a guy born a hundred years too late. And that’s Frank Hamer. He’s from a different time. And everything that’s noble about that and everything that’s bad about that..
[Bonnie & Clyde] were very aware… They were branding before there was branding.
Frank was a tracker. Right? And he’s saying, Okay, she’s walking with a limp and that sort of thing. Is that a lost art in police work or with the Rangers today or is that still in practice? Because I find those types of things just fascinating.
Fusco: Yes, as do I. And I study tracking. It’s like a real passion of mine. And Hamer was a guy who, he studied with the Comanche. He really appreciated that skill, and 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 an all native American patrol called the Shadow Wolves, and they use traditional tracking methods. And so they work with, they train border patrol and federal officers in using those old tracking methods.
I was reading in the notes and it says you’ve always been fascinated, “Particularly with what’s under the veneer of myth and folklore.” I’ve seen this in a lot of your screenplays. “The Highwaymen”, obviously, “Thunderheart”, and “Young Guns.” Even like the way Billy the Kid is portrayed. Another folk hero that’s portrayed a little more accurately. What drives that for you as a writer? Is it just pure curiosity? Do you dig into the truth behind all things?
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 like stare at those photos and say, like, how did this Billy the Kid, this diminutive little buck-toothed outlaw in New Mexico, how did he rise to this iconic level? How did that happen? Why were there 42 movies made about him? Where did this legend of a lefthanded gun come from and the fact that he was this lone gunfighter who whistled sad ballads? What I found was if you dig underneath the veneer of the legend you find that the history 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. I think that really applies to this movie.
Are there any other stories that you’re itching to tell.
Fusco: Oh, yeah. Have some coming up!
Hancock: Keep me posted.
Some of the towns that they drive through in this film are obviously very poor. There are a number of establishing shots where its sort of showcasing the destitution that people are living in. And a lot of people who celebrated the criminal and violent acts of Bonnie and Clyde saw them as sort of like the common man’s hero. I think someone in the movie has a line about how they hate the banks.
Fusco: Banks of the devil.
Hancock: Well, they actually say they rob banks. Banks rob from me, essentially.
Exactly. So a lot of people saw them as sort of, like, they’re hitting back at the establishment that’s been screwing us over. What were you intending to try to convey by showing how poor these towns were while also demonstrating how horrible the crimes of Bonnie and Clyde were. Because there’s sort of a disconnect between their robbing from the people that are hurting us but they’re also hurting other people.
Hancock: I think they were kind of giving a little bit of a pass because hatred was so great for the banks and that was the overriding feeling. It’s like the farms or the stores, your houses, the banks are taking them all. Everybody’s hurting. They want them to be Robin Hood, even though they’re not… They’re taking from the rich but they’re not giving to the poor. They’re just robbing, not Robin Hood. So, you know, it’s- But you need a hero. When you’re in that deep, dark place you want a hero and you want somebody who’s going to strike out at the man. And I think in some ways there’s a little of the Penn movie in that too. In terms of the 60s with the Vietnam War and all that. You go, can somebody please do something about this. Can somebody lash out at the man for me? And I think that’s certainly what a lot of people felt about the Penn movie.
Fusco: And I think the lovers on the run element, was- That really appealed to the people. And Bonnie and Clyde, they played into it. They kind of saw this. They were kind of 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. Like John has said before, they were branding before there was branding. If they had Instagram they would have…
Hancock: They’d have a lot of followers!
Hancock: They’d be tweeting every day. More than Trump!
Fusco: Like Dillinger at the time saw himself as a John Gotti. He felt he had class and that and- I’ll admit I don’t know a whole lot about Dillinger, but he saw himself as a bonafide Robin Hood. That he was robbing big, hardcore banks and he was feeding money back to people. And so he would write to papers and say, “Please don’t mention Bonnie and Clyde in the same article with me. You know, those are pint-sized punks who are just like killing gas station attendants and-“
Hancock: It’s like a twitter war between R&B artists or something. With a disconnect to a point. They were willing to overlook part of it. I think part of it was the fact that initially, it was all police officers and I think they were kind of grouped in with the man. Even though the police officers at this time was the guy down the block who, by the way, had to carry his own gun and drive his own car. There were no official cars. And also, I love when you talk about why they were in the press because of the Depression. All anybody wanted to read was-
Fusco: Newspapers, the circulation was plummeting during the Depression. Newspapers were going under. And Publishers were like, Okay, 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.
If it bleeds, it leads.
Fusco: Yeah. And so, that’s what was getting the ink. Bonnie and Clyde, they really played into that. Bonnie always referred to “her public.” “I don’t want my public to think that I smoke cigars, so please let them know that I just took Clyde’s cigar and I was posing for the shot, but I only smoke Lucky’s” I mean, it’s incredible. It’s really an incredible story.
One of the things that struck me about the story structure was you started their journey together in the gun store. And then you end, with that segment before we get into the actual ambush at the end with William Saddler’s soliloquy. At the end, there’s that moral conviction that says, “You’re going to kill my son even though he’s a good person. You’re going to kill my son because it’s the right thing to do.” I thought that that was a nice opus to the end of the film before we get into the ambush. Was that intentional? I think it also bookended the characters journey in the movie.
Hancock: It gives a brand new imperative to Frank’s journey because before it’s just we’ve gotta get him off the road before they kill other people and it’s almost like when Bill Saddler surprises. It was like, “Do it for me. Do it for my family.” It’s like, it’s just yet another thing that he’s carrying with him. It’s like, everybody’s hurting. This has gotta end.
Fusco: I would not be surprised if Hamer had met with Mr. Barrow. He was, Frank was very, very protective of his sources, who he talked to and how he operated, and that follow up that conversation in Arcadia, where Mr. Barrow came to him, and said, “Just completely understand what had to be done. And this had to be ended and I do not hold it against you.” So, it’s possible that they-
Hancock: It almost seems like people that have at least crossed paths.
Fusco: And knowing how Frank operated. He left no stone unturned, took his time. You know he would go into a community, try to talk to the people, try to be reasonable. Try to bring a peaceful close to it. That’s really what he wanted more than anything. He wanted to just get them to surrender and the more he learned, you know when them always showing up to these roadblocks that went wrong. That’s what was happening. Bonnie and Clyde made it very clear, “We are not, we’re not going to surrender. We’ll go down together.” That’s what they said. I think it’s beautiful, the scene that John captured with young Ted Hinton, when Hamer says, “They’re afraid to shoot the girl, and that’s what’s giving Clyde that second he needs to get the drop.”
In a lot of ways, we have this romanticized love story, but you know, he knew he had this girl with him and was saying, “Sit close to me, Honey.”
“The Highway” has a limited theatrical release beginning 3/22/2019, and premieres on NETFLIX on 3/29/19