Bill Paxton Interview

The actor talks to Movieweb about directing his latest film

It's one of the amazing stories in American sports history - and no one knows about it. That is until now thanks to Walt Disney Pictures, writer, Mark Frost, and director, Bill Paxton.

It's the story of Francis Ouimet - you're probably saying to yourself 'Who the heck is Francis Ouimet?' Well, Francis is a former amateur golfer who won the 1913 U.S. Open at the age of 20; he beat out all the professionals. But that's not the real story - the real story is Francis was not a rich person; he was a caddy who was determined to win and overcome the odds.

Bill Paxton, yes, the actor took on the task of bringing this story to life. A huge step from his directing debut in the thriller Frailty. As you'll see, this wasn't a regular sports film in the eyes of Bill from the very beginning. He made the golf ball a character. Shia LaBeouf plays Francis to a tee (pardon the pun).

While at the Toronto Film Festival, I sat down with Bill to talk about how he brought this story to life; this is what he had to say:

Given a story where we know the ending, how do you make this movie sustain the tension?

Bill Paxton: Mark Frost wrote this script; whenever I read a script, and I read a lot of scripts, my parents are ferocious readers, they turned me into books – my father would always make notes in the book on the inside cover with the date he wrote it, or maybe he would just make a note of something interesting on the page where he read it. And I do that on scripts, and when I read this one the first time, I didn’t even know there was a book, I didn’t even know if Eddie was real – I was like ‘Disney? He’s right out of Central Casting. He’s one of the Seven Dwarfs, that’s not even a real character.’ And when I finished reading the script, I wrote ‘suspenseful, inspiring, charming, could be a classic’ on there; I still have the script. I then I found out there was a book, and when a filmmaker can get a hold of a book that backs up a story with all the kind of research that this guy did, and what a great guy. I think Francis Ouimet is somewhere looking down at this undertaking from the moment Mark realized this could be a book about this watershed moment that could have been forgotten. And what I was liking it to was, on a smaller scale, when Walter Lord published A Night to Remember in 1955, most people had forgotten about the Titanic; they knew of the story and the song, but it wasn’t in their hot button. That book sort of recharged all this, and on a smaller level, this book kind of rekindled this interest. But all of who got involved in this thing, with Francis and Eddie, it’s almost like this thing we all wear; the movie’s kind of had a charmed life. For me to come in after doing Frailty, who does that happen; and when I came in and met Mark, he had already done about two drafts on it, by the time we shot we had done about 20 drafts. And because I had read the book, I said ‘We got to get this in there some way.’ The biggest challenge, well, there were a lot of challenges – but the first challenge was taking a book that’s a dual biography, the story of Harry Vardon looms large, it’s amazing. He came from real adverse circumstances, he was sold into servitude at age 11; he had to live under stairs in a room without a window for three years in some doctor’s house. These were people who had to fight hard to realize their dreams, persevere and have incredible determination. But how do you tell that story; Stephen Dillane, who I had worked with on Haven, I knew he was the guy to play Vardon, he plays golf. But I didn’t make this movie for golfers, I made it as a movie-lovers movie. I saw an this opportunity as a filmmaker to give this movie the royal cinematic treatment. I met with Mark and we started meeting with people, and then Shia came into it, Stephen came in – and Stephen was going to turn me down, even though he knew me, he read the book and asked me ‘Where’s the part?’ I said ‘Stephen, it’s not on the page.’ ‘Ok, where is it then?’ I said ‘You’re going to be Alan Ladd in Shane. You’re going to a cowboy, a gunslinger, at the OK Coral facing Doc Holiday.’ And I said ‘Just go with it, think about it, we know you have a past, we know you’re the guy, you’re the Dark Knight, you’re Darth Vader, he’s the Jedi Knight who’s lost his arm and is looking for respect. He’s going to learn the virtue of respect by never being in the battle.’ I started to elude to his past – ‘It’s kind of simplistic, kind of gothic, but it’s going to be fun.’ These four guys are there to remind him he came from nothing, you will always be nothing, you will never be a gentleman. And the idea of the Terminator that he can make everything go away, or as the kid who’s never been in a gun fight, he shoots and he’s ahead and ‘what?’ And Sancho Panza is your caddy (laughing) ‘What am I doing here?’

That’s the background, it was devastating when he thinks he’s going to be let in.

Bill Paxton: I’ve got the fish biting before, but that’s when I feel the strike on the audience, that is what is so resonant to some people, that and when Shia has to go in front of the committee, and the guy says ‘You want to play in the US Open, you’re a caddy, it’s not for your kind, members only.’ And then Shia has enough balls to say ‘There must be some way for a non-member to compete.’ And he goes ‘Not this year.’ And that’s the second strike, and I never realized when I watched it with a test audience, it was like ‘wow, it really is resonant.’ I said to Shia, sometimes he’d be asking for pity when he was snubbed, I said ‘No, you can’t do that. If you suffer your humiliations through this movie with a quiet dignity’ – when he goes ‘You’ve got a swell daughter, sir.’ And he goes ‘Just because you were invited, don’t get the idea you belong here.’ And I said to Shia on the first take ‘Don’t pity me, I’m trying to look like an asshole here.’ I said to him ‘You know, you ought to take that in with a smile on your face, almost like this is what you expected. Common, this is like you asking the guy inside what it’s like in there.’ So I kept appealing to him, and this quiet dignity compels this guy and makes us all go ‘I like this kid, I want this kid to succeed.’

Shia said you wanted this movie to get into the mind of a golfer. What makes this not a regular sports movie, a regular golf movie, and a movie inside the mind of a golfer?

Bill Paxton: I don’t think there’s a such thing as a regular golf movie; I think the best movie in this sport were Caddyshack, Happy Gilmore, and probably Tin Cup. I remember seeing Follow the Sun: The Ben Hogan Story when I was a boy, and Glenn Ford played Ben Hogan and I grew up next to Ben Hogan’s course, but if you see that movie today, it’s a little lacking, but it’s a great story, it just wasn’t told very well. I saw an opportunity as a filmmaker I saw a way to compress time and space in the film any way you like. And I said ‘You know what, if you see Tiger Woods’ – I went to the L.A. Open and I was as far away from Tiger Woods as we are, the rope was there, he walks over, looking at the shot, the hole’s pretty far in the distance, the gallery is around the green, he looks at a yardage chart, picks it up, he looks at the chart, gives a gesture, puts it in there, still keeping an eye on the target, reaches back, his caddy hands him a long iron, and I just thought how dramatically cinematic this is, it’s inherently dramatic, and inherently cinematic. It is like a gun fight, but it’s not the gun fight, it’s the moment leading up to the gun fight, when the guys are drawing is where the drama is, people running, the street clearing out, two guys, they face each other, it cuts to a guy watching from a window; this is how you build a sequence. And then the guns go off, and I thought you can do this with golf.

Is this your homage to Sergio Leone?

Bill Paxton: Oh yeah, I did my homage to Sergio Leone; when Francis is about to hit and he’s looking for Eddie, and he’s looking at something behind him, and he turns and he sees Vardon, and Ray, and Northcliff, and Darwin, the sports writer - that guy did a great job, he’s from Montreal. And they’re all there and it looks like they’re witnessing a hanging and the camera starts going into Shia’s eyes, and then the camera starts going into Vardon’s eyes, and that’s a total homage – this movie is my love affair with the movies. There was make-up and costumes and hair and every modern cinema technique known is at work on this film. There’s even an homage to Saving Private Ryan, with them out in the rain; I wanted to make it look like these guys are fighting for their lives out there.

When you go see the movie in the theaters, people are actually cheering the shots.

Bill Paxton: When Vardon goes into his shot, everything disappears, but the harvesters are still there in the reflection, it’s gothic. And then you see him hit the ball and it rolls and it hits the water, you feel for the guy, you hear people sigh – ‘Oh! He’s supposed to be the guy that people are supposed to beat.’

Do you think you wanted people to see the game in slow motion?

Bill Paxton: It’s so visually cinematic; when you create that, you create it for your audience, you let them have the feeling of what it must be like to be there. And in a movie, you can’t forget the audience; I don’t want to go to an objective movie. I took so many crazy chances, I could lose my audience, but I had to take that gamble. Cause I’ve seen guys take it the other way and it just looks like paint drying. But I’m getting some criticism for that, by the way, and you know what I say to that ‘Bring it on!’ I’m also getting comments like ‘I don’t even like golf, but this movie was fun to watch.’ But it’s such a tough sell. I come from a long line of drummers and I’m still selling. But I’m proud as a peacock of this thing, I really, really am; and I’m proud of a guy like Shia LaBeouf, who’s done some good work, but in my movie you see an actor coming of age. You almost see an actor maturing in front of your face; that’s a great performance. I saw some early comments where it said people didn’t even think this existed. I said ‘Get the picture guys, get it in front of people so they can say this is totally for real, this is totally for real. My father had lunch with Eddie Lowery in 1965.

Is that how you knew about the story?

Bill Paxton: No, I figured this out later on. Again, I grew up next to Ben Hogan’s home course in Texas, my father was in the lumber business, the family business. I’d say I grew up in upper middle class; I wasn’t a rich man’s son, but I wasn’t worrying about where my next meal was coming from. My father played golf, my grandfather played it, my great grandfather played it; they weren’t professionals, but they grew up playing it. I grew up on the course, but I’d be out with my dog hunting golf balls. But there was Harry Vardon, Ben Hogan playing golf and I’d be eating Corn Flakes out the window, and I grew up with a great love. And the greatest thing was Shady Oaks was my Camelot, it was my playground as a boy – it had all the adventures of boyhood, it had forests, swimming holes, Easter egg hunts, every day hunting balls; it was just a sport I dug. Hogan had this private tournament every Spring – he had sports figures, celebrities, everyone to come down and play to come and rub shoulders with this great man; he was still playing in the PGA then, he was still a player, but he was getting close to the end of his career. And Eddie Lowery came down, I was going through some of my dad’s effects, and my dad said ‘I met Eddie Lowery’ after I told him about the movie and he read the book – ‘I had lunch with him once.’ Eddie Lowery grew up to start the biggest Lincoln/Mercury dealership on the West Coast. He went on to that; he was actually a pretty good player himself and won some tournaments. And he put Ken Venturi on the tour, and he had all these golfers working as car salesmen. Mark’s writing another book, it’s a novella, it’s the true story of how he put together this weird match between Byron Nelson, Ben Hogan against Ken Venturi and some other player. Eddie Lowery said ‘I can get two players who can beat any two players you can get.’ He bet this guy like $20,000; the guy got Byron Nelson and Ben Hogan to show up on the tee the next day at one of the courses in Monteray. Well, my dad actually had lunch with Eddie; I found another piece of paper with that day’s flights, the foursomes going out, their tee times, and right above my dad’s – my dad teed off at 12:20 and right above him at 12:10 was Eddie Lowery; on that same manifest is Jack Benny and Hal Wallace. I met Ray Bolger at that club and tossed him some golf balls. This is great; this thing was a chance for me to evoke. And Mark wrote a great book, a great screenplay, and what a great guy to make a movie with; he took on all the golf stuff, he found actors who could play, mostly. Michael Weaver, who plays McDermott, Stephen Dillane, he’s like a Daniel Day Lewis – I wouldn’t be surprised if next year he went out on the tour. George Asprey, he plays Wilfred Reed, looks like a young Robert Shaw, he’s a Blue Blood. Stephen Marcus, who plays Ted Ray, I wanted this story where it was David versus two Goliath’s; so one is a cerebral giant – Harry Vardon, and the other I wanted literally, and he was a giant man and people would come out like John Daly, because he could drive a ball to the green on a par 4. People would come out just to see a human hit a projectile that far and I found him out of Lock, Stock, and Two Smoking Barrels.

And you have Elias.

Bill Paxton: Elias Koteas; I knew when I got Shia, I said ‘Elias Koteas.’ I didn’t know the guy from Adam; and here’s another kismet – turns out Elias’ father was a Greek immigrant to Montreal, Elias is from Quebec, that accent he does, he knows it well from his father speaking broken French and English. And I met him at a restaurant, he happened to be at a restaurant in Montreal; I thought he was on a show, but he was visiting his father, his parents. And I said walking into the restaurant ‘I know I’m not going to make you go through it; would you like to do it, would you like to do the part?’ He said ‘I think I would.’ ‘Great! Let’s have dinner.’ And we got him on and I found out he’s from there, he is that guy; he’s painfully introverted in a way you just want to embrace him, I love the guy. He had the hardest part in the movie, that is a hard part; and that part is all for the one moment that comes as a surprise. And it’s so hard to build a performance based on one moment and I thought he did a great job.

What about acting?

Bill Paxton: I got that, too. I really believe every dog has his day and this dog has had quite a banner year; I’m hitting the daily double. In the interim of all this, I shot a pilot, while I was on pre-production of this, a year ago Spring, a year and a half ago; it was thing called Big Love. It was for Playtone, Tom Hanks’ company and HBO; we shot the pilot and we all had high hopes for it, and then I became completely consumed by this movie. Well, we got picked up, find out it got picked up for the first season this time last year. And so in April, we starting shooting, we just finished a week ago, we shot our first season. I’m starring with Jeanne Tripplehorn, Chloe Sevigny, and Ginnifer Goodwin as a guy who’s an ex-Mormon living in Utah and we’re all married to each other. It’s great.

The Greatest Game Ever Played opens in theaters September 30th; it's rated PG. Big Love will start airing in January on HBO.