Hanson got his start in the entertainment industry working as a freelance photographer and editor for Cinema magazine. This led him to a career in Hollywood in the 1970s as a purveyor of B-movies, both as a writer (the Lovecraft adaptation The Dunwitch Horror, the Elliot Gould thriller The Silent Partner, the racism metaphor White Dog) and as a director (the Roger Corman produced necrophilia film, Sweet Kill, which was Hanson’s debut, the zombie film Evil Town, which he directed under the pseudonym Edward Collins, and the 80’s karate craze exploitation film, The Little Dragons).
1983 was a big year for him, as he directed the teenage sex comedy Losin’ It and wrote the Disney film Never Cry Wolf. The former is known for starring a pre-Risky Business Tom Cruise in a major role, and the latter was a dramatic effort about a scientist studying wolves in the Canadian Arctic, a film that led Disney to establish the Touchstone Pictures shingle for its more mature fare.
Both films placed Hanson on mainstream Hollywood’s radar. After two bigger budget thrillers, 1987’s The Bedroom Window and 1990’s Bad Influence, Hanson would direct his breakthrough hit, 1992’s The Hand That Rocks the Cradle. The lurid film focusing on a nanny attempting to destroy a young suburban couple was an enormous hit and launched Hanson into the realm of A-list directors.
The River Wild would arrive two years later, and the action-thriller is now notable for casting actress Meryl Streep against type as a water rafting expert whose family gets mixed up with two escaped bank robbers.
Three years after that, in 1997, Hanson would write and direct his magnum opus, L.A. Confidential, an adaption of the James Ellroy novel. Set in 1953 Los Angeles, it details a conspiracy to fill the power vacuum left behind by imprisonment of gangster Mickey Cohen. It was a modern day noir filled with tough characters, beautiful women, corrupt cops and double dealing. It would receive nine Oscar nominations, including three for Hanson. He would share a win with Brian Helgeland for Best Writing, Screenplay Based on Material Previously Produced or Published (he was also nominated for Best Director and Best Picture). Kim Basinger would also win Best Supporting Actress for her role in the film.
After directing the 2000 adaptation of Michael Chabon’s Wonder Boys, would direct Eminem in the hit semi-autobiographic film, 8 Mile.
His post-8 Mile became a case of diminishing returns for Hanson. His 2005 adaptation of Jennifer Weiner’s novel In Her Shoes was a modest hit, but 2007’s Lucky You was a box office and critical bomb. He experienced a brief upturn with the 2011 TV film Too Big To Fail. Based on the book of the same name detailing the financial meltdown of 2008, the film earned Hanson an Emmy nod for Outstanding Directing for a Miniseries, Movie, or Dramatic Special.
Hanson’s last work was 2012’s Chasing Mavericks, a biopic of surfer Jay Moriarity. Hanson had to leave the film 15 days before the end of the production due to complications from a then-recent heart surgery. Michael Apted was called in to replace him. Soon after, his struggles with Alzheimer’s disease would cause him to retire from directing completely.