SXSW: Billy Bob Thornton On Where Movies And America Went Wrong

By Josh Tyler 2008-03-14 06:18:46discussion comments
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When I wandered into ďA Conversation With Billy Bob ThorntonĒ Tuesday at SXSW, I really had no idea what to expect. Unlike the other drunken celebrities wandering Austin's streets, he wasnít there promoting a movie or anything. His band was playing in town, but Billy was mostly just around hang out. And thatís exactly what he did, with a room full of movie fans and other filmmakers. He wandered in wearing sunglasses and the worldís coolest leather jacket, and from the moment he took his seat every word out of the guyís mouth was gold.

Billy Bob talked about everything, from the way Harvey Weinstein screwed him over on All the Pretty Horses and the possibility of releasing a directorís cut for the film, to his future plans for a return to directing, to what he thinks is wrong with Hollywood, movies, music, and American culture in general. Thornton is a humble, aw shucks guy and he likes to run himself down, frequently referring to himself as stupid. But heís sharp, and even through his slow southern drawl and lingering hangover, his smarts shine through.

He talked for well over an hour and Iíve done my best to select only the best of what he had to say during his South By hang out, but most of itís so good that well, this thing is really really long. But seriously, stick with it. Itís worth it. You wonít want to miss a word out of Billy Bob Thorntonís mouth. Hereís what he had to say to the intimate little conference room crowd at this yearís SXSW:


Thereís no question about it. Johnny Cash told me that one time too. He said, ďthe best advice I can give you is donít pay any attention to advice.Ē Just do whatever you do, itís gonna be your best work. If you start trying to please people then itís not going to be about your work. Obviously you want the audience to like whatever you do, thatís why you do it.

I mean for anybody who sort of uh, you know those celebrities who say ďwhy wonít anybody leave me aloneĒ and then they sort of walk right down the middle of the street here? Thatís part of the job. But um, I think where movies and music and everything kind of went wrong in my mind, and not everybody thinks theyíve gone wrong, I do, but um, is when they started letting the audience tell you how to do it.

Once you start testing things, it becomes toothpaste. Because art by nature is someoneís vision of something. And you can like it or not like it. Thatís up to the individual. But if you let the audience tell you how it should end, then itís no longer your thing, and then it canít be judged by anybody, properly.

Oh and by the way the only reason Iím keeping my sunglasses on, itís not like Iím trying to show off my new sunglasses. Ok, hereís the deal. I had a little too much fun out at Cooterís last night. So little puffy around the eye area, let me tell you!


Yeah I met Billy Wilder when I was working as a waiter which I didnít know how to do. And uh, this was years and years ago. It was at a Christmas Eve party at Stanley [garbled] house, you know. Kind of weird. I had to carry a tray load of crap around you now. And a friend of mine had gotten me the job, cause I was really broke. This was in the early 80s, and uh, I didnít have a tuxedo, so my buddy loaned me one. Well my buddy was like 6í4Ē and I had to sorta pin the arms up and everything. So, Iím just carrying these things around to people and uh, Hors D'Oeuvres or whatever. It was kind of an old Hollywood party you know? Like Debbie Reynolds was there and Sammy Kahn an old songwriter. Lot of people. And Dudley Moore was playing piano, and you know, course I was like a moron. I went up to them ďIím an actorĒ. What do you do for a living? Idunno, Iím an actorÖ and this! And I work at Shakeyís too. But itís just a stopover.

Anyway, this little guy with a German accent starts talking to me. Uh says, ďso youíre an actor huh?Ē How do you know? I thought he had ESP, I wasnít clued into the whole waiters are actors yet. And uh, so, he started talking to me. Just struck up a conversation with me. And then Stanley came over and chewed his ass out. ďHeís supposed to be working!Ē and all this stuff and Billy told him to leave me alone. So we just got to talking, and uh, he said look: hereís the deal. Everybodyís an actor. What they need are writers, you know. If you can writeÖ I said, ďWell I just happen to have a few screenplays if you let me go to the car.Ē So uh, anyway, I used to be that guy that I would run down the street from now.


Well when I did Armageddon, and this is just the truth. People think itís a joke when I say this. I had to pay off a divorce. I really did! When I did Armageddon, I had to have some money! And my manager said, also, this is the deal: Youíve gotta do movies like this, because if you donít, you donít have your picture on a bus stop now and then, people forget about you. He said, you can do the independent films you love all you want. Every now and then, youíve gotta be on a bus stop. And thatís whatís going to afford you the chance to do the movies you want to do. So for me, I like to do Monsterís Ball, Man Who Wasnít There, Simple Plan, Sling Blade, and Bad Santa, you know thinks like that. Thatís what I like to do.

With Armageddon, what they do is they send you 50 of those kinds of movies, and youíll look through the 50 of themÖ 48 of them you can barely read without throwing up, and you pick one thatís pretty good, or at least something thatís not gonna hurt ya.

When we did the table read for that movie it was kind of strange because Owen, Buscemi and I kind of know each other and stuff. And weíre sittin at this table read through, at a Jerry Bruckheimer, Michael Bay movie and weíre lookin at each other like, what the hell are we doin here? We donít even know how to do this, I mean whaddya do? Because it requires a lot of doing things like this (turns his head in slow motion). Anyway, as it turns out the part that I play in the movie was the head guy at NASA. Iíd never done anything like that before and it was cool. I got to wear a suit and tie and spout off a bunch of lingo that I didnít know what it meant, and it was great ya know? And I got to meet all those NASA guys and they taught me what it meant, and the movie did a lot for me so I can never knock that movie becauseÖ first of all nobody should ever knock anything you get to do in your entire business because itís not workin in saw mill. So every day you should get down on your knees and thank god that I get to do this at all.

And uh, I try not to run people down for doing things. I have actor friends who say, ďoh heís a TV actor.Ē What? Who cares, I mean so what if heís a TV actor.


Itís a great learning place, uh, television. I did a TV sitcom called Hearts Afire with John RitterÖ It was for the Thompsons, Linda Bloodworth-Thomason and Harry ThomasonÖ On that show we had to run a lot of dialogue, because Lindaís shows were very dialogue heavy. And Iím dyslexic and stupid and lot of other things ya know? So I had to really learn stuff quickly, and Linda would change stuff with a live audience in there. And Ritter was always messin with ya anyway, god rest his soul, he was one of my best friends John, he was an amazing guy.

When youíre doing these sitcoms, you know youíve like 5 cameras thereís live audience in there I donít usually have the mic right and, puffy eyes, and uh Ritter would really mess me up all the time. Because I would write my dialogue, now letís say Iím in the newspaper offices, thatís where they worked. And I would down write my dialogue on something by the telephone on the desk, and in those sitcoms youíre constantly moving so they get camera movement and all this kind of thing. And so one time Linda, the first time he did it to me, Linda had written this whole monologue for me on the telephone right? So I had my whole thing right there on the desk. And, thatís right, I come over and pick the telephone up and Ritter wrote like a guy givin the finger on the paper and takin my words up. But yeah, itís a great place to learn. You learn to catch dialogue pretty quickly you know, and thatís a nice thing. So yeah, itís all good.


I mean I just did this movie called Eagle Eye, and itís a big Spielberg production, I was on it four monthsÖ. Rosario Dawson is in it, Michelle Monaghan, Shai LaBeouf, new kid heís great, wonderful actor. And, itís just a big actor thriller directed by DJ Caruso, itís all this intrigue, and I play the head of the anti-terrorism task force of the FBI. Imagine that! Iím nearer to being the head of NASA! And so uh, some days you go to work and if thereís uh, a real heavy dialogue scene. Like I have an interrogation scene with Shia in the movie. And when I went to work that day it felt like that [acting]. And then there are other days when youíre runnin through the airport with a 9-millimeter you know, and chasing people and jumpin off a ledge and stuff, you could be goin anywhere. You could be goin to Whole Foods to, you know, get some muffins.


The trick with that part was I was supposed to play a Texas oil millionaire, but I was supposed to play him kind of badly Because in actuality he was a soap opera actor who was hired by these lawyers to pretend, there was this whole scam, with this divorce. And so, Iím thinking, you know, I grew up down here, itís like, you know, around Houston actually. Arkansas and then around Houston. Itís like, Texas oil man isnít exactly something that I canít play. I can play that. So I had to be a guy who was not that at all playing that, so that was the trick in playing the part. And then later Iím this, melodramatic soap opera actor with uh, whatís his name, Campbell? Bruce Campbell who was in Sam Raimiís movies right? Heís hysterical. He was playing like my other doctor guy or whatever. And we were so much like soap opera actors in that scene. And thank god, because you know, during the rest of the movie Iím watching that thinking boy Iím not a very good Texas oil manÖ oh yeah Iím not supposed to be. By the time we got to that scene I was always really happy that that scene was in there so that people would know I didnít do a shitty job.


I grew up in music, so that was my first thing. I was a musician forever and sort of like, accidentally became an actor and got famous. And it was like, yikes! What do I do now? And of course they slam you for it the rest of youíre life. If youíre famous in one area, I donít go up to a carpenter who was a security guard on his second job and go, ďwhat are you doing being a security guard?Ē You know what I mean? ďYou canít be a security guard! Youíre a carpenter! Let me see you guard something! Guard those guys, let me see what you can do.Ē See what I mean?


We thought maybe 10 people would see that movie. We just had no idea. Thatís why I said at the time, with the press, with some of em, I made this movie for my mom and my brothers and my family and people like that, and if they like Iím satisfied. And I really meant that at the time, because we made it for nothing and I didnít have real high expectations. I thought the critics would like it, and I hoped that the critics would like it, and beyond that I didnít really have any expectations. That gave me the luxury of taking my time with the pacing. But once youíre established, then the pressure of having to entertain gets heavier to ya, and the musicality gets a little more, in other words you do have to think about it more. Back then it was like, no I can just do this the way I want to do it.

Matter of fact, Martin Scorsese had met with me about playing some little part in one of his movies one time. This was before Sling Blade. And he told me, cause he was a fan of One False Move, and he told me, said look, if you ever need anything call me. And I thought, ďwow thatís pretty cool!Ē And uh, so, once we made Sling Blade I didnít have any music in it yet, I hadnít got Daniel Lanois yet, to do it, and uh, uh, I called him up. And I asked if he would look at this movie. I said look, itís 2 hours and 17 or 18 minutes long Iím not sure if I should cut anything, cause Harvey Weinstein thinks I should [laughs]. So, [laughing] I wonder how many times people have sat right up here and said that! And so, Harvey and I had a little thing over it, and I said I really donít think, cause you start cutting things out and it can seem longer evenÖ

And so Scorsese watches the movie and, he calls me back a few days later and he says, ďdonít cut a moment of it.Ē I said, ďoh excellent!Ē He said, ďhereís why. Whether I like this movie or donít like it,Ē he said, ďI happen to like it, but the reason Iím telling you that, even if I didnít like the movie, the thing about it is, this is the last chance youíre ever gonna get.Ē He said, ďmark my words, youíre going to win an Academy Award for this movie. ď I swear to god! ďyouíre going to win an Academy Award for this movie.Ē He said, ďwhen you do, youíre never going to be able to make a movie the way you want to again.Ē He said, ďtheyíll get on you andÖĒ Once they got your number, itís over. When youíre under the radar you can do it, cause they donít care, you didnít spend any money, you didnít spend any of their money. They donít care what you do.

But um, so anyway, you can make those little movies and people call you a genius and everything else, and then they sign you up Universal Pictures or Paramount or whoever it is, and then they start telling you how to do it. And he was right, he was absolutely right. Sling Blade was the last movie that I ever had anything to do with where no one said a word about doing anything.


When I first started with All the Pretty Horses, I didnít ask for it. Itís like this. Youíre in your car. And youíre at a stoplight. And this is just from a guyís point of view, itís coming from a guy. This is not a girl thing. This could be a girl too, I just happen to be a guy, so Iíll tell it from the guyís sideÖ Youíre in the car and youíre at a stoplight. And, youíre just waiting for the thing to turn green. And you look over, just because youíre looking over. And youíre, oh thereís the bank and thereís you know, guy peein on the sidewalk. Whatever it is. And you look over and thereís some beautiful girl in the car next to you. And you see her. And she goes [makes a digusted face]. I wasnít lookin at ya! Hey youíre not all that ok? Itís like I was just, sittin here! I wasnít doin it, I was just lookin around, I happened to see ya honey! I wasnít like leerin at ya or anything like that. And they always, you know, they just give you the [makes a face].

Well I was just makin a movie as an actor, just sittin there in my chair having a donut. And they came up to me, this producer director guy. And he said, I have a book by Cormac McCarthy, I think you should direct it. I was told to do it, but I think you should direct it. Because you know those people. And he went on and on about Sling Blade and One False Move and blah blah blah and what I was doing in this particular motion picture at the time. He said, ďyouíre the guy to do this.Ē And I said, ďwell I donít know, itís a big thing you know.Ē Iím making little movies like two rooms and a yard. He said, ďno I think you should.Ē They talked me inta doing All the Pretty Horses. I mean I loved it, but I though, nah you should get one of these big director guys to do that. I mean itís like a $50 million dollar movie and Iím gonna have to think and all kinds of stuff. So I ended up doing it. I said Ok, Iíll do it. And then once I said Iíll do it, I really got into it. Because I loved the book and love Cormac McCarthy, heís a genius writer and TexasÖ

It was what I loved, and if you squeeze the story down into a, if you take out all the spectacle of itÖ yeah the desertís lit all you gotta, I mean all you gotta do is turn a, a chimpanzee put the camera there it looks gorgeous. But to get these characters straight, and thatís what I did do. And thatís the way I talked myself into it. At the end of the day it is like Sling Blade, itís a story that, you know, about these people right here. Itís not some huge spectacle, donít look at it that way.

Talked myself into it, and the second I loved it, I was thinking I loved the idea of doing it, and they said, ďonly hereís the thing. Weíre really going to direct it, you know, from out Penthouse, and hereís how youíre going to cast.Ē Thereís a girl, who is a regular white girl from long island, who they wanted to cast in Penelope Cruzís part. I said guys, I got three words for ya: she ainít Mexican. They said, ďwe want [garbled] as the old Mexican auntĒ I said once again, three words for ya: she ainít Mexican. Because, how many parts do Hispanic actresses get? Leads, come along? Iím not casting anybody in a Hispanic role whoís not Hispanic. Period. And they said, well weíd rather you do that. And I said, ok. Uh, you guys direct it then. Iíll see ya later. And they proceeded to tell me who was going to cast in pretty much everything. I didnít do any of it. I ended up casting who I wanted, ended up cutting the movie the way I wanted to and then I made a huge mistake.

Um, well one thing is once I cast the people I wanted to and didnít listen to them, I was dropped like a hot rock. I never got any help anymore. That was how it happened. Thatís just the truth. If they want to sue me then kiss my ass, because thatís exactly what happened. Um, then once the movieís all done I made this horrible horrible mistake. Because, you know, I was raised in Hot Springs, Arkansas you know what I mean, and Tomball, Texas. I donít know that people are awful. There are plenty of awful people where I grew up, believe me, but you always assume that people are gonna be cool about stuff.

And so, I just figured everything would be fine. And I invited both movie picture studios that were involved to my house. I had a big screen TV there an all this, and uh, I showed them my assembly. If youíre a filmmakerÖ never do that. Never show them your assembly. Because I said to them: ďthis is everything we shot. Itís not my cut, this is everything we shot. I want to show guys because Iím so proud of this thing, that I just want you to see it.Ē

So, then I said to them, and thereís like 30 studio cats in my house, big ones! And I said uh, before we do this just knowÖ because you guys have been to screenings before where the director stands up and he says ďthe soundís not done, the color correction and blah blah blahĒ, and inevitably after itís over people say ďwell we couldnít here some of the scenes and the color looks greenĒÖ But you tell em that and they say ďoh we go to screenings all the time, we know that.Ē But they donít. So they watched thisÖ so then I go up in front of them and I swear on my life I said: ďnow listen this is the assembly itís 3 hours and 50 minutes long. Itís everything we shot. This is not my cut. Iím going to cut it. And remember when you guys told me that know this is going to be a 3 hour movie? Remember that?Ē Oh of course, itís an epic, itís gotta be 3 hours! ďOk, remember you said that.Ē

So I show them this 3 hour and 50 minute assembly and I said, ďnow Iím going to make my cut.Ē As soon as the movie was over, there were two or three studio executives and one really big studio executive and, who were in tears. One of them called me out in my front yard and said, ďthis is maybe the best movie that I have ever been involved with in 25 years or whateverĒ Right? And I feel great. And then one of the studio executives said: ďItís really long.Ē I said: ďYeah I know, remember when I told you that..?Ē Didnít matter. From that moment on it was a struggle. And then I did my cut which was 2 hours and 42 minutes, 18 minutes shorter than what they said I could have, and then they set about cutting it to under 2 hours because they always wanted it under 2 hours. So the movie came out in theaters was an hour 59 minutes and itís amazing what you can lose in about 20 or 30 minutes of real character stuff that means something. And with them all they want is, ok so now he killed the girl, now he put her in the bag, and now heís getting into the car, and thereís the police. You donít see all the stuff in between and, thatís what happened. And it became this huge thing in the press, and then Harvey and I had this big argument and blah blah blah and all this kind of stuff. And thatís what happens to you all the time. And just sometimes it happens to you over stuff you care about.


Whether there will ever be one, a directorís cut of All the Pretty Horses, I donít really know and the reason is: I would do it, and even the studio volunteered, theyíve always wanted me to do it. I think in a lot of ways itís gonna let them off the hook. They can say, ok look, we made it your way. But uh, hereís the reason there probably isnít going to be one. Because Daniel Lanois who did original score, heís one of my best friends. This guy is amazing. He did the most haunting score for a movie Iíve ever heard in my life for All the Pretty Horses , and they took it out and replaced the score. Now Danís not real happy when they call you up later and say, ďhey now weíll let you put it out on DVD!Ē And itís kind of offensive to us that theyíll say now weíre gonna let you do it. So on the flipside of being able to put it out, itís also like, well now people are going to watch something on their laptops thatís never gonna be on the screen. And itís a big sweeping epic, and should have beenÖ

I told Dan, unless you ever decide to put the music in there, Iím not gonna do it. So he and I are allied in that. So if Dan called me one day and said ďIím ready Iíll give you the music,Ē I would absolutely do the directorís cut. It only exists in VHS tapes at my house right now. We actually have my original cut on VHS tape with his original music, and I have to say, itís pretty damn good and I wish people could see it.

BILLY BOB THORNTON ON HIS IMMINENT RETURN TO DIRECTING You know, Iím gonna direct two movies, I havenít directed in nine years. I havenít because I was still under contract to do another movie for these folks and I want to do that. Once that is contract is finally resolved, I just, I was afraid to do it. I still am afraid to do it, but I have two movies that I want to direct and Iím going to do it. One of them Iím gonna try to do this fall. Itís based on a book, and the other one is a, uh, true story of, about Floyd Collins. Story that needs to be told. The guy who was trapped in a cave back in the twenties that became this big media spectacle.

Itís not about the media. They made a movie based on it years ago called Ace in the Hole, with Kirk Douglas. Their spin on it, Billy Wilderís spin on it was that Kirk Douglas is a reporter who didnít want the guy to get out, because then the storyís over. In fact the real story is that the reporter, kid who worked at the Louisville, Kentucky newspaper was one of the only ones who really tried to get him out. You know, it was all these different groups. You know when people want to take credit for something, like if thereís a disaster in a town and the mayorís there, and then youíve got the CIA there and the FBI and the fire department and the National Guard. Each person brags on their guysÖ

Everybody wants to claim credit for cleaning it all up. And so, thatís what happened in this story. But the reason I want to make the movie is I want to make the movie about human nature. Itís human nature to want to see other people suffer for entertainment. Thatís why we have reality television. Thatís why every time thereís somebody trapped in a hole, everybodyís interested. The media wouldnít do that, the mediaís a business, they do what sells. So if all of the sudden horrible stuff quit selling and stories about, you know, puppies and things like that were what people were interested in thatís all youíd see on the news. So, we canít just blame the media all the time. Yeah the media are sharks, absolutely. But theyíre sharks because people want it. And if people didnít want it, wouldnít exist.


So the whole problem in our society, in my mind and heart and everything else, is that we kind of have to have a cultural revolution to try and change this. And I get sucked in. Iím an anti-reality television guy, canít stand it, and Iím always putting it down. And Iíll be flipping . the channels lookin for ESPN tryin to watch the game and Iíll be like, ďoh wow! I cantí believe Suzieís wearin that dress and BradÖ I wonder which one of emís gonna get kicked out first?Ē You know? The next thing you know, youíre watchin America Idol. I mean people get sucked into this. People who hated it get sucked in, imagine the people that love it. Itís like their Bible.

So unless we kinda start preachin. I mean, we donít have people that preach anymore. Except the wrong kind. We got bad preachin. But there isnít any good preachin goin on anymore. Somebodyís gotta start preachin about stuff. You gotta have guys like Nathan Hale and those guys that get up on the stump and say, ďwe can do this! We can beat the British!Ē Give me liberty or give me death, any of that. So, all Iím sayin is, if you really like this stuffÖ letís quit being jealous. Could we? Quit being jealous. When you go to a movie, go to the movie wanting to love it. Like when we were kids. We couldnít believe for 35 cents you got to see two movies on Saturday night theater. Couldnít wait to see it.

Everybody wants to be on, nobody wants somebody else to be the guy on TV. And now itís, guess what? Everybodyís a star! I wanted Jimmy Stuart to be a star and me not to be when I went to see Jimmy Stuart. You know? And thereís too much access. Not this kind of thing. This is pretty intimate you know? But every time you do a movie youíve got an HBO special with me sittin there in a Revolutionary War costume, sayin yes before I took the partÖ

All Iím sayin is, weíre always bitching about we want movies to be better we want music to be better, we like the old days and record stores are dying. All these things are happening you know? Well, we can change that. They ainít goin to. Everybody relax a little bit. Enjoy shit again.


One of these movies is gonna require $35 million to make, because itís a period piece. The other one weíre going to do for probably $17 to $18 million. The $17 to $18 million one I wonít have total control, but Iím gonna have most of the control I need. Final cut and that sort of thing. Iíll have final cut and Iíll have approval over everything. Now on that movie, itís gonna be financed through a company that my manager is doing it with. And Iíve been with my manager 17 years. He and I are like a married coupleÖ

So I gotta deal with him on this movie. So he already is saying, ok you gotta cast this famous person and that famous person and this famous person and Iíve already called this famous person. Donít be calling no famous people! You know? And these are friends of mine heís calling. ďOh I saw him last night over at Ago! I think heís gonna do it!Ē We donít have financing yet dude! You just told actor X er whatever you know? Some big deal guy? Iím talking like really famous guys. Why would you tell them that? I donít want them in the part. I want this guy Bill that I know.

They donít understand that you canít just say, Tom Hanks, Tom Cruise, Bruce Willis, blah blah. And just because theyíre famous throw them in the movie. And thatís whatís wrong with people. You get big commercial hits with some independent films now... You go and see these movies with all these famous guys, youíre not watching the story, youíre watching these people that do Viagra commercials and stuff. Itís ridiculous.

So anyways, yeah, thatís the trick. The other movie, the one about the thing in the cave, the reason I havenít made it yet is weíre working on the people to finance that movie where I have complete control. And I wonít do it without complete control. Itís hard to get that with a $35 million budget. So, Paramount had it for awhile, and they wanted us to do it for $15 million. And I said, normally Iíd say yes to that but we canít physically do it. They wanted me to do it for $15 million and cast Tom Cruise. But Tom Cruise costs $30 million! How we gonna do that? So then itís $45 million, but they donít worry about that part, theyíll give you that. You know, weíll give Tom $30 million, weíll give you 10 to make the movie. It just sucks! So yeah, weíre holding out and I think weíre there. I think weíre gonna get complete control on both of these pictures.

For all of Cinema Blend's South By Southwest festival coverage click here.
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