Back in the mid-90s, a struggling actor by the name of Billy Bob Thornton seemed to come out of nowhere when he received Oscar buzz for his film Sling Blade. Nearly overnight he became not only an Oscar winner for Best Adapted Screenplay but a household name who now had Hollywood's attention. He would go on to appear in everything from Bad Santa to Armageddon but he had to pave his own path to success.
Sling Blade followed the story of Karl Childers who, after 25 years in a mental hospital for the murder of his mother, is released to return back to his hometown. Karl becomes friends with a young boy, Frank Wheatley (Lucas Black), and his mother, Linda Wheatley (Natalie Canerday) upon his release and they invite him to come and live with them. He finds himself in a difficult position as Linda's boyfriend, Doyle Hargraves (Dwight Yoakam), is abusive and Karl decides he needs to protect them. Robert Duvall, John Ritter, J. T. Walsh, James Hampton, and director Jim Jarmusch co-star as Karl's father, Vaughan Cunningham, Charles Bushman, Jerry Woolridge, and Deke, the Frostee Cream employee.
The film was raw and unapologetic, honestly capturing the simple life of a small town in Arkansas, with a 96% rating on Rotten Tomatoes to boot. Larry Meistrich, David L. Bushell, and Brandon Rosser served as executive producers, Barry Markowitz was behind the cinematography, and Thornton wrote, directed, and starred in the film himself.
Here are some things you might not have known about Billy Bob Thornton's thrilling Arkansas drama, Sling Blade.
1. Thornton came up with the character of Karl after being frustrated on the set of a TV movie
It all started while working on the 1987 HBO movie, The Man Who Broke 1,000 Chains. Thornton's career still hadn't gone anywhere so he accepted a role with only 5 lines, a favor from a casting director trying to help him out. He was so frustrated with his career as well as the director for asking him to "overact," so he returned to his trailer and found himself looking at himself in the mirror. Pretty soon, he started going off as Karl, and wrote a monologue that would become a one-man show.
Thornton has described the character as "a cross between Frankenstein's monster and Boo Radley," insisting he's not mentally disabled, just socially troubled due to his upbringing and getting locked away in the "nervous hospital" for 20+ years.
2. The film was inspired by Thornton's one-man show and his Arkansas upbringing
After creating the character of Karl, Thornton turned him into a one-man show, Swine Before Pearls, which helped him raise the money needed to fund the film.
"I started doing it as a one-man show," The actor explained to Creative Screenwriting.
"I thought, God, that's a pretty cool character. Maybe something did come out of this horrible movie I'm doing. I'm sure some of that story is pieces of things from my subconscious, but I don't know what exactly. A lot of the other stories in the movie, the stuff that takes place after the mental institution, are true. Like the story Karl tells the kid about the little baby— that really happened where I grew up. All those characters area based on people I knew. Each character is a composite of a lot of people I've known."
3. A short film featuring Molly Ringwald came first
After his one-man show, Thornton first made a short film of his story called Some Folks Call It a Sling Blade. Molly Ringwald originally appeared as the newspaper reporter and George Hickenlooper was the director. Sarah Boss ended up stepping in for Ringwald in the motion picture version and as we know, Thornton was his own director.
4. Thornton wrote the script while working on a sitcom
In the early 90s, he starred on the CBS sitcom Hearts Afire with John Ritter where he spent years working on the full script of Sling Blade. Apparently, he made the finishing touches to his Oscar-winning script on Christmas Day, sitting at his mother's dining table.
5. Vaughan Cunningham was written specifically for John Ritter
Thornton and Ritter became friends after working together on the sitcom, so the role of Linda's gay friend Vaughan was specifically written for the actor. Ritter even added his own Happy Days touch to his role by adding the last name of Cunningham.
"John is a great orator—he hosts telethons and beauty pageants— he can speak in public," Thornton explained.
"So I did write Vaughan's big speech at the diner knowing that John can reel things off like that. I knew it would be furtive and eloquent in his way. That scene did have John's way of speaking in mind. Not necessarily the words, but the rhythm."
6. Martin Scorsese predicted an Oscar win
Filmed in just 24 days, Sling Blade exceeded expectations bringing in $24 million at the box office after having a $1 million budget. Not to mention Miramax paid an additional $10 million for distribution rights after former executive Harvey Weinstein had only seen 30 minutes of the film. He requested that Thornton make some cuts and hesitant, the actor reached out to famed director Martin Scorsese for advice, after meeting him a few years prior. Scorsese told him not to cut a minute of it, Thornton explained to Cinema Blend.
"He said, "mark my words, you're going to win an Academy Award for this movie. " I swear to god! "you're going to win an Academy Award for this movie." He said, "when you do, you're never going to be able to make a movie the way you want to again." He said, "they'll get on you and..." Once they got your number, it's over. When you're under the radar you can do it, cause they don't care, you didn't spend any money, you didn't spend any of their money. They don't care what you do."
7. Thornton didn't believe in more than two takes per scene
Robert Duvall told Vanity Fair that Thornton liked to get everything captured in no more than two takes in order to keep things fresh. He also didn't believe in rehearsals...he just showed up to set and did the dang thing.
"Billy Bob Thornton, I like working with him," Duvall explained. "I call him the Hillbilly Orson Welles...Only two takes.' I like that theory. Maybe four takes at the most. Three or four, but two is good. You catch the freshness."
8. Thornton went to extreme measures to capture Karl's limp
We know there are countless actors in Hollywood who embrace going "method" to really get into their character. Thornton was no exception and actually put crushed glass in his shoes to fully capture the way Karl limped as well as his pained facial expressions.
9. The movie was filmed on location in Arkansas
The entire movie was filmed in the small town of Benton, Arkansas, less than an hour away from Thornton's hometown of Hot Springs.
10. Country singer Dwight Yoakam made it into the movie because Thornton finds musicians more interesting than actors
At the time Yoakam appeared as Doyle, he only had a couple of small acting roles under his belt. He was a successful country singer but after Sling Blade, went on to appear in numerous additional films. Apparently, early in his career, Thornton was more inspired by great musicians as opposed to successful Hollywood actors.
"But to tell the truth, when I started out, I didn't have any story in my head that I had to do," Thornton explained to Bomb Magazine in 1997.
"Because my influences were never movie people. I was into music, and a few novelists, Faulkner and Erksine Caldwell. The Beatles, and the Rolling Stones and Frank Zappa, Captain Beefheart, Elvis Presley, Roy Orbison, and George Jones. Those are really the people I like. That's why I put music people in movies. I find them more interesting than movie people."
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