There’s a consensus on our message boards that people like reading one on one interviews over roundtable interviews. Well, I won’t sell you this as a one on one, but I will tell you that this is about as close to a one on one as I have gotten at a table. So when Paxton seems to get a little annoyed at questions about the box office for this film – yeah, that was me he was looking at.
The Greatest Game Ever Played is the latest Bill Paxton directorial effort, and as he and Shia LaBeouf (whose angry young man interview is here) kept saying, it’s not a golf movie! But it really is. Paxton himself doesn’t appear in the film, but if you read to the end, he talks about his next acting gig, in HBO’s new series Big Love.
By the way, I didn’t forget to include questions in this transcript. Paxton does what I believe is called "holding forth" for much of the first half of this interview.
Q: Was it hard to get Shia to open up? He’s so reserved, it was like pulling teeth.
Paxton: You know what’s funny? I had a director one time tell me ‘You’re working too hard. You’re working too hard for the part, not into the right persona.’ He said ‘Bill, you got to understand something about film. It’s not interested in what you can do, it’s interested in who you are and Bill, you’re interesting enough.’ And it was like ‘I am?’ It’s almost like ‘You really love me!’
But it’s a weird kind of paradox that you have to learn. Because film is different from stage acting insomuch as that camera can get in so close to your face, that almost subconsciously the audience knows that the actor knows that the camera is that close. You almost have to really do nothing at times and let the camera study you as if you were under a microscope and you didn’t know that you were being studied. That was the thing that I had to teach Shia that I learned from my own film experience and what was so exciting for me directing him in this movie was that I saw him come of age in front of me on the camera. I saw this talented, raw talented kid start to get these fundamentals and start to grow with them. And his performance is fantastic.
You can totally relate to him in this movie and it is unlike his personality because this Francis Ouimet is a guy from another era. He came from very modest circumstances. He was a very genteel man, just born with a natural gentility. The movie is really about class, is about character. It’s not really about golf even. I wasn’t interested in making a golf movie. I was more interested in making a film about character, about people, about overcoming, you know, social boundaries and personal limitations. The movie, to me, is probably closer to Star Wars than it is to a golf movie because it has sort of the code of the Jedi knight all through it. It’s really much more of a Joseph Campbell kind of allegory. That’s what we were going for. I had to lift it out of being a biographical sports story and make it something more. And it had all these great themes.
I’m here because Mark Frost wrote a great book called that brought these forgotten people back into the public consciousness much like when Walter Lord published The Greatest Game Ever PlayedA Night to Remember in 1955. You might not know this, but most people had forgotten about the Titanic. Two world wars had been fought. There’d been a world depression. This was a ship that was lost from another era that was an Edwardian Era that was long gone and this book hit the zeitgeist of the imagination of people around the world and suddenly all this interest was spawned again in this ship. It’s what Bob Ballard read when he was a boy and inspired him to make this lifelong search to find the ship. And James Cameron.
So on a much smaller scale, when Mark wrote this remarkable book, another thing that was cool was when I read the script, I thought Eddie was an invention out of Disney casting. I couldn’t believe a ten year old caddy at the U.S. Open. And then when I read the book, it was so fantastic. To have this incredible book with all this research that Mark had done and to see that this was all true. It was a big search to find Josh Flitter who played Eddie. When I read the script, it was almost like this ten year old Burgess Meredith character out of Rocky: ‘Keep your head down champ… Look out for the left, champ… Come on, what are you doing? Don’t worry about that.’ But he really was this kid. Eddie Lowery is this remarkable human being. A street kid, he grew up, like Francis, around the game. And it’s true that his brother, Jack, was supposed to carry Francis’ bag but got caught by a truant officer whereas Eddie got away. Reluctantly, Francis took him on as a caddy, almost out of the kind of kindness – that was Francis Ouimet. Halfway through the tournament, and I know this for a fact, this was the kind of guy Shia had to play, [Francis] would turn in the middle of a situation that he was totally in and would say ‘Hey, are you doing okay? Are you alright?’ People don’t do that now. We’re all so self-centered. As I got to know the story and Mark’s book, from all the people I’ve talked to, I really believe in my heart of hearts that without that ten year old, Eddie Lowery, Francis Ouimet would have never won that Open. Somehow Fate had destined them to meet, and that little guy kept him grounded.
And so I saw a great opportunity I thought it was an incredibly charming and heartwarming story but I thought here was a movie set in a genre of golf that nobody had really given the royal cinematic treatment to. And I thought, as a film-maker, this is an opportunity to do something original and also the opportunity because golf in this situation it is an inherently dramatic situation and it really … what’s great about the film from my film-making point of view is it created a lot of cinematic sequences that really just play with music and effects and sometimes no music but there’s hardly much dialogue through much of the movie. It really plays out visually. And that excited me as a filmmaker to go after this thing.
In Frailty, I shot that in a very classical way. I’ve always been very wary of people who call attention to the camera, because to me it destroys that illusion that you try so carefully to create in a film. But in this movie, I knew to light the board up and make the camera a character and really take a chance. I’ve seen it done the other way and I’ve seen it fail so I thought ‘What do I have to lose?’
Q: That’s interesting because the film has a surprising number of CGI effects and I didn’t go in expecting that…
Paxton: It sure does.
Q: Did your experience, obviously working on some of the biggest effects movies of all time, sort of come into that? You walk in knowing more about it because you’ve been involved in films that use effects so heavily?
Paxton: No, I just knew this was a whole new animal for me. Yes I’ve performed in a lot of visual effects films. I mean I remember standing in the triangular window of the LEM and I’m looking at a piece of tape next to a grip’s foot and I’m supposed to be seeing the moon from 50 miles out. So I’ve been in that situation, but as a filmmaker, I never saw myself getting into that world so much. But I knew with this movie, I had to push it into that world. So I used a guy named Dennis Barardy who runs a company here in Toronto called Mr. X. I storyboarded a lot of the movie ahead of time. I thought that it’d be fun to see what an ant sees when the ball’s rolling across the green or fly with the ball almost like an astral projection. A Superman shot. So I thought this thing needed it all. This movie is sort of a pastiche. It’s got about every film technique known to cinema in it. I wanted to celebrate the game, celebrate it as a movie. This is a movie lover’s movie. This movie is my homage to my great love affair that I’ve had with the movies since I was a boy. You know I had a father that would take me to plays and movies because that was his hobby. He played golf too. But, you know, I’d come out of a film when I was eight years old, my dad would start talking about the lighting, or the props, or the art direction. From an early age I was made aware of the illusion of films and I was fascinated by that.
In this movie, God, I got to do hair. We had period hairstyles, mustaches, really great clothes Renee April designed for the film. And the art direction … it just appealed to every facet of this love affair that I’ve had since I was a boy.
Q: I like the effect of when Francis is in the zone and the hole just zooms forward to him.
Paxton: Yeah, you know what? That actually looks like a dolly zoom but it’s a CG shot. But I wanted to create as much of a subjective experience for the audience too and what was great cause you could do that visual. So, obviously, I was greatly influenced by Alfred Hitchcock, by Sergio Leone, and this is kind of a Sam Raimi golf film in a way. It’s super inspired by Sam and I wanted to create these moments like he’s the cowboy who’s never been in a gunfight or the knight who’s never been to his first tournament or battle. And so to create that moment, this vertigo moment when he’s in the zone, we pull that pin right up to him but when he’s in front of the crowd he can’t hold it and it shoots away from him. You hear him swallow. You really feel “Oh God, that must be terrible” to have to be in front of all those people.
And then to contrast that, the organic terminator, Harry Vardon. He steps up on the tee and just everything turns into a Magritte painting. Yet, he’s being haunted. There’s this Gothic kind of twist to the film. These guys were from a pretty Gothic time. Vardon was from Victorian England and those harbingers were sort of like the applebonkers in The Yellow Submarine. Those undertaker guys. I knew that I could do that visual, too. It’s simplistic, but also, Harry Vardon … the book’s a dual biography. I didn’t have the screen time. I had to talk Stephen Dillane into doing the movie. We were friends and we met on a film. And when he’d read the book, he said ‘Where’s the part?’ And I said ‘Not in the script,’ and he goes ‘Well, where is it?’ I go ‘Well, okay, it’s there but it’s visual. Most of the part is going to be told in your eyes. And when we see what you’re thinking when you look up in the crowd and you see those four guys that nobody else sees.’ See I said ‘Your character hinges on this: you are the Jedi; you’ve become sort of the dark knight due to circumstances.’ The thing was driving Harry Vardon is… usually people that are overachievers in life were denied in their younger lives and they spend their lives overcompensating. Vardon was a guy like that. He wanted respect; he became the best player in the world. He won respect, but you got to remember that he was a golf professional. Even though they were looked up to as sports heroes, it was an amateur’s game. It was played for the love of, by an elite class of people. They found it vulgar and gross to play for money. That was in the story, but that wasn’t a point that I could get across to a contemporary audience. So I found a different way to tell kind of the class struggle of these two guys.
That’s what makes the movie unique too is most sports films villify the opponent or the opposing team. In this movie you have as much empathy for Vardon as you do Ouimet. And Ted Ray. Who’s gonna win? So, trying to get Stephen to do the thing, I said ‘Hey, you’re Alan Ladd in Shane as far as I’m concerned.’ And to that effect, we went a little ‘Tombstone’ with the outfits and stuff. We kind of got away from the plus fours. I put that on Wilfred Reid, George Asprey, the kind of blue-blood, English champion. But I was worried that stuff might look like a Three Stooges movie, even though that’s what they wore. And Vardon had a mustache. Stephen tried to grow one for me and he felt like it looked a little tweedy. He said ‘I feel spiffy.’ And I said ‘Oh, God, that’s the last thing I want you to look in this movie. You know what? You’re Ben Hogan: shave that thing.’ And he looks tremendous. All the actors I think are tremendous.
Q: Shia was just saying that he fears for the selling of this picture, that it’ll be a hard sell. He thinks that Into the Blue might take the weekend. What’s your take on that?
Paxton: Well, I could say this in an indelicate way, but I won’t. But, you know what, I’m not about that. That’s not what this is about. The hard sell is getting past the audience that this is a golf movie. Again, this is a movie for movie lovers. Every craft of the motion picture is celebrated and very realized in this movie. This is a culmination of my life in this business to this time. And you don’t get too many shots at your first major studio film. So you get one shot really. You know, you make your first film and it gets you in the door, but it’s your second film that’s gonna keep you there. I have everything riding on this. And I made sure that I got the right people to play the right parts. And I was very lucky. The movie’s had a charmed life. So as far as going up against Jessica Alba’s incredibly bodacious and beautiful form, I’m not too worried about that.
I’ll tell you a funny thing real quick Shane Hurlbut who did a magnificent job on our movie shot Into the Blue. That’s all coming out on the same day.
Q: What made you choose Shia?
Paxton: Well, there weren’t a lot of Hollywood actors or just actors in general that really had any juice at that age. It was a very small list of actors. Here was a guy who kind of built a home at Walt Disney. They groomed him. He was in Holes. He was on Even Stevens, then Holes. So they felt comfortable enough, and I let them know that I was interested in Shia, and they let me know ‘We’ll endorse this.’ They’ve had kind of a recent success with these sports films where they kind of get a central star then build an ensemble cast. And they really put the money into backing the star with a story. Now Shia is not Kurt Russell or Denzel Washington or Dennis Quaid in terms of awareness, but you know, he’s an up and coming actor. He has a legion of young fans. So they let me know they were comfortable with that. And then I was allowed to go out and cast these great actors, you know, to support him. I don’t know how I pulled this movie off. I was lucky cause it’s really and honest and idealistic film in many ways. It’s a populist film; I’ll give you that. It is as good a piece of cinema as I’ve ever been involved in. I’m not bragging: a lot of hard work went into making it what it is.
Q: When you take on a project like this, do you think ahead to ‘how can I market this?’ ‘Will this be marketed right?’
Paxton: That’s out of my hands. I can only hope that I can be here and support it, but you make a movie and your real hope is that it can stand up to the test of time. If you can make a film that’s indelible enough that people would embrace it. That’s what’s killing our business: the make it or break it opening weekend. When I was a kid growing up, films had a chance to breathe, to find an audience, and word of mouth. So to that end, what we’re doing is they’re going to give us a little bit of a shot here. We’re doing a national sneak. The company feels that the best marketing tool for the movie is the movie and once people see it, they’ll tell their friends ‘You got to see this. It’s not a golf movie, it’s really more than that. Or don’t go see it.’ But we’re going to do a national sneak next Saturday night and then a week from there we roll out half strength, we roll out to about a thousand theaters on the 30th which is our opening. Then the following weekend, which is a three day weekend, we double that. We’ll probably be in about 2,000 houses. We’re hoping for the word of mouth to try to build this thing. But, you know, it’s such a tough thing. A movie like the other movie you mentioned that’s coming out on our same day, that’s going to go full strength and it’s like hit and run. Let’s see how much we can generate that first weekend.
Who knows? It’s very tough.
When we did Frailty, I thought, in hindsight, and even at the time, I thought they should’ve rolled it out kind of like Memento. You know, platformed it out. Instead, they had me and Matthew McConaughey in it, so they thought ‘We’ll go wide and really sell it as a horror film.’ Well it’s … not really a horror film. So it was a weird way to go, it did okay, but the movie has had a great life in the ancillaries and I kind of knew that that’s where it would be. And I knew that the movie was good.
You need the financial success of a film to, obviously, to parlay your career and to give you better opportunities and better budgets or whatever. But at the end of the day, so much goes into making a film, especially if you’re directing it, that it becomes a part of you in many ways. It’s a part of your life; you put two years of your life into these things. And that’s quick. So in time, I’m hoping that … I’m not so worried in the immediate. I’m hoping that this movie is successful immediately. I think it deserves to be. It’s an honest movie in a lot of ways. So we’ll see. What do you think my chances are?
Q: I think your chances are pretty good. I think that it’s going to have good buzz. I don’t think that you’re going to take the first weekend.
Paxton: Well, we’re not even going to be in a position … we’re only going to be on about a thousand screens. The other film you’re mentioning is going to be on 2,500. You seem to be sort of caught up in that whole mentality.
Q: No, Shia was talking about it! That’s why I asked about it.
Paxton: Well, he’s a kid.
Q: Was directing always in the cards from the beginning, something you wanted to end up doing?
Paxton: It was something that I always wanted to do. And with the help of my agent, Brian Swardstrom, who’s been a close friend of mine for a long time, he helped me build this thing.
I’m kind of a late bloomer. We made Traveller together after Twister. By the time came along, I was in a position to maybe get a small movie off the ground, so we made that together. And then TwisterFrailty was another one that we put together. I got to give you credit for this one Brian. Brian said ‘Look, if you want to take the acid test, you gotta go for a major studio film.’ I probably would’ve stayed content maybe doing another independent film for a company like Lion’s Gate. I’m really glad he spurred me to try to step up to the plate. It’s been a challenge. You know, it’s not been a big budgeted film at Disney, much more of a modest film.
Q: And how does the balance work for you as an actor and as a director? You have Big Love that you’re starring in …
Paxton: I’ve got to say Brian. Brian sends me this thing. It’s a great pilot. I say ‘Brian, I’m already in pre-production. I can’t be two places at once.’ And he was like ‘Just read it.’ I read it, I love it, it’s great. How can we make this work? It’s going to be tricky. So I go in, and I end up doing the pilot for Big Love. This was a year and a half ago. I’m in pre-production. We go and shoot in Montreal, we go and shoot the Greatest Game last summer. In the summer we get the word that it’s going to be picked up. Well how’s this gonna work? I’m in post-production. And it worked out. We were supposed to pick up the series in January, but they were still working on the script and because of all the rains, a number of the sets got messed up out in California. So they started in April and that gave me enough time to almost have this finished but I was still mixing and doing effects for, so I just shot this whole season, so I don’t know how it’s gonna work.
Big Love is a very exciting thing for me as well.
Q: I read the Jon Krakauer book, Under the Banner of Heaven, about the Mormons. So what is the take of Big Love? What exactly are we looking at here?
Paxton: It’s really about a guy who’s living under the radar, as a polygamist. He has these three great wives and it’s kind of set up kind of like a Corleone saga. The first season is kind of getting to know the four of us and you kind of realize that this greater thing is going on with Harry Dean Stanton … and all these other characters. The writing’s great and it’s comedic, but we’re playing these people, we’re not playing them with any judgment. And we’ll see what happens.
Q: When is it going to be on?
Paxton: It debuts in January. There’s a little teaser on HBO right now.
Q: What are some of the big themes that draw you to a given project? Frailty to The Greatest Game seems like a pretty big jump.
Paxton: Frailty to me seemed to me to be a tragedy kind of about lost love, you know, to see the disintegration of this beautiful family, even though it was a single parent family. These two boys, this descension into hell because this father had had this vision … it was kind of this tragic love story.
This is an unlikely buddy movie in some ways. This has great themes. This has triumph over social barriers. It’s got… you see a guy suffer humiliations with dignity. You see courage. Desire. Determination. Perseverance. The three ingredients that make anyone’s dreams come true. They are universal themes, timeless themes. If you can connect with a timeless theme, you have a chance to make a timeless movie. And both with Frailty and with this movie, I think that I have been able to tap that and that’s what I look for as a filmmaker. Not as an actor, but as a filmmaker I’m looking for timeless themes that will make timeless classics.