No False Moves

Bill Paxton

Paxton in his Apollo 13role

Whatever else is said or written about the actor Bill Paxton -- the almost painfully nice guy in such films as Twister, Apollo 13, and the great One False Move -- I will foremost remember him as the man who flies coach for the movie he loves.

But, of course, there is so much more to talk about when the subject is Paxton. First, he is a shining example of what is known in his business as the 20-year overnight success. First cast with a one-line role in 1975 (in Jonathan Demme's Crazy Mama), Paxton worked steadily but in relative obscurity until last year's lead role in Twister. Twister -- and you're not getting any breaking news with this -- is the kind of film that makes an instant star even of someone who has one of the most forgettable faces in Hollywood.

It's not that the face lacks appeal; quite the contrary. It's just that its comfortable, unthreatening ordinariness suggests the boy next door, that nice guy in school whom girls flock to not for hair and muscles but for an unmistakable aura of decency.

And the career -- well, patches of it are admittedly unremarkable. Like that long stretch between standout work as the obnoxious but redeemable Private Hudson in 1986's Aliens and the nomadic vampire Severin in Kathryn Bigelow's stylish bloodsucker Near Dark (1987) to the great One False Move in 1991. Some of the films in between include Pass the Ammo, Slipstream, Next of Kin, Predator 2, Navy SEALS, and Brain Dead.

In Twister

But through it all, he has remained the master of the ways in which he is used on screen. Take his hilarious brother Chet in Weird Science, or Hudson in Aliens. These were big, broad performances of characters who we sense have little in common with the artist portraying them. He simply disappeared inside a fanciful creation of his own making. But in One False Move, Indian Summer, Apollo 13, Twister, and his new Traveller, he throws off the wigs and heavy makeup and becomes a variation on the real Bill -- the Bill born and raised in Fort Worth and now bringing up a family in a small California town.

Both methods produce outstanding results. With the larger-than-life characters, his broad brush never overwhelms the canvas. His Chet in Weird Science demonstrates how an actor can absolutely command a scene without overdosing his audience. The much different working style in films like One False Move and Traveller, which Paxton calls "minimalist," is even more interesting. Here he is generally calm, more normal, more what we suspect Real Bill is like. Yet we know he's not skating on a one-note persona, or "playing himself," because each of these cooler characters differs in personality and temperament.

He has become an unlikely leading man, at least in terms of Hollywood convention. And perhaps he is a model for the leading man of the new millennium. He's not alone, of course -- Bill Pullman and Kevin Spacey, to name two, possess the similar qualities of vulnerability and ordinariness. Together they bring balance to the stable of action heroes and pretty boys that usually get first crack at high-end Hollywood films.

Lately the 41-year-old actor has counterweighted his work in such Hollywood hits as Twister and the forthcoming Titanic by producing and starring in his own project. Traveller, which makes its world premiere this week at SXSW, is a modestly budgeted serio-comedy about a group of scam artists working the Southeast. They are of Irish descent and are known as "travellers" for their nomadic lifestyle. They differ from gypsies, whose roots are in Eastern Europe, only in ancestry.

In a lengthy telephone conversation last week from his home, he talked about his new film, his approach to his craft, and of life after Twister.

Paxton as Chet in Weird Science

Austin Chronicle: What attracted you to this project? Did you initiate it or did someone bring it to you?

Bill Paxton: I was looking for something to follow One False Move, another really great independent film. When One False Move came out it got really great reviews; this was the film that legitimized my career. I had been praised for Aliens, Weird Science, and Near Dark, but it wasn't until One False Move that people in this town began to take notice of me. Anyway, I get a lot of scripts sent to my house, and my wife Louise, who has worked as a script reader said, "This is pretty good, you should take a look at it." So she really discovered it.

It had a producer and director attached to it and I had seen the director's previous film and approached them about it. Well, I never heard back from them, and then I heard that some other actors with more muscle at the box office had expressed interest in it. That never went anywhere, though. Finally, after Twister and Apollo 13 the past summer, I thought this would be a good time to do Traveller. We approached them and asked to buy them out. We paid them handsomely, I must say.

AC: How did Jack Green (cinematographer on Unforgiven and Twister) come on board as director?

BP: Jack was legendary for his Clint Eastwood films, especially Unforgiven. While we were doing Twister, I found he had this burning desire to direct. I told him you can direct Traveller as your first picture, but as producer I'm going to be more creative, so it's going to be more of a collaboration on every level. I can't say enough good things about him, especially in creating an esprit de corps, respect for the actors. He is so disarming he puts you completely at ease.

AC: Are "travellers" real?

BP: They're so real that on the second day of shooting (in Wilmington, N.C.) the newspaper had a front-page story about scam artists who were going to people's houses saying they would light their furnace for $10, then they'd come back upstairs with a Mason jar full of bugs and say, "You have brick mites everywhere, but for $800 we can get rid of them for you." There's also a company that makes cheap knock-offs of brand-name house trailers, and these guys buy them and sell them for twice as much. They fall apart in about two or three months.

AC: Let's go back to the beginning. You left Fort Worth for Los Angeles when you were only 18. Why was that?

BP: Well, I had tried to go to film school. I had been working at Mrs. Baird's Bakery at night in my senior year. Then I got a chance to go to England for three months in a student exchange program. That's where I met Tom Huckabee (who supervised music for the Traveller). I had made a few Super-8 films in high school and it turned out he had, too. When we got back in the fall of '73, we pooled our money -- I was working at my dad's lumberyard -- and started making films together -- parodies. We did one called Earth Army on Venus, and Death Wish in Venice, which used elements of Death Wish and Death in Venice.

I decided that was it. I went to the TCU [Texas Christian University] film department dean and he said you ought to go to Dallas and get some work in commercials and see if it's something you want to pursue. Then come back and I'll let you into film school. I did that but I didn't find anything. I said, "Dad, who do you know in Hollywood?" It turned out he knew someone who did industrial films, and I got a job for two weeks. My father bought me a ticket and took me to the airport and said, "Son, I love you, I support what you're doing, but you picked a really screwed business."

Anyway, I did that job for two weeks and then met a guy doing art direction for Roger Corman. I got hired as a set dresser for Crazy Mama, and one day they needed somebody to play a lawman so they put a costume on me and had me say one line.

Paxton as Bokky in his new film Traveller, with Julianna Margulies

AC: Did you become friends with Demme?

BP: Actually, no. I went to see him on a project not long ago and he didn't remember.

AC: You have been working steadily ever since. I couldn't believe when I saw you've done something like 40 films. Are you the typical actor who worries that his last job will be his last job?

BP: I think every actor has that insecurity. I'm as hungry as ever in terms of what I'd like to accomplish. When you move up the next rung on the ladder, like I did with Twister, the competition is much keener; there are fewer of those slots to fill. I turn down work a lot because most of it is trashy stuff and they just want to use my name to sell to foreign markets. I've taken a couple of professional dives for the money, but, generally, I think I have a pretty good record.

AC: Name one of those dives.

BP: Vagrant [1992]. It was an unmitigated disaster, and I ended up on the video box in a pose like Macaulay Culkin from Home Alone. It was supposed to be a comedic version of Pacific Heights. There's a vagrant living on a vacant lot, and I'm a yupster across the street who obsesses on the guy. Mel Brooks produced it and we had a great cast, but about halfway through the studio decided they wanted more of a horror film. You know, you have to be careful about the tone you set. But now we were shooting scenes that were much more horror-driven, so it came out a mish-mash.

AC: And then there's One False Move. I have my opinion, but why do you think this is such a terrific film?

BP: Well, my contribution is certainly just one. I'd say the script by Billy Bob Thornton and Tom Epperson. Carl Franklin's deft handling of the material. He is just so consistent, there's not one false note. He had been an actor for many years. The film has a real simplicity in the way it is presented, there's not a lot of fancy camerawork. In the MTV Age it's very chic to call attention to the camera, but when you call attention to the artifice you lose something else.

AC: How did you approach your character of the Arkansas lawman in the film?

BP: All actors try to perfect what they do, hone it, distill it. Years ago when I was a student in New York, I had the opportunity of studying with Stella Adler. Very early on, she had me do a scene from Zoo Story, the Edward Albee play. Well, she just ripped my balls off. I couldn't even get out of bed the next day. But she did say one funny thing. She said, "Dahling, you're not ready for realism." So she had me do all kinds of things -- Noel Coward -- but no realism.

With One False Move, you're kind of naked up there, you're much closer to the center of who you are. It's naturalism. What you're trying to do is make maximum impact with minimal effort. When I did The Last Supper (last year), I had a first-time director and I didn't get much from her so I said, "I'm gonna do this for Bill and see how minimally I can play that."

AC: That's a chilling scene you're in.

BP: All I did was relax. Besides, I didn't have much prep time. I was shooting Apollo at the time and shot that scene on a weekend.

AC: Why didn't One False Move get better distribution?

BP: When it came time to release the film they felt there were no stars in it and kind of downplayed it. By the time the reviews came around, it was too late. The person who got the whole thing going for us was Sheila Benson of the Los Angeles Times. She has this little critics' festival in the Caribbean where everyone shows these little gems they have found, unheralded films like ours. She showed it to Roger and Gene, and picked up the flag and carried it.

With Luke Askew in Traveller

At the end of the year, Academy members get cassettes of films so that if they can't get to a screening or if there is no screening, people can see them. I called the distributor and they weren't even planning to send out cassettes. So I put up $20,000 of my own money -- the cardinal rule in Hollywood is never use your own money -- and sent out videos to all the members of the Academy. It turned out to be one of the best investments I ever made.

AC: Did it get you Twister?

BP: Well, I was the first and only one Jan [de Bont] interviewed for the part. And I know that Tom Hanks put in a good word for me.

AC: Will there be a sequel to Twister?

BP: I don't know. There's been some loose talk, but when a movie makes something like $700 million, you have to think about the possibility. I would like to be involved in the conception of that film.

AC: You're also in Titanic later this year. What's that going to be like?

BP: It's the most unbelievable thing you've ever seen. I play a supporting part in the movie. There's a wrap-around story about an expedition into the bowels of the ship in a submersible, a salvage operation. I'm very mercenary, never bothered by ethical considerations. It's more naturalistic, but maybe not as minimal as that guy in Last Supper.

AC: Back to Traveller. There's a lot of good music in it, Randy Travis singing "King of the Road," things like that.

BP: There's a man in Connecticut who fronted the money for this film and he told us to spend the time to make it right. A score was written but it didn't really work. I had always wanted to use a lot of source music, but to get all the songs we wanted in the movie would have cost us
$300,000-400,000 to license it. So I called Seymour Stein at Elektra Records. He loved the movie and wanted to use some forgotten country songs using contemporary artists. The music took a month and a half to organize, then six weeks to record. About 90% are covers of classic songs. We worked out a deal with Asylum where they picked up the cost of recording it, and we paid for the remix, and we brought it in for $135,000.

AC: You are pretty famous and recognizable now. How does celebrity agree with you?

BP: Yeah, the nickel finally dropped. I can go into town or be standing in a lobby and I'll see people point. It's kind of freaky, but it's good because if you have that kind of recognition in the marketplace, you feel that there will be another job coming your way. We live away from Los Angeles in a small town and we have a lot of privacy up here. On Traveller, I was flying around a lot and because I was producing the film I wanted to save money and fly coach. People got a kick out of that and said, "What are you doing back here!?"

AC: Has your father changed his opinion of your line of work?

BP: Well, my father retired a few years ago and he moved out here and is taking acting lessons and trying to get parts in movies. I told him "Dad, I love you, I support what you're doing, but you picked a really screwed business."

The SXSW Film Festival showtimes for Traveller are Saturday, March 8, 9:30pm at the Paramount and Saturday, March 15, 2:30pm at Dobie II.

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