Sling Blade

Weekly Alibi

DIRECTED BY: Billy Bob Thornton

REVIEWED: 02-19-97

Last Tuesday, Billy Bob Thornton captured two Academy Award nominations in the "Best Actor" and "Best Original Screenplay" categories for his work on Sling Blade, a film he also directed. Sling Blade tells the story of Karl Childers, a mildly retarded killer released from a mental hospital after serving out his 25-year sentence. He returns to his Arkansas home and gets involved with a fatherless boy, his kind-hearted mother ... and her abusive boyfriend. Late last year, Weekly Alibi had the privilege of meeting and interviewing this rising star.

The Big Easy was humid and Billy Bob's shoulder was hurting. He wrenched it shooting some fight scenes for a new movie filming just outside New Orleans. Fortunately, the writer/director/actor was kind enough to pop a couple Advil and talk to us about his acting (Dead Man, On Deadly Ground), his writing (One False Move, A Family Thing) and his newest directing effort (Sling Blade).

Is it just me, or are there a lot more independent films these days?

I think there are a lot more independent films. I think Quentin Tarantino kind of started it all. I think he cast some people ... like John Travolta was sort of revived in that deal. Now he's doing big movies. I think a lot of movie stars want to do independent films now. That way people who are making them tend to give up money a little easier than they used to. It used to be if it was an independent film it starred some guy named Bill Polanski that you never heard in your life, and (producers) were kind of tough giving up the money for that kind of stuff. Right now (independent studio) Miramax has got a movie going with Stallone and De Niro and all these people (Copland).

That's kind of a change isn't it? Your first film, One False Move, came out before the big indie revolution.

Yeah. We were lucky to get that made. There was this guy in Georgia who was the head of RCA Columbia. He let us make it. That script went around all over town. Everybody in town turned it down: all the major studios, all the independent companies. We made it for a couple million dollars, which is not a huge risk. This critic named Sheila Benson who used to work for the L.A. Times, she saw it and pointed it out to Roger Ebert and said "you gotta see this movie." So he and Siskel saw it. If it hadn't been for that, I think it would have gone straight to video. That's what the company wanted to do with it. But then (Siskel and Ebert) got ahold of it. And it's kind of a big deal when they like something, because they have the ear of the whole country. I think that was a lot of the reason that (RCA) went ahead with it. 'Cause they'd have looked like morons if they didn't.

Was all the critical attention surprising to you?

Yeah, it was kind of. I didn't know it was gonna do that well. I don't think any of us really knew. But you kind of never know. This movie here (Sling Blade) has gotten an amazing reaction. I thought 50 of my friends would see it, and I'd be happy. Now it's turned into a whole other thing. So you just never can know. And then you could be working on a big movie. As an actor I work on these movies all the time. I'm working on them thinking, "This is probably gonna be a blockbuster," and then it falls on its ass. It's so hard to tell when you're making a movie what's gonna happen with it.

So many films nowadays, especially crime-oriented films, are heavily influenced by other films. It's gotten to the point where they're really cannibalistic. But none of your films seem that way. It seems to me you've had much more influence from literature.

Well, that's actually pretty perceptive of you. That's true. I'm not influenced by movies. I'm influenced by Southern novelists: Faulkner, Erskine Caldwell, Flannery O'Connor, all those people. Really I would say my only influence is that and musicians. I'm a big Mothers of Invention fan, a Zappa fan from the time I was a kid. Pulp novels and stuff like that, I never have read one of those. Matter of fact, on One False Move, Tom Epperson and I, we used to get compared to Jim Thompson. I didn't know who Jim Thompson was. I'd never heard of him. ... I came in late even on the movies. The Humphrey Bogart kind of private eye movies, stuff like that, I didn't know a lot about those either 'til I was older. So I would say that in my writing, the influence that shows through are the Southern novelists. And any of the violence or the crime elements, that's more probably just what I've witnessed myself in my life.

Your first two films deal with race. Sling Blade seems to focus on the theme of religion. Was that something you were striving to address?

There are several mini issues in this movie. I think they all came out pretty organically. I didn't really set out to do it. I think if I did anything consciously, it was to do a movie about a guy who didn't know any better than to be honest. Which is a little like Peter Sellers' character in Being There. The religious issue, I probably put a little more thought into that, trying to weave that in and out a little bit. I've always felt that one of the biggest problems we have is people using religion for their own purposes. "Whatever I don't like, I'll just say it's in the Bible." "Long-haired people go to Hell." Whatever. And the thing is, I don't see (Sling Blade) as an antireligion movie. As a matter of fact, if anything it says religion's not a bad thing. Having beliefs is a good thing. As long as you don't misuse them. I think it's kind of a positive religious message.

Despite what Bob Dole says, is film a good medium in which to tell "moral" stories?

Absolutely. The thing is, when people don't read, when people don't think, they go and they watch MTV and they go to movies--which are becoming more and more like MTV. So I figure, if I can do anything, it's to make movies that will at least make people watch and think and learn something about themselves or be moved in some way. That's the whole point really. That's the place that you've got to do it--in movies and television. 'Cause that's all people pay attention to. I think you're right. Bob Dole puts down whatever it is he doesn't like about movies, but he probably likes Arnold Schwarzenegger movies. And those things are so violent, you don't even look on it as violence. I think that's what's dangerous. Because that's a subliminal thing there. That's like watching a cartoon and seeing how fun it is. Kids watch that, it's like "oh, you see him cut that guy in half with that laser thing?" Then if (Dole) sees a movie that has realistic violence, which actually turns people off to violence, then he puts it down. "Well, we saw that girl's breasts in that movie, and they murdered that poor woman." It's like, yeah, but then people walk out of the theater saying, "Boy, I don't ever want to do that. I don't ever want to be involved in that." Which is what we do in One False Move and in Sling Blade. The violence in those movies makes you really not want to get involved in it.

--Devin D. O'Leary

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