The Epic, Unexpurgated Paxtonpalooza Interview. Bill Paxton Talks THE COLONY Plus Much More.
Mr. Paxton talks of working with his co-stars Kevin Zegers (Dawn of the Dead), Laurence Fishburne (Cornbread, Earl And Me), and how he feels working at the bottom of a mountain. He also spills the beans on his feelings about the ending of Big Love, talks of an upcoming Kung Fu reboot, and mentions some guy named Jim Cameron a few times.
The interview, set for 5 minutes, ran close to an hour, and we ranged over a wide variety of topics and pet projects. The interview began casually as we were walking through the main tunnel from one cavern to another, when I noticed some workers carrying construction implements...
I saw a guy walking around with a shovel, and it reminded me of FRAILTY. Any good memories?
Oh, are you kidding? I'm very proud of that one.
It's an under-appreciated film
You know, it's found its audience. The only critic you want to satisfy is time, and that one will satisfy him. I made a movie up in Quebec I was really proud of up, The Greatest Game Ever Played. That was a great French Canadian crew with a great Canadian cast.
Do you find any specific difference between a Canadian crew and and an American one?
They're film animals up here, and that really appeals to me, as I'm a film animal. We started our first day up here on Monday, and I thought it was just cold up here, but it was actually unusually cold, was actually -25 (Celsius). It was a sixteen hour day, and I didn't hear one crew person complain about the cold, a cold which was bitter. It was so cold the cameras froze up, and I didn't hear one person complain about the hours either, so I have to say that they seem a bit hardier up here.
Well, this movie's kind of about that, no?
Yeah, it's kind of a Lord of the Flies scenario, after civilization is wiped out and there are just pockets of people banding together trying to stay alive. It's about what happens then, how is humanity preserved. My character, he's very Darwinian about it, and he's kind of given up his humanity just to survive, and what kind of future is that. That's what I have to bring to it - I'm an antagonist, but it's my hard philosophy. I didn't want to play a guy who's just disagreeable, you've got to give him some sort of a compelling argument. Laurence Fishburne he's the authority, the head of the colony, and he came from military like I do so he understands that discipline is important to maintain order, but he still has empathy for what all these people are suffering.
The big thing down here [in the underground setting of the film] is that if anybody gets sick, we have to quarantine them. If they do test positive, they have a choice to either walk or take a bullet. My character has decided it's better just to shoot them.
When you enter this world, [Paxton and Fishburne's characters] are already are already at odds with one another.
You just shot this scene with Fishburne, and hadn't worked together before, correct?
No, we'd met in passing over the years, and have a million colleagues in common. He's a prince of a fellow, and part of the reason I signed up for this was because he was going to be in it.
Is there anything specific about his craft that you are responding to, even at this early stage?
He has an innate, kind of regal bearing, it's why he plays good leadership roles. Weirdly enough I've played lots of leadership roles as well. What drew me to the project wasn't just him, I like the world it was set in. To me it's really going to look like a movie world - Pierre Gil [Incendies, Starbuck] is one of the great cinematographers. I hate being photographed in a pedestrian way. If there's not lighting and production design and costuming I'm not really into that.
In relation to that, could you talk about this setting in the underground NORAD bunker? You could have shot just greenscreen...
It's so much better when you have a real environment. I mean, obviously greenscreen is here to stay. They were going to build the exterior location, which they ended up building inside an airport hanger here. Jim Cameron always taught me that the good magician, in order to hide the seam, will use a lot of illusions - some greenscreen, some practical, some miniature. You don't just rely on one gag too much. I think when some of these movies are made completely in CGI there's just something that doesn't create the ultimate illusion.
What did you think of the NORAD facility when you first experienced it?
You don't get it until you get on that concourse coming down. You start to think, am I on an amusement park ride, it just keeps going and going and going down. It's very surrealistic, almost like a dream you'd have.
These kind of stories play on the imagination and you get a chance to riff on an idea of the post-apocalyptic and the mutant. You don't need to do a lot of exposition, you can hit the street running with this kind of movie. These movies are tough for the actors, the character has to be done in an almost haiku fashion, you don't have a lot of screen time to get a character up on his feet. That was my thing, to simplify the action of the character, to give me a conviction of character. Let me represent thematically what this movie's about. I probably represent a future that's probably not worth surviving, because it's just so cold blooded.
The director mentioned that there was a line you refused to say because it was just too close to ALIENS. What was it?
I was supposed to say something like "Are you really going to leave her in charge?", and it was really close to where Ripley says "Hudson! This little girl survived longer than that with no weapons and no training", and I say [delivered in full Paxtonian ALIENS whiny yell] "WHY DON'T YOU PUT HER IN CHARGE?" It was a little too... you have to take the onus off of it.
You started with Roger Corman, and worked with James Cameron, so are no stranger to genre cinema. What does this project say that you don't think has been said before?
I think the film is a Frankenstein monster, there's definitely a lot of movies... There's an ingredient of The Alamo in this, as well as Aliens, in the idea that it's a siege film. There's a little Lord Of The Rings in here, there's a power struggle about who's going to end up on top. I see The Colony as a sci-fi creature feature. The script I really liked, but then I talked to [Director] Jeff, and to me ultimately I have to hear the filmmaker, I have to hear his passion and his vision.
Did shooting at the base have any attraction for you?
Not particularly, I didn't have any idea where they were shooting. I was surprised when I got to Toronto and they said, "Yeah, tomorrow you're driving four hours North". What? But this hotel is so nice, and these restaurants are so great!
I just came off a fifteen week shoot in Romania with Kevin Costner and a big international cast doing The Hatfields & McCoys, coming on in May on the History channel.
While I was doing that I was hired on last summer by Legendary to do Kung Fu, based on the old Warner Brothers television show with David Caradine. I was working the script all Fall with my writer, and we turned that in in late January. [The Colony] came along, and I thought, well, it's going to take the studio a while to get back to me, so this was a job that came along at the right time basically.
I'm kind of past the point where every job I took you had to consider how it fit into the overall career, if it was going to parlay into something else, but fortunately I don't need to worry about that any more. I've been around a long time, and I'm taking jobs that I want. I came out of this job I did for five years, Big Love on HBO, now I'm looking to something different. I was playing a kind of stalwart character, he was kind of buttoned down. Even though it was a crazy scenario, the idea of a guy with three wives, I ended up being the crisis control guy.
It was a great show, I'm very proud of it, but when I came out of that I wanted to get back into features. I did a little bit for the Soderbergh film Haywire, but I'm really trying to go for directing now.
Can you talk about the angle you're taking on KUNG FU?
[The studio] had gone down a few different roads with a few writers. What happens a lot when people go back to redo a TV show to do a movie, a lot of times they don't pay a respect to the original thing - asking why was it successful in the first place. The fighting is important, but people remember the Shaolin teachings, that he would take so much and then start wailing. We went back, John McLaughlin [writer of Black Swan, Making Of Psycho] and myself, and we watched the original three seasons.
I didn't realize until recently that there had been a second series with Caradine here in Canada, in the late 70's? [ed. Actually, they were shot in Toronto in the mid 1990s] I have not seen those.
We're pretty much following the story - the "A" story is Caine as a young man, in the American West of the 1870s looking for his birth father. While you're following him there, you fill in with the "B" story, what his background was, how he ended up being orphaned, how he ended up at the monastery, how he was raised to be a Shaolin priest, and then how he had to leave under adverse circumstances.
We have the Cherry Blossom festival when he runs into Master Po and the Emperor's nephew - we've got back to a lot of that stuff, but we've really enriched it in a way in thematic terms, there's a great theme of redemption through this thing.
The original series was shot so cheap and so low budget. They used the old Camelot set on the redressed back lot of Warner Brothers. They'd be shooting a railway camp and there might be 15 extras, and we're going to have 10,000 men on a hill building a trellis. We're going to be bringing a scale and a grandeur that the story should have always had, but because of budget and time they were unable to.
You're going to have 10,000 real people?
No, but I have to shoot the whole picture in China, because part of the financing is going to come out of there. Legendary is starting a new company called "Legendary East", it's made of a consortium of Chinese investment. Kung Fu is a natural title for them, it's a Western with an Eastern hero.
To take that a step further, I think the character of Caine, whoever this actor this is, and we're going to have to do a big search, he has to be Chinese-something... Chinese-Irish, Chinese-Israeli, Chinese-American, Chinese-Canadian... He's probably going to have to be a pretty skilled martial artist.
This is going to be more of a Western, with violence, sort of like what True Grit was, as opposed to a lot of wire work. To me to do a big martial arts film - God, there are so many great ones, and believe me the Chinese do great ones, to me it makes more sense to make it a Western with martial arts.
What's interesting about Caine is because he's a product of both worlds is that even though he's raised in China he comes to the West, by the time he goes back to China in the third act he's picked up a bit of a Western thing. We've found some clever ways for East to meet West, and to resonate with the audience.
Can you comment on the FISH HEADS video [The Barnes & Barnes music video was Paxton's directorial debut, you can watch it HERE]- What are your feelings about it after all these years?
It's not something I think of much, but I was pleased to see it made made, I dunno, a Rolling Stone list of top 100 videos of all time, so that was cool. It was like 57 or something.... [ed. He's correct]
See, I know that, so it's obviously a source of pride.
Are there genre pics that really speak to you?
It's kind of like art appreciation - My father was a great art collector, and he didn't really care if a piece was narrative, or minimal, or expressionistic, or whatever, it either had a quintessential value or it did not. It really comes down to the property, the script, and the director.
As a director I'm trying to mix it up, I did Frailty, then I did this human interest sports drama - they couldn't have been farther apart.
For Frailty, I had Bill Butler my DP who shot The Conversation and Jaws, along with a lot of other great movies [ed. Grease! Rocky II-IV! Hot Shots! Anaconda!]. I wanted it to be very old school, very minimal invasion of the camera, never calling attention the camera, the actors had to do the heavy lifting.
When it came to The Greatest Game Ever Played I had to throw that rulebook out. I had to kind of invigorate the narrative and the visuals I had to make the camera a character, so I was doing crazy stuff, almost Sam Raimi like stuff. We'd do the Sam Raimi shot, we'd do the Martin Scorsese shot, Hitchcock...
You know, I came up with Jim Cameron, a fortunate son of Canada. He taught me a lot about about filmmaking, how to work on scripts and stuff.
As an audience member, is there a particular genre you like, something you're looking for?
I'll give you a perfect example, my daughter was seeing these previews for this film Apollo 18, and I'd done a previous film called Apollo 13, so I said, let's go check that out.
From the opening frame, I thought, my God, this is an art film. And even though it turned out to be moon rocks or some shit [laughs], I thought it was very cleverly done, and a very underrated film, and I thought we were seeing the debut of a very auspicious young filmmaker. I've seen people poo-poo that film back and forth - I think it was too sophisticated for the audience. I thought it was one of the best films I saw last year.
Yeah, the gag when you find the moon rocks are moving around, that's a little weak, but overall I thought the actors (I didn't know who they were) were all believable, I love the found footage thing they did with it.
The movie I anticipated the most to see this year is one I found to be a bit disappointing, and that was Hugo. I was a nut on Méliès - I went to France years ago, I tried to find if there was anything left. I don't even know how I even got turned onto him. My father was a big influence on me, he'd take me to plays and movies, and if something like that was on, he'd take me. He'd turn me on to Buster Keaton, and there must have been a program where he took me to Méliès films, and I remember really falling in love with those images.
Then I watch the movie, and... I'm willing to give a movie ten, fifteen, twenty minutes, you've got to get a world going, it takes the first act to give them a break. I kept waiting and wanting to get pulled in, and that movie to me...if a movie doesn't pull an audience in emotionally, then I don't care how many bells and whistles it's got going off. Hugo just didn't engage me emotionally.
I love Martin Scorsese, but I'd much rather watch Casino, or Goodfellas or Raging Bull than Hugo.
It just seems silly, this kid who I didn't really believe lived in this world. To me, a much more interesting story would have been you meet this guy [Paxton starts to mime with his hands] working in a little kiosk, one of hundreds in the city, and he's just this obscure guy fixing toys and you find... I'd rather see The Aviator version of the Georges Méliès story!
I didn't see it in 3D, and then people say, "You've got to see it in 3d!", and I'm sorry, if it's good I can see it on an iPhone. Let me tell you, the first time I saw Aliens ... Jim Cameron had come over from England, where we had shot it, and he'd come over to do all our looping, our ADR at Fox. And Jim's very efficient, so he had had the whole movie put on a high 8 camera so he could watch it and make notes on the plane on the way over. So, me and Michael Biehn were wresting over the viewfinder. So, the first sequences I'm seeing of Aliens are the size of a postage stamp, and I'm going, "Oh my God..."
It doesn't make a difference how sophisticated or how technologically advanced the stuff is, if you don't sell the story, if there's not an emotional core the audience can bite into then it just doesn't work.
Now, I like Martin Scorsese, obviously he's a great master, but uh ...
It's better the second time...
No, it's not...
And then the film historian character! Ok, now look. There were no film historians at the time. This idea of film history, and film preservation, it's a modern conceit.
When Raymond Rohauer, who was running the Coronet Theatre, approached Buster Keaton and asked if he had any of his films, Keaton... In those days they burned the films, why keep them? Who's going to want to watch them a year from now, or ten years from now. This is a modern conceit, that we're doing something for preservation.
I'm all for preservation, if you walk into my house, Turner Classic Movies IS ON. It's on ALL the time. And I love Robert Osborne, I want to have his love child.
So, when the film historian character shows up, I'm like, "Cheque please..."
What did you think of THE ARTIST?
LOVED it. That's a well made movie. Look, Hugo's a well made movie, but I was emotionally engaged with The Artist. The worst thing is going to a movie really wanting to get into it and you just have no way in and it makes you a little angry.
Apollo 18 is an underrated film...
And HUGO's an overrated film?
I'm sorry, but yes. I think so.
You should get a show on Turner Classic Movies!
No, I can't really spill the vitriol, I'm a film makers friend. It's so hard to make any movie....
The other thing is... [Paxton pivots back to talk The Colony] this is a big vision for the price. They've had to be very clever how they boarded this, and got it all in.
I also like [co-star] Kevin Zegers, I was interested in him, and Laurence, and the gal Charlotte, I wasn't as familiar with her work. So, here we are, 600 feet under ground.
I feel more like I'm in a coal mine, I guess that's what it is...I have been in a couple mines in Kentucky, I guess that's the vibe I get, it doesn't really make me nervous or anything.
Can you talk of the difference between doing TV and film?
I came up in film, and when I came to do Big Love ... the thing is, I was always used to the director being the final arbiter. In the TV world, it's the creators, so the directors come in and they turn in their cut and then they just recut it and stuff, so it's a hard thing to get used to. The writers being in control. They were great guys, but it was just a different hierarchy, and I had a hard time getting used to that.
[asks himself the question] Would I do another series? NO. I find the work to be exhausting, and I just don't have the stamina I had.
At this time in my life I really want to have a go at directing.
Were you happy how BIG LOVE ended?
[pause] No. I was not. I could not reconcile the fact that after all this guy's been through with his family that they killed him off. And they thought, "oh, you've been playing the character too long", and I was just, like, aw man, you know?
I think it was kind of a backlash effect because Sopranos went out with ambiguity, I think it'd have been nice to think the Henrickson's are still out there, but I'm not trying to stir any pot there.
It was a great show, it was a landmark show, and it ran its course. Five years was a great run, and it had to end somehow, and it ended with a bang, instead of a whimper.
There's one other thing I wanted to tell you about, John McLaughlin and I have been working with for the last two years with great artist named Mick Reinman [storyboards for 21, Paxton's Tattoo] to turn a spec script he wrote called Seven Holes For Air into a graphic novel. We have just finished it, and I'm hoping to get it published this year, and I'd like to turn it into a movie.
Directing bug is fully back in place...
Yeah... I'm a good actor, but I'm a MUCH better director. [laughs]
What was your involvement in turning it into a graphic novel?
You know, I started directing, and then I got this role on this HBO series, and suddenly the directing was just put on hold. The show would take about seven months, and that would leave me with a hiatus of about 4 or 5 months, so just not enough time to... well, I learned this from Jim Cameron a long time ago: Big ideas, big enterprises you have to be willing to lay siege to.
And I thought, look, I'm on this new show, and I don't know when it's going to end, so I started a few different things, so this is one that I planned.
For me, a lot of graphic novels the artwork is better than the storytelling, and I thought what if you took a great screenplay and turned it into a graphic novel, then it would exist on its own as a graphic novel, and you'd be able to show somebody, this is it. I think it's helpful with studio executives, etc., to give them as much of an idea of what the thing's going to look like. I'm going to take it to Legendary as well, and I'm pretty confident it'll sell. It's a big piece of work.
Mick Reinman was an artist who I knew socially and I really admire his work. Again, my dad was a great art collector, I knew how to pick good artists. I wanted to pick a fine artist as opposed to an illustrator (I love illustrators too!) With Frailty, I had an artist named David Ivey, he'd never even done storyboards before. His version of story boards were four little drawings on a page, whereas Mick Reinman's been able to do it, as it is being layed out, there's a lot of graphic layout and all that.
What I got [on both Frailty and the graphic novel] is an artist's eye for lighting, and composition, and the blacks. It's just another way of visualizing something, getting that help.
To me, that's the what a director does, he's bring all this talent together, he's the conductor of the orchestra if you will. You've got to be able to hire the right people.
I got very lucky on The Greatest Game Ever Played, I had to hire a lot of big department heads out of Canada, didn't really know what I'd find up here as a director (I'd worked here as an actor) and I was so blown away. François Séguin [Red Violin, Barbarian Invasions, Karate Kid (2010)], who was my production designer, Renée April [Ris Of The Planet Of The Apes, The Fountain] doing costumes out of Montreal, they were great. I was lucky, with that film it seemed everybody brought their A-game.
Great script on Frailty, and you didn't cheat
We felt like we earned the flip with the double twist. It became kind of vogue to have the kind of pull-the-rug thing, if you don't earn it, the audience is going to go, "Oh, bullshit!"
Any comments on AVATAR?
Jim Cameron was working on Avatar, working on what I call all the gantry work - before you build the Saturn V rocket you have to have the gantry in place.
Jim writes what he calls a "scriptment", and it's usually 100 pages, 200 pages, it's got snippets of dialogue but is mostly description of story, of action.
Jim called me up one night and he said, "can you come over? I've got two scripts that I've done R&D for the last two years on, the gantries are set, they're ready to be built, I'm having a few people read them."
I've known Jim a long time, we both started out in the art department together - it's kind of amazing - God, talk about meetings with remarkable men, I don't know where I fit into that. We've known each other a long time, and he's valued my opinion. The other script was a thing called Battle Angel, which was I think a Japanese, anime, sci-fi series that he bought the film rights to.
Now, this is an eyes only thing, he's not going to send it to me over the internet, so I said, Jim, I read thorough, but I read slow, so it might take me four hours to read it. He says, "Ok, come find me", and around 11 o'clock at night I've read Battle Angel, then I've read Avatar, and I tell him either one of these movies is going to be such a Herculean effort of time, money, everything. I know he's got the stamina to do it, I've seen him stage Woodstock underwater with The Abyss and everything else, but I said in the long run what's going to carry you the farthest with your passion is the one you wrote from an original screenplay. I felt that it had it all.
I was on Jimmy Fallon, two years ago promoting Big Love telling an encapsulated version of this story, and I said, "You know, you'd think he'd send me a set of Golf clubs". [laughs] [Cameron] was polling a few of his friends and other people, and ultimately he made the decision he would have made anyway, regardless of my input, but it was cool that he actually wanted to hear what I'd have to say.
So, I get back from the trip and there's a set of golf clubs, and I'm thinking, "Why didn't I ask for the Maserati or something?" Because, guess what, there would have been a Ferrari sitting there.
I've had a great relationship with this remarkable man, he's been the most loyal colleague and friend I've ever had in Hollywood. He doesn't forget his friends, or where he came from.
Cameron's hand is in Kung Fu - I get a call from him early last year, and he says (typical Jim, no waste) "What are you doing? You working?". I say, no, I'm just cooking dinner. He says, "You know who Jim Jannard is?" I said no. "Well, he's the guy that started Oakley and RED camera". I said, "Oh yeah, I shot a bit on Haywire that used the RED camera." "Well, he just called me up, he needs somebody to direct, he's got this new camera, it's called EPIC RED, it's got the new generation, and, Bill, it looks like 70mm, it's a film killer. I've just bought fifty of them and I'm going to turn them into 25 stereoscopic cameras. He wants me to direct a short. I can't do it, he wants me to recommend somebody, and I want to recommend you, but I want to call you first."
So I said, "Fuck, Jim RECOMMEND ME!"
He says, there's a catch, they need this thing in a like a week. So we made this thing. [ed. You can view it HERE ] The chip inside the Epic that is so powerful, they've logo-ized it and called it "red dragon", so they had done a dragon tattoo. So, their concept had to do with this tattoo, and that's all they had.
So I called Mick Reinman, told him to bring a bottle of whisky and said we've got to come up with a concept.
I'd talked to Jim Jannard and he bought an old studio, it used to be called DesiLu, where they shot the old Lucy show [ed. and Star Trek!], and I asked if they had any sets, because this thing had to go down FAST. We literally had to write it, prep it in 2 days, shoot it in two days, cut it on the fifth day, mix it and colour time it, and then it was stuck on a plane... It was for this NAB convention in Vegas, and they wanted to run it four times an hour.
So, they didn't have a set, but they have an old bank interior they use as an office, and next to it they built a saloon which is where they smoke cigars and drink after work. So we designed this thing, and it turns out it was unconsciously an homage to Kung Fu.
It might deserve the Guinness world record, for something of this fidelity - this thing is mixed, the composer did the score, in record time. I was getting ready to do a movie in Shanghai, for [producer] Janet Yang [Shanghai Calling, directed by Daneil Hsia], and it had this Korean-American star named Daniel Henney [X-Men: Wolverine]. Janet Yang knew James Hong [Bladerunner, Chinatown, Big Trouble In Little China], I called up Powers Boothe [Frailty, Sin City, Deadwood] to be in it, and we put this thing so fast.
Then I go to Shanghai to shoot [Shanghai Calling], and Thomas Toll of Legendary comes over, and he's starting this financing thing with this Chinese company, I found out through the grapevine they were trying to get Kung Fu off the ground.
So, I meet with him, and I say, "God, I'd love to get a shot at that", and when they saw the short...
So, again, Jim Cameron has influenced my life.
I'm on my way to meet Jim in London for the re-release premiere of Titanic. Jim has gone back and every shot he has reworked for this thing, and it's apparently unbelievable. People think, "Oh, Fox just transferred it and now they're going to milk it again".
Again, Jim's not like that. This guy has more integrity than anyone I ever met in my life.
But don't get me started...
You showing up in the Avatar sequels?
You know what, I never pimp Jim. But if he calls me, it's like the Batphone ringing, and I say "Yes, Commissioner Gordon!"
Bill Paxton was in North Bay shooting THE COLONY, which is being filmed over the next several weeks and is scheduled to be released in Winter/Spring 2013. Thanks to everyone on the COLONY set, the Town and Mayor of North Bay, and the tireless Claire at Alliance for making this all possible.