Billy Bob Thornton
As the writer, director, and star of Sling Blade, Billy BobThornton is one busy guy. You might remember the last film BillyBob wrote, One False Move, where he portrayed a crazed drugdealer. In Sling Blade Thornton plays the part of Karl Childers, amentally retarded mechanical savant. Treated cruelly as a child byhis parents who believe that he is a punishment from God, Karl isforced to live in a shed behind the house and endure hours ofBible study. Because of his dealings with the good book, Karl isled to think that sex is bad. And upon discovering his mother insexual congress with the town bully, Karl, believing that he isdoing God's work, mows them down with a machete, or slingblade. Equal parts Forrest Gump, Ed Gein, and Tom Waits, Karlis placed in a mental institution for the next 25 years. The filmopens on the day of his involuntary release. Karl returns to hishometown and being a gifted mechanic, immediately finds a jobfixing lawn mowers. Soon after he befriends a young boy namedFrank Wheatley (Lucas Black), Frank convinces his mother,Linda (Natalie Canerday) to let Karl move into the garage. All isnot well, however, when Linda's boyfriend, Doyle Hargraves(Dwight Yoakam) comes on to the scene. An incorrigible drunk,an ill-mannered redneck construction contractor, and a sadisticpsychopath, Doyle taunts and manipulates everyone in his path.Karl is convinced that Doyle's evil ways will poison youngFrank, and vows to save the boy by any means necessary.Intrigued? Splendid, check out the flick. Orbit sat down with Billy Bob Thornton at Chicago's not so ritzyRitz Carlton. Casually attired in a faded Levi's shirt and aHouston Police Department cap, Billy Bob spoke in a smoothsouthern drawl about what it's like to be a man with a millionjobs.Orbit: How did the character of Karl come about? Billy Bob Thornton: I was doing a movie in the desert, it was about 110 degrees out, and I was wearing this wool conductor's uniform. I looked quite a bit like Karl actually. I had the same haircut, that '20s sweep thing. I was looking at myself in the mirror of my trailer thinking, "you goofball you're out here begging for five lines in a bad movie, the director hates your guts, you're being treated like an extra (laughs)." I was just sort of making fun of myself in the mirror. I made the face that became Karl and out came the monologue that's at the beginning of the movie. I don't know particularly why. After that I put the character in a one-man show that I did. Orbit: Was there anyone in particular that inspired Karl's mannerisms? BBT: I've done characters all my life and most of them are just a mix of a lot of different people I've seen. I worked at a nursing home for a while, there were a few shell shocked World War II veterans in my town. I also worked at a home for physically handicapped kids for a while. But there wasn't one specific person I based the character on. I can say that the way Karl walks and his mannerisms are based on old men I've seen. I play him as an old man even though he's supposed to be 40. The way he walks and even his language, they're old fashioned. Orbit: When did you decide to take the monologue and flesh it out into a film? BBT: I always kind of knew I was gonna do it. It was always in my head that this should be a movie. I knew it would be about him getting out of the mental institution, going back to his hometown, and meeting up with the kid who becomes his friend. I wasn't sure what the rest would be about. The reason it didn't come about for so long simply was because I couldn't get it done. It's not something that's real saleable. Orbit: How do you sell something like that? BBT: I didn't try to sell it, see. It wasn't something that I tried to get made and it kept being turned down. I knew it would be difficult. I knew better because I've tried to sell things that are far morecommercial than Sling Blade. I've written like 10 screen plays for studios, where I've been hired to do like, Chuck Rock, private detective (laughs) stuff like that. I can do that sort of thing buttruthfully it's certainly not my best work, let's put it that way, the studios may not realize that but... Orbit: Is it because that sort of thing is not from the heart? BBT: I think it may not be as good because it's not from the heart. Unless you're really into the subject, writing is a hard thing to do. I write in a sort of stream-of-conscious way. I mean if you'resigned up by Warner Brothers to do a movie about a guy in the CIA, like Harrison Ford or whatever, you can't write that way. Everything is written in short, clipped off language. The page is short and filled with nothing but, "the bomb goes off, he runs over here," action directions. With the Sling Blade screen play there's very little narrative because I guess I didn't have to put in too much narrative. Since I was directing who did I have to explain things to (laughs)? I didn't even bother explaining exterior shots, because the people I was working with know me very well. Orbit: Are you prepared for people comparing the Karl characterto Forrest Gump or Boo Radley? BBT: I understand that they might. On the surface there may besimilarities, the short sentences that kind of thing. I've actuallyonly seen about 20 minutes of that movie on cable. From what Ican tell the character is more like Chance the gardener from [JerzyKosinski's] Being There, than Forrest Gump. Because this ismore of a magical thing, Karl's strange thing about honesty, himnot knowing any better. Orbit: Do you read your reviews? BBT: Usually I do, because people tell me about them already.So I might as well, you know? I knew I'd made a good moviewhen the only cruel reviews were in the Orange County Register and Vogue. I mean it's a fashion magazine, why are we even inthere? And the Orange County Register, that's like the JohnBirch Society. I can take it, not everyone is gonna like everymovie, and not everybody is gonna like this one. Fortunatelyabout 85 percent of the people who have seen Sling Blade likedit. I didn't expect that, I certainly didn't write it to be a big movie.I thought maybe 50 people would see it and get their money back.I don't have much faith in people watching a movie you have towatch anymore, because attention spans have become so short.Everything now is so sort of rock video like. Orbit: What do you like or dislike about the finished film? BBT: I can honestly say, and I know this may not be true in thefuture, and it certainly hasn't been in the past, but I look at Sling Blade and I know that this is exactly what I wanted. For better or for worse, if it fails or succeeds it was on my own terms. I know I can't go back and say I wish I had done this or that. A couple of things turned out even better because of mistakes. I had a couple different casting ideas. I had someone different in mind for the girl who plays Karl's would-be girlfriend [Kristy Ward as Melinda] but she became sort of snooty about playing the part, and she sort of backed out at the last minute so I had to find someone in a hurry. When Kristy came in, I was so happy because she was so much better. I wouldn't really change anything. Orbit: What direction would you like to see filmmaking go in? BBT: I would like to see people start making movies again that you really watch and listen to. I see Sling Blade as a book on film. People don't really read anymore, I mean they read, but they readJohn Grisham (laughs) you know what I mean? I don't mind saying that. If I'm gonna read something, it's gotta be something I know I'm gonna like 'cause reading's hard (laughs). Orbit: The film struck me as sort of a Flannery O'Conner short story, is she an influence? BBT: I like her, Faulkner, Erskine Caldwell. I'm really more influenced by novelists than any movie people. I like Horten Foote, but I didn't know Horten Foote till I started doing this stuff. I couldn't call him an influence, but I relate to what he does. I think William Goldman is a terrific screenwriter, although I would never write those kind of movies, I respect how well he does write those kind of movies. Orbit: How did Robert Duvall become involved in Sling Blade? BBT: Actually he came to me and said, "I wanna play a black guy." My response was, "how can we do that?"(laughs). I had already worked with him on a movie called Stars Fell on Henrietta.ÊWe'd been friends for a couple of years. You could say he was a mentor in a way, he's a guy I've studied as an actor. I'm doing a movie he's directing, down in Louisiana, called Apostle. Orbit: One of the big surprises in Sling Blade is John Ritter, did you decide to cast him after you did Hearts Of Fire together? BBT: Well we were doing Hearts Of Fire while I was writing the script for Sling Blade. I knew that there was gonna be a character in the movie who's friends with the mother, then I thought "whynot John?" That'd be wild. Only I had to make him look different so that people would give him a chance, before people would say 'hey that's John Ritter.' I don't really audition people when I cast,I just talk to them. You can tell if they're right. If they don't freeze up on you, they're gonna be okay. I'm a lot less likely to cast somebody that has a really great voice, you know some sort ofmanner about them that says ACTOR. Like the big guy in the fix-it shop that Karl works in, he's a guy named Rick Dial who grew up with me. He'd never done any acting, plays or anything else.That's the good part about directing, is that you can cast people no one would ever cast. Jimmy Hampton, the guy who plays the administrator at the mental institution, he was the bugler onF-Troop. It's not exactly like he's the Steve Buscemi of the independent film world or anything (laughs). Orbit: How about Colonel Bruce Hampton and Vic Chesnutt? BBT: I come from the music business, I was a musician for years. Besides being influenced by novelists, I'm also influenced by musicians, like Captain Beefheart, and that's maybe even wherethe sense of humor in the movie comes from. J.T. Walsh's (Charles Bushman as Karl's serial rapist/killer friend in the mental institution) speeches in the movie comes more from Frank Zappa than Flannery O'Conner. The way Colonel Bruce (as Morris, Doyle Hargraves pontificating band member) talks in the movie is more like Beefheart, it's tailor made for him really. The first time I ever met Bruce he said, "You know that Arizona is where wind began," (laughs). He was very nervous at first. Musicians are easy to work with. They're just there hanging out, happy to be around where there's some food and stuff (laughs). Vic, the guy in the wheelchair was a real trooper, I mean they threw him around like a prop! We didn't have stunt guys or anything like that. I had to tell him that we were shooting this to look realistic. There weren't a lot of cuts, we couldn't do a close up of him being rocked in his wheelchair and then have a stunt guy sit down for the part where Doyle (Dwight Yoakam) crashes the wheelchair in to the door. He did the scene himself, hewas like, (imitates Vic's voice) "No I wouldn't do that." He wanted to do it. He begged to do it! He said he'd always wanted to be a stuntman anyway. His head really hit the door and the whole thing.He went back to Athens bragging about it. Maybe we should have had a disclaimer at the end of the movie saying that no paraplegics were harmed during filming (laughs). Orbit: As a musician, how much input did you have with the score? BBT: I wanted Daniel Lanois to do it, I showed him a tape of the movie with no music. Daniel said that he always envisioned his first score to be like a big science-fiction movie where he could reallyexperiment. So I said that he could experiment all he wanted. We went to California to this little theater he'd rented and just kind of went nuts. I wanted pretty music because the obvious thing todo for a movie like this is to play clunky weird music whenever Karl is walking down the street, keyboards, accordions and stuff. I wanted to play against that, and make the music real moody in spots. I wanted to play against the ugliness of the plot. Orbit: Since you wrote, directed and starred in Sling Blade,Ê which role was the most difficult? BBT: I felt pretty comfortable with all of them. I don't think I'm a director, I'm a director for my own things. I don't think I could be a director like Tony Scott, I'm not technically competent enough to do that. I can tell my own stories and get the actors to do what I want. I felt real comfortable in the director position, getting everything together. I was kind of pulled in to the producing part of it. When you're making a low-budget movie, you end up doing things that normal directors may not do, like making all the decisions. Like if someone on the crew says, "hey we can't afford chairs for people to sit on at lunch time." It's my role to say, "well, everyone will justhave to sit on the ground," or whatever. Orbit: Killing the town bully is one thing, matricide on the other is sort of a heavy topic, was that scenario a conscious decision going in to the story? BBT: That was always in there from the beginning. Because like Karl says in the monologue, after killing the bully it made him even madder that she seemed to be enjoying the situation. The motherhad told Karl stories from the Bible that weren't true, and we see later in the scene when Karl confronts his father and says, "Some of those stories you told me from the Bible weren't in there." You get the idea that sex is bad and you should never do it, but there's Karl's mom on the floor with the town bully going at it, it set him off.