by Penne J. Laubenthal
Severe weather warnings had been issued for North Alabama when I made my way to Florence for the Friday afternoon session of the 11th Annual George Lindsey Film Festival featuring Billy Bob Thornton. But apparently neither sleet nor snow nor gloom of night can keep folks from coming to see Billy Bob Thornton. The performance hall in the Guillot Center was already beginning to fill up by 1:30 and by 2 PM there was standing room only.
The audience rose to their feet and burst into applause when George Lindsey entered the room. Then Billy Bob Thornton walked out on stage wearing his snake skin cowboy boots, jeans, and black leather jacket, and the crowd went wild cheering and whistling and clapping madly. Billy Bob was home. Not home as in Arkansas but home as in Muscle Shoals where he came when he was just nineteen to cut his first record. Here is just a bit of what he had to say in an interview with UNA professor Terry Pace.
I recorded my first record at Widget Sound in Sheffield in 1974. We had just $250 to make the record. I played with a group called Blue and the Blue Velvets. I was the only white guy. They later became the group Hot’lanta (from the Allman Brothers song). When I was growing up in Arkansas, Muscle Shoals was the place to record. I’m going by Widget Sound while I am here and have my picture taken in front of the place.
I have played music all my life. I became an “accidental” actor. I was the star of my senior play, but I took drama in high school just so I could get a grade better than C in something. Also there were a lot of girls in the class.
My friend Tom Epperson said we needed to go to New York City so we went there. I think we stayed about ten hours. Then we headed out to California. I did a lot of one man shows before I wrote my first screenplay. In 1980 I was doing a one man show in California, and I would open the show by saying “Let me tell you something about the South. If it weren’t for the South you would not have most great authors or any modern music.”
My first Hollywood movie was Hunter’s Blood. I get thrown out of a truck. I try not to look like myself in any of my films. In Tombstone, I play this total jerk and in One False Move I played a cold blooded killer. My first screenplay, which I co-wrote with Epperson, was One False Move in 1992. Those were the early days of Indie films and it was hard to get the money. When we started to make Sling Blade we just had $30,000. I am glad I did not know that. We just got the money as we went along. We made the film for under a million which is unheard of these days. .
I conceived the character of Karl on the set of my first television movie, The Man Who Broke 1,000 Chains. I was full of self loathing and tired of begging for bit parts. I said to myself “Just look at you. You’re such a dumb ass. You beg for parts with only a few lines.” I was making faces in the mirror and I made this face (He makes Karl’s expression). Then I just did the whole opening monologue for Sling Blade right then and there. I have no idea where it came from. I performed the character in monologues for eight years before I wrote and directed the movie Sling Blade. I had the play the character of Karl because I certainly couldn’t tell anyone how to play it. Sling Blade is in a lot of ways based on Frankestein, kind of a cross between Frankenstein and God’s Little Acre.
We cast the role of Frank by viewing a homemade video sent to us by Lucas Black's’ mother. I had only watched fifteen seconds of it when I said, “Get that kid out here.” He was a natural. The job of a director is to just cast the right people and get out of the way.
My acting tends to be naturalistic and I would say that my writing style is stream of consciousness. In the film Sling Blade we shot nearly every scene in no more than two takes.
When I did A Simple Plan, I came up with my own look for Jacob. When I arrived on the set, Paramount went ape-shit. My glasses had broken and I had taped them. They said “Don’t put the tape on the glasses.” I said “But I broke them.” The tape stayed.
I said yes to doing The Man Who Wasn’t There for the Coen brothers before I had even read the script. I knew the Coen brothers socially and I have always loved them. I like to improvise, but I knew not to go off the page with a Coen script. I did ad lib the line “Heavens to Betsy,” but I ran it by them first and they said ok.
I guess if you put together Jacob and the character in The Man Who Wasn’t There, that’s kind of who I am.
Read the Gritz Interviews with Billy Bob: