Bill Paxton

Director Bill Paxton talks about the amazing true story, working with Shia LaBeouf, the new Blu-ray release and more

While Bill Paxton is primarily known as an actor, with such films under his belt as True Lies, Apollo 13, Twister, Titanic along with his Golden-Globe-nominated turn as Bill Henrickson on Big Love, he's also quite talented on the other side of the camera as well. Paxton made his directorial debut with the absolutely astounding film Frailty, that to this day is one of my favorites, and Paxton followed that suspsenseful thriller with the true-story sports film The Greatest Game Ever Played, which was just released on Blu-ray today, June 16. Earlier today I had the chance to speak with the actor/director over the phone about his 2005 golf film that starred Shia LaBeouf long before he became a household name. Here's what Paxton had to say.

The Greatest Game Ever Played was quite a different film than your directorial debut, Frailty, which I absolutely loved. So were you familiar with this story of Francis (Ouimet) before, or how did you come across Mark Frost's book and script?

Bill Paxton: No, I wasn't familiar with it. After Frailty, I got offered a lot of other scripts in that genre and I wanted to do something completely different. So I was thinking to try on a studio film and Disney was looking for a director. Mark Frost had done two passes of the script and they were looking for a director who could come on and work with Mark to get the script to a shooting draft. When I went in the first time, I was really into how I would shoot it. I thought about it before and I grew up around the game of golf in Fort Worth, Texas, although I watched it more than I played. I even thought then that nobody seems to be able to make a good drama in this sport, but they can make great comedies. When I read the script, I thought this is one of the great sports stories, one of the great human-interest stories. If this thing is done right, it will appeal to men, women and children, across the board. It was for Walt Disney and I grew up watching a lot of great Walt Disney films. So I went in and I talked about all that and then I got the feedback from the meeting and they were saying that they were hoping I would say what I would do with the script, where I would take it. That was the first time I had met Mark Frost. I had done a movie with his sister years before and I had always kind of admired him, from Twin Peaks and everything, so I had to beg. I said to just get me in for one more meeting and finally they let me come back in and, in the interim, I had the time to really break down where I would take the script. So that's how it all came together.

Besides Mark's book and script, what other kinds of research did you do on the game and on the period?

Bill Paxton: I did a lot of research. Mark arragnged for me to meet the guy who runs the (Francis) Ouimet Scholarship Fund in Massachussets, so I stopped in there on the way up to... well, Mark and I had decided on all the places we could shoot this. Obviously, we couldn't shoot it inBrookline. Boston is all enclosed now, you really can't find those locations anymore, so we thought we'd meet up in Montreal, and on the way up there I stopped in up there for a day and a half. They have a museum and a PGA course up there. They play the Deutsche Bank Golf Open up there every year and they have a couple of rooms up there. One room is dedicated to Massachussets golf history and another room is the Ouimet Room. I've got to tell you, I heard the voice of Ouimet talking on a tape and a little video and I thought, 'Oh man. This has got to be good.' This isn't just a movie, but you're representing people's lives here. We approached the thing with the greatest of integrity, but I've got to say, as it all came together, I found my editor, my cinematographer, my costumer, all those people. And the actors, I mean, Shia (LaBeouf) was just awesome in the part. I think it was his first really great lead role. In going from a juvenile actor to a real leading man, I mean, that will be looked back as his first big one. Stephen Dillane played Harry Vardon and all the English that I got, all the Canadian and American actors I got, it felt like the movie was strangely ordained. It just felt like the right people showed up in the right jobs and they all brought their A-game and here I am promoting the movie on Blu-ray disc, because it means so much to me. Speaking of Blu-ray, I went over to Disney last week and they showed me the difference between DVD and Blu-ray, and I was just blown away. The movie already had a really sumptuous look to it, but seeing it on Blu-ray was really cool.

I remember watching Shia in a small indie film, The Battle of Shaker Heights, and just in seeing that, I thought this kid was going to be huge in a few years, and that's really how it went. So what was it like to direct just an incredible young talent like this?

Bill Paxton: Well, you know, at that point, this was a kid who grew up pretty fast. He had kind of a street schtick that he was playing in a lot of movies, but this thing called for a whole different set of acting skills. This guy was like a gentleman with a cause, you know. He was a softer-spoken guy, so that contemporary vernacular that Shia was sort of used to doing, wasn't really going to work here. Initially, Shia kind of resisted me a little bit, because he was feeling insecure. He was in a new area and I said, 'Look, buddy, I'm here for you.' We had the advantage of having someone like myself, who is an actor, behind the lens, and I just said, 'Look, you've got to let all this stuff go and trust me and, really, you don't have to work that hard.' So I kind of guided him and I showed him some cut footage early on and he really got it then. We had a great director-actor relationship and, again, it's a movie that me and him will always be proud of. That was kind of a graduation, of sorts, for him. That really brought him into leading-man status with that movie. He's a great actor and a great kid too. We had a lot of laughs and he's got a lot of energy. The hardest thing for him was to get a good golf swing going, because he didn't play golf before the movie.

So was there a lot of training involved for that?

Bill Paxton: Yeah. We had him working with a pro out of Mountain Gate, a course out here in Bel Air, and he also got to go and travel with the UCLA golf team, up to a couple of tournaments up north. That's when I think he really picked up some stuff, in terms of their mannerisms and their setups. He was hanging out with guys his own age and who were already on these golf teams. It was a great experience. We spent the summer in Montreal and it's always good when you get to spend some time away from home on a film. Well, it's not always good, but in terms of the work, when you live with your crew and cast and you're there for them and they're there for you, it's a different experience than shooting a movie in town.

So are you currently working on Big Love right now, and is there anything you can tell us about the fourth season?

Bill Paxton: You know what, I'm going back to work on it in mid-August, but no, I can't really say much. We had a very intense seasona and I think in this season, Bill's fortunes are going to start to rise a little bit. I really don't know a lot about it. I've taken a couple of meetings with the creators and the writers, but it's kind of one of those things that we get as a serial. When we get each script, it's almost like we're reading a book, chapter by chapter. But I'm excited where the show is going and where it's been and it seems like our fanbase is getting huge on this thing, around the world, not just in this country.

Absolutely. So, just real quickly, is there anything that you are lining up, either with acting or directing that you can talk about?

Bill Paxton: Nothing I can talk about, but I'm working on something pretty big.

Any word on when we will get an announcement on that?

Bill Paxton: I'm hoping by mid-summer. It'll be noteworthy (Laughs).

Excellent. Well, that's my time. Thanks so much for your time, Bill.

Bill Paxton: Hey, I appreciate it, Brian. Thanks for helping us promote the movie. Cheers, man.

You can see a pre-global-superstar Shia LaBeouf directed by Bill Paxton in The Greatest Game Ever Played, which just hit the shelves on Blu-ray today, June 16.