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Faculty Spotlight: John Hancock

October 15, 2013

By Sean McEntee ('14)

John Hancock, adjunct faculty member in Cinema Art + Science, graduated high school wanting to be a concert violinist. But after witnessing a 13-year-old who was “ten times better” than he was, Hancock had to devise a back-up plan—directing.

With accolades including an Obie award, an Academy Award nomination, and multiple works with big names such as Robert De Niro and Nick Nolte, it’s safe to say things worked out for the best.

“I was immediately good at [directing] and got a lot of positive feedback and enjoyed doing it,” Hancock says. “I found out very young what I wanted to do...Never been a possibility of anything else--from day one [of directing] it’s been this.”

Hancock grew up in Berwyn and Cicero, Illinois, and attended Harvard University, where he started directing plays. After graduating with a degree in English in 1961, Hancock made his way to New York City and directed his first Off Broadway show—Man Equals Man—at 22 years old. His success in New York landed him work as the artistic director of the San Francisco Actor’s Workshop, and later the Pittsburgh Playhouse.

In 1968, Hancock returned to New York to direct A Midsummer Night’s Dream, which won him an Obie Award for Distinguished Director. Like many directors, Hancock says, films like Lawrence of Arabia and The Bridge on the River Kwai prompted him to give film a shot. He was given a grant from the American Film Institute (AFI) in 1970 to make a short film, Sticky My Fingers...Fleet My Feet, a humorous story about businessmen who played football in Central Park, which was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Short Subject, Live Action Subjects. Hancock went on to direct well-known films Bang the Drum Slowly (1973), Weeds (1987), and Prancer (1989), along with episodes of The Twilight Zone and Hill Street Blues and as many as 500 Kmart commercials. After 12 years in New York and 25 years in Malibu, California (with his house burning down in a 1994 wildfire), Hancock and his wife, actress and screenwriter Dorothy Tristan, thought, “Indiana looks awfully good at this point” and relocated to the Midwest.

Hancock has been teaching directing courses at Columbia since fall 2012, and the experience has been a self-reflective one.

“It’s caused me to think about what I do when I direct,” he says. “It’s been an interesting insight into my own directing, to teach directing. You do a lot of things intuitively and to try and convey to students to do that and trust yourself is a strange combination of planning and seeing what’s in front of you.”

Hancock’s recent effort, Swan Song, was filmed this past summer in Indiana and Michigan and included several Columbia students, alumni, faculty, and staff. The film, written by Tristan, is about a “grandmother who wants to desperately connect with her granddaughter in a meaningful way and share her history.

“I deliberately set out for [Swan Song] to be my best work and I think I may have achieved it,” Hancock says. “I’m thrilled with the editing process and the footage and the script, I think it’s going to be wonderful.”