say your piece

158 20 NOVEMBER 2003
Thornton's Ambitious, Varied Film Career Takes Another Turn
By Jeremy Mathews
The RED Interview

illy Bob Thornton doesn’t need anyone to tell him what scripts to take and how to direct his career. His two new films don’t seem to have anything in common. “Bad Santa,” coming out Nov. 26, is a raunchy Christmas comedy. “The Alamo,” originally scheduled for Christmas but now due out in April, is a historical epic. The films have nothing in common except that controversy and rumors surround both of them.

  Billy Bob Thornton's role in "Bad Santa" is but one of many strange, disturbed people whom he has portrayed.

“I try to play a different part in every movie—that’s sort of my bag,” Thornton said. “I’m one of the few people who actually became a movie star by playing characters. I’d say that my biggest achievement is my body of work [rather than a specific film.]”

“Bad Santa” is one of Thornton’s broadest comedies, but his character is almost a tragic figure, leaving him to pull off an interesting dramatic feat. “I thought it was wonderfully written,” he said. “I laughed in every page. And I hadn’t played a character like that before. I also wanted to play a character where I didn’t have to hold back whatsoever in any way.”

Rumors have been circulating about both of Thornton’s upcoming films. Some question whether “The Alamo” is historically accurate (Thornton says it is and that people from Texas will be “pretty darn pleased”) and theorize that this problem influenced the delay. The controversy around “Bad Santa” is whether the R-rated story of Thornton’s alcoholic, criminal store Santa is appropriate.

“I don’t understand controversy with movies. We’re not in the dark ages. I just wish they’d all shut the fuck up,” Thornton said.

Speaking from his Los Angeles home on Tuesday, Thornton had just heard about a story alleging that executives at Disney, the parent company of Miramax/Dimension Films, which produced “Bad Santa,” were upset with the content of the film. Thornton was skeptical.

“I can’t imagine that they said that,” he said. “They read the script and knew what this movie was. It’s not like it was a surprise or anything. People like to say things. They like to stir up controversy about everything. There’ll be controversy about ‘The Alamo,’ and there should be controversy about this. Any time that people think that they can get something going, they will.”

Despite the allegations of offense, Thornton believes that people in the age group for which the film is intended will enjoy it. “I don’t consider it a family film in terms of taking your 7-year-old to it, but I think that anyone 16 and older—or 17, whatever it takes to get into an R-rated film—I think it’s for any of them. At all the test screenings, people from 17 to 75 are laughing their butts off.”

Terry Zwigoff, whose last two films were the documentary “Crumb” and his satirical comic book adaptation “Ghost World,” directed the “Bad Santa” with an approach that worked well with Thornton’s method.

“One of the great things about working with Terry was that he likes actors to just do their thing and be natural,” he said, “and I think that probably comes from doing documentaries since he’s dealing with real people…He doesn’t come ask you to do goofy things as an actor…I loved working with Terry for that reason.” Thornton compared Zwigoff to Sam Raimi and the Coen Brothers (the latter were executive producers on “Bad Santa”).

Part of the film’s charm is its misanthropic approach to Christmas. It remains true to its attitude even as the character changes. Thornton said that an effort was made to avoid cheap sentimentality:

“If the movie had become too sentimental in the end, it wouldn’t have worked. Since it was a sentimental ending in a way…we had to keep the same tone. So even if the scene was sentimental, we still had to act like the character.”

Thornton compared this situation to his work in “Sling Blade” and “The Man Who Wasn’t There”: “In both of those movies, if there had been a scene where I’d broken down and cried, actually, then it would just break the whole tension of the character. In [“Bad Santa,”] that’s the one thing Terry Zwigoff and I really concentrated on—making sure that the tone of this character was the same throughout.”

“Bad Santa” also marks the last film performance by Thornton’s recently deceased friend John Ritter, who starred with him in the sitcom “Hearts Afire” in the early ’90s and appeared in Thornton’s directorial debut “Sling Blade,” which won Thornton an Academy Award for his screenplay.

“We were really close friends, almost like brothers, over the years,” he said. “When I heard that he was going to be in the movie, I was thrilled. Although we only had a couple of scenes together, it was like the old days. Even though I saw him all the time socially, it was amazing to work with him again. He cracks me up, he always did. He actually played a character in the movie he used to play for me all the time called Chuck Hurly—a guy who was always on the verge of vomiting. That’s who he based the character on.”

Thornton describes himself as very sentimental about Christmas who believed in Santa a little too long. “I was one of those kids who just was in total denial. When I started hearing rumblings at school, I ignored it for a couple of years. Finally I broke down and asked my mother,” he said. These feelings make Thornton comfortable with the Christmas movie formula.

“You have someone who somehow gets lost along the way and finds himself in the end…And also the idea of not believing in Santa and then realizing, well, there really is a Santa or there really is a spirit of Christmas, even if it’s not what we think it is…I don’t mind if every [Christmas] movie’s like that from now on,” he said.

Looking to his next release, Thornton agrees with the decision to delay the release date of “The Alamo,” in which Thornton plays Davy Crockett, to give director John Lee Hancock more time in the editing room. “I think it’s one of the best decisions that Disney’s ever made, he said. “[The filmmakers] didn’t have time to get the cut by Christmas and it didn’t finish shooting until the end of June. I wouldn’t even try to put an independent film out that quickly [let alone try] to do an epic film in that short a period of time. Finally they realized that it’s not worth it just to cram it out there for awards season—let’s give the guy time to cut his movie.”

While waiting for “The Alamo,” Thornton hopes people will get a little something out of the completely different “Bad Santa.” “I wish they would just have the shit entertained out of them,” he said.

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