If “The Little Things” seems like a movie from another time, it is. John Lee Hancock wrote the script 28 years ago, back when he wrote the Kevin Costner vehicle “A Perfect World” for director Clint Eastwood. Steven Spielberg was interested, but found the drama about the fight to find an L.A. serial killer too noir. Eastwood considered it, then Warren Beatty. Then Danny DeVito.
“I put in a drawer, and didn’t think about it,” said Hancock, who went on to direct “The Rookie,” “The Alamo,” and “The Blind Side.” “But every couple years, Johnson called.” (That would be Oscar- and Emmy-winning producer Mark Johnson, who worked with Hancock on “The Rookie” and “the Alamo.” “I was patient,” Johnson said. “Someday we’ll make this.”)
“The Little Things” seems commercial enough: Set in the 1990s, it’s a thriller about grizzled ex-LAPD detective Joe Deacon (Denzel Washington) who goes into exile after an unsolved serial killer case goes terribly wrong. When he visits LA and reconnects with his old department, he meets hotshot detective Jim Baxter (Rami Malek), who is pursuing a serial killer with striking similarities to the cold case. As the men partner to chase their suspect (Jared Leto), Deacon sees shades of his obsessive self in his ambitious counterpart who starts to favor work over family.
However, Hancock’s script didn’t fit thriller formulas. “It was subverting a genre,” he said. “It seemed that all psychological thrillers, serial killer movies, and crime dramas had two interesting parts followed by a third with twists and misdirections. In the third act, you identify who the bad guy is and face off with him, usually in an action sequence, and the good guy dispatches the bad guy in a grisly way.”
Suffice to say, that’s not how this movie plays out and Hancock resisted requests to “fix” his third act. “The thematic intentions are different than people thought they would be,” he said. “There’s no joy in Mudville at the end of this movie.”
Both detectives unravel in this dark journey, as the older man tries to rescue the younger from the demons that plagued him. Hancock acknowledges a bit of Orson Welles’ “Touch of Evil” in this story of good cops doing bad things to nail their suspect. “These are men trying to do the right thing in all the wrong ways,” he said.
The script’s darkness was enough to dissuade Hancock himself: He and his wife were raising two kids, and he wasn’t ready to spend a couple of years living with this material. Finally, with Hancock’s kids in college, Johnson persuaded him to show the script to two friends, Scott Frank (“The Queen’s Gambit”) and Brian Helgeland (“L.A. Confidential”), who urged him to direct it himself. Hancock read it for the first time in a decade.
“I look back and see a young writer,” he said. “There’s some bravery in that, and lack of experience and execution, but I really liked it. There were a few things I wanted to clean up. And a contemporary piece became a period piece without the script changing. When I wrote it, we were pre-DNA, pre-cell phones for cops, and on and on. Also, it was before all the CSI cop investigation shows on TV every week.” That allowed Hancock to excise a lot of forensic exposition. He also turned the character of Deacon’s medical examiner buddy into a woman (Michael Hyatt), but “The Little Things” remains a story about three powerful alpha males.
Warners gave the rare greenlight for a mid-range ($50 million) adult drama and motion picture chief Toby Emmerich was ready to talk casting. Hancock brought up Washington, with whom he collaborated on several production rewrites including “Safe House” and “The Magnificent Seven.” Washington was able to fit “The Little Things” into his schedule before “Macbeth” — if they shot within a few months.
“You know a good read,” said Washington at the film’s video premiere. “This type of thing doesn’t happen that often, when you do want to star. It’s easy when it’s good.”
During pre-production, Washington would call every day with multiple questions ranging from inquiries into his character to blocking scenes. Finally, Hancock arranged for Washington to have an office next to his on the Warners lot. The two men kept their doors open so they could come and go.
“Just watching his mind work when he plays a complicated character is so interesting,” said Hancock. “We spent prep talking about everything, which served us both when shooting with the budget we had. We had to move quickly to answer as many questions as we can. Sometimes it was about the music from the radio, listening to love songs of the ’50s and ’60s that Joe Deacon would listen to.”
Washington found his Joe Deacon “at the bottom of a quart of Häagen-Dazs,” he said. “That’s where he lived. Then I’d pick up a quart of butter pecan and work my way through that.” He also plowed through episodes of A&E homicide detective reality series “The First 48,” noting their behavior and “wondering what does this accumulation of cases do to a person? They seem to be so regular, going about their job. It made me realize, they laugh and joke all the time. They took their work seriously, but didn’t take themselves seriously.”
During filming, Hancock paid attention to Washington even when he had no dialogue, “to take advantage of the quiet moment,” he said, “just observing, watching, because we know things are going on in his head. He’s going to react to actors in the scene with him, and give you lots of choices.”
Oscar-winners Malek (“Bohemian Rhapsody”) and Leto (“Dallas Buyers Club”) are strong enough to hold their own with Washington. For his part, Leto played with nose and teeth prosthetics and colored contact lenses. “I looked at an opportunity to go on an adventure,” he said at the premiere, “and experiment a little, take some risks.”
“Jared brought unpredictability to every moment,” said Malek. “These two guys are always in the moment.” Malek saw his character as a “departure from the things I usually do,” he said. “He’s a guy who does things by the numbers until he doesn’t. I like to see this crisp, clean, meticulous-looking guy start to unravel not only inside but out toward the end.”
Production wrapped the day before Thanksgiving 2019, and Hancock’s editor Rob Frazen was well along when the pandemic drove everyone home in mid-March. Hancock became aware that protests in the aftermath of George Floyd’s May 2020 murder would impact on how people perceived his tale of cops gone rogue.
“You’re always thinking of a story through a contemporary lens,” he said. “As we’ve come forward through the last year, more light has been shown on this through Black Lives Matter and lots of different cases. I think there’s getting away with it and getting away with it.”
This movie is a rarity in the COVID age: It’s coming out on its original release date. And, thanks to the Oscar delay, that places two-time winner Washington (“Glory,” “Training Day”) back in the awards fray. Count Hancock among those who would have liked the day-and-date 2021 HBO Max decision to have been better communicated. “These are trying times,” he said. “But after the initial disappointment, more than anything it was the way it came down.” Hancock said he and Johnson got the call from Warners production executive Courtenay Valenti 30 minutes before the press release.
Washington was furious, Hancock confirmed. “It was a one-size-fits-all equation to fit every movie, regardless of how it was financed, regardless of the backend participant,” he said. “It was not what anybody signed on for. Then lawyers started rolling up their sleeves and getting down to it, and in pretty short order we got to a place. He didn’t have to love it, but he was fine with it. He loves the movie.”
“The rules of the game have changed,” said Johnson. “It’s what we had to do. Everybody has been made happy.”
Because “The Little Things” was the first 2021 title with the new HBO Max model, “they jumped in quickly, and had to get materials together,” Hancock said. “Warners needed this as badly as we did. If this fails, it’s going to blow up in their faces. They had to show they could put a great movie out so people can see and it can be received well by both film lovers and critics. Then they’ve gotten over the first hurdle, and have 16 more.”
Finally, every movie has its time. “When a script comes up and it’s time for it to get made,” said Hancock, “you do it or it’s gone forever.”