The Blind Side is the real-life story of the Tuohys - a white Christian family, living in Memphis, who put feet to their faith and take in a homeless African-American teen who was lost in the system. That teen was to Michael Oher - who is now in his rookie year with the Baltimore Ravens. Director and screenwriter John Lee Hancock talked with me recently about why Hollywood has such difficulty accurately portraying Christians in films, how he responds to cynics, and why anyone can be a hero.
Marc Newman: Why do you think it is so hard for Hollywood to capture authentic Christianity?
John Lee Hancock: I think it's stereotypes in general that Hollywood is drawn to, and I think it's just laziness. I think it's one of those things where it's so much easier to put somebody in a box and say that's this type of person; whether it's a Southern conservative, a Christian woman, it's "No, you don't have to say anymore. We got it." No. Everybody's different, everybody's complicated. Everybody's got their own set of problems and issues and personalities. It's no different than saying, "Oh! New York cab driver. I got it." And we do, kind of. Part of the stereotype is always true. But you've got to go deeper than that. C'mon. You know there are a million stories of a million people from all walks of life that lead their lives differently. And I think, in general, just bad storytelling is to blame.
MN: So how did you overcome that?
JLH: It's a constant battle. I find myself doing it as well. With The Perfect World, one of my first scripts that got made, I had this sniper, and he was consistently this tough, mean, bad guy who was going to fell Kevin Costner in the end, and I look back on it now, even though I like the movie, and I think, "Boy, I should have done a better job of that." I'm not saying that he's not going to do what he's going to do, but he has to be more interesting than that. So I think it's just easy, I think it's just sheer laziness, and in some ways it's not helped by the fact that when you're flipping the channels and there's this guy with the big silver wig preaching and they go, "Yup! There he is."
MN: So, in Hollywood you write what you know, and when you don't know, you write what you see?
MN: So what kind of fine line do you have to walk between authenticity and what some might call moral "preachiness" in order to engage a general audience? I was overwhelmed by how much Leigh Anne and Sean Tuohy - played by Sandra Bullock and Tim McGraw, but based, of course, on the real people - were like other people I happen to know from my own church. The Tuohy's come across on the screen just like these ordinary people. What did it take for you to strike that balance?
JLH: This didn't have to be a story about a family that was a Christian family. It could have easily been a family with no belief at all, I mean, no religious faith, but a great deal of faith in human nature and who do the right thing. So it wasn't a requirement of the story that they be Christians, but it's a true story, and they are, so you want to be true to that and you want to be true to who they are. And I think that just makes it more interesting. If this were, from a Hollywood standpoint, if this were the story of the liberal, Northeastern family that takes this kid in, then, from a Hollywood standpoint, that's expected, and so it becomes a boring story. So in this one, you stab a little bit at their stereotypes and say, now you have to look deeper. Don't write people off, no matter what, don't look at them and go, "Oh yeah, you're this, okay, I've defined you. I know you." Cause you don't.
MN: I also think the opposite happens as well. The faith, instead of being lampooned, is ignored. I remember watching Spielberg's remake of War of the Worlds, and it struck me as odd that nobody prayed. I think that if my world had been invaded by giant spaceships killing everything in sight, at some point, someone might pray. So I love the scene around the table where Leigh Anne Tuohy had taken Thanksgiving for granted - her family is together, all is well, but she sees Michael sitting at the table wanting to have a Norman Rockwell moment, and she gives it to him. They gather around and say grace.
JLH: I do remember something Leigh Anne said, "Michael, for not having a family, in some ways had a better idea of what a family was than we did. They are a great family. They are fantastic people. But, like everyone else, they're doing their thing, so I tried to visually show that - they're watching football, they're doing this and that and it's Thanksgiving and there's nothing wrong with that. They're a family spending Thanksgiving together, but Michael had this idealized view of what it should be. He loved the idea of family, which is why he is constantly trying to make his way back to his mother after every foster care experience.
MN: You use a Norman Rockwell painting of a family at Thanksgiving as a kind of iconic representation.
JLH: Yes, it's titled "Freedom from Want." I was thinking, "How can I encapsulate this and show in little steps how Michael's concept of family is a better one that even the Tuohy's?" And so this was my device to do that.
MN: Some, the more cynical critics, are going to say that this is just another movie about rich, white people, who fix the life of some poor black kid. You clearly preempt this kind of analysis in the film, because this movie isn't just a story about the redemption of Michael Oher, there is a sense in which this story is a redemption of the Tuohy's as well. And yet, a lot of people, just looking at the surface, might not think that they have anything to be redeemed from. What do you want audience members, many of whom are more likely to reflect the Tuohy's than Michael, what do you want them to get out of this?
JLH: Well, the Tuohy's are normal people. They're your average American who eats three meals a day, has a bed, has a life in school, and has all that stuff. First, I know that there will be cynics who will say, "Oh, it's paternalistic, it's white guilt, it's white man's burden, it's that old tale again." One, the movie is true - so can it be a cliché if it's true? That's for them to figure out. Another thing is that I never looked at this as a discussion of race as much as a discussion of haves and have-nots and nature vs. nurture. It's amazing how a kid who has been discarded socially and educationally, as a non-factor in terms of this world, is given a bed, a roof, a family, an emphasis on education, and, magically, he's at Ole Miss making the dean's list. That has nothing to do with race. It's nurturing. And that ought to be the wake up call, if there is one. Leigh Anne Tuohy did not stop that car and put Michael Oher in because he was black, she stopped that car and put him in because he was cold.
MN: A lot of Michael's redemption in this film comes at the hands of the young kids, and yet all of the things that happen between the kids and Michael go unseen by the adults, but it doesn't, of course, go unseen by us. How do you incorporate the viewpoint of children into the film?
JLH: I think that there is a stereotype of children, you see so many. For example, teenage girls, they are always rolling their eyes and being irritated, and that's not to say that there isn't an element of that in going through teenage years...'
MN: Like in Mean Girls?
JLH: Yeah, all that. And I thought when I met Collins [the Tuohy's teenage daughter] I said, "She's not that." So I'm going to be true to Collins, and I'm not going to make her a wimp. She's a strong young woman, who has her own ideas, and keeps things to herself that are troubling her. And I wanted her to have her own life - not to be seen by other adults, but just by the audience - to show that she makes her own mind up about things. I wanted to show that when mom is the type that always has a project coming in, you better roll with it, and that's not always easy. Because their personalities, which in real life are a lot alike, in the film I didn't want to make Collins out to be a "mini-me." I thought that SJ [their youngest son] would be more like Leigh Anne, and Collins would be more like Tim [McGraw who plays Sean Tuohy].
MN: One pivotal point in the whole movie is where SJ walks up to Michael and tells him to "Smile at people, and that's how they'll know you like them." It's an incredible moment. It reminded me in the Bible where we are told, "and a little child shall lead them."
JLH: There was a whole speech that followed that, which got cut out due to time, where SJ says, "Did you know that even little babies, born blind, smile? They've never seen anybody do it and they do it anyway. It's universal. That's why it works. Not that you should fake it, or anything."
MN: Well, there's always the directors cut...
JLH: Yeah, it was okay to cut it, but it ends up being just what it needs to be.
MN: Throughout the film, you effectively use the glimpse as a means of revealing what is normally hidden - a drawing on a test, a teacher who retrieves a cast off note that's really a poem - which I thought was very beautiful.
JLH: That really happened. I may have changed it slightly, but that was something that Michael Oher wrote.
MN: There seems to be a lot of serendipity in those glimpses, but the ability to see the truth is really important.
JLH: The real hero of this film is Mrs. Beasley [Michael's biology teacher at Briarcrest Christian School - credited on IMDB as Mrs. Boswell], because if Mrs. Beasley hadn't taken an interest in him, how much longer do you think he would have gone to that school? It would have been just easier not to. She said, "That's a brave kid to go to that school." And to go day after day when you don't understand what's going on. And that one teacher makes the difference.
MN: By the same token, as a professor myself, I was so thankful that the other teacher, the literature teacher, was tough but fair. He was not going to pass this kid because he was an athlete; he was going to make him do the work. And then he did it! So, there was this nurturing side, but also the demanding side that also demonstrated Michael's accomplishment. There is a similarity between this film and some of the other films you've done, for example The Rookie - this obscure man, talents hidden, which are manifested at the right time, and through the support of family and friends, they become achievers. Even if not great - Michael is in his rookie year with the Ravens, so we don't yet know how great he will be, but we hope he will be a great football player - they achieve. Even in The Alamo, there are some people you highlight that a lot of people don't know. What draws you to these kinds of films?
JLH: The kind of stories I am drawn to are the ordinary man doing extraordinary things. That's far more interesting than superheroes to me. The unexpected hero. The normal person who finds himself in the situation where they have to rise to the occasion.
MN: Do you think that anybody can be that person?
JLH: Yes, absolutely.
MN: What does it take?
JLH: I think it requires taking stock of your life regularly and saying "What are the things I can do?" Because one of the lessons of this movie, at least for me, is that you always get more than you give. So where can I give, and then benefit, because it flows both ways. So if people could just take stock of themselves, ask themselves "Who am I today and what can I do to be a better person?" People need to recognize that their lives are a finite thing on this earth - minutes going by, weeks going by - and if people will take stock and choose to improve, then they will be equipped. My dad used to say, "You don't judge a man in the good times, you judge them in the hard times." If you have prepared, then you will be equipped to do extraordinary things when the opportunity comes.
MN: The film opens with Leigh Anne describing the components of the perfect left tackle. The sense is that Michael was made by God to be this kind of person. Most people do not have exceptional physical attributes, like Michael. They don't have the business sense, like Sean, or the sense of style, like Leigh Anne. What do average people get out of watching a story about exceptional people?
JLH: It's a good question. Leigh Anne said, when you've got somebody that has this gift, genetically and otherwise, that we are willing, as a society to reward financially, that's one way of looking at things. But another way is looking at the kid who doesn't play football, is there no value to that? Of course there is. It's just that some values are recognized and others aren't. True stories become movies because they are bigger than life examples. Just because something is not "movie worthy" doesn't mean its not a good story in your personal life. To me, this wasn't a sports movie. I end it with him going to Ole Miss for a reason. The football's gravy, though it was certainly a component in terms of the interest of colleges in Michael. The Tuohy's could have paid for college - they are wealthy people - it wasn't about that. It was the Tuohy's bringing Michael into the house that is the story. If he had never played a down of football it didn't matter. They were going to have him on track to go to college. And he did and he was successful. That is why the film is not structured like a sports movie, it is structured like a relationship drama.