Interview Date: 01/07/2010
Run Date: 01/15/2010
Bill Paxton has been in so many classic films over the years, from “Aliens” to “Weird Science” to “Titanic,” that there’s no way an interview with him could be all-compassing without lasting for days on end, so when Bullz-Eye was granted the opportunity to chat with him in conjunction with the return of “Big Love” for its fourth season, we had already steeled ourselves to stick pretty much to the topic at hand. What we never imagined, however, was that the interview would start with an anecdote about “Navy SEALs,” end with a story about the video for Barnes and Barnes’ “Fish Heads,” and, somewhere in the middle, earn us a scoop about the possibility of a “Twister” sequel. And the best part…? We did stick almost entirely to “Big Love.” The moral to this story: you never know where an interview with Bill Paxton will take you.
Bill Paxton: Hey Will.
Bullz-Eye: Hey, Bill, how’s it going?
BP: Good. Where are you calling from?
BE: Norfolk, Virginia.
BP: Oh, wow…
BE: I, uh, believe you were in this area filming a movie once upon a time, if memory serves.
BP: God, I sure did. If you could call it that. (Laughs)
BE: Well, all I can tell you is that when I put on Facebook I was talking to you, I immediately had a flurry of messages from my friends in the area, saying, “Ask him about ‘Navy SEALs’!”
BP: (Laughs) Oh, yeah. Well, we had a good time staying down there at Virginia Beach there. It’s a nice area. Funnily enough, you know, they had written originally in that script…I mean, Hollywood’s take on it was, “Hey, ‘Top Gun’ was a huge hit, let’s do the same thing with ‘Navy SEALs.’” And it was so modeled after that other movie that they even had, instead of the famous…I don’t know, was it volleyball they played in “Top Gun”?
BE: It was.
BP: Well, they had written kind of a touch football scene or something like that. And I was talking to Charlie Sheen and Michael Biehn and those guys, and I said, “You know, this is so blatantly lifted from the volleyball scene. Let’s do something different.” And I suggested it be a round of golf. So I went to the producers and the director, and I said, “You know, it’s just too blatantly lifted from the other movie. Let’s do a golf sequence. It offers us a lot more opportunity to do some fun stuff, too.” I could see a bunch of Navy SEALs getting out and cutting loose on a golf course. So I was asked to write up a sequence, which was going to be kind of a montage sequence of the guys letting off some steam after a mission, and they’re playing golf. It was a beautiful course down there in Virginia Beach, the fairways were really heavily lined with woods, so we went out and shot a couple days of it and we had a blast doing it. And then about a week later, the producer comes up to me and says, “You know, the editor just can’t really make heads or tails out of this stuff. He needs more shots to really build a montage. But, you know, I’ve got to go up and shoot a scene up in DC...” I guess they were going to shoot a scene with Joanne Whalley-Kilmer and somebody else, so there was a free day. And he said, “Would you take the boys out and just do some second unit shots?” So that was kind of my foray into feature film making. (Laughs) I got to put together a shot list and everything. I took the guys out and we got about…I don’t know, 70 shots in a day, because they were MOS. They were fast. And that became most of the sequence that you see in the film. Little did I know that…God, let’s see, when was that? Gee, I don’t even know when that was.
BP: Hell if I know. (Laughs) But, God, fifteen years later, I would be directing “The Greatest Game Ever Played.” But we had a good time down there. We really, really did.
BE: Now, see, when was the last time you got to start a “Big Love” interview by talking about “Navy SEALs”?
BP: This might be a first. (Laughs) Well I had a great time. I got to do a lot of those films with the boys, you know, like “Tombstone” and “Lords of Discipline,” “U-571.” It’s always good to do a little male bonding. This is a completely different animal, though. There’s a lot of female bonding on this show.
BE: And then some. So when you first signed on to do a show about a polygamist family in Utah, did you ever think it would be renewed for a second season, let alone a fourth?
BP: You know, when I read the pilot script, I thought the thing had incredible promise. And when I heard who they were getting for the wives and who some of the other supporting actors were going to be, like Mary Kay (Place) and Bruce Dern and Grace (Zabriskie) and Harry Dean (Stanton), I thought we had a pretty good shot. And the scripts just kept getting better and better and better. And I thought, “If we can just get through our first season…” I think the first season was all about…and it probably is true of other shows, too, but I’m only theorizing this because I have no other reference to really compare it to…but I think that first season on a show this far out is really trying to figure out where all of these people came from and how this all works. I think, really, as we went through the first season, we were still nailing down specifically what these people’s back story was and how it came to be like this. The creators and the writers have kind of sprinkled that in through the last seasons, and there are some big things coming up for me, from my past, in this new season which gives me an opportunity to make probably the best speech I have had on the show in all four seasons. But I felt it had a good shot, I really did. God, you’ve got Play-Tone, you know, and you’ve got HBO. And I just thought these guys, Mark Olsen and Will Scheffer, the creators of the show, just had their finger on something that was completely original yet had so many opportunities for this tree to really, you know, branch out in so many directions. You know, a lot of concepts, there’s only so many places you go. You know, the plane crashes on the island and… (Laughs) …unless you get so far out, it kind of loses all credibility. I’m not saying that about just that show. Other shows have premises that, really, you can only spin sp much out of before you kind of start hitting redundancies. But this thing is…I’ve always thought of it as kind of great restoration comedy, where there’s just great situations, great characters, and it just seems like an infinite amount of possibilities when you have that many family members. My fear was not that the show couldn’t hold its own; it was, “Would the audience out there embrace a show like this?” Because we’re dealing with a taboo thing. But I think people quickly got past that and saw that the creators were really using it as a metaphor, really more of a take on modern society’s views and morays about things like sex, marriage, religion, family, career. And then just add three wives and shake it up and watch the bottle explode. (Laughs)
BE: And then this season, you’re even adding Kenny Rogers to the mix.
BP: Unfortunately, just a placard of him.
BE: Oh, well.
BP: God bless him.
BE: Did you check with him beforehand, at least?
BP: I’m sure they did. That’s not my jurisdiction. But, my God, I always loved Kenny Rogers’ song, "Ruby, Don't Take Your Love to Town.” It’s a classic.
BE: So it looks like the casino is finally going to come to fruition.
BP: Yeah, well, I guess I can let that cat out of the bag: the casino opens in episode one, but not without a lot of problems, obviously, and it continues to be problematic…but profitable. The set they built for that looked like something from Martin Scorsese’s “Casino” or something. It’s just a fabulous set they built on another stage where we shoot in Santa Clarita. So that’s been kind of fun. I like the idea and this was something I said…you know, getting back to your first question about what my expectations were, I think I wanted to see it go from a polygamist soap opera to a polygamist saga. The saga of a family, the Henrickson clan, and Bill Henrickson’s ambitions and his visions. I wanted to see that he is a guy who lays siege to ideas and has visions, and I wanted to see a fruition of those things, even if they took a long time in coming. I think he is kind of an empire builder, in a way, and I love the idea of branching out into these different areas. And, of course, he gets into the gambling business because, which he says in episode two, his business opportunities are very limited because of his secret lifestyle. And I love having the speech last year with Robert Beltran, who plays Jerry. The whole thing about your people and…you know, he plays the head of the casino, and I say, “Your people and my people have a lot in common.” And he says, “What do we have in common?” And I say, “We’ve both been persecuted and are trying to hold on to our traditions in a world that has gone crazy.” That was kind of a fun thing. It puts you in so many situations, you know, that are just completely unlikely that somehow make sense of them all as it comes out in the wash.
BE: When the show first started, our publisher, who is a perpetual bachelor, elected not to watch it because he said, “I couldn’t imagine having one wife, let alone three.”
BP: (Laughs) Oh, God, yeah. Well, you know, we were worried…people had to get past the premise, and then we knew once they just watched the show for an episode or two, they would realize it was so much more than just some salacious show about a guy with three wives, and this kind of ex-Mormon player, you know. Funnily enough, though, I think the show seems to skew probably 60-40 towards women. I think most of the men who watch it are watching it with their girlfriends or their spouses or significant other. It’s funny how it has caught on. But, still, because it’s HBO, there’s still a lot of people out there that have heard of the show and they still have that take on it. “Oh, that sounds like something I would never…I would never watch that.” You know, it kind of exasperates me sometimes, but that’s the way people are, you know? We decide on something before we even really know what the hell it is. And that’s kind of a premise of the show, too. You take something as taboo as most of society’s views towards polygamy, and you put a human face on it, and you create the characters that you can genuinely kind of emotionally invest in and love, and you start to kind of think, “Well, God, when you strip it all down, when you strip the religion, when you strip all the mores down, everybody is hoping for the same thing: for the health and welfare of their families.”
BP: You know? And their children’s children. I mean, it sounds cliché, but we are all the same underneath all of trappings of our religion…well, I shouldn’t say religion, but our civility. You know, the humanity is there. And the show is really clever. It’s not hitting you over the head with a message, but it’s kind of in there somewhere. I’ve always felt it was a show about tolerance and acceptance and freedom, but it’s also a show that doesn’t forget what its main criterion is: to entertain. They pack more into each hour of this show than…I mean, it has to be more than any other show on television. In terms of plots and subplots and ticking time bombs…I mean, I can’t think of another show that does it. I think “West Wing” got up there with a lot of plots towards the end, but I think we’ve taken that crown.
BE: How difficult is it to cultivate and feel like you’re fully exploring all of these relationships with so much going on?
BP: Well, what’s difficult for me is the stamina that it takes to do this role.
BE: Well, sure.
BP: It’s not a question of going home with it at night. It’s a question of, just how much can a man take? Even though you’re acting these scenes, once you’ve been doing this about halfway through each season, by the time they’ve piled on so many situations and crises that my character has to kind of try to oversee and control and deal with, it just starts to wear me out physically and emotionally. Just in terms of, you’re acting out stressful situations and, at the end of the day, your body doesn’t know the difference between artificially induced stress and real stress, you know? By the end of the season, I feel like a sports car that has had its gear box stripped out, just from over use. It’s very challenging, the role. And I love that the character is articulate and that he is a patriarchal character, in terms of his leadership and in his ability to have a vision, and to be positive and trying to build this family in his beliefs. That really is the secret to eternal life. So when you think about it, really, to have a family that will carry on, that really is your eternal life in some ways. And in his belief, that the spirits go to a place where they are all together again on their own planet and stuff, is a nice idea, too. You don’t have to go back so far in time, not even 100 years, to where it was vital for families to procreate to keep families going.
BP: I wonder just how many family lines are dying out in this modern society, where people aren’t having really many children, if any children at all. And the Henricksons will go on. They will carry on. That part of it gets into some very sinister…well, as sinister as anything you can imagine, this year with JJ and some of that. The guy who has come back from Kansas, played by Željko Ivanek…
BE: Yes, I’ve seen the opening episode, so I did see that.
BP: Oh, you did? Then you’re one episode ahead of me. (Laughs) I don’t see the show until it premieres. The only time I see any of it at all is when we do a little bit of the dubbing that we have to do to fix some scenes or to fix a bad sound thing. But then I only see a snippet. I kind of like to wait until it’s all polished, like a jewel, and just watch it with everybody else.
BE: Well, given how stressful the role is already, are you pro or con the idea of Bill trying to get a fourth wife?
BP: Well, I think he’s got enough to say grace over right now, with Barb, Nicki and Margie. (Laughs) Again, he’s a man, so he has to question his motives all the time. Is it lust or is it love? He’s quite a bumblebee. I’m telling you, he’s got more stamina than I’ll ever have, that’s for sure! But I guess, you know, it’s something to pursue. I think the creators felt like it was something we had to kind of explore and pull the trigger on. I thought the gal that played Ana, Branka Katic, was a great addition to the show because of the Eastern European view of things coming into it. You know, I was just seeing in the paper the guy, the South African leader who just got married and they were doing…he was in traditional Zulu garb and him and his new wife were doing some kind of ceremonial wedding dance. Did you see that picture?
BE: I did, yeah.
BP: It said that he had all these wives and stuff. I would love to see a scene with Bill and him sitting down and just kind of comparing notes. “Don’t you hate it when they gang up on you?” (Laughs) I would like to see us take it into other cultures and stuff, into some of the history. I also really like the western icons and kind of folklore that are so much a part of that religion, where it came from and how they had to come out by wagon train, how Brigham Young led them from Nauvoo, Illinois, to Salt Lake City. You know, the Mormons really pioneered the west in many ways. Although we’re not Mormons. We’re from a Mormon background. We have to be careful that we draw that distinction.
BE: Yeah, that’s a fine line, I would think.
BP: It’s not a show that’s trying to wave a red flag at anybody’s beliefs. In fact, I think we worked hard to really show that these characters are dead earnest in their beliefs, and they are not there for satire or judgment. That was something I was really concerned about at the beginning. “Look, if I’m going to play this guy, I’m going to play him straight up.” And that was, again, trying to figure out this background. In coming up with this story, the idea of the kid who is born and raised with a legacy of this fundamentalist compound and then is kind of, almost in a Machiavellian way, outcast by his own father at the behest of Roman Grant as a lost boy. And then how this kid had to grow up on the streets and then how he was kind of saved by the modern Mormon Church, the Latter-day Saints. And then he eventually got to college and met his true love, Barb…you know, Jeanne Tripplehorn…and how they started a family. And then how he ended up kind of through circumstances – his wife’s illness and everything else – kind of going back to these fundamentalist beliefs but thinking the way Roman runs the principle is an abomination and a corruption. I think he’s going back to more of the idea of the original religion, with Joseph Smith and how it was all started and the idea that there’s a higher purpose that can be shown. And so he is in some ways kind of almost a new age Joseph Smith. He’s kind of been through both sides. He’s been in both camps of his religion, in the fundamentalist part and the traditional part, and now he’s kind of creating almost a hybrid of it and taking it into the 21st century. It’s a great character to play. I love Bill Henrickson, God, I do. If I was half the man Bill Henrickson was…God, I’d be probably running for President. (Laughs)
BE: The culture of Juniper Creek, even for long time fans, elicits some squeamishness once in awhile.
BP: Oh, yeah.
BE: Are there parts of the show that you or the other cast members find yourself uncomfortable with even as you’re doing it? Like, “It’s all for the drama, but, uhh…”
BP: (Hesitates) Can you be specific?
BE: (Hesitates) Uh, not really. I wrote down the question and hadn’t fleshed it out much beyond that general phrase, and now I’m totally blanking. (Laughs)
BP: You know, I really… (Trails off into silence)
BE: I don’t want you to step on any toes to answer the question. That wasn’t my intent with it.
BP: Well, last year, that was kind of a thing about…they dramatized a temple rite, and that caused a little bit of a controversy, but it was before the episode was aired, so people I think, again, judged it before they had seen it. And they assumed, I guess, it was going to be some kind of unflattering portrait. But when you see Jeanne Tripplehorn’s performance, she is this devout Mormon who is really in a crisis of faith, which all of us go through at some point in our lives. And she’s really trying to hold on to her traditional family but hold on to her new family with me and these other beliefs. It becomes kind of a poignant portrait of anybody on a spiritual journey. I find the stuff just more fascinating and kind of unbelievable. There is a real squeamish thing coming at the end of the season. I found it more diabolical than anything else, but as far as performing the scenes and all of that, no, I didn’t have any reservation there.
BE: Okay. Speaking of diabolical, Roman Grant is certainly a great villain. Was there any concern about how filling that role when he was killed off?
BP: Well, he’s such good value, old Harry Dean. (Laughs) God dang it, that guy’s voice and just his whole demeanor and countance. And just like you said, he’s a great villain. You know, that Kentucky bourbon aged voice of his…and tobacco, I should say. But you know, I got to be such good friends with Harry Dean over the last few years. I just adore the guy. I was sorry to see him go on that level. As far as replacing him, well, I think there’s a pantheon of people in the wings waiting to come in…and one of them comes in the form of an angel this year, and she turns out to be quite a handful for Bill. That’s Sissy Spacek.
BE: Right. I was going to ask about her coming into the show. That’s got to be a real thrill.
BP: It was a total thrill, for me particularly and personally, because I started out in this business back in the 70’s, working for her husband Jack Fisk, when they had just gotten married. Jack was a promising young art director and I was kind of a protégé of his, as his set dresser, to the point where…my God, I ended up living in their house when they went away, up in Topanga. They finally got enough money together for a honeymoon about 18 months after they had gotten married. They met on “Badlands.” Jack had done the art direction on that. I met them about a year after they finished that. So for me, that was quite a circle to come around. That we’re actually acting in a show together kind of blew my mind. And we had a lot of fun.
It was great because we had kind of lost track of each other. Sissy and Jack moved up to Virginia years ago. By the end of the 70’s, they were pretty well ensconced in Virginia and I really just didn’t see them much over the years. I did have the occasion to reference Sissy, though, when I got to host “Saturday Night Live” at the beginning of 1999. In my monologue…after I had worked for Jack for about two and a half years, I was 21 years old, I wanted to go to college. I went to NYU. And that was about the time that Sissy was really blowing up. That fall, I got to school in New York and “Carrie” came out. And she was hosting “Saturday Night Live” which was in its very first season. I was invited and I took my sister who was going to school in Washington at the time. She came up on the train and we both attended, we were in the audience. It was kind of an amazing night. We got to go to the after party. They always have an after party. It was up on Columbus. It was the first time I saw people waiting across the street, you know, my first hand of paparazzi. I was so fascinated and kind of freaked out by the idea of people waiting on a cold night, across the street, just until Sissy and the rest of the cast came out of the restaurant. And so I used that in my monologue. I talked about being in this audience 20 years ago, or however long it was, I was watching a friend of mine become a huge star. So backstage, when I’m doing that, Will Ferrell and all of them are going, “Oh, God, is he talking about Sissy Spacek?” So they do a whole “Carrie” number on me and they dump a bucket of blood on me in the monologue and all of that. So it was kind of funny because I hadn’t talked to Sissy or Jack in years, but I had to call Sissy to say, “Oh, God, I hope you’ll tune in on Saturday night. I’ve got kind of a surprise for you.”
BE: And what did she think?
BP: She loved it. Oh, she loved it. She’s a sweetheart. God, she’s just the same. You know, it’s so funny: time changes everything, but it doesn’t change people’s feelings for each other and how people relate to each other. I was nervous to be working with Sissy as an actor. We were at the Emmys this year, there was a big HBO party, and I couldn’t go because my call time was about 5:30 AM and I was starting the next morning. I was starting my work with Sissy and I was very nervous. And very quickly after we started shooting the scene, I realized how much fun it was going to be. And I realized, God, it was like no time had passed. We were talking about a lot of old times. And then a couple of nights later, I went to see their daughter Schuyler, who is a folk singer, perform at the Hotel Café in Hollywood. And I hadn’t seen Jack in a long time, and Jack was there. And I sat with him and we caught up. Here I am, sitting at a table watching their daughter…and I’m looking up at the daughter, and she’s the age Sissy was when I really knew her and Jack. So it was kind of wild how time changes but doesn’t change. A new generation comes along and I could see that Schuyler’s kind of a chip off the old block there. Very talented young gal. She’s just finished a part in Gus Van Sant’s new movie. She goes by Schuyler Fisk. You know, that’s her family name.
BE: I’ve just got a couple more “Big Love” questions. I haven’t even brought up Alby yet. He looks like he’s going to have quite a season ahead of him with Dale.
BP: Matt Ross is a tremendous actor. God, it’s a delight to see him just tear this part up. God, in his madness and in his want of love, and being the outcast son. Oh, man, it’s almost like Nicki was the son Roman really wanted, and instead he got Alby. (Laughs) And, God, he’s done a wonderful job with that part and is just a great guy. A great work ethic and just a lot of fun to be around. He has a great sense of humor. I think you’ll see big things from him.
BE: So what does Bill know about Alby’s orientation?
BP: Well, last season when I had him over for dinner and the wives went into the other room and he put his hand on mine…? I think Bill’s pretty savvy. (Laughs) And I think, you know, from being married to his sister, he knows all about that stuff. But again, what I like about Bill, he’s the best kind of Republican. He’s old school Republican. He has a fair mindedness, that people should have other opinions and they should be able to voice them in a civil way. He would be so upset with the way these people are handling themselves. You know, yelling out in Congress “you lie” or people raising hell with the birth certificate of the President and all of that stuff. He would be appalled by all of that stuff. You know, I think the world of the Republican Party and the Democratic Party, but it’s the extremists, the fanatics, and the pundits who just keep stirring it all up and creating this polarization. I know that’s not going to stop, unfortunately, but I really think it’s beyond all of that. Even Jim Cameron, I went to his premiere… (Hesitates) I’m sorry to get off on this.
BE: (Laughs) No, that’s all right.
BP: Okay. But, you know, I went to see Jim Cameron’s premiere of “Avatar,” and now I’m reading in the paper this week that a lot of conservative pundits are saying it’s anti-American and that it’s a statement about the war. It’s, like, “What the hell? What movie were you watching?” You know, they didn’t grab on to anything. But it’s so funny that’s biting them on the ass, because I think every American on the planet has seen the movie now and has totally embraced it, practically.
BE: Actually, I was going to ask you why you weren’t in the movie, since you’ve been in so many of his other films.
BP: Well, I wish I would have been. I figured there was something I could have done in there! (Laughs) But you know, I never pimp my friends. If Jim wants me, he’ll let me know. And, God, after all that Jim has done for me…you know, Jim Cameron has been the most loyal colleague and friend I’ve ever had in Hollywood, and that he considers me in his counsel of friends, that he considers my counsel at all, is quite a source of pride for me over these years. And so, God, there’s not much more that I can ask for from Jim Cameron: he took me to the Titanic, he let me drive a corvette, he’s taken me scuba diving all over the world, and I got to be in the biggest movie of all time…before “Avatar” takes that crown. (Laughs) So he’s been great. I have great admiration for Jim. What I’ve learned from Jim is great ideas, big ideas, big visions, you have to be willing to lay siege to. You have to know that they might take years to come to fruition. And to that extent, I’ve learned from Jim quite a bit.
BE: I’ve got one more “Big Love” question for you, and then just a couple quick ones about other stuff. Do you think Bill has a favorite wife? We know his libido seems to prefer Margene, but libido isn’t everything.
BP: (Laughs) You know what? Bill has to be impartial with his three wives, just like you have to be with your children. But I think in his heart of hearts, his soulmate has always been Barb, because they share the longest history and because she was his first love. But with that said, he loves Nicki dearly, too, because there’s a part of Barb that will never understand a part of Bill, and that is where he came from. And that is what he gets from Nicki. She and he are the same. They came from this Juniper Creek place. And Margene…well, Margene just makes him feel like he’s in high school. God, what a lucky guy. (Laughs) They say between every great man is a great woman and, God, in my case I’ve got three. So it’s been a great role. I’m thrilled that audiences around the world have kind of embraced the show and gotten it on the level we were hoping they would get it on. I’m proud that…God, it is such a wit and a quality. And again, to be at the head of this incredible ensemble cast…I mean, we genuinely respect and like each other and really spur each other on to do good work. After four seasons, that can be a tough thing to say, because there can be a lot of dramas behind scenes, too, and our good ship has weathered a few storms, but we’ve come out of it. We’re still afloat. And I think it’s going to be just a huge, huge season for us.
BE: Excellent. So when will we see you directing again? Because “Frailty” is one of my favorite horror films.
BP: Well I’ve got things in the hopper, Will, it’s just a question of being able to pull the trigger on them. I’ve got several projects that are getting past the gantry stage and the rockets are about to be built. One of them of course is this huge mini-series that I put together with Tom Hanks.
BE: Is that the “Reclaiming History”?
BP: Yeah, it’s commemorating the 50th anniversary of the Kennedy assassination in 2013. We are going to do a seven to eight hour mini-series that’s going to kind of create a mosaic but more from the human interest side, without an agenda. We’re going to go with what we know for sure happened, and we’re going to follow the characters who we know for sure were there and what their experiences were. And what I realized when I had this idea to do this a couple of years ago…I was down in Dallas and I went to Book Depository Museum. I had never been there. I had seen the president that morning, as an 8 ½ year old boy on my dad’s shoulders, give his last public speech in front of the Hotel Texas.
BP: They actually found footage of me in the news reel, and that’s when it just kind of suddenly…I thought, “How strange to find an artifact like this after all these years,” and I thought, “God, has anybody ever told this story without a bias or an agenda?” And I realized it really has never been…not, you know, the assassination part. And so I went to Tom and I said, “God, Tom, you know you’ve got this company that has huge success doing long-form dramas on American history, and this is going to be a significant anniversary of this event.” And we had gotten to know each other originally working on “Apollo 13” together, and he said, “Well, I want to hear more about this.” So we spoke more about it and, bang, the next thing we knew, we were in business on it. That won’t go into production until probably sometime next year.
BP: And I’ve been promoting a sequel to “Twister” right now.
BP: Yeah, I’ve had a meeting at the studio and with Kathleen Kennedy about it. I went on a trip last spring, down to the Ozarks. I flew into St. Louis with my buddy Scott Thomson, who played Preacher in ‘Twister,’ and we rented a car and drove down to southeastern Missouri, into the Ozarks. We spent the night, and the next morning we got up and we started tracking the trail of the most famous tornado that ever hit the country, which was the Tri-State Tornado of 1925. It still holds all of the records. It was called the Tri-State because it was a mile wide when it came down from the sky on the afternoon of March 16, 1925, and it was a rural area, but, boy, before it was through, it crossed the Mississippi, it cut across southern Illinois, where it hit a lot of towns. The biggest one was Murphysboro, which was…it literally looked like Hiroshima after it hit. And then it went across the Wabash, into Indiana, staying on the ground three and a half hours and cutting a damage path 219 miles long, killing about 700 people. There’s actually footage that I found in Murphysboro at their historical society. They had footage from a biplane that the government sent down, just to do aerial footage of all of the destruction and the damage. So we just did that to kind of get some ideas, and from that I kind of extrapolated an idea for a sequel. And I kind of put that together into a format, and now we’re kind of waiting to see if that’s going to move forward.That would need Steven Spielberg’s blessing, ultimately, and they probably won’t take it to him ‘til there’s real studio interest, but I think the 3D applications of that could obviously be pretty amazing.
BE: I would love to see that.
BP: The only reason I’d like to revisit that ground is because I realize we’re living in a time where big movies cost so much to make that the town is looking for built-in audiences. Of course, I’m so glad to see that the success of ‘Avatar’ is disproving that theory, but…I always thought the first ‘Twister’ was an exciting ride, but I thought a sequel could explore it in a more enthralling way, getting into more of the history and the lore, more of a darker version of the first one. You know, a little more of a “Jaws” kind of story.
BE: Do you think that will be challenging? Convincing audiences to look for a more serious tone to it? Because, I mean a lot of time people just think of “Twister” as being…
BP: I don’t think so, because I think you’d still want to have a lot of the dark humor and all of that, with the flying cows and everything. (Laughs) I think you could kind of intrigue people more by getting into a little more of the lore and really understanding. I just think there’s a lot more to explore there. When I researched the first film when I was getting ready to do it, I just found so much stuff. Ultimately, I was happy with ‘Twister,’ but I also had thought that it could’ve gotten a little deeper into it. And I’ve got other things, too. I’ve got original movies as well. I’ve got a script that’s a classic, I won’t go into it, but it’s just a movie I’ve never seen and written by a writer I’m crazy about. And so what I’m going to do to sell it is…I work with an artist named Mick Reinman, he did the storyboards for me for “The Greatest Game ever Played,” and I’m going to turn this guy’s script into a graphic novel and see if I can kind of sell it through that way. And then there’s a pile of scripts that I’ve kind of coaled over the years. I don’t really have the rights to any of them, but I’m just waiting for the right time to try to make a deal on them. I’ve always had a good eye. I got that from my dad. I think the longevity of my career is more credited to picking good material to be involved with, when I had the choice…which is not too often. (Laughs) You know, you’re trying to survive out here, and I’ve taken a few paydays and took one in the chops for it, too. But, you know, you’ve got to survive and make a living at the same time. You’re trying to align yourself with the best people and the best projects. It’s tricky. It’s tricky waters to navigate out here, Will. (Laughs)
BE: So what would you say is your favorite project you worked on that didn’t get the love you thought it deserved?
BP: “The Greatest Game Ever Played.” I think that’s a stone cold classic, and time will prove it. The only critic worth satisfying in my world is time. The few things I have directed, I’ve kind of picked them with an eye. I was looking for things that were kind of timeless in their themes. “Frailty” got a lot of attention.
BE: I love “Frailty.” I’m sure I sent 50 people to go see that movie just from word of mouth alone.
BP: Brent Hanley wrote an incredibly original, tight script. And I was very fortunate in getting Bill Butler to shoot it. You know, that was no accident. He had shot “Jaws” and “The Conversation,” and I wanted the film to have kind of an older kind of neo-classical look to it. When I went to do ‘Greatest Game,” I had to throw that playbook out because I realized the camera had to really be a character in the film, in terms of exploding the golf sequences. So I worked with a young cinematographer who was terrific…and who got bitched at by Christian Bale earlier last year: Shane Hurlbut.
BE: Ah, yes.
BP: I yelled at Shane a few times, too, but not quite to that extent. Well, maybe almost. (Laughs) But I felt it was a total sleeper. It was kind of heartbreaking for me because it was kind of my love letter to the Academy. And, really, the thing about “The Greatest Game Ever Played” was that every craft of the motion picture art and every guild had to be strongly represented for that movie to come off. I mean everything: the photography, the acting, the costuming, the music and the editing. And, God, after all that, they didn’t even screen it at the Academy! You know, it’s a funny saga you go through out here. My first movie I made, “Traveler,” that I produced, I got Jack Green, who shot “Twister,” and at the time, he was shooting a lot of movies for Clint Eastwood. Clint Eastwood is probably the single guy that I wanted to cultivate and get to know when I came to Hollywood, because I really feel like I’ve tried to emulate his career more than any one person out here, in terms of trying to build up a reputation as an actor and then trying to parlay that into being a film maker and a director. So I made a movie called “Traveler” with Mark Wahlberg and Julianna Margulies, and, God, Jack Green and I, we talked about Clint, and…there’s even an homage: the first shot of the film is the same shot that Jack first operated for Clint on “Every Which Way But Loose.” He mimicked the same opening shot. And then later on, there’s a scene with me and James Gammon in a bar, and up on the TV you see “Every Which Way But Loose” playing. We talked about showing it to Clint and, God, Jack shows it to Clint without even calling me up, out of some jealousy or I don’t know what. But to this day, I’ve still never really gotten to…I’ve gotten to shake hands and say “hello” to him, but I’ve never gotten to have a real moment with him where I could tell him just how much of an influence he has been on me. Like “Frailyty,” his first film was a horror film, too: “Play Misty for Me.”
BE: Oh yeah. A classic.
BP: I would kind of like to redo that.
BE: Could you even do that in present day, with radio being what it is today?
BP: Well, I think you’d have to take it and work with it a little bit, but…
BE: Certainly the stalker aspect you could totally make work.
BP: Yeah. Well, God, they just shot that guy on the radio over in Russia. Gunned his ass down right in broad daylight. Well, listen, it’s been great to talk to you. I don’t know what else to tell you but my life story. (Laughs) You got lucky today, I’ve got a late call. To tell you the truth, I have had no time since August. This thing has been such a jealous mistress. In fact, I’m sitting here trying to learn the lines for the rest of the week’s work. I’m at the point now where I have to write them out over and over again to try to get them to stick somehow. I think my brain has become like a Teflon pan. Anyway, I appreciate the interview and we’re really excited about this season. And I’ve got to say, I’m lucky to be working on a show of this caliber.
BE: It’s great and I’m looking forward to seeing how the season unfolds.
BP: Alright. Well, terrific, Will, here’s wishing you a happy new year.
BE: You, too. Oh, and I do just have to tell you in closing that my daughter is four years old, and she won’t stop singing “Fish Heads.” So, uh, thank you, I guess…? (Laughs)
BP: Oh, she’s going to be a handful. (Laughs)
BE: She already is.
BP: God, that’s so funny: we were just talking about “Fish Heads.” It came up in something we were…I think “SNL” is putting together a show of their greatest short films, and it was included in that. It’s funny, because…how old are you?
BE: I’m 39.
BP: Oh, okay, so it was a little before your time, but Billy Mumy was the guy who wrote that song with his partner, Robert Haimer, and Bill Mumy, when I was a kid growing up, was on a huge hit series called “Lost in Space,” with June Lockhart.
BP: And he also had appeared in a couple of “Twilight Zone” episodes, which made him uber cool. I got to meet him through Sissy, and…okay, I’ll give you this last anecdote. (Laughs) Sissy’s best friend when she moved to Hollywood with Jack was a gal named Janit Baldwin. Janit was an actress, and she and Sissy had co-starred in a movie with Lee Marvin and Gene Hackman called “Prime Cut.” You’ve got to dig that one out. It was about the meat packing business in the Midwest and white slavery. I mean, who would have figured? And so I got out here, I got to know Jack and Sissy, and they introduced me to Janit…and that’s how I met Billy. And him and his partner were writing these novelty songs, Dr. Demento had given them huge airplay, and they talked about making a video for that. This was back around ’79 or ’80. And I said, “God, would you give me a chance to make it?” Because I had been making short films. And so he let me do that, and that summer, I kind of put that whole thing together. Ultimately, I took it to New York, and I literally had to wait in the waiting room at Rockefeller Center for two days before anybody would even see me. And then finally they came out to take the ¾ inch tape, one of those big honking fucking things, and I started to get up with them to walk in the back, and they said, “Uh, no, you stay here.” (Laughs) I was like Rupert Pupkin! And then, God, they must have put it in the machine right away, and obviously they played it, because they came out five minutes later and said, “Come on back, we want to put it on next week’s show.” And I’m suddenly in like Flynn. The next week, I was back in L.A., and I got together with a bunch of friends and all of this, and we were going to watch it live. We had a hotel room…well, somebody had a hotel room at the old Hyatt Riot House…up on Sunset, and we watched it, and that night when I went to bed, I thought, “Oh, my God, that thing…” I mean, I had plugged into the main cable for five minutes. That thing was shot out to Canada and Hawaii and across the United States and Alaska. And I thought, “My God, maybe next year I can make another one of those!” (Laughs) It’s funny how you build your career. But it’s all been kind of a journey of innocence in some ways for me. And naïveté. (Laughs)
BE: From Barnes and Barnes to “Big Love”.
BP: There it is. We’ve covered the gamut, Will. (Laughs)
BE: I dare say. Alright, Bill, it’s been great talking to you. I really appreciate it.BP: You, too, man. All the best.