Welcome to Random Roles, wherein we talk to actors about the characters who defined their careers. The catch: They don’t know beforehand what roles we’ll ask them to talk about.
The actor: Bill Paxton headed out to Hollywood in the ’70s on little more than a wing, a prayer, and a love of film. After working behind the scenes on several Roger Corman productions, he found his way in front of the camera, slowly but surely building a career as a dependable character actor in such films as Weird Science and Aliens, eventually going back behind the camera again to direct Frailty and The Greatest Game Ever Played. Last seen on television as polygamist Bill Henrickson on HBO’s Big Love, Paxton is returning to the small screen to portray Randall McCoy in the History Channel miniseries Hatfields & McCoys, which premières Monday, May 28, at 9 p.m. EST.
Hatfields & McCoys (2012)—“Randall McCoy”
Bill Paxton: I see him as a victim of the war, coming home with post-traumatic stress syndrome, much like some of these guys coming out of Afghanistan and Iraq. He’s a guy who becomes obsessed with his hatred, that this other guy has profited from the war, and he just can’t reconcile it. It’s a betrayal, in a way. A strange love story.
The A.V. Club: The names “Hatfields” and “McCoys” have been a part of American culture for so long now that—
BP: Isn’t it funny how their names are interlocked? You can’t say one without the other. And they’re remembered for killing each other. That’s the legacy they leave. But I think it’s one of those timeless stories. It’s biblical in its nature, and it has a real moral, because once you get into reprisals and you seek revenge… There’s an expression: When you seek revenge, dig two graves. I don’t know where I pulled that out of. [Laughs.] But I heard that somewhere, and that kind of sums it up in a nutshell.
AVC: It’s reached a point where most people tend to know the Hatfields and McCoys as a pop-culture reference, not as real people. What was your familiarity with the details of the story before going into this project?
BP: Well, I think as a [Baby] Boomer, we’re the last generation to grow up steeped in it. I remember reading it… There was a whole big chapter about it that Mark Twain ripped off for Huckleberry Finn, where Huck ends up getting in the middle of a feud and inadvertently builds it to a crisis by passing a note between two rival-family lovers. I always remember it as a hillbilly Romeo And Juliet story there. [Laughs.] I knew it took place after the Civil War, and it seemed like it was always synonymous with hillbillies, guys with those floppy hats and long-barreled rifles, and barefooted, with a corncob pipe. I didn’t go for the corncob pipe. [Laughs.] I think Kevin [Costner] did, but I didn’t have him smoking, because they’ve written him in this version as a very religious—almost zealously so—patriarch, so I didn’t think he would smoke.
AVC: The ensemble for the miniseries is pretty impressive.
BP: It certainly is. Gosh, I really enjoyed working with Mare Winningham, and Powers Boothe’s an old running buddy of mine. We’ve gotten to do a couple of great projects together over the years. And Tom Berenger, I’d never worked with, but I adore him. And then we had all these younger people join the cast, like Lindsay Pulsipher. And we had a lot of great young actors from the British Isles onboard as well, and they had a ball, because they all want to do a Western.
AVC: How was it playing against Kevin Costner?
BP: You know what? It was great. He was very supportive, and… He had a funny thing. I got there probably 10 or 12 days ahead of him—I had to shoot a couple of small things—and then we all went up to Transylvania, where we were for four weeks, and that’s where he joined us. That’s where I first really hung out with him: up in the foothills of the Carpathian Mountains. But he was already off book, and he loved to put actors on the spot, where he’d just start running a line from a scene and expect them to come in with their responses. I remember more than a few actors would hide when they saw him coming. [Laughs.]
But you know, he’s… We have a lot of things in common. We’re both filmmakers, we both came up behind the cameras before we got in front of the cameras, and we’re contemporaries, so we have the same cultural references in terms of music and art and all of that. So we kind of hit the street running, and it was one of those movies where it was a very ambitious schedule, and we just had to pull together. But I found him to be… I can see why he’s done well as a director. He’s kind of a natural leader. But he’s very thoughtful of everybody on the set. We were shooting in Romania, and he’d walk over to the extras between shots and try to get them more involved in the scene. He was really into it. And I thought working with him on a Western, I mean, that’s a natural fit. Two of the biggest genres that he’s known for would be Westerns and probably baseball films. But he’s done everything, really. He played Robin Hood, for God’s sake. [Laughs.]
AVC: Was it hard to find the mindset of the American South while filming in Transylvania?
BP: No. Actually, in a way, going to an old country to shoot a story set in the old country here, I thought it was very helpful. But the hard part was finding the mindset of the time. I’d read a lot of objective accounts of the Hatfields and McCoys, and I’d gone down to eastern Kentucky and West Virginia and did my own research on the accent, and went around with some local historians down there who were nice enough to take some time to get involved. But it wasn’t until I found a subjective account, some letters that a relative of mine had left for his wife, that he wrote during the Civil War, that I realized, it’s such a different mindset now. The idea that every waking decision you make is based on religious conviction, Christian duty, and honor—I don’t think most people these days, when they go out to make a decision, base it on those things. [Laughs.] But that’s certainly how it was back then.
My great-great-grandfather was a man of incredible fortitude and intense Christian duty and honor, and I was able to get to hear the voice I needed to hear. Y’see, Hatfield and McCoy, none of these guys left any written records. You can even go back to the newspapers at the time, and depending on whether you’re from West Virginia or eastern Kentucky, you’re going to get a different take on the whole story. [Laughs.] So this is the latest version, and the historical events are accurate, but everything else in there, I think, the only people who really knew what happened between the scenes and behind the scenes were the people that lived it. It’s something that’s been kind of celebrated and elevated through time, and taken on almost mythic proportions.
Crazy Mama (1975)—“John”
BP: John? [Hesitates.] I don’t know what “John” refers to, but if it’s in regards to the role I played… I was in the art department on that, I think I was 19 years old, and Jonathan Demme was directing it. I drove a big truck around full of set dressings, and I remember hearing on the radio, “Get that kid off the art-department truck, take him to the makeup trailer, cut his hair, put him in a costume, and get him to the set.” Apparently some day-player hadn’t shown up for some one-line scene, and I ended up doing it. So that was my first line in a movie. I’m not even sure what I said. [Laughs.] Blink and you’ll miss it.
AVC: Crazy Mama was a Roger Corman film. You worked behind the scenes on several of his films, didn’t you?
BP: I worked on many. That’s really how I got started. My first film was a movie shot in 1974. I was 18 on that movie set. It was called Big Bad Mama. I turned 19 on the next movie I worked on, which was a black Blazing Saddles. I worked in the art department. It was called Darktown Strutters.
AVC: So what made you shift from behind the scenes to in front of the camera? Or was that always your intent?
BP: Y’know, I don’t know. I look back now, and God, I was just so naïve. [Laughs.] I came out to Hollywood when I was just 18, and my dad, he was really into Hollywood and theater and art, and I guess growing up, he exposed me to a lot of culture, and I just started making Super-8 films in high school, and decided I wanted to be a filmmaker. My heroes at the time were probably guys like Clint Eastwood, who was an actor, but also a filmmaker. And then going all the way back, I had a real interest in early Hollywood. I guess my dad had turned me on to [Charlie] Chaplin, and Buster Keaton’s been a huge influence on my life. It seemed like these guys were performers as well as filmmakers, and I kind of liked that idea. I think I got an Instamatic camera when I was 8 years old, and ever since then, I’ve liked to record things. I don’t know why. Maybe it’s just to kind of try to leave some kind of record behind. Who the hell knows? At this point, it’s like, “Why bother?” [Laughs.]
“Fish Heads” (1980)—star, director, producer, writer
BP: Oh, yes. [Laughs.] “Fish Heads” was… Billy Mumy, who I’d grown up watching in Fort Worth, Texas, in shows like Lost In Space and Twilight Zone, he had gotten together with a buddy from junior high named Robert Haimer, and the two of them were musicians, so they started writing these novelty songs. And this guy named Barret Hansen, a.k.a. Dr. Demento, had a weekly syndicated show, and he was the one who championed this weird song they’d written called “Fish Heads.” I ended up meeting them socially through Billy’s old girlfriend, a gal named Janit Baldwin, who was an actress who started out with Sissy Spacek in Phantom Of The Paradise and Prime Cut, movies like that. Anyway, she introduced me, and I was making little films, and they had talked about making a video, and I said, “Would you let me take a crack at it?”
So I spent the summer of 1980 shooting that with them and on my own, and I lived in a little apartment down at Ocean Park, a couple of blocks from the beach there, and we made this thing. And that fall, I was able to go to New York and take it to Saturday Night Live, which was kind of a whole experience in itself. They wouldn’t really see me, and I ended up going back over a period of a couple of days, and they finally looked at the 3/4-inch tape I was holding onto and put it on the show. This was about six months before MTV debuted, so really, if you had a short film, besides sending it to the Ann Arbor Film Festival or someplace like that, the only place to get it widely seen was, once in a while, Saturday Night Live would buy short films and play them to fill out their schedule. It was a lot of fun making that with friends. It was made for beer money. [Laughs.]
Weird Science (1985)—“Chet Donnelly”
BP: I forgot his last name! [Laughs.] Chet was one of those things… I remember the audition. John Hughes had a bungalow—they’ve all been torn down to make room for the rides they keep building over there at Universal—and I remember coming over to read for that in his office. I had a good reading, and I got a callback, and I decided to start riffing a little bit on the dialogue, kind of coming up with my own versions of some of the stuff, and I really think that is what endeared me to John Hughes. I beat a few people out for that part, and I got invited to hang out at that bungalow, and that’s when I first met Anthony Michael Hall. They were very close at the time. And I remember John saying one day—we were still in early rehearsals and pre-production and starting to come over for fittings and stuff, and he wanted to screen Michael The Breakfast Club, which had just been finished, and was just about to come out. So we went over to the Hitchcock theater on the lot, and I watched The Breakfast Club with Michael Hall the first time he saw it, and John sat in with us. So that was an experience.
We had a great time making the film. The biggest thing I remember was that we started the picture in Chicago, and we all were staying at the Skokie Hilton, and I was staying there with Robert Downey and a guy named Robert Rusler, another actor, and Michael Hall and Ilan [Mitchell-Smith]. I remember my first day on the set, I was in the makeup trailer, they were shooting something else, and the first shot I did for the movie was when I come back after I’ve been duck-hunting, and they’ve had the wild party, and I pull up in my Blazer, and I get out, and I’ve got my shotgun and some duck I’m holding by the neck. And I remember being in the makeup trailer, I knew the makeup artist—Michael Germain, I’d worked with him before—and I told him I wanted to do a haircut that was really intense. And he’s the one who suggested the flattop, but long on the sides and slicked back. [Laughs.] And he was afraid he was going to lose his job to cut it like that without having it approved by the producer or the director, but I said, “Just do it.” Because I had kind of this militaristic outfit on, y’know, his hunting outfit, but I needed the hair to set it off. And when I came on the set in character with that haircut, John just fell out of chair and went, “Oh my God, it’s great!” John loved the character I created for that movie so much that he modeled the older brother in Home Alone after Chet. In fact, it’s almost like he said to the guy, “Just watch Bill Paxton in Weird Science, and you’ll have the part.”
I was offered a small part—the part Richard Edson did—as the parking attendant in Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, and I should’ve done it, but at the time… Y’know, I’d done a bigger supporting role in Weird Science, so I was trying to hold out for something a little better. But I think that might’ve… I never heard from John after that. I think that put the kibosh on my career with him. I was sad to hear he had passed away. I’d always wanted to write him, just to tell him how much the role of Chet had meant to me, both personally and to my career. It’s really what led me to get Aliens. I knew Jim Cameron, and I had auditioned for Jim that summer when I was visiting my girlfriend in England. I was on a list of, I think, about 12 other actors, and Scott Rudin was the head of casting at Fox at the time, and Jim had been away in England for probably a couple of months in pre-production, and when Weird Science came out, he hadn’t seen it. So when my name came up, Scott Rudin said, “Well, Bill’s getting some really good notices for this John Hughes comedy that’s out right now.” And Jim said, “Well, Bill’s a friend, I’d love to use him if the studio’ll approve it.” And they said okay. So it meant a lot to me.
Now, mind you, it’s a role I’ll never live down, because people like to bust actors like me and take us down by saying, [sneers] “Oh, yeah, Chet in Weird Science.” It’s a passive-aggressive thing. But I’m very proud of Chet. One thing about Chet was, he might’ve been an A-hole, but he was an A-hole you respected. [Laughs.] If I do a thousand movies, it’ll probably still be at the top of my obituary, but so be it. I’m very proud of the fact that I created a character with the help of John Hughes that became part of the zeitgeist, part of the popular culture.
AVC: Speaking of that, you mentioned that you riffed on the character based on what was in the script. So the line about the nice, greasy pork sandwich served in a dirty ashtray—
BP: —was something my dad used to say to me and my brother if he thought we had been at a beer bust on Saturday night and we were all hungover at breakfast the next morning. He would come in and ask, “How about a nice, greasy pork sandwich served in a dirty ashtray?” [Laughs.] A lot of that stuff was my father’s.
My father [John Paxton] passed away while I was shooting Hatfields & McCoys. I had to fly back from Romania just literally to attend the service and then fly back. But he had a great second career as an actor. He decided at age 70 to get into the movie business, and with my help, he ended up getting to know Sam Raimi, who put him in all three Spider-Man movies. He plays Bernard, the old houseman to Willem Defoe and the Osborn family. And he’s got a movie coming out posthumously: Sam had him up in Detroit for Oz: The Great And Powerful.
Aliens (1986)—“Private Hudson”
BP: Here’s something most people don’t know: I was actually in negotiations to do Police Academy 2. I was offered more money than I had ever seen, and I was ready to take it, but I had auditioned for Aliens in England just before the 4th of July weekend. I had been visiting my then-girlfriend, Louise—we’ve now been married over 25 years—and I remember going out to the audition… This is kind of a crazy story, but I was staying out in Twickenham, I had rented a little apartment for about three weeks over a tobacconist’s shop, and the alarm didn’t go off! I ran downstairs and looked through the window and saw it was light out, but I didn’t know how late it was. And it was still pretty early, but I had to take a train into London and then another one out to get to Pinewood Studios. I didn’t have a lot of money, so I couldn’t just hire a cab. But I remember getting out there, taking a bus, and then having to walk the last two miles to the studio, so by the time I got there—I must’ve left at about 6 in the morning, so it probably took me about three hours.
The audition wasn’t ’til 10:30, so I got on the lot, I went and figured out where the audition room was, and then I walked back and…this was my first time at Pinewood Studios, so I walked back over by the 007 stage, and there was a big field of all kinds of props and set dressing, and I just sat back there, looked at the sides, and re-read the scene a few times. Then I went in and read for Jim and the casting director, and I remember Jim handed me, like, a cardboard tube to pretend like it was the pulse rifle, and he had me climbing around the furniture. [Laughs.] He was always videotaping auditions and things. He always liked to kind of video the actors he auditioned, to see what they looked like, and he would give direction. I felt like I was completely over the top, and you never have mystique with people who know you—remember, I had worked for Jim in the art department [of New World Pictures]—so I thought, “Oh, crap, I overdid it. I hammed it up pretty good.” When I came back from that trip and then I didn’t hear from Jim, that’s why about a month, five or six weeks after Weird Science came out, I got this offer to do Police Academy 2 and I’d already given up on doing Aliens.
So my agent at the time, Hildy Gottlieb, was trying to negotiate a deal with me for Police Academy 2, but what held up my deal was that they wanted to tie me up for a Police Academy 3, if there was such an animal. So that left my deal kind of hanging in the air, and that’s when I got a call from Hildy at the 11th hour, who says, “You’re gonna be getting a call in about 10 minutes from Jim Cameron, who’s calling you from London, and he wants to offer you the part of Hudson.” And I’m just like, “Oh my God! But what about Police Academy 2?” She said, “Don’t worry. Their own greed has knocked them out.” And I ended up doing Aliens for half of what I would’ve made on Police Academy 2, but one thing I learned very early on is that you take the jobs that you can get with the good directors. I’ve never really been after the money. I probably could’ve made more money out here if I was really all about the money, but I actually got into this field in a vocational way. I loved filmmaking. I loved photography, I loved acting, so God, I just kind of gravitated toward it. Hey, I don’t mind making money. If you want to pay me more money to do the thing, I’ll gladly take your money. [Laughs.] But that wasn’t what really brought me to Hollywood.
AVC: Since The A.V. Club just spent a week celebrating the Police Academy franchise, I have to ask: Do you remember which part you were up for in Police Academy 2?
BP: [Long pause.] I don’t. My God, I don’t. But I have a very dear old friend who I’ve worked with a lot over the years, a guy named Scott Thomson, who was in a bunch of those Police Academy movies. He was also in Fast Times At Ridgemont High, and we did Twister together. He played Preacher.
AVC: Going back to you as part of the pop-culture zeitgeist, you had a signature line in Aliens as well: “Game over, man! Game over!”
BP: That was an ad-lib thing, too. [Laughs.] Now, when I say “ad-lib,” I’m not clever enough to think of stuff and throw it out off the top of my head. It’s usually something I’ll come up with beforehand, and then I’ll try it out. I find most directors are willing to let you kind of bend the dialogue if you give them something different. I’ve always found that it’s better to just do it than ask permission. [Laughs.] Never ask permission. Because chances are, if you tell ’em and then they see you do it, it’s not gonna hit their ears in a fresh way. So that’s my acting advice: Just do it. Don’t tell the director what you’re going to do. If you decide to tweak a line or use a different expression, just do it. Chances are they’ll love it. Or you’ll get fired. [Laughs.] But Jim loved all my stuff. Jim was like John Hughes. I never had so much confidence behind the camera as what John Hughes fed me during the whole Weird Science shoot. Jim was like that, but… I was very hard on myself on Aliens. When I came back from that movie, again, I thought the audience wouldn’t be able to wait for my character to be killed. I wanted to join the French Foreign Legion, but they had a two-year waiting list for non-residents. [Laughs.]
True Lies (1994)—“Simon”
BP: Yeah, he’s a classic. He’s very dear to my heart. That was really typecasting, that part. [Laughs.] You know, that was one of those deals—the genesis of that was that Jim was doing True Lies, and I got a chance to audition for it, but I had to go meet him and Arnold [Schwarzenegger] at Jim’s office. So Arnold came, and he looked like he’d come from the gym, in sweat-shorts and a T-shirt. And he sits down to read the page, and I’m reading with him, and I just remember having to go through a lot of audition for that, because Jim was very worried. He wasn’t worried about the scenes with Arnold, but he was worried that if I made Jamie Lee [Curtis] look bad—well, not that I’d make her look bad, but I had to be very earnest in the part where I have to convince her that I’m a secret agent and all that, and if that didn’t come across, then it would make her character look foolish. That was a big concern of Jim’s, and I prevailed and won the day, of course. [Laughs.] I think I beat out a lot of big actors for that part. And that was a great role.
We shot that over at Hansen Dam. And then we shot most of my stuff in DC, and then we shot the interiors much later. I was on that movie for a long time. In fact, I shot another movie—Frank And Jesse, with Rob Lowe—while they were down in Florida shooting all that stuff, and then I came back and shot all the interior of the trailer part with Jamie Lee. What a crazy thing. So I kind of grew my moustache a little longer for the other movie, and they cut it back for when I had to go back to True Lies.
AVC: You seemed to be Cameron’s unofficial good-luck charm for a while there: The Terminator, Aliens, True Lies, Titanic—
BP: Yeah. I was just with Jim in London about a month ago, actually, for the re-release of Titanic in 3-D, and that was great. Jim had literally just come from making his historic dive, his solo trip to the deepest part of the ocean, the Marianas Trench. It’s been a great relationship to know a guy of his stature. [Laughs.] He’s just like nobody you’ve ever met. I’ve really prided myself on that friendship. He’s been the most loyal guy I’ve ever met in Hollywood.
Big Love (2006-2011)—“Bill Henrickson”
BP: Well, Big Love, I think about when I first heard about it. I got a call from my agent, and… I’m kind of going back to the genesis of these things, so I’m gonna stick with that. [Laughs.] Anyway, he told me what it was over the phone, and he sounded like a religious patriarch who was basically a fundamentalist, and I pictured some kind of religious zealot living out in some arid environment way outside the city limits, barefooted women and chickens all around. And I thought… You know, I don’t think people realize that, even though I’m from Texas, I lived in New York, I lived in London, I lived in Los Angeles, my father was an art collector. I’m a little more sophisticated than just a country bumpkin! [Laughs.] So I thought, “I don’t know.” And then he said, “Just read it.” So I get the script, I read it, and—again, I kind of had the same take I think most of the audience had when they first heard about this idea, this ex-Mormon polygamist guy who was taking the religion back to the old days of polygamy, Joseph Smith, and all that. But then I read it, and I realized it was such a clever piece of writing, and that the creators of that show, Mark Olsen and Will Scheffer, had taken this bizarre bit of American society—“There are these people who live up in Utah, and this is what they’re into”—and had found a way to use it as a great mirror to contemporary mores about sex, religion, marriage, and everything. And it was just so much more than I thought.
I remember they were going through the audition phase when I was offered the part, and at the time, I was in pre-production to direct The Greatest Game Ever Played for Disney, so I didn’t really think I had time to do it, but my agent at the time, Brian Swardstrom, said to me, “Well, they’re just gonna shoot the pilot. It’s only about a 14-day commitment. By the time they’ve written the first season, if they go forward with it, you’ll probably be done with your movie.” So it worked out really well. The first person cast in the show—I was the second—was Chloë Sevigny as Nicolette. And then I read with a bunch of Barbs, and of all the Barbs, I was crazy about Jeanne Tripplehorn. I could just relate to her, and she was really funny, and I’d always kind of dug her. I just always thought she was a classy lady, a great actress and a great beauty, and I was hoping she would be the one. I had always pictured her as being from kind of a mainline Philadelphia family. There was always something kind of patrician about her, but it turned out she was the daughter of a musician from Tulsa, Oklahoma. And I’m from Fort Worth, which is kind of the Texas equivalent of Tulsa, so we hit it off immediately. So I was glad to hear she got it. And then I had to read with a bunch of gals for the part of Margene, and Ginnifer Goodwin won that role, but I remember that we were in a big boardroom over at HBO when it was in Century City, we’re sitting there, and it’s really hard to do scenes in those kinds of environments. But she sat right on my lap and just put her tongue down my throat, and I thought, “Boy, I tell ya, this gal’s probably gonna get the job.” [Laughs.] And she did.
I didn’t have anything to do with the casting, though. I worked strictly as an actor on that show. The only thing I influenced was… I did recommend Luke Askew to Mark and Will, and he came in on the second season, playing Hollis Greene, the zealot patriarch of the rival compound, the Greenes. He just passed about six weeks ago. I was really upset about that. Hell of a nice guy. He contracted an infection at a hospital, and that’s what killed him. So God, whatever you do, don’t go to a hospital. [Laughs.] But he had been a great actor, and he’d also been someone Bob Dylan first identified with when he went to New York and decided he wanted to play in the coffeehouses. He used to see Luke singing the blues—Luke was from Macon, Georgia—and Luke was with Fred Neil one time, and they were stumbling around, they’d both shot up and were on heroin, and Fred Neil said to Luke, “Man, how do you feel?” And Luke looked at him and said, “You know, everybody’s talkin’ at me, and I can’t hear a word they’re sayin’.” True story. How ’bout that? Most people think [Harry] Nilsson wrote that song, because he made a hit out of it in Midnight Cowboy, but Fred wrote that. [Sighs.] Luke Askew, man…
Navy SEALs (1990)—“Dane”
The Greatest Game Ever Played (2005)—director
AVC: Michael Biehn doesn’t have the fondest of memories of working on Navy SEALs.
BP: [Laughs.] Yeah, he can be candid about that stuff.
AVC: You seem to have enjoyed it well enough, though, based on the last time we talked. Plus, it ended up having an impact on a film you directed some years later.
BP: Yeah, y’know, Navy SEALs was one of those deals where I had a lot of friends on it. Michael Biehn, Rick Rossovich… We had done Lords Of Discipline together, and Michael and I had done the Jim Cameron movies. It was one of those deals where there were still a few parts left, and these guys were going, “C’mon, man, Paxton, you gotta get on this movie! We’re going to Spain! We’re going to Virginia Beach! It’s gonna be great!” I think I was one of the last people cast in that. And we got over to Virginia Beach, and we were shooting, and they were gonna have us do a touch-football sequence on the beach, but it was so blatantly ripping off the famous volleyball scene on the beach in Top Gun, and there was Rick Rossovich, who’d been Val Kilmer’s wingman in that. And I thought, “You know, there are these beautiful golf courses all around Virginia Beach and those pine forests,” so I said, “Why don’t we make it a golf sequence? It could be really fun.” So the producer asked me to write it up, and I kind of talked to Charlie [Sheen] and Michael about it, and they were into it, so we shot a couple of days on the golf course with the first unit.
Then about a week later, the producer came to me and said, “You know, we can’t really put this together. We don’t really have enough shots to make a montage. Would you be willing to take a second unit to the golf course with some of the guys that are off? We have to go to Washington and shoot a scene with Joanne Whalley.” So I got all the guys and some equipment, and we went out, and I shot most of the shots in that sequence. We had some crazy shots that they just thought the Navy wouldn’t appreciate. We had one shot of Cyril O’Reilly, and God, the golf cart is literally halfway sunk in a pond, and he’s standing up to his waist in water, and he’s kind of looking around, trying to figure out, “How the fuck did I do that?” [Laughs.] I‘m sorry they didn’t let us make it a little more ribald. I think the Navy would’ve appreciated it. After all, these are some guys that are letting off some steam after some crazy life-and-death mission they’ve been on.
It was so weird that I would end up directing The Greatest Game Ever Played, because, y’know, I’m not a big golfer myself. But I grew up around the game. My mom and dad kind of built their dream house off the 11th fairway of Shady Oaks Country Club in Fort Worth. That was Ben Hogan’s home club, and I would see him out there practicing with his five-iron. Later on, by the time I was 11, I was out there shagging balls and ball-buzzing. But I’ve always loved the game of golf, even though I’m not a great practitioner. I can watch it on TV and be completely entertained.
Frailty (2001)—“Dad Meiks”
BP: Oh yeah. Dad. [Laughs.] We wanted to use the name “Meek,” as in “the meek shall inherit the earth,” but we couldn’t clear it, so we had to spell it the way we did. That’s the first thing I remember when you say the character’s name. That was a great script from a great writer out of central Texas named Brent Hanley, and he was a huge fan of Stephen King, and he was a huge fan of a classic movie that was directed by another actor: Charles Laughton’s The Night Of The Hunter. So it had a lot of its genesis from that.
It was a script that came to us through a guy named David Kirschner, a producer who’d made a fortune producing the Chucky films. And it was originally sent to me at this little production office I had with a partner of mine, and we were kind of a clearinghouse for scripts, so I was trying to find something to direct or be in or produce. And he approached me with the idea of playing the father, and we came back to him, “What if I play the father, but also direct it?” And I was able to get Matthew McConaughey to join me, and that gave Lionsgate the comfort to make the movie for… I think about $10 million was what we made that for. And the whole movie’s set in East Texas, but the whole thing was shot in Southern California. [Laughs.] And one shot, we had to go up near Bakersfield. When I’m driving to work and I see the celestial light hitting the barn, and I’m in that field…? But I’m very proud of that film. It’s on its way to becoming an American classic. I’ve got a new movie I want to do with the same writer, based on a Joe Lansdale book called The Bottoms, and we’d advertise it as being from the writer and director of Frailty. But who knows? It’s hard to get a movie made out here.
Twister (1996)—“Bill Harding”
AVC: Speaking of how hard it is to get movies made, you teased the world at large a few years ago when you talked at length about your interest in doing a Twister sequel. Has there been any traction on that front?
BP: [Sighs.] I don’t know. I think the thing’s kind of held up. I think it would require Steven Spielberg to really want to do it and to be willing to renegotiate the sequel deal that’s probably prohibitive now, that he made on it 20 years ago. But God, I’d love to direct a sequel to that movie. I’ve always felt like there was a Jaws version of that movie. I always felt like we did the Pepsi Lite version of that movie. [Laughs.] There’s a tougher version of that movie that I think now… I’ve kind of designed it so that me and Helen [Hunt] would have a daughter, a junior in high school, but she’s already dating a guy in college, and we’d kind of hand it off to them. There’s a great story of the Tri-State Tornado I’d like to tie into it as well.
AVC: You’d envisioned it as taking advantage of the current 3-D technology.
BP: Oh my God, yeah. You know, 3-D and all this kind of fantasy stuff, it just kind of washes over you, but to have something that’s real, a weather phenomenon like a tornado, and to use the 3-D technology to create that, I think it’d really be a nail-biting, on-the-edge-of-your-seat experience. And God, every year, we seem to get more and more of these tragic and devastating storms that hit the Central and Midwest. The Tri-State is the biggest they’ve got on record. It came down over the Ozarks in Missouri on March 18, 1925, and it stayed on the ground for three and a half hours, which is a record. They call it the Tri-State because it started in Missouri, crossed the Mississippi River, and cut a path of destruction all the way across southern Illinois and across southwest Indiana, killing a bunch of people. There’s old footage in the Library of Congress of what it looked like and what kind of damage it did. It had a damage path of about 219 miles and killed about 700 people. I actually went down there and toured the towns, went to the old historical centers and saw… Well, you can’t really see the damage anymore, but you can see the photographs, and the old-timers say, “Well, if it can happen once…” And I don’t think that part of the country is ready for another pass like that. So we wanted to tie into something like that. Weather is cyclical, and now you add climate change into that, and… God, that’s a witches’ brew. We could see super-tornadoes in our lifetime that are just unheard of. I mean, another Tri-State Tornado? That’d make the news.
But, you know, I’ve got a lot of crazy ideas for different things. I’m a storyteller, really. A visual storyteller. Right now, I’ve turned in my script and a budget to do Kung Fu. I’ve been hired to direct that for Legendary Pictures, based on the old TV series, and I worked with a writer named John McLaughlin, and he wrote a great, great first script that we’re hoping to turn into a franchise. We’ll see what happens.
Boxing Helena (1993)—“Ray O’Malley”
BP: [Laughs.] I couldn’t remember that guy’s name if my life depended on it. Oh God. You know, that was a crazy movie. By Jennifer Lynch, who I hear is kind of making a comeback with her new film. I remember that was a very controversial film, and I got cast to play the boyfriend, and it was a chance for me to do a little bit of my Lizard King kind of thing, all pumped up and wearing tight leather pants, tight shirts, and stuff. I had kind of a bouffant hairdo. It was shot in Atlanta, and I remember it was steamy. It was the summer, and it was just steaming down there. I really liked Jennifer Lynch a lot. She really egged me on. And I really enjoyed Julian Sands. Great guy, great actor. But Julian was a bit of an exhibitionist. We were shooting in some big old house in Buckhead that had been built for a governor years ago. Beautiful ’20s-style house. We’d kind of taken it over, and that’s where his character lived and kept her in the box. I remember him just walking around, completely naked, with a book in his hand. [Laughs.] Yeah, he was quite an exhibitionist. But we had a lot of laughs. I also remember Sherilyn Fenn. We had to do… [Sighs.] Oh, we just had to do this interminable love scene, and Jennifer kept playing “Wicked Game,” the hit song by Chris Isaak. So every time I hear that song, I’m taken back to suckling on Sherilyn Fenn. [Laughs.] It was kind of a bizarre deal.
AVC: God bless you for having that memory, though.
BP: Yeah, well, it’s a good memory. [Laughs.] I’ll take that one with me.