How close was Billy Bob Thornton to making the final word of Sling Blade "rosebud"? We'll never know, but we do know that Robert Duvall, who plays Karl's deadbeat dad in Sling Blade, called Thornton a "hillbilly Orson Welles" in an interview with Vanity Fair.
He meant it as a compliment. Thornton's streamlined directing style got Sling Blade finished in about three weeks of shooting time. According to Duvall, almost every scene was finished in only two takes to "catch the freshness."
In his review, even Roger Ebert said, "Thornton has made a place for himself among the best new filmmakers" (source). It's incredible to think about what an unstoppable triple threat Thornton was in the mid-90s. He wrote, directed, and starred in Sling Blade as a relative unknown, finishing the movie on time and for a tiny budget.
Thornton's subsequent forays into writing and directing weren't nearly as successful, critically or commercially. He directed the critically maligned All the Pretty Horses in 2000 and wrote the Cate Blanchett psychic thriller The Gift that same year. But he didn't attempt to write, direct, and act at the same time again until Jayne Mansfield's Car (2012), a movie that crashed at the box office.
Bruce Hampton, who plays Doyle's poet friend Morris, said of Thornton, "You don't see people who write, direct and act anymore—they are few and far between." Unfortunately, Jayne Mansfield's Car was a film few saw and even fewer liked, meaning it might be an even longer time before we see the hillbilly Orson Welles attempt another triple threat, if he ever does it again.
Before he was Bad Santa, and before he was Mr. Angelina Jolie with a vial of her blood around his neck, Billy Bob Thornton was basically nobody. Born in 1955, he took bit parts on TV and in movies throughout the late 80s and early 90s.
During that time, though, he created the character of Karl Childers, a mentally challenged man with a limp, a unique voice, and a murderous past. He performed the character in a one-man show and in a 29-minute short film co-starring Molly Ringwald called Some Folks Call It a Sling Blade.
In 1992, Thornton co-starred with John Ritter, Markie Post, and Aunt Zelda from Sabrina, the Teenage Witch on the short-lived sitcom Hearts Afire. It was while working on that sitcom that he developed his short film into a feature-length presentation, with Ritter in mind for the key role of Vaughan.
Thornton convinced The Shooting Gallery to produce his film for only $1 million, calling them "the hobos—in the best sense of the word—of the business" (source). From there, the rest is history, the true rags-to-riches-to-Angelina-Jolie's-blood-in-a-bottle kind of story that America is made of.
If the production company known as The Shooting Gallery went to an actual shooting gallery for target practice, you could stand between them and the target and escape unscathed. This is a company that had far, far, far many more misses than hits.
Formed in 1991 by Larry Meistrich, The Shooting Gallery—TSG to the cool kids—stumbled along producing small-budge indie hits until Sling Blade made it big, earning TSG $10 million from Miramax for the right to distribute it. That kind of dough would buy a lot of French-fried potaters.
However, the studio didn't have another success until You Can Count on Me, starring Laura Linney and Mark Ruffalo, in 2000. But they couldn't count on just that one indie darling saving their studio, which was rapidly sinking. In 2001, the studio, $72 million in losses, finally closed its doors.
So, despite twenty years in the business, TSG has little to show for it. But hey, not every production company can say that Hunter S. Thompson called them a "lazy b****." It's ironic that the most memorable thing about TSG is a shot taken at it.
After being purchased by Miramax, Sling Blade was secretly cut by Harvey Weinstein without Billy Bob Thornton's knowledge—though Meistrich of The Shooting Galley says that Weinstein's edit was better than Thornton's (source).
Some call it Millsburg, Arkansas, but we call it Benton, Arkansas, because Millsburg is fictional, while Benton is the real Southern city where Billy Bob Thornton filmed Sling Blade.
These days, you can visit Benton and take a Sling Blade tour, although Bill Cox's lawnmower repair shop is no longer there. Guess everyone in Benton has someone mow their lawns for them.
However, you can visit the diner where Vaughan and Karl have a heart-to-heart chat. After your burger, you can cruise on over to the Arkansas Health Center, which served as the filming location for the mental hospital scenes. Still hungry? Visit the "Sling Blade Drive Thru," which opened in January 2015.
All the on-location scenes were edited together by Hughes Winborne, a prolific film editor who would go on to win an Academy Award in 2006 for Crash. Sling Blade was one of Winborne's first projects. More recently, he edited Guardians of the Galaxy. Do you think he can get Billy Bob Thornton into a Marvel movie?
Sling Blade's score is a mix of Southern guitar and otherworldly haunting tunes, a Southern Gothic blend just like the film itself. These songs don't sound like your traditional Southern music, the kind you might hear in something like Oh Brother, Where Art Thou? That's either because this isn't your typical Southern tale, or because the composer was from Canada.
Daniel Lanois is a French Canadian who also did the music for the 1996 documentary Lost in Mississippi. We hope he made it out—but maybe he didn't get farther than Arkansas, where Sling Blade is set.
Lanois also co-produced albums for U2, including The Joshua Tree and Achtung Baby. Thankfully, Bono isn't anywhere near this score. We do not want to hear Bono's Sling Blade impersonation.
Sling Blade was the movie to make fun of in the late 90s. Comedians imitated Karl's voice, people dressed as Karl for Halloween, and a lot of people just called Karl "Sling Blade," as if that were his name. For example, "What are you going to be for Halloween?" "I am going to be Sling Blade, mmhmm."
References to and parodies of Sling Blade live on today. One creator on YouTube goes through fast-food drive thrus and places orders in his best Sling Blade voice, for example. And one memorable 30 Rock clip imagines "Sling Blade and Oprah on a Date."
Twenty years later, even as Billy Bob Thornton is finishing up Bad Santa 2, most people will always remember him as the guy who loves his French-fried potaters.