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John Lee Hancock on directing Mr. Harrigan’s Phone and the enduring appeal of Stephen King

There’s a good chance you’ve seen a film by John Lee Hancock. The veteran writer/director has been behind some of the most critically acclaimed studio movies of the last three decades. He wrote the Clint Eastwood movies A Perfect World in 1993 and Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil in 1997. Later, he directed the baseball movie The Rookie in 2002, the 2004 western The Alamo, the Oscar-nominated 2009 drama The Blind Side, and, most recently, the 2021 thriller The Little Things with Denzel Washington and Jared Leto.

With Mr. Harrigan’s Phone on Netflix, Hancock finally gets to direct a proper horror film. In a conversation with Digital Trends, the director talks about his interest in adapting Stephen King, working with lead star Jaeden Martell, and how the film prioritizes the central relationship between Mr. Harrigan and Craig over cheap thrills.

Digital Trends: John, you’ve dabbled in a variety of genres throughout your career: westerns, dramas, biopics, thrillers. I think this is your first straight-up horror film. So why direct one now in 2022 with this story?

John Lee Hancock: Well, I’m a big Stephen King fan, but I also knew there were different kinds of arenas that Stephen operates in that interested me. One of them is the novella. Rob Reiner took King’s story The Body and turned it into the movie Stand By Me, which isn’t a horror movie.

John Lee Hancock directs two actors in Mr. Harrigan's Phone.

Stephen is great at creating a naturalistic, ordinary world that becomes extraordinary, whether it’s a coming-of-age story or a straight-up horror movie. I read the novella and was drawn to it because of the characters and some of the themes that King was addressing.

What are some of your favorite Stephen King novels?

I like The Body, of course, Rita Hayworth and Shawshank Redemption, and The Green Mile.  I love it in Stephen’s work when there’s a kind of unexpected emotion or magical characteristics, which you get in those stories. And I don’t mean magic like, you know, spells and stuff. I mean something that is inspiring and comes from a character and there’s emotion behind it. And King is really, really good at conveying that.

One thing that I appreciated about the film was the attention paid to the relationship between Craig and Donald Sutherland’s character. Can you speak about how you developed that relationship in the movie? Was it there in the text already or did you have to draw it out and add your own point of view as well?

I think whenever you’ve got a novella that’s 80-something pages, you know you’re going to have to flesh it out a little bit to turn it into a movie, which is a different medium. That said, I think everything was there in the text. It was just about embracing what Stephen had written.

Another thing I liked about the movie was Mr. Harrigan isn’t completely irredeemable. He’s not your standard horror movie boogeyman. Was that a conscious decision on your part to not make him an outright villain and into a flawed character who you feel sympathy for?

Yeah, I don’t find monsters or villains particularly compelling unless there’s some humanity about them. Because that’s what’s scary, is that there’s some humanity there in some way.

Mr. Harrigan’s Phone | Official Trailer | Netflix

In the novella, Mr. Harrigan is very kind to Craig and looks out for him. I wanted to lean in even more to this relationship between two wounded people who carry sorrow around with them. And even though they don’t talk about it, it’s kind of the link from the start between a young boy and a man in his 80s. They have something meaningful in common with one another.

What was it like working with Jaeden Martell? We talked with him earlier and he had nothing but praise for the film and Donald Sutherland.

Jaeden’s a fantastic actor. People say he’s a fantastic young actor, but I think he’s a fantastic actor, period. No qualifier needed. In this movie, he goes toe-to-toe with Donald Sutherland, who is also a great actor, and to see the two of them engage and work through things and being able to talk to them and listen to them was pretty special.

The film version of Mr. Harrigan’s Phone emphasizes the theme of technology negatively impacting our lives. Was that intentional on your part to pay attention to that theme or was that also there in the Stephen King story?

The theme of technology being this evil force was there in King’s story. Stephen utilized the same Henry Thoreau quote that appears in the movie: We don’t own things. Things own us.” So I think his intent is pretty clear.

A man directs a boy in Mr. Harrigan's Phone.

I probably beefed it up a little bit more and embraced what I thought Stephen was saying. For example, I had all the kids in the cafeteria staring at their phones because I wanted to equate that with Mr. Harrington and how he is attached to his iPhone, both in life and in death. It’s not just something that’s addictive for teenage kids. You can give an 80-year-old billionaire recluse one and it doesn’t take very long for him to become addicted as well.

What do you want viewers to take away from Mr. Harrigan’s Phone after they watch it?

We’ve shown the movie now to lots of different groups and I’m always pleasantly surprised that everybody takes something slightly different from it. Some people come out and are very drawn to the emotion of the movie while other people are drawn to the idea of analyzing technology and all that’s good and potentially bad about it. There are others who like the creepiness of a supernatural power that allows you to exact revenge on your enemies.

Most, however, enjoy the deep relationship between Mr. Harrigan and Craig. So, I hope people enjoy it for whatever reasons they enjoy it for. It doesn’t have to be just one particular thing.

Mr. Harrigan’s Phone is now streaming on Netflix.

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