Billy Bob Thornton is the Arkansan who, with co-writer Tom Epperson, wrote (and played a leading role in) 1992’s critically acclaimed One False Move. He’s also acted in everything from Evening Shade and Hearts Afire to Dead Man and Tombstone. Now Thornton is making his directorial debut with a self-written drama called Sling Blade.
The film tells the story of Karl Childers, a mildly retarded man (played by Thornton), who’s being released from the state psychiatric hospital. It seems that 25 years ago, Karl hacked his mother to death after discovering her in an adulterous liaison. According to Karl, he was only following instructions: his mother’s fundamentalist Bible lessons. But 25 years in the joint have straightened things out, or so we want to think, until Karl finds himself in another precarious situation, defending a young boy (Frank) and his mother (Linda) against a bully (Doyle) the only way he knows how.
The film lopes along with a gentleness and hominess that displays the best tendencies of writer/actor/director pieces, namely strong characterizations that are refreshing, surprising and real. There are the occasional moments when the author’s head does peek out from behind the movie screen, but the film is an overall success due to its good intentions and utter lack of bullshit, which is, not surprisingly, the kind of man I found Billy Bob Thornton to be.
John Bowe How many scripts did you write before any of them got produced?
Billy Bob Thorton Oh, about 20.
JB No shit?
BBT Yeah, most of them with Tom Epperson, One False Move, A Family Thing . . . Sling Blade is the only one I’ve directed solo. Not that Tom and I have any problems working together, we’re doing more stuff now, it’s just that was one I really wanted to do all the way by myself. You’re not going to get exactly what you want unless it’s your vision from beginning to end.
JB When did you finish the film?
BBT We shot it last spring, and I’ve been working on it on and off until recently. Now I’ve just been doing these press junkets. One day I did 50 television interviews in a row. After awhile you’re thinking is this real, or am I making this up? It’s the same shit over and over. At first, you elaborate on different themes, and then after awhile, you just say, yes, I was born in Hot Springs, Arkansas, it was nighttime, it was raining, next question.
JB You used to play drums, you ever find time to play music now?
BBT Not here in California, but when we were making Sling Blade we were shooting in the town where the guys from the last band I was in lived. So on weekends, instead of going to Memphis like the rest of the crew, I’d go out and jam with them. It was a lot of fun. They built a studio out in their barn. We used to record stuff on the weekends.
JB That would be the way to do it. The problem with a regular gig is when everyone thinks you should try and get famous. It’s the kiss of death.
BBT Actually, in this one band, we used to warm up for some big names when they’d come through the south, people like Humble Pie, Black Oak Arkansas, Dr. Hook.
JB God, I remember Black Oak Arkansas, Jim Dandy.
BBT Oh yeah, good old Jim Dandy. He was a pal of ours. All those guys got kind of wasted, blew out their minds.
JB I bet. Could probably make a good documentary: Wasted Southern Boogie Rock Stars.
BBT I actually did a documentary. The only other film I directed was a documentary on a band called Widespread Panic. They’re out of Athens, Georgia with a real big cult following. Phil Walden is an old friend of mine, he’s the head of Capricorn records, the guy who discovered the Allman Brothers, Otis Redding, people like that. And through him, I got to know Colonel Bruce Hampton and Vic Chestnutt, Widespread Panic—he whole Athens, Georgia set.
JB When did you do the documentary?
BBT In ’92. I went down to Athens, and mostly we just turned the camera on, talked to people in the street, recorded some of their concert, screwed around.
JB Was that on film or video?
BBT Film. I don’t think I could ever do video. That’s what’s wrong with movies these days, a lot of the directors, this new Quentin Tarantino rip-off, are like video directors. They do a couple Aerosmith videos and then they’re directing a Warner Brothers movie.
JB They’ve never worked with actors or stories, and it shows. Well, let’s talk about Sling Blade. I remember reading something by Buñuel that said he had not seen any of his films after they were done. Have you seen Sling Blade much since you finished it? And when you look at it, do you cringe, or do you like it?
BBT It’s funny, I could try to he humble, but I have to say I like it. Whether it’s good or bad, or if it succeeds or fails, it is what I wanted. So when I look at it, I can’t find things that I wish I had done differently. I’m pretty proud of it. The vision that originally came about in my head was realized. And that doesn’t always happen. That’s the only reason I want to direct a movie, so I can get it half-ass the way I want it. I have no burning desire to be a director, I’m just directing out of necessity, really.
BBT Yeah, more than anything else. I would never direct a movie that I was hired to direct. In the movie business, once you direct a movie, it doesn’t matter if anybody likes them, it’s just the fact that you’ve done it. You see these shitty screenwriters all the time, who just because they had some Dan Ackroyd movie made, then they write the Brad Pitt movie. They send me that stuff all the time—“We’ve got this new, fantastic movie, we have 11 stars attached . . ." I don’t have the energy to deal with that. The first time the star wouldn’t come out of his trailer, I’d just fire him. Like if I were a pro football coach. Some guy makes 15 million a year, but if he sat there dragging his ass, I’d say, sit on the bench. I’d let the other guy play. It’s fun doing your own thing, it’s ideal. You write it, direct it—you do it the way you want. I just don’t want to spend two days setting up for some bridge to be blown up. The technical part of filmmaking doesn’t mean a whole lot to me.
JB Right, you don’t want to sit there figuring out how to fix a mechanical shark.
JB So, was there something in the film that came out surprisingly better than you’d expected?
BBT I thought the photography was great. Barry Markowitz did a terrific job. I knew it was good when I saw the dailies, but when I saw the whole thing together, the look is really consistent. And the actors were all terrific, just excellent. When you get out there, things happen that you didn’t exactly plan, and all the things that happen by accident, I believe fit the movie in some cosmic way. That scene at the end of the film, where I’m coming into the living room for the big show down, and Karl, my character, walks right by this picture of Frank, and just for a second, the picture is facing the camera and it’s as if we’re side by side. And that’s what the film is all about, these two characters: Karl is killing Doyle for Frank. Of course I’ll be called a genius, and it was really some prop guy who put it there. (laughter) I had no idea.
JB Yes, I noticed that set-up and assumed it was intentional.
BBT So all these little parallels and symbolisms throughout the movie that I had subconsciously, actually came out. I also like the way Daniel Lanois did the music. My initial instinct was to have a kind of odd music, more like what Jim Jarmusch would have, Tom Waits in Down By Law, for instance. But then I started thinking, this character looks so strange and it’s such a weird world anyway, to put that against pretty music would be better. I decided to use guitars and stuff, and it came out sounding almost orchestral.
JB There’s a weird, gurgly bubble sound at the beginning. Just slightly weird, but not overbearing.
BBT I liked that. It’s way back there, almost like water dripping.
JB And because everything else was so understated, that was nice. Also in the beginning, when J.T. Walsh moves over to talk to Karl and drags that chair for 45 seconds, making that horrible squeal. That was great.
BBT Yeah, I came up with that on the set: Would you go get that chair and drag it? We won’t cut, we’ll just follow you all the way over there and it’ll really grate on people’s nerves. I was trying to think of a beginning. You always want that first image to hook you, and if J.T. had just walked over and fucked with the other patients on the way, and then sat down, that would have been too normal.
JB It was like the beginning of Treasure of the Sierra Madre, where the first thing you see is Bogart ripping up those lottery tickets. You know instantly: he’s a loser. Dragging the chair immediately characterizes J.T. Walsh as a sociopath.
BBT Umhmm, that’s right.
JB The film unfolds slowly. You don’t know quite what is going on until Karl tells his story to the reporter. And why did you choose to have Karl be mentally disabled?
BBT That’s been played up. I wouldn’t call Karl mentally retarded, more socially retarded. He lived in a shed, like a dog.
JB It was a particular decision not to use flashback to show the scene of him killing his mother 20 years before. Leaving that out contributed to the film’s tension, its surreal quality.
BBT It seemed like the natural thing to do. Flashbacks are such a movie-ish convention. You’ve heard him tell the story, it seemed pointless to show it. It was more mysterious without it.
JB Some of the things I liked best about the film were these weird, surprising characterizations. Like when Doyle freaks out, and he’s crumpled up in a ball by the front door, and Frank is whizzing bottles at him. There’s this little bing, boom, bing, boom, bing, where everything out of Doyle’s mouth is, “You fuckers,” then, “I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I know I’ve got problems,” and then back to, “Oh you fucking ass-holes it’s your fault,” and again, “Whoops, I know, I’ve got some things to learn.” Was that scripted?
BBT It was scripted. Dwight’s character was the easiest one to write. I’ve known more people like him than anybody else in the movie. There’s a certain apologetic quality that really bad alcoholics have, which is always having to qualify any nice thing they do by doing something shitty. They’re balancing back and forth all the time, like, hey man, I’m sorry, you motherfucker, come here, you know. One of my favorite things Doyle says is “I hope you fucking freaks have fun.” (laughter) He calls them freaks. All of them are freaks to him. When he first starts to go nuts he says, “I’m the only sane son-of-a-bitch around here.” That’s right.
JB (laughter) That was perfect.
BBT But the guys in the living room, Colonel Bruce Hampton and Vic Chestnutt, they’re genuine musicians. The guy in the wheelchair who Dwight pushes into the door is Vic Chestnutt, a singer-songwriter from Athens. And he really is paralyzed. We didn’t have any stunt people around, and I asked him, “Should we get somebody for ya? I want to make it look real, and what if he just pushes you over there and you roll into the door, can you fake it?” And Vic said, “I’d like to do it. I’ve always wanted to do stunts.” And Dwight threw him in the door, and sure enough, his head hit the door and everything.
JB How many times did you have to shoot that one?
BBT Uh, we did it twice.
JB That’s pretty merciful. That was an intense moment. I was not expecting that. Not a lot of stuntmen in wheelchairs.
BBT No, not many, I guess. Vic was really proud of it.
JB It was interesting to see an actor like John Ritter, a pro, where there’s not a second where you wonder what he’s doing, right in the mix with someone like Dwight Yoakam, who’s not a professional actor. And then there’s the guy who ran the motorshop, who I could tell was definitely not an actor. Was it weird to have this kind of mix?
BBT The big guy in the fix-it shop is Rick Dial, who I’ve known since I was eight years old. He was never shy about doing anything in front of anybody, although he’d never done any acting. He was just the kind of guy I needed in that shot. The only difference, with guys like Rick who’ve never done any acting, is that you don’t have to deal with them as much. People think that non-actors are the ones you’ve really got to direct, but it’s the other way around. Actors are used to talking about their roles, they want to make choices. And Rick was just there for you know, the potato salad. I knew that if I left him alone, and let him do his thing, he’d be a real guy. And with John, we’d worked quite a bit before on television, and he and I talked stuff over. Which is also fun. I wanted a certain part of this movie to be realistic, but there was also another wink, a little black humor. I liked having such diverse people. We had a fun time with Sling Blade. It was by far the best experience I’ve ever had. We had no money, no dressing rooms, no honey wagon or anything. We did it in only 24 days.
JB Were they long, hard-assed days?
BBT No, not really. As a matter of fact, we never even worked any overtime. We shot the baptism scene and the football scene in the same day, and we started at 7:00 a.m., and by one o’clock I was back at the hotel. The night we shot the scene in the house where Dwight cracks up, that was a hard night. It’s a tough scene, a long scene with a lot of people, and not a lot of cuts. We had to make sure we got it right.
JB Are you one of those guys who’s got to get it from every angle?
BBT No. I don’t worry about all that shit. Like that dinner table scene with John Ritter and everybody. I got a single on everybody there and then didn’t use ’em. Some critic said how they wanted to see the reactions of the faces. But the point is, you’re looking at this scene like you’re sitting at the end of the table, watching it happen. I like that kind of stuff. If I were doing this for a big studio, and I was trying to impress everybody in the world and make everybody like it, maybe I would have done it the other way, but I made this movie for a very specific audience. The people who I wanted to see the movie have seen it. I wasn’t trying to exactly win any prizes. I didn’t think that Sling Blade was going to be as well received as it has been. The fact that it was a big deal at Telluride and the New York Film Festival was a real surprise. I expected to get a small, art house crowd and then a few people in the middle of the country who would like it simply because it was a familiar world. It does have the feel, the mood and the look of an independent film. At the same time, the underlying story is a classic, simple story. It’s no different than Shone or High Noon. Sling Blade has got a little something that the guys who work on John Deere tractors in Nebraska will like. I think a lot of art films are either episodic or the story’s just too fucking weird, about a grapefruit salesman or something. (laughter)
JB When you started writing scripts, did you write them to sell? Or was it because you thought these stories had to be told?
BBT When I first started writing scripts, I never really thought about being a writer. I wrote short stories when I was a teenager, but I always wanted to be an actor. When I came to L.A., I took an acting class, and that’s all I thought about. When Tom Epperson and I starting writing scripts together back in 1980, it was initially just to get in the movie business. But I always had a knack for characters and dialogue, and I thought it was fun. But to tell the truth, when I started out, I didn’t have any story in my head that I had to do. Because my influences were never movie people. I was into music, and a few novelists, Faulkner and Erksine Caldwell. The Beatles, and the Rolling Stones and Frank Zappa, Captain Beefheart, Elvis Presley, Roy Orbison, and George Jones. Those are really the people I like. That’s why I put music people in movies. I find them more interesting than movie people. I was only influenced by people in the movie business way after I’d gotten in it. I was at Disney years ago, and they asked me, “Well, what kinds of things do you want to do?” And I said, “I can’t tell you exactly what I want to do, but I can tell you what I don’t want to do,” and I listed three of their movies. I didn’t know they were their movies.
JB (laughter) Did you get the job?
BBT Yeah, actually. These people are fucking masochists. You go in there and call them all kinds of names, tell them you think they’re assholes and why would you waste people’s time with this horseshit, and they say, “Yeah, you’re right. Will you write this movie for us?” But if you go in there begging, and are really articulate and nice and act like you know what you’re doing, then they tell you to get the fuck out of there.
JB So now, because of Sling Blade, you’ve got all these people offering you directing and writing gigs. Are any of them any good?
BBT One of them is. Tom and I are supposed to write the Merle Haggard story for United Artists. That’ll be good. Most of what they’re offering though is not as much writing as directing. And most of it’s just crap. People love violent movies, and for some reason, from One False Move and Sling Blade, they get a feeling that I’m about gratuitous violence, which I’m not. These movies speak badly of violence. I get offered movies with titles like “Blood at Dawn.” I don’t get that.
JB I saw One False Move and it kind of bugged me. I thought, obviously the intention or heart behind this movie is trying to do something thoughtful, but I didn’t like the violence. I thought, if you’re capable of having a gentle thought about human nature, which is often a rare feat in movie making, why use the same old violent movie tricks to express it? I was worried that Sling Blade would be the same. And then it totally won my heart. It was much more about the moment of people connecting. The violence was off screen. The one major violent act in the movie was outside the edge of the frame. The other happened 20 years before the movie starts.
BBT I’ve told people this before about One False Move, I don’t think it would have done nearly as well if it hadn’t had that violence. I guarantee if it had just been about the interracial relationship, and only dealt with that, not nearly as many people would have seen it, or talked about it.
JB I bet you’re right. But it’s still kind of problematic. How do you justify using the same depressing and devaluing images of people using guns to solve their problems when you’re supposedly operating far above that plane?
BBT I don’t think One False Move glorifies violence—that’s what we were criticized for. People have a problem seeing something real, so if you’re going to have violence in a film, you have to make it ugly. If you’re going to use it, use it in a realistic, angry way. Make it off-putting in a positive way. Since that movie I’ve decided not to use a lot of violence. I like Sling Blade better than One False Move. Maybe that sounds pompous, since I did this one by myself. I thought One False Move was real well done, Carl Franklin did a good job. I like the script. But what’s different is that when it was shot, they took the humor out of it. That was downplayed to make more of a straight film-noir thriller.
JB Your character in One False Move was, well, ugly. But when I saw you in Sling Blade, your character was totally different, sweet. It struck me how what I’ve read in some reviews is true, you do have a tremendous ability to transform yourself. Do you still enjoy acting?
BBT I like that better than any of it. Playing this character, Karl, was like a religious experience for me. It’s sad I can’t do it again. I don’t really believe in sequels.
JB So how hard was it to direct yourself?
BBT Actually, directing myself is easy. I knew what I was going to do. I created this character in the theater years ago. I used to do it as part of a one-man show, just that monologue in the beginning where Karl is telling his story to the magazine reporter. It was harder with the other actors, because if you’re in every scene, and you’re that involved in a character, you’re not paying attention to what they’re doing, so I wasn’t always real clear on them.
JB I read that you came up with Karl’s character a few years ago when you were sitting in some ridiculous suit in the hot sun on some film set, and you thought, Oh God, I feel like that guy.
BBT Yeah, I started looking at myself in the mirror and making faces at myself. I was doing this self-loathing, “you pile of shit, what do you think you’re doing five lines for” routine. And that whole monologue came out, right there in the mirror. I didn’t know where it came from.
JB Some characters just come to you, and then later, you find a home for them.
BBT Sometimes it’s just in your subconscious, a collection of people you’ve known over the years, and they come together in your head. Karl’s walk is from old men. I play Karl as if he were 80 years old. Even though he’s not, I just naturally started walking that way, like my grandfather did. Also, his language is from another time. It’s not a modern form of language. I’m real interested in that kind of dialect, from where I grew up in Arkansas. The old people I used to know talked that way.
JB When I spent some time hitchhiking down there, I used to tape-record people and transcribe it, just ’cause I liked the way it looked. Both Karl and Frank keep saying, “I like the way you talk.”
BBT You know my two favorite scenes of the movie? The one where they’re out in the shed, right after Karl’s first met Doyle, and they’re talking about the potted meat. That’s where they say, “I like the way you talk.” And at the end of the scene they’re joking around with each other, and Karl actually smiles a bit. That’s the only time that ever happens in the movie. It was very, very human.
JB When he finds the pecker in the potted meat.
BBT Right. I also liked the scene where Karl comes into the kitchen with the mother and tries to tell her that joke to cheer her up, but he gets the punchline all wrong. And then he says, “Get it?” just like the guy who told it to him did.
JB And that scene where his would-be girlfriend comes into the shop where he works and gives him the flowers.
BBT That’s my favorite stuff in the movie, that real, raw, human, touching stuff. There’s a little bit of the absurd in it too. I like that.
JB Did you ever see that movie Tomorrow by Joseph Anthony?
BBT Oh, I love that movie.
JB Best movie ever. Something about the light, it was really like the way it looks down south. Even though the film is black and white.
BBT It’s true. That was a terrific movie, golly, one of my favorites. It came out in ’72, but I didn’t see it until 1988. But I flipped out when I finally did see it.
JB It seems like it’s in your vein. Especially if you like someone like Erskine Caldwell.
BBT Sure, it was based on a Faulkner short story, and then Horton Foote wrote the screenplay and Duvall plays the main character. All the best guys in one movie.
JB You think of novels, how everything falls into tidy classifications: southern regional writers, like Faulkner or Flannery O’Connor. You could do the same thing with films, only no one ever thinks of it that way. Sling Blade reminded me in some way of Tomorrow. The light definitely reminded me of being in Arkansas. And the slow pacing, it’s kind of gentle.
BBT That’s the only way I want to do movies, more like a book on film than a movie. In movies, everything’s supposed to be cinematic and shouldn’t have all that talking, but that’s what I like. I like characters.
JB It’s a lot more memorable than fancy camera moves.
BBT I learned a little bit about lenses and things like that. It was half-ass interesting to me, but at the end of the day, I really didn’t care. If the emotional content is there in a scene, that’s all that’s important to me.
JB There was one shot, when Karl and Frank go down to the pond and there’s that weird light coming off the water.
BBT That happens naturally when you’re by a pond and the moon is shining. It’s the ripples in the water, like after a frog jumps. But to make sure that the frogs jumped, ’cause frogs won’t always jump—we had a guy just throw a rock in the water before we shot it.
JB But the light was actually the moon?
BBT No, we had a big 80K. Me and the DP, Barry Markowitz, made a good team. He was totally into the gizmos, always wanting to try something; I’m only interested in what the actors are doing. So put those two things together, and it worked out.
JB An experience like this, directing your own script and perfectly realizing your vision, must spoil you.
BBT I’ve acted in a couple movies since Sling Blade. One thing is, now I’m always wanting to tell the director what to do. That’s the hard part.
JB I bet they love that.
BBT Oh yeah, you’re working with some big shit director and you want to walk over and say, "Hey listen, forget about that goddamn crane, why don’t you concentrate on the fact that that actor isn’t doing anything real here?" Doing it the way I did this movie, with total control over everything and nobody telling me what to do for even a second, how can you now go do a film where they tell you they’ve decided Brad Pitt, Matthew McConaughy and Tom Cruise are going to be your actors. I’m not knocking them, I’m just saying that maybe I don’t want them. That’s not what I do.
JB So after this experience, what will you direct?
BBT I’ve got three more movies that I really want to make. And then I think I’m going to quit. Maybe something will come up between now and then, but right now, I know I’ve got three. Beyond that, I’d be reaching for something. To put it simply, I would like to be the southern Woody Allen. I can’t really write about anything else. That’s what I’m good at, that’s what my experience has been. I like the idea of acting and directing and writing my own scripts. The next movie I’m going to direct is a comedy. I hate to say the word comedy, because it’s really not a “comedy,” but funny. I do have a couple of acting roles coming up. I’m going to do a couple of scenes in Robert Duvall’s movie, which he’s directing down in Louisiana.
JB This is nosing towards pretentious territory, so look out, but morally, what was the most interesting thing about Sling Blade to you?
BBT The idea of somebody giving up their own soul to save somebody else’s. I wanted to get across this sense of universal justice that you dream of in your head, but that exists only in an ideal way. There’s the religious message. People have always used religion for their own benefit, and Karl was taught a Bible by his parents that didn’t exist. It was just what they wanted him to believe. This movie also has a lot to do with fate. There’s a little bit of magic to it, a little bit of heightened reality. This guy comes to town, and his clothes never wrinkle, he doesn’t sleep. Karl’s character really is, in a way, an angel.
JB It was amazing when he walks into the house at the end, and Dwight Yoakam’s character, Doyle, says, “What the hell are you doing here?” And Karl says, “Well I came to kill you.” Doyle doesn’t go anywhere, he just sits there. Is that because he’s so drunk? Or did you want to make it seem inevitable?
BBT It’s almost as if this was just a chunk of time that was going to happen: Karl was going to get released from the institution; he was going to return to the town where he was born, meet some really decent people who accepted him without question: he was going to straighten this bad situation out. It was all going to happen. Dwight and I discussed that final scene in particular. I said, it’s like Kurtz in Apocalypse Now. Subconsciously Doyle knows that this is it, and he accepts it. But then, at the last moment, he still yells his name, as if, please don’t do this. But it’s just instinct. Everybody knows something’s about to happen. He says goodbye to all of them, and then they all call his name.
JB At the end, when you show Karl back at the asylum, do you feel he’s undergone some transformation?
BBT He’s really back in the only place where he’s comfortable. In a box. Which was the way he was raised. Walsh says, “What was it like out in the world?” And Karl says, “It was too big.” He knows that he can’t live out there. He feels too much for the world, and really does have his own brand of justice. When he’s back in the mental institution, it’s like he knows that’s his destiny, but at the same time, he has this terrible sadness. He’s looking out the window at this world that he knows he’ll never be a part of. And this kid, who’s the only friend he’s ever had, is out there. He knows that was the tradeoff, because in his mind, he believes in heaven and hell. In his mind, he literally sold his soul. Because he knows that killing’s wrong. He knows that by killing, no matter what, he’s sold himself down the river. But he was willing to do that so this kid doesn’t have to live the life that he did.
JB I would have thought that your point would have been that there’s a higher law, that whatever the Bible says, this is an okay killing. He loses his life on earth, but he’s going to go to heaven for it.
BBT He thinks that it’s not his business to decide who lives and dies. But he’s okay with it, because he knows he did something that’s good for Frank. So he does think that this killing was a good thing. But by law, it’s not, so there is that possibility that he’s going to hell for it.
JB Was making this movie a chance for you to study these issues?
BBT Not so much to study them, because they’re things that I already think about anyway. It comes from stuff that I’ve thought or believed, or seen other people think or believe. I grew up in a very religious place.
JB Did you go to church when you were a kid?
BBT Oh yeah, sure. I was raised a Methodist, and I actually still go. My wife and kids and I, we go every Sunday. And in a lot of ways I am religious. I kind of believe in everything, as opposed to believing in nothing or believing in one particular thing. The scientific way of thinking is, if I can’t see it or touch it, then it doesn’t exist. But there is such a thing as infinity, which blows my mind. That the sky goes forever, I can’t even think about that. A spring pops in my head. How can something never end? But then I think, that’s right, things really can’t end. I’ve seen too much evidence of, let’s say, psychic phenomena. I’ve experienced it in my own life. Sometimes I feel almost devilish thinking this way, but wouldn’t it be great if it was exactly what it says in the Bible? Wouldn’t it be great for some guy who was a total atheist, who’s real cynical and thinks, “I’m just going to grab all the money I can, buy 11 BMWs and do this and that, ’cause when you die, you die, so fuck it.” And what if all of a sudden this motherfucker is sitting on a brick with this guy poking his ass with a pitchfork, saying, “See, I told ya, ya wouldn’t listen . . .”
JB Yeah, eternal perdition . . .
BBT And then there are the other people, basically decent people who die, and then all of a sudden they’re walking down this street paved with gold, and there’s this big gate and everybody’s got wings. I mean, wouldn’t that be amazing?
JB I think it does happen. Not literally, but you do something shitty, you live with it. People have different levels of sensitivity or conscience about what they do. There’s definitely a system of punishments and rewards analogous to heaven and hell that’s very real.
BBT Believe me, I carry a whole bunch of guilt. Maybe some of what I write is out of guilt. Maybe the number one thing with me is that I didn’t tell somebody something, and they died. My brother died in 1988 and I was real close to him. I think back, and I remember he used to have these ideas he wanted to talk to me about, and I was right in the middle of trying to get my career going. I’d say, “Yeah okay, we’ll have to talk about this sometime.” I’d blow it off. And he’s gone, and I’m thinking, that was my brother, what was I thinking? Was it that important that I went to that meeting? The three movies I’ve had produced A Family Thing, One False Move and Sling Blade, all deal with somebody dealing with their past. There must be a reason for that, or I wouldn’t keep doing it. It’s not like I sit down and say, ok, I’m going to write a movie about this guy’s past. It just comes out that way. Never once did I purposely go into any of these scripts with that idea in mind.
JB When you’re thinking about what makes a good story, do you think, “This is interesting to me,” or are you thinking of the audience?
BBT I never think about the audience. Never. It always starts with a character and a situation. I just let the story go wherever it’s going to go. Tom and I have written a couple of scripts over the years that you wouldn’t give a nickel for. But that was usually when we were purposefully going for something, back when we were trying to stop working at Pizza Hut.
JB I’ll never forget trying to write an action movie, the one and only time I tried hard to write something I wasn’t at all interested in. It sucked, needless to say.
BBT Those movies are always about some guy running along the top of the subway train. Everything’s blowing up everywhere, and nobody’s involved except him. Why do we have to keep seeing that? Don’t we know? People’s attention spans have become as big as a gnat’s. It’s like we’re going backwards, making the same shit, over and over. Do you ever notice how nobody ever says anything normal in these movies? Nobody ever says, “Pass me the sugar.”
JB Nobody ever says, “Well, I don’t know.”
BBT Every line has to be really catchy. Schwartzeneger says “Hasta la vista, baby” before he shoots somebody. In reality, if you took the time to say, hasta la vista baby, you would get shot.
—John Bowe is a writer and filmmaker based in New York. He is a Senior Editor at Word and most recently co-wrote the movie Basquiat with Julian Schnabel.