Call It Father of ‘Sling Blade’: Video Rides Oscar’s Coattails
Billy Bob Thornton, who this week won an Oscar for his “Sling Blade” script, has seemingly revealed every last detail about his life and the story behind the movie, including his past heart problems, failed marriages and battles with studio executives.
But there’s still more to tell, as video customers may have already learned.
Thornton has seldom talked about a 29-minute black-and-white short he wrote and starred in nearly four years ago. “Some Folks Call It a Sling Blade” features the same memorable character--a mentally handicapped man who killed his mother and her lover--and some of the same dialogue that Thornton later made famous in “Sling Blade.”
Now the short is getting more attention. Its video distributor, anxious to capitalize on Thornton’s Oscar, has shipped 13,000 copies to stores, including big chains like Blockbuster and Tower. The tape, which retails for $24.95, also includes a 13-minute documentary about the making of the short.
With “Sling Blade” still playing at theaters, viewers might be confused by the appearance of a similarly titled video at local stores. But the distributor of “Some Folks” hopes that cineastes and Thornton fans will treat the short as important background for the Oscar-winning movie.
“Fans of independent movies enjoy seeing alternative versions and getting a peek at something being developed,” said Steve Stofflet, who runs the Michigan-based distributor videos.com.
The short plays an interesting and heretofore little-known role in the development of the feature, although Thornton and some of his collaborators on “Some Folks” disagree strongly about just how big that role is.
George Hickenlooper, the Emmy-winning director of the documentary on Francis Ford Coppola and the making of “Apocalypse Now,” “Hearts of Darkness: A Filmmaker’s Apocalypse,” argues that the feature script is adapted from the 1994 short, which he directed. He says he has been perplexed by Thornton’s failure to mention the early film when talking about “Sling Blade.”
“I think it’s a little odd . . . that he doesn’t acknowledge the existence of the short in any way, ever,” said Hickenlooper, who is finishing the film “Dogtown.”
But Thornton says the feature script is not based on the short but rather on a monologue from a one-man show, “Swine Before Pearls,” that he wrote and performed at the Tiffany Theater, West Coast Ensemble and other venues starting in 1986. He adds that the main reason he has avoided talking about the short is because of a falling-out he had with Hickenlooper shortly after filming. (Because Thornton did not serve as director or producer on the short, he had little control over its distribution.)
“I would have been glad to have talked about the short if George hadn’t bad-mouthed me all over town,” Thornton said in an interview. “This whole thing is based on the character, and I created that before I ever knew George Hickenlooper existed.” Thornton denies that the short played a key role in developing the feature script. Hickenlooper denies being personally critical of Thornton.
Hickenlooper and Thornton met after Hickenlooper saw and admired Thornton’s acting and writing in the 1992 crime drama “One False Move.” Thornton mentioned his script idea concerning a mentally handicapped murderer, and the pair decided to shoot the story as a short movie.
Hickenlooper and friends raised the $55,000 budget from several investors, including New York producer Adam Lindeman, who kicked in almost half the money. Shooting took place over three days at an abandoned hospital in Lakeview Terrace. Actors J.T. Walsh and Molly Ringwald joined Thornton in the cast. (Walsh reprised his role as a mental patient in “Sling Blade,” although Ringwald, who played a newspaper reporter, did not.)
But not long after filming wrapped in September 1993, Hickenlooper and his writer-star began to argue over the project, especially the editing of a key monologue in which Thornton’s character narrates the story of his mother’s murder. By the time the short debuted at the Sundance Film Festival in January 1994, the two were barely speaking, and they have not kept in touch since. The short, meanwhile, received favorable attention at festivals in Aspen, San Diego and elsewhere. Lindeman says he showed it to Larry Meistrich, who runs a New York-based production company called the Shooting Gallery. (Meistrich could not be reached for comment.) Meistrich and Thornton eventually clinched a deal to make the feature “Sling Blade” for $1.2 million, with Thornton as writer, director and star.
Lindeman, who says Thornton gave him an oral promise for first refusal on any feature script, says he is “very unhappy” with the way the Meistrich-Thornton deal came about and is weighing legal options. Thornton denies having given Lindeman such a promise.
Hickenlooper says that although he would have liked the opportunity to direct “Sling Blade,” he doesn’t begrudge Thornton’s success: “He’s a very talented actor and writer,” he says.
A bemused Thornton, meanwhile, finds the timing of the video release and the ensuing controversy somewhat ironic: “If [“Sling Blade”] had fallen on its ass, this wouldn’t be happening now,” he said.