Billy Bob

Billy Bob Thornton regales a Florence audience with tales of filming his many movies at a public session Friday afternoon at the University of North Alabama. Friday evening, Thornton reunited with castmates from “Sling Blade,” the 1996 film which earned him an Academy Award. Thornton was special guest at the annual UNA George Lindsay Film Festival.

FLORENCE — Holding a bottle of beer, a lanky, leather-jacketed Billy Bob Thornton sits on the stage and cries.

He looks like a man who has chewed a lot of life and spit out some tough parts, but when he speaks Thornton comes across as a regular Billy Bob, a good ol’ Southern boy, one who loves his mama and has to fight tears when reunited with a young man he “raised up” as his movie son.

During a reunion Friday night with Lucas Black and Natalie Canerday, Thornton’s co-stars in “Sling Blade,” the 1996 movie that won him an Oscar, respect, and critical acclaim, Thornton became emotional. Twice, he walked from the stage during clips of the film, later admitting he didn’t really need a bathroom or beer break.

“It’s brings up a lot of stuff,” he tearfully told his audience at the Shoals Theater in Florence during an event for the annual University of North Alabama George Lindsay Film Festival. Parts of the film, which Thornton wrote, directed and starred in, were loosely based on his life, he said. The role of Frank, played by Black, was loosely based on himself as a boy and Frank’s mother, played by Canerday, was based on Thornton’s mother.

After a clip of one emotional scene set beside a pond, avid fisherman Black told event moderator Terry Pace, a UNA English professor and film historian, that he remembered the water was filled with catfish that jumped to nip at bugs.

Thornton, who had said several times that Black would rather fish than act, told the audience: “That (clip) made me cry. It made him think about catfish.”

Arkansas-born Thornton called Black, who was chosen for his first film role in “The War” starring Kevin Costner because of his authentic Southern accent, “a natural” actor.

Black got the part in “Sling Blade” after Thornton had seen more than 100 child actors and found none of them were right for the part. Thornton watched “10 to 15 seconds” of a tape sent by Black’s mother Jan and said, “That’s the kid right there.”

“The great thing about it is, he hasn’t changed. He’s the same now,” Thornton said. Then, smiling, added, “I mean, he could whip my butt now…”

Thornton’s reminiscences about John Ritter, his friend who portrayed Vaughan Cunningham in the film and who died in 2003, also drew tears.

“God rest his soul,” Thornton said. “He was amazing.”

But the majority of the two-and-a-half hour discussion “Southern Roots: The Sweeping Power of ‘Sling Blade’” was filled with laughter and recollections of filming.

It was Thornton’s first encounter with Black, who was born an hour’s drive from Florence in Decatur and grew up in the community of Speake. Black was 11 years old when “Sling Blade” was filmed and turned 14 two days after its release in theaters.

Since then, the two have collaborated in a film every five years, making “All the Pretty Horses,” starring Matt Damon and directed by Thornton, when Black was 16, and acting together in “Friday Night Lights” when Black was 21.

Black, who now lives in Missouri, will be 26 this November. “We’ve got to get to work on something,” Thornton said.

Black recalled meeting Thornton for the first time: “I remember him buying me a steak and thinking, ‘Man, this guy’s nice,’” Black said, his accent unchanged by his years away from the South. “A steak and baked potato — that’s golden at my home in Speake.”

Canerday, in an Arkansan accent strewn with Southern phraseology, recalled her first thought upon meeting Thornton years before in Los Angeles was that he was gutsy. “Anyone who would keep the name Billy Bob in L.A….” she said.

She described filming the oft-quoted scene in which Thornton’s character Karl asks her, in the middle of the night, to make biscuits, which he liked to eat with mustard.

“I don’t cook. I’m fat but I don’t cook,” she said, her words flowing fast and thick, her hands moving as if playing the syllables. “I don’t know how to make biscuits. So I was pulling everything out of that cabinet, a whisk, a cheese grater…If you’d seen everything I’d pulled out of that cabinet, you would just have a spell.”

Thornton said he surprised Ritter on the day of their first scene together when he appeared in character as Karl, but Canerday said Karl’s iconic speech patterns and facial expressions didn’t shock her.

“I knew he was gonna get kinda squirrely,” she said of her co-star.

Thornton said he created the character of Karl during a bad moment on the set of a TV movie, in which he wondered why he took the four-line part. He looked in the mirror in his trailer and said, “Look at you. You’re such a dumb—-.” Then he made a face at his reflection, and Karl was born.

“I did the whole opening monologue from ‘Sling Blade’ right then,” he said. “I don’t know where it came from.”

Thornton perfected the character in his one-man show, then fleshed out the idea when some friends were looking for a script to make a short film.

That film was called “Some Folks Call It a Sling Blade.”

When Thornton decided to make Karl’s tale a full-length feature, Thornton he the script longhand on legal pads with his son sitting in his lap.

An independent film company offered to make the film and Thornton agreed to direct and star for no pay but in exchange for 50 percent of profits, which he didn’t expect to be much. He never imagined the impact of the film, for which he also received an Oscar nomination for Best Actor and which garnered numerous other awards, including a Young Artist Award for Black.

Thornton had come a long way since one of his earliest films: “Chopper Chicks in Zombie Town.”

Characters in “Sling Blade” often make Biblical references.

In answer to a question by an audience member, Thornton, who said he’s read the Bible twice, said inspiration for “Sling Blade” was divine.

“Karl was created to say, ‘I don’t understand some of it,’” Thornton said, referring to some church leaders who would say long-haired people were sinners while a photo of a long-haired Jesus hung on the wall. “You can believe in God and the Bible without believing in all the rhetoric.”

He is happy to see that independent films such as “Sling Blade” are thriving, he said, to balance the big-budget, multi-explosion blockbusters.

“Thank God there’s still an audience out there for the real stuff,” he said.

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