THE ROAD TO WELLES-VILLE

St. Louis native George Hickenlooper takes another step on his Hollywood career path with the Orson Welles adaptation The Big Brass Ring -- but a happy ending's still not in sight.

Together, Thornton and Hickenlooper developed the frame in which the monologue is set -- Karl is interviewed by a reporter on the eve of his release from a mental institution -- and Hickenlooper raised the money for the three-day shoot, casting J.T. Walsh as Karl's creepily insinuating fellow patient and Molly Ringwald as the journalist. The short is an assured, fully realized work, beginning with a long tracking shot of Walsh before the baton of the story is passed first to the reporter and her photographer, then to the asylum's head and, finally, to Karl, who at last relates his terrible and mesmerizing story of matricide.

Despite the success of the collaboration, friction between Thornton and Hickenlooper was developing that would soon produce a conflagration. Hickenlooper remembers: "He and I got into it about how I had shot the monologue. I had shot it two ways -- in closeup, because he asked me to shoot it that way, and as a long tracking shot where you start out wide and slowly dolly in on his face and you slowly pull back from the reporter. Well, we had a light leak on the closeup (making it unusable), but it was never my intention to use a closeup anyway. I thought if we were looking at his monologue in closeup for such an extended period of time, it would start to feel artificial, mannered. I told him, "I didn't raise $55,000 to create a really nice actor's reel for you. This has got to work as a film.' Anyway, we had this huge, fiery argument over this, and, unfortunately, as much as I revere Billy Bob as a writer, he has a very tempestuous personality. So basically we stopped talking to each other."

The pair later reached a temporary truce when the short premiered at the Sundance Film Festival. Buoyed by the positive reception at Sundance, Thornton and Hickenlooper began developing the narrative for what eventually became the feature Sling Blade, but because money for Sling Blade was slow in coming, Hickenlooper redirected his attention to another film, The Low Life, which the director says precipitated the final break between the former friends. Hickenlooper offered Thornton a small part in The Low Life, but the actor lobbied for the role of Andrew, the roommate of the film's protagonist (played by Rory Cochrane). After mulling the idea, Hickenlooper says, "I decided he was just too old for the part. I needed somebody who was Rory Cochrane's contemporary (Thornton is 17 years older than Cochrane). He just flew off the handle and said, "I fucking gave you this short. I gave this to you as a gift, and you throw it back in my face. I'm not going to do any fucking cameos for you.' It just got so ugly." After that episode, Hickenlooper says, "I thought about it for about 48 hours and I called him back and said, "Look, I think we should just end it here. You go your way and I'll go my way.' That was the last time I ever spoke to him."

But, as moviegoers know, those final words were not the end of the story. When Sling Blade finally went into production, Thornton himself was behind the camera. One of the critical hits of 1996, the film earned ecstatic notices, and Thornton received both an Oscar nomination for his performance and an Academy Award for his script. Hickenlooper, needless to say, was not thanked in the acceptance speech. "In retrospect, part of me is sad," Hickenlooper confesses. "What an incredible career move for me had I been able to survive my relationship with him. But in the end I did it for my own sanity. Sure, I would have loved to have done the feature, and had I done the feature, I think it would have been better -- it would have been darker." Hickenlooper, laughing loudly at the thought, then admits, "As a result, it probably wouldn't have won an Oscar, either. I like the feature, but it was a little more schmaltzy than I would have wanted to go."

Hickenlooper carefully emphasizes that he remains an admirer of his former collaborator and says, "I just wish him well. Billy Bob's career is so mainstream now, he's in a totally different world than I am. Who knows? We may end up working together someday. It's Hollywood."

THE FILM Hickenlooper made after "Sling Blade," The Low Life, should rightly have moved its director into the same sphere Thornton now inhabits. A tough, bittersweet comedy with winningly unpredictable tonal and plot shifts, The Low Life evokes the unclassifiable, character-based works of the '70s that Hickenlooper admires (he consciously used Midnight Cowboy, in fact, as a model). Although the original script was written by John Enbom, with whom the director was glancingly familiar from his college days at Yale, Hickenlooper collaborated on a rewrite. The new version incorporated elements of his own autobiography in the character of the film's strangely affectless antihero, a down-at-heels writer from St. Louis now at sea in LA, working dead-end temp jobs by day and drinking with similarly hard-up and unmoored college friends at night. Hickenlooper also added the key character of Andrew -- the part Thornton insisted on playing -- whom he describes as "this kind of dependent geek based on two people I had known." As subtly embodied by Sean Astin, Andrew proves alternately annoying, frightening and heartbreaking: a black-comic joke as guilt-inducing as laugh-getting.

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