By Erik Bauer.
Now perhaps best known for his starring role in the recent reimagining of Fargo, Billy Bob Thornton first gained critical acclaim for Sling Blade, in which he not only acted, but also wrote and directed. Sling Blade was Thornton’s feature-length directorial debut and the first solo script of his screenwriting career. Billy Bob Thornton’s screenplay for Sling Blade was nominated for an Academy Award for best screenplay based on material previously produced or published (his stage play) and a Writers Guild award. Thornton also received an Academy Award nomination for best performance by an actor in a leading role for Sling Blade. While Sling Blade is not autobiographical, the story draws much from the people, places, and events of Thornton’s youth.
Would you say your writing is an extension of your acting?
Yeah, I guess, in a way. I have more fun as an actor. I’ve always had a burning desire to do it. And yet, writing is in my blood a little bit. My grandmother was a writer. My mom has been a real keen observer of people and writes down short stories about people. I’ve always liked to write short stories too. I have a passion for that. But writing screenplays? Sometimes I wish I could just go out there with it in my head and start shooting. Unfortunately, you can’t do that. The prop guy’s got to have something to go by. I love the result, once I can sit back and say, “Wow, that was great.” There’s a great feeling of satisfaction once I finish a script. But it’s real hard to get me going. If there’s a television around and I could be in there watching Bonanza, it’s real hard. My writing’s the hardest thing I do. My hat’s off to people who write.
How did you go about creating the main character Karl?
Frankly, I came up with it when I was working on a movie. I had five lines on a cable movie [The Man Who Broke 1,000 Chains] and I was feeling bad about myself. I saw all the “real” actors around me, people who had a real job—I was basically an extra with a couple of lines—I just felt depressed. I only had the job because the casting director was helping me out so I could get insurance. And I went into the trailer at lunchtime and started looking at myself in the mirror, making faces at myself. I made that face and then the voice came and I started talking to myself. Just rambling, at first. I don’t know what I said. And then I did that opening monologue, all at once, and I didn’t know where it came from. It was kind of spooky.
Then I started doing it as a one-man show. I thought, God, that’s a pretty cool character. Maybe something did come out of this horrible movie I’m doing. I’m sure some of that story is pieces of things from my subconscious, but I don’t know what exactly. A lot of the other stories in the movie, the stuff that takes place after the mental institution, are true. Like the story Karl tells the kid about the little baby— that really happened where I grew up. All those characters area based on people I knew. Each character is a composite of a lot of people I’ve known.
Karl’s monologue really stands out in the film. What purpose did that serve for you? Did it build sympathy for Karl?
Yeah, I think it does. But it also gives you the sense of danger, or potential danger. If he’s just this poor, pathetic guy who gets out, then you’re not really waiting for anything to happen. I think you need to know something about him before he gets out. One of the mistakes a lot of movies make is they don’t take time to lay out who everybody is, so who cares what happens later? It also shows his willingness to just say the truth, which is a very important thing in the movie.
This is a film that flows from one character.
It just seemed like a natural to me. It wasn’t like I ever thought about it. I knew the story with this guy had to be that he gets out, meets up with a kid he relates to, and a lot of other really good people who accept him. And he needs to meet one asshole who doesn’t and that’s who he’s going to kill. People say it’s a simple story—“Not much to think about here, we know he’s going to kill him”—but that’s what I wanted. Hitchcock talked about that. It’s much more interesting to watch something transpire that you know is going to happen…
…rather than wonder who did it. All the characters are symbolic in this movie. The movie is metaphorical. I wanted to make a movie about misconstrued ideas like religion. Because, at my core, I’m a religious person. One thing I was nervous about was that really religious people could look at this movie and take it as a slam on religion, and non-religious people could look at it and think, “Oh, this is just a bunch of religious horseshit.” In fact, it’s a little of both. It’s right down the middle—the basis for all religions is pretty good, but along the way, people empower themselves to condemn others.
You’ve said, “Karl is an angel.” Where does the line of morality fall in Sling Blade?
It doesn’t say killing’s okay. What it does say is, “Boy, sometimes, wouldn’t you like to kill that guy?” If this was the Old West, somebody would kill that son-of-a-bitch. Maybe in a perfect world, people who have no redeeming qualities wouldn’t exist. And also in a perfect world, maybe you could save people’s lives from a person like that. That’s what Karl does in this. Whether you believe in the soul or not, Karl does. In his mind, he gives up his own soul to save this kid. He thinks he may go to hell for this, but at the same time, he tells John Ritter’s character, “The Bible says you shouldn’t be with other men, but I don’t think God would send you to Hell.” So, maybe in the back of his mind he’s thinking, “Maybe I won’t go to hell for this.” But he knows it’s wrong by the law and he knows he’s going to have to suffer the consequences.
How has the South influenced who you are as a writer/filmmaker?
Completely and totally. That’s all I am. I can’t go make a movie other than that. You go outside of what you know, and it’s not your best stuff. Life is short and I want to do my best work. The South is a rich place. There are ghosts in the South. The atmosphere’s different, the air’s heavier. It’s an area where stories are a staple. The South is all about stories. I loved growing up there. I loved hearing the stories. I loved hearing my grandmother and my mother and people I worked with at the highway department or a factory or wherever. That‘s what it was all about. That was the highlight of the day. I’m not influenced by movie makers in the least. I’m influenced by novelists—the few novelists I’ve read—mostly Southern—and musicians. William Faulkner, Erskine Caldwell and Frank Zappa. I read their things and it’s like, yeah, I know that. I want to write about these folks I know like you wrote about those people you knew. Frank Zappa got me out of the South and into the city. As much as I have a sophisticated sense of humor, I got it from Frank Zappa.
You’ve said your interest lies in certain areas. How conscious has your focus been on certain issues, such as race?
None of it’s been conscious. It’s just been natural. It just comes out. Obviously, that’s what we want to do. The race thing…it has never been so much about racial issues or racism, but about my affinity for Southern blacks. I was a lead singer in a group that was all black. I sang in an R&B group and a lot of my buddies were black. I just hung around across the tracks a lot. I know the people well enough…sometimes I’ll watch a black filmmaker’s movie and go, “Naw, that’s not it.” Mostly in terms of dialogue. And these things they make like Ghosts of Mississippi or Mississippi Burning are just ridiculous. I can’t even discuss those.
There’s more and more of those movies. They’re like their own genre now.
Oh, I know. And they’re always about some case that happened in 1962 about some black man who was killed. That was important, yeah. Just like the Kennedy assassination was important. Everything’s important. But, why there’s this desire to write about all these horrible things that happened over civil rights, I don’t know. A movie like A Family Thing doesn’t get seen. It seems to me that kind of movie helps more than reminding people of our horrible past. Also, that’s not the whole ball of wax. You grow up in the South where everyone’s supposed to be racist—it’s just a bunch of poor fuckin’ people eating cornbread down there. It makes people think that everyone from Mississippi is like Byron De La Beckwith or something. James Woods, God bless him, is a terrific actor, but he’s got no business playing that part. Just like I’ve got no business playing a yuppie lawyer from Manhattan.
In your scripts, and in Sling Blade, have you attempted to dispel some of the stereotypes about Southerners?
Not consciously; I just wrote about the people because I know them. It comes out like it is, which appears to be what you said. In fact, I’m just writing about how it is. The redneck character Dwight Yoakam played, he could be from Bakersfield, CA or Buffalo, NY. But I know how to write his dialogue for the South. I’m not making a statement about any of that. I’m just writing a story—this is what happened at this particular time.
You’ve said, “Casting is the entire ball of wax in making a movie.”
The script first. Then casting.
How did you tailor the writing in Sling Blade to the actors you knew were going to be in it?
There’s been a lot of talk about how I cast most of the main roles before I wrote the script. That’s true, but those roles would have been written exactly the same, even if those people weren’t playing those parts. I knew how this was going to be before I wrote it—I knew what Vaughan was going to be like and I knew what Dwight’s character was going to be like. I didn’t put lines in because that’s what Dwight or John would have said. I just knew that’s what they were like already. I knew the dialogue could come out of their mouths. If any of it was tailored at all, it would be John’s character Vaughan. John is a great orator—he hosts telethons and beauty pageants— he can speak in public. So I did write Vaughan’s big speech at the diner knowing that John can reel things off like that. I knew it would be furtive and eloquent in his way. That scene did have John’s way of speaking in mind. Not necessarily the words, but the rhythm.
Was the character of Vaughan drawn to stereotype as a homosexual?
I’m not so sure it was a stereotype, certainly not the movie stereotype. Because you generally have two types of gay characters in the movies: real serious, spiritual, wonderful people who are dying of AIDS or guys like Hank Azaria played in The Birdcage. Kind of like Rip Taylor. Sure, his movements were a little effeminate, but those were all character choices by John. The things he said could have [said by] been anybody, if you just read it on the page. A friend of mine wrote a song one time in which he made a reference to a guy named Saul who had money to loan. He got all this flack from the Jewish community. He knew a guy named Saul who owned a pawn shop. He told me, “It’s a real song about my life. Do you want me to name him Roger?” This character is based on a guy I knew who was a choir leader in church back in Arkansas. He wasn’t very far from the way he was presented in the film.
One thing that impressed me about Sling Blade was you stepped away from the violence in the film. Many independent filmmakers feel a healthy dose of violence in a film is commercial.
And they’re right, it is definitely a commercial element in getting your movie seen. I firmly believe that if One False Move had not had the violence, nobody would have given a shit about the movie. If it was about a small-town sheriff and a black woman who had a baby together and the problems they had, it would have never worked. People want to see something happen. I certainly didn’t want to do that with this movie.
One thing, I’m pretty anti-violence. I don’t want to do more movies about violence. I’m okay with One False Move because the violence in the movie is ugly. It tells you, you don’t want to be involved in this. It doesn’t condone violence whatsoever. Whereas, big commercial movies kill 100 people at once and everybody laughs. Or in Quentin Tarantino’s movies you root for those silly hit men.
The violence is very sexy, especially in Tarantino’s movies.
Yeah, absolutely. Obviously, people are drawn to that. But I don’t like it. The killings in this movie are more symbolic than anything else. If that’s the case, I saw no point in showing it. A lot of people said, why don’t you show flashbacks of when he kills his mother as a kid? I don’t want to show flashbacks. For me, it’s much more powerful and mysterious to hear the story. I don’t want to know what Karl looked like when he was eleven. I want to imagine it.
How did you get Sling Blade produced?
I didn’t have to work much at it, actually. My agent, Todd Harris at William Morris, knew Larry Meistrich at The Shooting Gallery and he said, “You know, Larry Masters doesn’t like the Hollywood system either. I think you’d like to meet him, and he’d like to meet you and he doesn’t like to meet anybody.” So we met and he said, “We like it when the writers make their own movies. We think that’s a good way to do it.” He asked me if I had anything I wanted to direct, and I told him I had this character and this story and he said, “Okay. Let’s do it.” He was the only guy I talked to.
What kind of growth does Karl undergo as a character? What kind of arc does he have?
The difference between real life and acting is that in real life, people don’t react much. In acting we react the shit out of everything. There can be a voiceover where somebody’s thinking out loud to the audience, and you’ll see on their face that they’re doing it. Actors who aren’t very good do it all the time and I’ve been guilty of it myself. In real life you just sit there. Karl went through exactly the same growth any other character goes through, only it doesn’t show because, one, that’s what I like to do as an actor; and two, that’s just how he is. He’s not really capable of showing emotion. He loved the kid—the first love of his life. He realized there was something he could do to correct a situation like he was raised in. He felt good about himself for the first time ever. He smiles one time in the movie when the kid says, “I like the way you talk.” And he says, “Well, I like the way you talk.” It’s the first time anyone’s ever paid him a compliment. That right there is the most important moment in the movie. Critics won’t see that. They’re too busy wanting me to cut to a fuckin’ close up. The critics and the people who make comedies about a pickle who comes to life, or whatever, can kiss my ass.
This article first appeared in Creative Screenwriting volume 4, #1