Tuesday, 17 May 2016

interview: Bill Paxton

I interviewed Bill Paxton in the penthouse suite of the Dorchester Hotel, London in September 1995. He was over here with the cast and crew of Apollo 13 and most journalists wanted to interview Tom Hanks but he had no SF credits to speak of (apart from Big maybe) so SFX had no problem securing a chat with Paxton. Because of the lengthy post-production time required on Apollo 13, he had shot Twister since wrapping the space film, although that had not yet been released. A short version of this ran in SFX at the time.

Apollo 13 looks like it was very hard work. Was it harder than an ordinary movie?
"It was, but like the astronauts we portrayed, we had a tremendous sense of camaraderie. We all tried to make this film as good as it could be. We all felt an incredible sense of integrity and responsibility towards the material because it was a historical re-enactment of this famous voyage. And so we were unified and compelled to make this movie great. Yeah, it was a lot of work. There were a lot of cold days, when they refrigerated the sets so that they could see our breath.

“The flights on the aeroplane were very demanding, but at the same time, here we were as actors and film-makers doing something that had never been done in a theatrical motion picture. They took actors up in a set that had been put on a plane and it would fall out of the sky, and the camera crews would float and shoot it. So it was a unique filming experience. The filming of it was almost like a mission in itself. We all felt unified on our mission.”

Do you remember the Apollo 13 incident?
"I was 15 years old at the time. I didn't know all the myriad of problems that they'd had. I knew something had happened that had damaged the spacecraft, and the big question that I remember was: had there been a compromise in the integrity of the heat shield? Would the command module withstand the intense heat of re-entry? That seemed to be the big question on everyone's mind. When I read the script and started doing research I found out all the different things. One thing that is amazing is the whole idea that their survival literally came down to a plastic bag, the cardboard cover off a flight manual, space age bailing wire, duct tape... Unbelievable! All those things: the manual burn, the course correction, the idea that they almost skipped off the atmosphere before re-entry. So many things there."

Did you meet the real Fred Haise?
"I only had the opportunity to spend the best part of a day with him, down at Cape Kennedy. He was nice enough to take time out of his busy schedule. He still is an aerospace engineer, working for Grumman, the same people who built the Lunar Module. He was chosen to be Lunar Module pilot because he was in the astronauts corps but he was assigned to Grumman, and he was one of the men who did all the tests for the Lunar Module. Remember that they were the back-up crew on Apollo 11. If something had happened to those guys before that flight, well it could have been Jim Lovell and Fred Haise, instead of Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin, the names that we know today."

The Apollo 13 story really is truth being stranger than fiction. Were there any occasions when people started saying, 'No, surely the scriptwriters must have made this bit up...'?
"The whole thing builds to this incredible climax that everyone knows the ending of. You almost feel like it's a Cinderella story. The movie's not a cop-out. It was this incredible triumph after all of this work and resourcefulness, this concerted effort. And the whole world waited. Everyone stopped what they were doing during moments of the flight, but especially at that moment of re-entry. It's so dramatic; they go into radio blackout because of the ionisation on the hull. They're coming in so hard, at 25,000 miles per hour, and there's no way that anyone can communicate with them. So there is that incredible suspense of waiting to see whether they lived or died in re-entry. So it's a natural for the movies. It is really one of the greatest human interest stories of modern times, that's been almost forgotten."

Do you think or hope that this film and the surrounding interest in the Apollo missions might get the space programme going again?
"It's a tall order, but I can only hope that it will pique the imagination of a whole new generation of young scientists. I've just finished a picture called Twister. It's a fictional story of this incredible atmospheric phenomenon we know as tornadoes that actually defy the laws of physics sometimes. I was working with a man who was a technical advisor on the film. He works for the NSSL, the National Severe Storm Lab, and he wrote me a letter. The reason he liked the movie so much was because he felt that it appealed to this generation that's coming along, who weren't born when this happened and have no personal recollection of it. It appealed to the sciences and it's a sad fact that academically the sciences are in a big decline, a decline in people going into mathematical fields and the physics fields. As a meteorologist, a big part of his work is mathematics and science. And this will appeal to young people to go into the sciences, so in that regard, yes I hope it does inspire young people."

You've done quite a few science fiction movies, including several with James Cameron. How did you first meet him?
"I met Jim Cameron when I was 25. It was 1980, he was art director on a Roger Corman picture called Galaxy of Terror and I was hired to be on his night crew as a set dresser. I had been a set dresser originally in the mid-'70s when I first went out to Hollywood when I was 18. In the interim I had gone to New York to study acting. I had come back and I was looking for acting work, but I was moonlighting as a set dresser. A buddy of mine introduced me to Jim and he gave me a job on the spot, and we got to know each other in the course of this production. I was making a small film at the time called Fish Heads that was based on a song by Billy Mumy who was in Lost in Space."

That was when he was half of the musical duo Barnes and Barnes.
"Barnes and Barnes, who were wonderful. I showed Jim this film I'd made to promote this song, and he realised that I had more of an interest than just painting a flat. So we became friends and colleagues. he was telling me at the time about a script that he was writing, that he wanted to direct, called The Terminator. We would be working late into the night and I'd say, 'What does the Terminator do then, Jim?' 'Well, he comes back from the future.' 'Let me get this straight...' It was actually not unlike that. He brought me into his circle - he's a very private man in many ways - but he accepted me as a peer very early on. We've been good friends. We're actually the same age, although I've always thought of him as kind of an older brother. He ended up tossing me a bone, as it were, to do a cameo in The Terminator. A few years after that I got the tremendous role of Hudson in Aliens."

I think that's what our readers know you best for.
"I think before Apollo 13, I've been best known for two films: Aliens, the role of Hudson; and another picture that had science fiction elements to it, that was a teenage comedy, Weird Science."

Aliens was a tremendous follow-up to a tremendous movie. Was there a problem in trying to follow on from such a huge hit?
"The script was incredible. I read the Aliens script and thought, 'My God, he's going to knock this one out of the park!' I remember reading the script for Terminator before it was made and thinking, 'This is one of the best screenplays I've ever read, if not the best.' I read Aliens and weirdly enough I was over here seeing my girlfriend - who's now my wife and the mother of my 18-month-old son, James - and I got the call for the audition. They were all over here starting to do the casting at Pinewood. I went in to meet Jim and read for him, and it's always very difficult reading for your friends because you really have no mystique with them. They know your bag of tricks. I much prefer to read for someone who doesn't know me. That way I can throw a persona at them, and they can't really know: 'Is he acting, or is he really like this? What's his story there?' The magician doesn't like to show how the trick is done, as it were.

“So I had a good reading, but I didn't feel like I'd really set the world on fire. I went back and I didn't hear for - oh God, it must have been six weeks. So then I got a call in the morning - it was night-time here - it was Jim calling to say, 'I want you to play the role of Hudson'. You could probably hear me howl all the way back to California. That was a great experience for me; a great role in a great production. I think Jim was very smart on a fundamental level. Alien was like this ride in a spook house, where you never knew when the monster was going to jump out at you. I'm boiling it way down. So Jim, instead of going down that road that had been so well travelled, he decided to make Aliens this ride on a wild roller-coaster. Alien was a whole departure for science fiction films in terms of the incredible design of HR Giger and the whole evolution of that monster from the pod to the face-hugger to its birth out of the human host to ... God almighty!

“It preyed on a lot of primordial fears: the idea of parasitic oscillation, that feeds off its host. It took a lot of fears: the classic vampire myth; the idea of cancers, of tumours that grow inside you. It really got you on a very gut level, a very primordial level, and it was so cleverly done. To have this heroic part played by a woman - Sigourney Weaver is the heroine of this movie as opposed to the classic hero - it really was an amazing piece of work. Ridley Scott did such a fantastic job on that film: just the sound of that movie and the way that story unfolds visually. I remember seeing Alien in a movie house in Times Square. If you had told me I was going to be in the sequel I would have just laughed at you, thought you were mad."

We have a thing in London called Alien War, which is Aliens as a sort of walk-through interactive experience.
"I've only heard about it. I don't really know anything about it."

If you get a chance while you're in London, you should check it out.
"Maybe I should do that. They'd better not mess with Hudson! That would be incredible. I was offered the chance to do one of these ride things and re-enact Hudson, but it wasn't going to be directed by Jim and I just felt that it was exploitation of the character. There's something sacred about that picture. It's a great piece of film-making, just like Apollo 13 is a great piece of film-making. It's so rare that you get a great story married to a great piece of film-work, with a great cast, under the guidance of a Ron Howard or a James Cameron. They're sacred things. You hold them and you're loyal to them and you guard them from any kind of explanation."

You were in Predator 2 as well.
"God, I've done a lot of science fiction films. Predator 2: for a while there I thought I was going to just do all the great sequels. Another great Hollywood monster. Predator and Alien are probably the greatest monsters to emerge from Hollywood since Frankenstein and Dracula. Predator was a fabulous idea, and I think that the first Predator is hands down a much better film than the sequel, although in the case of Aliens, I think Aliens is an equally good piece of film-making to Alien. I can't say that about Predator 2. I like the director a lot, I think he's very talented. I just don't think that they developed those characters enough in the story. It was shot a little too much in a sort of 'zow! pow!' cartoon character style. I don't think there was enough for the eyes to bit into on those characters.

“I thought the set-up to the first one was brilliant. I think it's one of Arnold's best movies, besides his work with James Cameron. I just love the idea of that monster: man has been a hunter, he's killed everything on this planet, including himself. And now comes this being from another planet who seems very primordial, but God, he's hunting man. I love the idea of that and I love the resourcefulness of the Predator."

And of course, at the end of Predator 2 there's that little shot of an Alien skull.
"Isn't that great? Jim and I both got a tremendous kick out of that. in the trophy case they show that Predator had beaten the Alien. I've seen this comic book - I've never read it - Aliens vs Predator, and I've heard they're trying to make that into a movie. I don't really know what that movie would be. And I heard that somebody's trying to do Starship Troopers, which has been around for a long time. Jim had us read that as a primer as colonial marines. I said, 'What would you read to get into this?' He said, 'I'd read Heinlein, and I'd read that.'"

Was it helpful?
"Oh absolutely. It's almost a throwback to the old times of imperialism, when you'd go out and you colonise different countries, if you were a British soldier. It's the same thing, just set in futuristic times."

You mentioned Weird Science, which is a lot lighter movie.
"I don't usually mention that so much. I'm not trying to distance myself from it but sometimes as these credits get older and you get further away, you like to think that people will know you for your contemporary efforts as well as your past glories. But I've always been proud of that movie. It was the first really great role I had in a studio film. I love John Hughes and I've always wanted to work with him again. Unfortunately we've lost track of each other. I had a tremendous rapport and collaboration with him. He gave me a lot of freedom to explore that character and I had a lot of fun with it. It's become a great archetype. I always liked Animal House and I always liked the actor that portrayed Neidermeyer in Animal House. So for me, that was my Animal House."

Do you worry about typecasting? A lot of your roles have been militaristic, crew-cut guys.
"I like short hair. I think a man with short hair, it's a strong look. It's a very positive strong look. And for that character and The Lords of Discipline, when I played a cadet at the citadel, and obviously, playing an astronaut I wanted to go for a buzz-cut there too. It just depends on the part. I've had hair down past my shoulders on films, like Indian Summer. I've also done science fiction movies that aren't so much science fiction, they're more like 'circus fiction'. The Dark Backward is a very peculiar movie that I starred in with Wayne Newton and Judd Nelson that I'm proud of. It's a really balls-to-the-wall performance. A lot of people said it was over the top but I like to go the wall sometimes in that regard. Obviously in movies like One False Move and Apollo 13 and Twister, Jan de Bont's new movie that I'm making with Helen Hunt, these require a more low-key, let-the-audience-study-you kind of work, as opposed to a full-blown performance."

What can you tell us about Twister?
"The movie follows these storm-chasers who are basically meteorologists who work from grants at local universities in the mid-West, who actually go out and try to put themselves as close to the tornadoes as they can, almost like a bullfighter, in the hope of gleaning certain knowledge about tornadoes. There's still a lot of things that are not known for certain. Obviously they understand the atmospheric conditions that cause these things. It's the most extraordinary atmospheric event there is, in a way; a tornado. This whirlpool, this vortex of air. Tornadoes can have winds of over 230 miles an hour blowing in them. It's not the wind that kills you, it's the debris. It can take a match and stick it right through your head. It can take a piece of straw and stick it into a tree. These things almost defy physics.

“The movie was written originally by Michael Crichton and his wife, Anne-Marie Crichton. It's produced by Steven Spielberg and Kathy Kennedy. It's Jan de Bont’s follow-up to Speed, which was a tremendous international hit and a very exciting piece of film-making. So he's hoping to top himself and I think he's going to with this. I play one of these storm-chasers, I play kind of the gunfighter who walked away from the gunfight. My ex-wife is Helen Hunt who is still an obsessive storm-chaser. In the course of the movie we're trying to place this weather package, which is like a flight recorder, that's how we explain it to the audience. It looks like an industrial washing machine, with aeronometers and cameras and all these devices for measuring different atmospheric pressures. They're hoping to get it into the tornado's path and then it will be sucked up into the tornado and they can learn what really takes place inside of a tornado. There's always been a lot of conjecture about that. There's been a few eye witness accounts, but not too many people have seen the inside of a tornado and lived to tell about it.

“There's a rival team that's headed by Cary Elwes who is the corporate rat and really the big believer in modern technology, such as doppler radar and thermal imaging and all this stuff. Whereas my character is more of the Earth; he studies the signs of nature and almost has a sixth sense about the weather. He's totally corporately funded, he's after it for mercenistic reasons, whereas Helen and myself and the group that we chase with, we're more vocationalist. We're hoping that by unlocking the secrets of this thing that we can devise a better warning system that will save lives. So we're very idealistic, whereas Cary's character, he's more of a nemesis or an antagonist than a villain. The monster is truly the tornado. That's really what it chronicles; this fifty-year storm that's come in and it's just dropping tornadoes and every one of them's getting bigger.

“I've said this in a couple of interviews: I think this is going to be to tornadoes what Jaws was to sharks. Interestingly enough, people's perception of tornadoes is this sort of anthropomorphic entity/beast/rogue/murderer. That it's capricious, it'll kill everybody in one row of houses and across the street it won't even touch them , just break the windows or something. It'll pick up a baby, suck a baby right out of a house and drop it three hundred yards away totally unharmed. By the same token, it'll pick up a cow, suck it into the stratosphere and it'll rain hamburger. These things are amazing what they'll do. I saw pictures of just crazy things that didn't make any sense. I read many accounts.

“Some of the facts about tornadoes: the biggest tornado that was ever recorded in the United States was a tornado called the Tri-State Tornado of, I think, March 6th 1925. It stayed on the ground three hours which is a very long time. It started in a town in Missouri and before it was done it had gone through Illinois and Indiana. It had hit eleven towns, four of which were smeared off the face of the earth. It was very low to the ground and you couldn't even see the vortex. It was described as this 'boiling turbulent mass of blackness' moving across the southern part of the city. It was two miles wide, it cut a damage path 639 miles long, it killed 689 people, and it lasted between one-fifteen and four o'clock one afternoon in March in 1925."

You obviously do a lot of research.
"Well, you've got to. Any time when you're playing any kind of technical role like a scientist or an astronaut, you'd better know what the hell you're talking about because there's a lot of jargon in these professions. You talk about straight-line winds or convection or elicity or some of the terms that these guys use. You'd better know what the hell you're talking about, because if you deliver those lines and you don't know what they are, you're going to get caught. You're going to catch a bullet for your trouble."

Does production style differ between low budget stuff like Roger Corman movies and big budget stuff like Apollo 13?
"It's essentially the same job as an actor. I work just as hard on a low budget film as I do on an $80 million film. I approach the roles in pretty much the same way. If there's a profession involved I try to learn as much as I can about that profession. I find it a challenge as an actor to have a profession, it's a wonderful active thing to play. In any role you define the social background and the occupational background of the character. But there are different styles of acting, different kinds of movies. You do a movie like True Lies; I played the sleazy car salesman who pretends to be a secret agent to seduce these lonely women, and that's more like doing a restoration comedy piece. It's a bit heightened, you can goose it a little more. You can just wink a little more, you can just do a different kind of thing with it.

“Roles like One False Move and Twister and Apollo 13 are more challenging and I'm digging them because they require me to exert myself on a certain level and not always be trying to perform for the audience. I like the idea of the enigmatic portrayal, where you just be a vessel and the audience maybe project their own thoughts on you as they watch you in the dark. It's an evolution, this process we call film acting, or just acting in general. I love science fiction films. I was a nut on Jules Verne and HG Wells growing up, especially Verne who was just a brilliant writer. Those books are really worth going back and re-reading. A few years ago I re-read 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea."

You've been an astronaut, you've been a colonial marine, you've been a cowboy. Have you got any ambitions left?
"I don't know. It really depends on the story and the characters. I don't really have many preconceived things. I'd like to produce films and develop my own stories. Different things will appeal to me for different reasons. I read a story in an old detective magazine of a man who was a journalist for a turn of the century newspaper. He got involved in this case where they found this dismembered body. It's almost like The Magnificent Ambersons meets Silence of the Lambs. It's a magnificent, gothic story, very creepy, and I would maybe like to develop that into a feature-length screenplay. I'm starting to move into that area. If, with Twister and Apollo, I get a little more muscle and I get the chance to produce something I might try it."

interview originally posted 3rd December 2006

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