Bill Paxton Goes Indie in 'Traveller'

"How have you been doing?" a voice calls out from the other room. As a lean, blue jean- clad figure whizzes past the doorway to the sitting room of the hotel suite, he bellows, "We've met before!"After receiving a puzzled response, a freshly showered and rapidly approaching Bill Paxton (most recently of Twisterl fame) reappears and bounds in for a startlingly close inspection."All right, okay, all right -- we haven't met before," he concedes with a hearty laugh and a handshake to match. "You just look familiar!"When he gets a gander at the opened box of hot-off-the-presses soundtracks from his new movie, Traveller, his enthusiasm skyrockets. It's like Christmas morning and he's obviously been a very good boy. The country/roots rock 'n roll flavor of the soundtrack is a tasty complement to a meaty little movie. "I was drawn to these characters and I just wanted to go back and do a great independent movie," Paxton says. "I've kind of stayed under the radar for many years. I haven't gone out and sought the publicity I'm trying to get for Traveller, but this kind of movie lives or dies by the amount of press I get for it... [I want] to say here's this movie, it exists, you should check it out, but you're going to have to look for it because the ads in the paper are going to be the size of a postage stamp."Paxton has a lot to say about the project he's so proud of. As well he should, considering he hand-picked Traveller to be his first outing as a producer."Hollywood's a funny place," he comments without the slightest trace of bitterness. "If you get known for a certain kind of movie, that's what they want to put you in. Now, that I've been in Twister, they're kind of starting to groom me [to become] another American action guy and that's great. But, if I wait around for Hollywood to cast me in the real dream roles that I see myself doing, all the teeth might have fallen out of my head by then." In this particular dream role, Paxton plays Bokky, a seasoned veteran amongst a clan of swindling con-men in the rural South. When young Pat O'Hara (Mark Wahlberg) arrives to bury his father and claim his birthright as a Traveller, he meets with cold opposition as his father committed the ultimate sin of marrying outside the group. A reluctantly soft-hearted Bokky becomes the young upstart's mentor and the two hit the road in search of easy marks. One easy mark (Julianna Margulies), winds up complicating things, however, by forcing Bokky to re-evaluate his priorities and put his life and his standing with the family in jeopardy. Paxton assembled a clan of his own to make the movie. He gave Jack Green, the cinematographer on Twisterl, his first shot at directing a feature, he cast Ron Howard's parents in a couple of small but significant roles as a way of "thanking [Howard] for making me a part of his landmark film, "Apollo 13"" and he distributed still more parts to old friends James Gammon, Luke Askew and Vincent Chase, his acting coach of 15 years.Following preview screenings, Paxton was pleased to hear that people are making the connection between Traveller and "the moral ambiguity of characters from '70s movies. Independent films today are just character-driven stories that studios can no longer make cost effective and the mid-70s was really the last of the great character-driven studio films."With his mama-taught-him-right manners and just-on-the-cool-side-of-giddy enthusiasm, Paxton comes across as such a normal, down home kind of guy. But, there was a time, even before Weird Science and Aliens, when he took some more -- shall we say -- exotic roles. Sure, lots of people are familiar with the zany pre-MTV video Fish Heads, which debuted on Saturday Night Live, in which Paxton plays a dude with a fetish for, well, you know. But, have you ever seen him in drag with coat hangers on his head? Asked to reflect, he exclaims: "Oh! You saw those? How did you see those?!"He continues, "I used to make these rock video films with Barnes and Barnes. I was trying to make short films and they had been trying to make a video for Fish Heads for a long time, so I said, 'Hey, let me take a crack at it.' We spent a summer kind of making this thing for beer money... I had these rotting fish heads on my stoop stinking to high heaven."But, don't think these flashbacks are a source of anything but pride. It's to these independent roots (well, maybe not these in particular) that Paxton is attempting to return."I decided years ago that if I made Super 8 films all my life, well, I'd still be a filmmaker. I don't believe that the budget reflects the quality of a movie at all. I think a lot of movies this year prove that."Of course, his next movie is being touted as having the biggest budget of all time, but James Cameron is at the helm of Titanic. In Cameron's defense, Paxton, who plays a modern day treasure hunter, insists that all the money's going on the screen and that no one in the cast, which also includes Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet, is getting a $20 million salary. Though he's already scoping out screenplays, it's unlikely that we'll see Bill Paxton heading up a project with a budget in the eight or nine-digit range anytime soon. And if there's any doubt in anyone's mind as to whether this guy is motivated by anything other than sheer love for his craft, one quintessentially Paxton statement should clear things up."I'm one of these guys that will probably never get nominated for an Oscar. But, maybe if I live long enough, they'll give me one of these lifetime achievement awards."

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