Sling Blade - Director's Cut
Writer-director Billy Bob Thornton discusses the anniversary edition of his 1996 masterpiece.
Prior to his tabloid-worthy exploits as a five-time divorcee and all-around eccentric, Billy Bob Thornton earned the right be weird by becoming one of modern movies' most esteemed entertainers. After suffering through genre dreck like Chopper Chicks in Zombietown and Going Overboard, Thornton broke through as an indie filmmaker and actor with the acclaimed, suspense-filled drama One False Move; four years and countless forgettable films later, he officially 'arrived' in Hollywood with a powerhouse directorial debut, Sling Blade, and proved that country boys from Arkansas can tell stories just as effectively as Tinseltown's city slicker screenwriters.
On June 7, Thornton released a director's cut of the film, which features more than 22 minutes of extra footage, along with a wealth of archival material recounting the filmmaker's days as a struggling Hollywood thespian, and his meteoric rise to success. At the DVD's recent release party, the actor-director polyhyphenate discussed this new version of his modern classic; Thornton's characteristic candor shone through as he revealed the origins of this previously unreleased footage.
"There are only three or four scenes," Thornton says of the added footage as tape recorders attempt desperately to capture the actor's fragmented comments over the din of a roiling fete. "They are scenes that we were able to lift from the movie, sort of surgically remove, that didn't hurt the story at all. You don't miss them, but they're nice to see just because it's more character development." Thornton's last effort as a director was 2001's Daddy and Them, which never saw wide release; one expects that he was happy to have the opportunity to see any of his efforts, much less the thus-far zenith of his career, enjoy not only a theatrical run but an expansive life on DVD.
"You get to see little bridges between scenes," he reveals. "Like for instance there's a scene where Dwight Yoakam's terrible band plays in the back yard and he makes John Ritter and me go to the liquor store with him for the guys. And then from the yard, we cut to the living room and that's where we have a big fight. Now there's a scene in between that where we show him driving to the liquor store- you know, stuff like that."
Despite Thornton's confession that the extended edition of his masterpiece may be little more than a clever marketing ploy, he insists that the addenda does serve a purpose for diehard fans of the film. "I think those kinds of things are really more interesting for hardcore fans of the movie," he says. "For instance, I'm sort of a record [collector], and I always read the liner notes and everything. I think a DVD like this, and a director's cut, it's really more interesting for the really hardcore fans of a movie or a record or whatever it is, because I don't miss these scenes from the movie."
"They're good scenes, I think."
At the same time, he acknowledges that the new material is not necessary to effectively tell Carl Childers' story, even if it is interesting. "You just put stuff back in there that you threw on the floor before and it makes the movie shorter without interrupting the story," he admits. "Now, if I thought those scenes were essential to get my point across, I would have left them in." He also says he probably could have included them in the theatrical release if he'd wanted. "At that time, I was a little more under-the-radar and they didn't mess with me so much, so I probably could have gotten by with it, because I had final cut."
Revisiting Sling Blade forced Thonton to revisit footage featuring a pair of longtime friends and collaborators, the late J.T. Walsh and John Ritter. He says it was tough to go back and see their work, but enjoys knowing that their work is preserved for antiquity on film. "J.T. and John were two of my best friends and it was so shocking that they died," he says. "They were about the same age and it happened kind of the same way, unexpectedly, so yeah, it's kind of sad to look at that. But thank God we've got stuff like this to look at, so that they can stay alive in a way."
This kind of reflection also offers a unique chance in general for filmmakers to correct past mistakes, or at the least reconsider creative choices made at different points in their career. But Thornton says that he is completely happy with the original version. "I don't make mistakes in movies," he says. "I know that sounds really arrogant, but what I mean by that is that I do exactly what I felt at the time. I've never regretted anything I've done. I've regretted doing a couple of movies, but I didn't regret what I did in them, because that's what I felt at the time. But as a director, you really can't regret."
He nevertheless offers an example of footage -which was originally excised from the film- where he felt there were deficiencies. "There's a scene in there that we put back in that we had to rush up because we had no money and no time," he remembers. "It's a scene where the little boy goes over to see this girl he likes; it's a subplot we cut out of the movie, and I put it back in for the hell of it because we had it. We rushed up that day because it was about to rain, and I didn't really have time to work with her. So yeah, that's a mistake I made; I should have really shortened the scene so I could work with her more. [But] you wouldn't know if I hadn't pointed it out," he observes.
That said, Thornton asserts that he is no perfectionist when it comes to directing. "I'm not a technical director anyway," he says. "I put the camera in the room, I get a good frame where I can see everybody, I don't want it to look pink like one of those Showtime movies in the middle of the night, I make sure the color's good with the guys in post-production, [and] I try to edit the movie in a way that lets it breathe, where you get the character development. And that's about what I do. I really work with the actors to make sure that the story is good and solid, and that's [it]."
His relatively simple approach to directing is also why the filmmaker prefers character studies to studio blockbusters. "That's also why I've never done a movie like Star Wars. If they asked me to direct one of those films, I wouldn't have the slightest clue of even where to begin."
"So when I say that, that's what I mean," he clarifies casually. "I just do it the way I feel it."