Psst — wanna see Sling Blade on video? You know, that ballyhooed Billy Bob Thornton thing that’s been getting so much attention from folks such as Howard Stern and the voters of the Motion Picture Academy. Well, you can walk into many a Blockbuster right now — forget the multiplex — and get a helpin’ of Sling Blade just as easily as Billy Bob’s growly, jut-jawed Karl could order up fried Tater Tots at his favorite restaurant.
Oh, really? Some Folks Call It a Sling Blade, the tape that’s carving out a thriving take-home market — its distributor, Videos.Com, says the title has shipped almost 15,000 copies since March 11 — ain’t quite the gen-yoo-wine redneck article. It’s a black-and-white 1993 short that runs 25 minutes, a sort of poor relation to the 2-hour-and-14-minute Miramax release that jumped into the box office top 10 (tally to date: about $13 million) after it earned two Oscar nominations last month.
The short Blade, which was shown at the Sundance Film Festival in January 1994, closely resembles the feature’s first half hour. It focuses on a then-chunky Thornton’s grimacing monologue about life in a state ”nervish hospital,” and it was initially conceived merely as a low-budget teaser to attract investors for the feature. Written by Thornton, it was directed by filmmaker George Hickenlooper, who made the acclaimed Apocalypse Now documentary Hearts of Darkness.
And that’s where the behind-the-scenes Sling Blade story turns as messy and slippery as ol’ Karl’s trademark weapon.
According to Hickenlooper, ”Billy Bob hated the short and said it wasn’t good enough for a third-grade film festival.” Nevertheless, claims Hickenlooper, Thornton and he ”made an agreement … that I’d direct the feature if we got backing. Unfortunately, once we did, he backed out of the deal and left me in the dust.”
The usually voluble Thornton declined through his agent to comment for this article. But Larry Meistrich of the Shooting Gallery, the company that raised $1.2 million to make Sling Blade the feature, calls Hickenlooper’s complaints ”sour grapes.” Meistrich says he’d ”look at any written agreement [Hickenlooper] and Billy Bob signed. The only problem is, the agreement simply doesn’t exist.”
The short, Meistrich feels, was just a makeshift forum for Thornton’s talents. ”After Billy Bob and I talked,” he says, ”I realized he needed to make the feature his way.” Which meant Thornton wound up Sling Blade’s star, writer, and director. Nobody will discuss what he earned, but Miramax paid the Shooting Gallery $8-10 million to distribute the film (and has announced a June video-release date).
Meantime, Hickenlooper helped pad out VHS copies of ”his” nearly $50,000-budget short with a highly self-serving, 13-minute ”Making of Sling Blade” segment. It suggests Thornton’s performance was largely the result of Hickenlooper’s directing. ”I do wish Billy Bob the best,” says the passed-over auteur. ”After all, any success that comes his way only helps us sell more videos.”