Great Conversations: Billy Bob Thornton

I sat down with Oscar-winning screenwriter, actor, director and musician Billy Bob Thornton for Venice Magazine in October of 2001. He had a slate of very diverse projects he was promoting: his first solo music album, "Private Radio," as well as the films "Monster's Ball," "Bandits," and "The Man Who Wasn't There." My strongest memory is of Thornton's quiet intensity and an undercurrent of Southern affability, which came out once he decided you were okay. He seemed to feel that way about me after I shared with him my idolatry of legendary filmmaker Fred Zinnemann, something we shared. I also remember his unusual diet, when our lunch was served. Thornton got the biggest plate of sliced papaya I've seen to date, artfully presented. I got a seafood salad. He looked at my plate, smiled, and told me about the horrible shellfish allergy he'd been saddled with all his life, and how he can never touch anything remotely related to an exoskeleton-bearing aquatic invertebrate.

In spite of our differing gastro tastes, we shared a wonderful and memorable conversation I treasure to this day.

BILLY BOB'S TRIPLE THREAT

Few Hollywood insiders have lived the real-life Cinderella stories they often portray on-screen like Billy Bob Thornton has. Born in Hot Springs, Arkansas in 1955, Thornton's years of struggle on the fringes of Hollywood were finally rewarded when his writing/directing/starring labor of love, Sling Blade (1996) became the toast of the indie, and legit, film world, copping the Arkansas native a Best Original Screenplay Oscar for his efforts. From then on, Thornton's spot on Tinseltown's A-list was etched in cement that would have made the denizens of the concrete around Mann's Chinese theater jealous, delivering memorable starring and supporting turns in diverse films such as The Apostle, Primary Colors, A Simple Plan, Armageddon, and Pushing Tin, to name a few.

2000 also saw Thornton direct and produce an elegant, lyrical adaptation of Cormac McCarthy's novel All the Pretty Horses, and pen (with Tom Epperson) the supernatural thriller The Gift. As 2001 comes to a close, Thornton brings his talents to three distinctly different projects: Barry Levinson's Bandits, in which he plays the screen's most neurotic bank robber since Woody Allen bumbled through Take the Money and Run, The Coen Brothers' moody noir thriller The Man Who Wasn't There, as a stoic barber embroiled in a murder plot, and Marc Forster's Monster's Ball, a visceral masterpiece of a film that has Thornton sizzling the screen as a racist prison guard who finds his life coming apart at the seams. As if that weren't enough to have on one's plate, Billy Bob releases his first solo album this month, entitled Private Radio, a unique blend of country, blues and folk sung by Thornton in a voice described by Rolling Stone.com as "a cross between Leonard Cohen and Tom Petty. These preceding reasons alone are testament to Thornton's versatility and evidence that his status should be elevated from writer/actor/director/producer/musician to that of national treasure.

Billy Bob Thornton sat down with Venice recently over a plate of freshly-sliced papaya to discuss his newest films, the greatness of High Noon, and the beauty of keeping it simple.

We have a lot to talk about. Let's start with Barry Levinson, your director on Bandits.

Billy Bob Thornton: Barry is, first of all, just a great guy, probably the funniest human being I've ever met. We could hardly wait for him to say "Cut" so he could tell us another story. Plus, he's very intuitive. You can real feel him with you while you're doing the scene, and that makes all the difference in the world for an actor, especially if you're doing comedy. I've been pretty fortunate in my career to work with, for the most part, some pretty amazing directors.

Even early on, when you were just doing small parts, you worked with some heavyweights.

Oh yeah, I worked with Taylor Hackford (Blood In, Blood Out), Adrian Lyne (Indecent Proposal). I tell you what I really loved about Taylor, is that he's a music guy, like I am. We hit it off right away because of our mutual love of music. Any time someone's musical, we always hit it off. Bruce Willis is very musical and during the Bandits shoot he would play for the crew a lot of times. That was great. Bruce loves music and does a lot of recording in his home studio, just like I do.

Is that where you cut Private Radio?

Yeah, the whole thing. We mixed at A&M on the radar system, which is where you use all the modern technology, but it still sounds stripped-down, like analog.

You mentioned Bruce Willis earlier. You guys had a great chemistry on-screen.

Yeah, we actually already knew each other. We've been friends for several years. He's the sort of guy that's always been there for me, and I've never forgotten that. In terms of hanging out together, I don't really "hang out," so to speak. I have friends and I'll see them over at their house or if they come over to mine. I'm not a partyer. I don't like going to premieres, and haven't even been to the premieres of all the movies I've been in. I don't like going out to big functions just because that atmosphere makes me uncomfortable. Sometimes you have to go, and when I do, once I'm there I'm usually okay. It's like flying. I don't like to fly, but once I'm on the plane I'm fine. But not before.

Did you guys improv a lot? The whole film had a very naturalistic quality.

We did some. Harley Peyton is such a great writer that we didn't really want to stray too far from the script. But Bruce and I have always found it really easy to sort of riff with one another. Cate (Blanchett) is the same way. Cate's my buddy, so we work real well together. We've been friends since Pushing Tin, and Cate's just one of the coolest people on the planet. When you get to make movies with friends like them and work with a director like Barry, it doesn't get too much better than that.

Tell us about The Man Who Wasn't There, and the Coens.

Once again, it was an honor just to work for them. I'd always wanted to and we'd spoken about it before. When I was nominated for A Simple Plan and they were nominated for Fargo, they sat behind me at the awards show and we got to talking, and every time we saw each other after that, we'd always say "You know, this would be a perfect fit." But part of their genius is that they bide their time. They know when it's the right time and the right part. And this was it. It's one of my favorite parts I've ever played. It's one of the hardest parts I've played, because there wasn't a lot of dialogue to work with.

Do the Coens give a lot of direction or do they leave you alone?

They kind of cast the right person for the part and then love it if you come up with something on your own. Again, they're such good writers, you don't want to digress too much from the script. I did come up with little things that we put into my character. For example, if you look closely at (my character) Ed Crane in the movie, you'll see that he's always doing this little nod. We started calling it the "Ed nod." And that became part of their direction. "I think at the end of the scene it might be time for an Ed nod." That kind of thing.

Let's talk about your background. You grew up in Arkansas.

I was born in Hot Springs but grew up in a little town of about 110 people up in the mountains. We lived in my grandmother's house, which is kind of common among poorer southern families. Close-knit families. I remember when we were really little, we didn't have running water or electricity. I tell my friends that and they laugh: "Billy Bob, you're describing the 19th century, that's impossible." But they don't understand that in the rural south, there are areas where when it's night time, it's pitch black because there's no lights! I mean, we weren't like Lil' Abner, or shit like that, (laughs) but we didn't have much.

Your parents sound like a real study in contrasts: your father was a high school basketball coach and your mom was the town psychic.

Yeah, dad was a hot-headed little Irishman and mom is part Italian and part Choctaw Indian. I remember I'd come home from school as a kid and there'd be all these little white-haired ladies from town waiting for their turn to have a reading. The Gift was based on her and an experience we had as kids. It was a strange household. My dad and I were never close and he died when I was eighteen, of cancer.

Do you have siblings?

Two younger brothers, one of whom is now deceased, also. He had a heart condition and passed away when I was going through a real self-destructive period. His death really made me come to terms with that, get out of the self-destruction and into self-preservation.

That must've been tough for an 18 year-old boy, losing his dad.

Tough on a lot of levels. I'd just graduated high school, and now suddenly I had to be the man of the house. It's also made me really terrified of older men. Maybe it's a need to be accepted by them, or something, 'cause my dad and I never really came to any understanding before he died. (pause) And people wonder where I get these stories, right? (laughs)

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Did you take to acting and writing early on?

No. First it was rock n' roll, then it was baseball. I thought I'd try to be a professional baseball player because I was pretty good in high school. Then when I went to try out for the pros, I got injured, busted my collarbone, and that was the end of that.

You struggled for more than a decade out here, supporting yourself with some really demeaning, miserable jobs.

Yeah, but I had this catering job that changed my life. I was working this party where all these real powerful Hollywood types were just filling the room, like a who's who of Hollywood, right? Then this little German guy asks me if I'm an actor. So I said 'Yeah,' and we started talking. He said "You'll never make it just being an actor. You're not good-looking or ugly enough to stand out. Can you write?" I said 'Yeah, I can write. My buddy Tom (Epperson) and I have written a couple things.' "That's the ticket," he said. "Stick with the writing and you'll make it." I go back into the kitchen and one of the other waiters says to me "So what were you and Billy Wilder talking about?"

No way!

Can you believe that, man? (laughs) I had no clue who the man was! But that's when I got really serious about writing. And that is what changed everything.

One False Move (co-written with Tom Epperson) really put you on the map in terms of your career as a writer, jump started your career as a character actor, and was a huge indie hit in 1992.

Yeah, I'm very proud of that and a lot of the credit should also go to the director, Carl Franklin (Devil in a Blue Dress) who's really brilliant. It really upset me how controversial it was for its violence though. I mean, here you have these summer action movies where dozens, hundreds of people get killed with squibs going off in every direction, and it's almost sanitized, like a video game or something. We had a couple scenes of violence in that film that showed violence for what it was: ugly, sick, horrifying, with lasting consequences. Which is worse to show to someone with a sick mind? If you're going to show violence on film, you should be honest about it, and not glamorize it. That's when it becomes dangerous, I think.

Then Sling Blade took you up to the next level.

Yeah, it's funny. The way they do movies now with all this test-marketing stuff. Sling Blade tested very average, was made for $900,000 and then made something like $27 million at the box office. I've had other movies I've done that tested through the roof, like A Family Thing (co-written with Tom Epperson), which was made for $15 million and earned something like $13 million. So you never know.

What kind of film did you shoot Sling Blade on?

We shot it on 35mm with Panavision, the whole deal. But because I shot it back home in Arkansas, a lot of folks were real nice and helpful and we got a lot of stuff for free. We had a great time doing that movie, shot it in 24 days.

Sling Blade had a true genesis from one man show, to short film, to feature. Tell us about that.

The short film was done because I'd worked with the director, George Hickenlooper, on another film and he asked if I had any scripts he could look at. I said 'Yeah, I've got this short film,' and he liked it and we took it from there. I like the short very much. It all came from the character, really, and just grew from there, sort of took on a life of its own. I just knew what this guy looked like, talked like, how he walked, how he smelled. I do that when I read a script. When I read A Simple Plan for the first time, I just knew what this guy looked and sounded like. You just know.

Mike Nichols is one of the greats. Tell us about working with him on Primary Colors.

Mike is another director like Barry Levinson. He gets a kick out of the whole process, laughs a lot during the shoot. He gets very immersed in the movie itself, talks with the actors a lot about the story and their characters. He's a very psychological director and our rehearsals consisted of sitting around a table and psychoanalyzing the characters. Another really terrific thing about that movie is that Elaine May, who wrote the screenplay, was there. So we got to hear Nichols and May comedy routines every day! That was a lot of fun.

Your character was based on Clinton campaign manager James Carville. I know that you're friends with President Clinton. Were you initially gun-shy about doing that part?

I actually called him and asked if he'd mind if I did the movie. He said "Are you kidding? It's a great part. Play it." I played a character based on Carville, but I didn't want to imitate him. I tried to imitate his attitude, but that's it. I wanted to make him a more laid-back, smart-ass southern guy, as opposed to a hyperactive one. (laughs)

It was Mike Nichols who turned you on to All the Pretty Horses, right?

Yeah, he was thinking about directing it for a while, but thought I'd be better for it. How can I start this story? Okay, let me start by saying that my favorite movie of all time is High Noon. I watch it probably three times a month. I think it's a perfect movie. Everything is in that movie. Everything you need to know about human beings is in that movie. The poetry of that movie is so beautiful, yet so simple. I believe in simple stories with complex people, about behavior.

When I was given the book of All the Pretty Horses, I didn't want to direct someone else's movie. I didn't want to film a book. It just all seemed to me like way too much. I get over to Sony and they said "Mike Nichols really wants you to do it! We really want you to do it!" Which was probably bullshit. I'm sure they really wanted Spielberg or somebody, but they probably went "Well, Mike wants this asshole..." I'm not sure what happened. Anyway, I had a deal with Miramax, so they had to be involved, too. So we all started to hook up and they started to tell me how things should go. At that point I said "Look, I don't have to direct this movie. I don't need to. I kind of don't even want to. But I love the book. I think Cormac McCarthy is a great writer, and this is the kind of book where if I were as good a writer as Cormac McCarthy, I might have written it. So I would like to do it, but I'm using my crew, not the Star Wars crew like you want. They said "We want a big movie." I said 'Yeah, but the desert's already lit. My crew can probably do this better than your crew. They understand me and they understand how I work. What's hard to light is a 12x12 room, and that's what we do best.' I said 'You understand that I see this as a big character story. So when we're inside, I'm going to shoot this movie just like Sling Blade. When we're outside, it's going to be John Ford. You understand that by hiring me, this is what you're going to get. Is that what you want?' "Oh yeah, yeah!" Then they say: "Who's gonna be in it?" I said 'Here's who's gonna be in it.' They said "We don't want those people. We want these people." So I argued with them for several minutes. Finally I said, 'Fine, make the movie your way, I'll walk away with no hard feelings. I've got stacks of stuff at my house that I want to do. I don't have a problem with a choice of movies to direct. But if you want me to do this one, here's what you're going to get. Are you sure it's me that you want to do this? You realize that this is an epic movie that's going to be about three hours long?' "Oh, of course!"

So they agreed to all the rest of my terms. We went and shot the movie and I had the best experience I've ever had doing a movie. The minute we were done, it became a nightmare, and they proceeded to change it into a love story with an airbrushed poster aimed at getting 14 year-olds into seats. They cut out any of the edge, and what was meant to be a three hour movie became a less-than-two hour movie and they removed Daniel Lanois' beautiful music score.

Is there any chance you'll do a "Director's Cut" DVD?

Well, it doesn't exist in that form except in a very poor quality VHS version, with the original score. They originally told me I was going to get to do a DVD, but then said it was going to be too expensive to do, and not worth it. I don't want to point any fingers, but no one's ever going to see the film as it was intended, which was about three hours and forty or fifty minutes long. You know, against my better judgment, when that 3 hour, 50 minute assembly was done, I screened it for the executives at my house. They all wept during the movie, clapped at the end, were all patting me on the back, with one guy telling me that not only was it the best movie he'd ever been involved with, but the classic American film of all time. And then they proceeded to re-make it into a two hour movie and took the guts out of it, in my opinion.

Now, in spite of what all this must sound and read like, I have no hard feelings against any of those people. I want that to be clear. I understand what they do. They are business people, and always will be, no matter how much they love or hate movies. The bottom line is, they want 14 year-olds to come to their movies. If they give you $50 million to make a movie, you can be damn sure they're going to double that number with 14 year-old butts in seats. The problem was, they took a movie that was about the end of the west, and one kid's journey into manhood and the future which is unknown and realizing that he can't live in the past even though the past is where he thought his future was. And that's what that movie is about.

I always felt that a good companion piece for it would be The Last Picture Show, which explored many of the same themes.

Absolutely! Great comparison, great analogy. And it could have been that kind of film, too.

Well, look at what Coppola just did with Apocalypse Now. It doesn't have to be over yet.

Well, maybe...We'll see.

With that war story in mind, any advice for first-time directors?

Don't pay any attention to anyone's advice. Make your movie about something that's close to you, that's your thing, as opposed to trying to make something that you think "they'll" like. Basically know what it smells like, feels like, tastes like and sounds like, and then go do it. And nobody else has to know what you're doing, except you. That's my advice.