How the beloved Hank the Cowdog ebook turned a podcast starring Matthew McConaughey
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Austin filmmaker Jeff Nichols knows a good story when he sees one.
The acclaimed author and director has premiered feature films at the world’s biggest festivals – from Sundance (Take Shelter, 2011) to Cannes (Mud, 2013) to Berlin (Midnight Shelter, 2016). Along the way, he’s worked with some of Hollywood’s most successful actors including Reese Witherspoon, Sam Shepard and Austin-based Matthew McConaughey.
Not long ago, Nichols says, he knew he’d found treasure in a story when he opened a copy of Hank the Cowdog to read to his young son. It was Nichols’ first encounter with the comical misadventures of Hank, the “ranch security chief” with a panhandle cattle. The 75-book series was written by Perryton author John R. Erickson and has fans around the world.
“I just found it immediately fun and engaging,” says Nichols. “And I started doing all the votes, and my son really got a kick out of it, like a lot of kids out there.”
Nichols’ interest in Hank sparked a new project. He then wrote and directed a five-episode podcast series of Hank the Cowdog that was released in the past six weeks and stars McConaughey as Hank. We visited Nichols to bring Hank off the site to the podcast.
Can you tell me about the discovery of Hank the Cowdog?
I actually picked up on Book # 11, Lost in the Dark Unchanted Forest. We decided to turn this book into the first season of the podcast. And I started reading it to my son without knowing the show. I finished a few years before making Mud with Matthew McConaughey, and I couldn’t help but hear his voice on every line I read from Hanks. I Googled it right away and found out, Wow, this is one book in a very long line. And I called my production partners and said, “Hey, I think I have a children’s book series that I think would be great.” And so we looked for John R. Erickson.
TH: How did you choose the podcast format?
Nichols: It has definitely moved on. When we started talking, I was talking about an animated feature film. And that was actually the first material I created, an animated feature script. We went to the marketplace and spoke to some companies about it. Obviously, animated films are very expensive, and the way I wanted to do it was extraordinarily expensive. And some people had questions, especially people in LA in the industry. They said, “Well, we haven’t heard from Hank the Cowdog.” What I saw was a huge benefit. I said, “That’s the point – we have 74+ books. We have the entire universe to play with. “They just couldn’t wrap their heads around it or put in the value I put in. Then by the time the pandemic hit, we had already talked about the possibility of a podcast. My production partner, a guy named Brian Kavanaugh-Jones, had started a podcast company called QCODE with several other people, and he just kept talking to me about, “Man, you should really be thinking about a podcast.” And QCODE has had great success with narrative podcasts. It’s a really interesting format, almost like an old radio show. When we reached out to Apple Podcasts, they were very excited. They were looking for more content in their kids and family sections.
TH: How did you get Matthew McConaughey into this?
Nichols: We talked about it for a long time. I said, “Hey, what about that podcast idea?” And I said, if anything, it will be proof of concept for a series or a movie or anything else. And he said, “No, I don’t want to just do it like that. I want to do it if the thing is really worth it. “And then we really talked about how it would actually keep kids busy.
TH: How was Erickson involved?
Nichols: The first step was to meet John Erickson. We met for the first time in San Antonio. It was funny because you can’t be a filmmaker like me and you can’t have a fair opinion. And I came in and said, That’s how I see it. That’s how I want to do it. And he said, “So I would write with you and would my son write with you because he grew up reading books?” And I said, “No, I write alone.” And he definitely resisted it. And so I quickly realized that it is not about money, but that it really represents this man’s life’s work appropriately. So I made this deal with him. I said, “How about that? I’m going to write a script based on this book. If no one wants to make it, we won’t. And I can’t do it if you don’t like it. “My lawyer thought I was crazy. He said, “Jeff, you have no legal protection here. You shouldn’t do it that way. “I said I think I trust these people and I have to get them to trust me. So I wrote this script and when I gave it to John and Mark [Erickson, John’s son]Both really loved it. And I think that was really when the relationship started. It had been warm, but it wasn’t until I got the words down on paper that I was extraordinarily faithful to the words he had in the book. Most of all, I wanted them to know that I understand the voice and the brand, the basics behind it. John is a very religious man. John is a very smart man. There are things that Hank will do and there are things that Hank will not. And I think we both have a pretty good understanding of that. And by putting this script forward, I passed the test.
TH: How was it for you to work on a project that is more aimed at children than adults?
Nichols: It was nice to have the roadmap for the book. I was lucky enough to befriend a man named Andrew Stanton, who was one of the founding members of Pixar. He did Finding Nemo and Finding Dory and WALL-E. I had a conversation with him about it and he said very quickly, “You don’t write down.” And when I read John’s books, I felt like I was getting as much out of those books as my son. My films are pretty strict. I make adult films. It was really nice to be able to throw off that stoicism and get a little goofy. In terms of sound effects and other things, that was really the biggest learning curve aesthetically.
TH: Erickson has now published 75 Hank the Cowdog books and the books have been translated into multiple languages. Why do you think Hank has such a broad and enduring appeal?
Nichols: Well I think he’s a great storyteller, and I think they are inherently funny, but I also think they have great narrative in them. Anytime you tell someone a good story, they can travel. I found this through my work, which is mostly in the American South. I show my films all over the world. And I think it’s a misunderstanding that in order to be universal, one cannot be regionally specific. I think it’s actually the opposite. The more specific you are and the more you have your voice, the more universal your work becomes. These books are just good, they’re fun, and they’re smart, and that’s why I think they translate so well.
TH: Is there a plan for a second podcast season?
Nichols: I don’t know about a plan, but there is definitely hope. I hope this is the beginning of something, not the end of something. My dream is for everyone to know about Hank the Cowdog as they do about Curious George. I want him to be a household name and it just seems very clear to me that this could happen. I don’t know if it’s going to happen, but I know it could happen. I can only see it in my head reading these stories every household in America and beyond could know about Hank the Cowdog.
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