GOSHEN — John D. Hancock doesn’t waste time getting in the way of a great story.
When he’s in the director’s chair, he lets the actors explore their characters. When he gives a talk, he prefers taking questions over delivering his own prepared remarks.
And that’s maybe why he finds it so difficult to teach others how he makes his art come to life onstage and onscreen.
The Academy Award-nominated director will be one of the featured guests during this year’s River Bend Film Festival, Thursday through Saturday, in Goshen. The noted director will present a one-hour talk about “The Art of Filmmaking” at 4 p.m. Friday, during an appearance at Art House.
“Both at Columbia College in Chicago and at Second City, the Harold Ramis Film School, I’ve been trying to teach directing for the last 10 years,” said Hancock, who lives in LaPorte, a town he has memorialized onscreen several times since “Prancer.” “It seems to be harder [to teach] than you would think, and I don’t know why. Perhaps if something is easy for you, it’s hard to convey how easy it is.”
Midwest-raised and Harvard-educated, Hancock worked in Europe before the release of his 1970 short, “Sticky My Fingers … Fleet My Feet.” The acclaimed film, grant-funded by the American Film Institute, won the attention of critics and led to his Oscar nomination. His greatest works, including “Bang the Drum Slowly” and “Prancer,” explore stories, ideas and emotions beyond their settings, respectively baseball and Christmas.
“I don’t do a lot of directing. I try to cast, then free them up and light a fire,” Hancock said of his directing methods. “I might tell them ‘faster’ or ‘that’s a little tame,’ something. But mostly, I just trust the actors to do the work. ...
“At the time of ‘Bang the Drum Slowly,’ people admired the novel. But baseball was thought to be poison at the box office. They said, ‘So you’re taking on baseball and cancer?” Hancock said. “But it’s not a baseball movie. It’s about the forgotten man. It’s about friendship. It’s about love for somebody that’s not especially lovable. Same goes for 'Prancer' — it’s more about childhood dreams than Christmas.”
Hancock’s most recently released work, “The Looking Glass,” was screened at the 2016 Goshen festival. His next film, “The Girls of Summer,” has been turned over for scoring and mixing and will be ready for consideration by early summer.
Like four of his other works, “The Girls of Summer” was filmed in northern Indiana.
“We have the cooperation and the ability here. We’re not spoiled, and the community welcomes it,” Hancock said of the differences between Michiana and Hollywood. “If you want a location here, people say, ‘I’ll stay in a hotel and won’t bother you.’ In L.A., they want $10,000 a day. You can make a lot of movie here for the price.”
He also finds himself lucky to have such a strong teammate in the house. His wife, Dorothy Tristan, has been a collaborator on seven projects since they married in the mid-1970s — including an uncredited co-writing role on “Prancer.”
“It’s been the most rewarding relationship in my life,” Hancock said. “We have each other’s back. I don’t mind a bit bringing the work home.”
As for how, exactly, he does that work, he hasn’t quite yet mastered how to teach others. Except by example. At talks like the one he’ll give at River Bend, “The real question that lurks in their minds: ‘How can I get in the business?’” Hancock said. “I can share how I did it, the process, but it’s really not hard if you have a knack for it.
“... One of the things that surprised me over the years, actors who work with me then decide they can direct. ‘Well … if he can do it,’ that sort of thing. Did I find it insulting? Maybe once.”
IF YOU GO
WHAT: “The Art of Filmmaking with John Hancock,” part of the River Bend Film FestivalWHEN: 4 p.m. Friday, May 3WHERE: Art House, 211 S. Main St., Goshen (second floor, enter from parking lot behind the building)COST: Festival passes range in price from $12-$160, depending on access and number of days attending. Discounts are available for students, seniors and military.
To purchase tickets, or for more information, visit riverbendfilmfest.com.
Notable Works of John D. Hancock
• “Sticky My Fingers … Fleet My Feet” (1970 short), nominated for Academy Award
• “Bang the Drum Slowly” (1973)
• “California Dreaming” (1979)
• “Weeds” (1987)
• “Steal the Sky” (1988 TV movie)
• “Prancer” (1989)
• “A Piece of Eden” (2000)
• “The Looking Glass” (2015)
Also, Hancock directed multiple television episodes of “Hill Street Blues” (1985) and “The Twilight Zone” (1985-86).