Bill Paxton (Part 1)
I interviewed Bill Paxton in the penthouse suite of the Dorchester Hotel, London in September 1995. He was over here with the cast and crew of Apollo 13 and most journalists wanted to interview Tom Hanks but he had no SF credits to speak of (apart from Big maybe) so SFX had no problem securing a chat with Paxton. Because of the lengthy post-production time required on Apollo 13, he had shot Twister since wrapping the space film, although that had not yet been released. A short version of this ran in SFX at the time.
Jump straight to Part 2 of this long interview
Apollo 13 looks like it was very hard work. Was it harder than an ordinary movie?
"It was, but like the astronauts we portrayed, we had a tremendous sense of camaraderie. We all tried to make this film as good as it could be. We all felt an incredible sense of integrity and responsibility towards the material because it was a historical re-enactment of this famous voyage. And so we were unified and compelled to make this movie great. Yeah, it was a lot of work. There were a lot of cold days, when they refrigerated the sets so that they could see our breath.
“The flights on the aeroplane were very demanding, but at the same time, here we were as actors and film-makers doing something that had never been done in a theatrical motion picture. They took actors up in a set that had been put on a plane and it would fall out of the sky, and the camera crews would float and shoot it. So it was a unique filming experience. The filming of it was almost like a mission in itself. We all felt unified on our mission.”
Do you remember the Apollo 13 incident?
"I was 15 years old at the time. I didn't know all the myriad of problems that they'd had. I knew something had happened that had damaged the spacecraft, and the big question that I remember was: had there been a compromise in the integrity of the heat shield? Would the command module withstand the intense heat of re-entry? That seemed to be the big question on everyone's mind. When I read the script and started doing research I found out all the different things. One thing that is amazing is the whole idea that their survival literally came down to a plastic bag, the cardboard cover off a flight manual, space age bailing wire, duct tape... Unbelievable! All those things: the manual burn, the course correction, the idea that they almost skipped off the atmosphere before re-entry. So many things there."
Did you meet the real Fred Haise?
"I only had the opportunity to spend the best part of a day with him, down at Cape Kennedy. He was nice enough to take time out of his busy schedule. He still is an aerospace engineer, working for Grumman, the same people who built the Lunar Module. He was chosen to be Lunar Module pilot because he was in the astronauts corps but he was assigned to Grumman, and he was one of the men who did all the tests for the Lunar Module. Remember that they were the back-up crew on Apollo 11. If something had happened to those guys before that flight, well it could have been Jim Lovell and Fred Haise, instead of Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin, the names that we know today."
The Apollo 13 story really is truth being stranger than fiction. Were there any occasions when people started saying, 'No, surely the scriptwriters must have made this bit up...'?
"The whole thing builds to this incredible climax that everyone knows the ending of. You almost feel like it's a Cinderella story. The movie's not a cop-out. It was this incredible triumph after all of this work and resourcefulness, this concerted effort. And the whole world waited. Everyone stopped what they were doing during moments of the flight, but especially at that moment of re-entry. It's so dramatic; they go into radio blackout because of the ionisation on the hull. They're coming in so hard, at 25,000 miles per hour, and there's no way that anyone can communicate with them. So there is that incredible suspense of waiting to see whether they lived or died in re-entry. So it's a natural for the movies. It is really one of the greatest human interest stories of modern times, that's been almost forgotten."
Do you think or hope that this film and the surrounding interest in the Apollo missions might get the space programme going again?
"It's a tall order, but I can only hope that it will pique the imagination of a whole new generation of young scientists. I've just finished a picture called Twister. It's a fictional story of this incredible atmospheric phenomenon we know as tornadoes that actually defy the laws of physics sometimes. I was working with a man who was a technical advisor on the film. He works for the NSSL, the National Severe Storm Lab, and he wrote me a letter. The reason he liked the movie so much was because he felt that it appealed to this generation that's coming along, who weren't born when this happened and have no personal recollection of it. It appealed to the sciences and it's a sad fact that academically the sciences are in a big decline, a decline in people going into mathematical fields and the physics fields. As a meteorologist, a big part of his work is mathematics and science. And this will appeal to young people to go into the sciences, so in that regard, yes I hope it does inspire young people."
You've done quite a few science fiction movies, including several with James Cameron. How did you first meet him?
"I met Jim Cameron when I was 25. It was 1980, he was art director on a picture called Galaxy of Terror and I was hired to be on his night crew as a set dresser. I had been a set dresser originally in the mid-'70s when I first went out to Hollywood when I was 18. In the interim I had gone to New York to study acting. I had come back and I was looking for acting work, but I was moonlighting as a set dresser. A buddy of mine introduced me to Jim and he gave me a job on the spot, and we got to know each other in the course of this production. I was making a small film at the time called Fish Heads that was based on a song by Billy Mumy who was in Lost in Space."
That was when he was half of the musical duo Barnes and Barnes.
"Barnes and Barnes, who were wonderful. I showed Jim this film I'd made to promote this song, and he realised that I had more of an interest than just painting a flat. So we became friends and colleagues. he was telling me at the time about a script that he was writing, that he wanted to direct, called The Terminator. We would be working late into the night and I'd say, 'What does the Terminator do then, Jim?' 'Well, he comes back from the future.' 'Let me get this straight...' It was actually not unlike that. He brought me into his circle - he's a very private man in many ways - but he accepted me as a peer very early on. We've been good friends. We're actually the same age, although I've always thought of him as kind of an older brother. He ended up tossing me a bone, as it were, to do a cameo in The Terminator. A few years after that I got the tremendous role of Hudson in Aliens."
I think that's what our readers know you best for.
"I think before Apollo 13, I've been best known for two films: Aliens, the role of Hudson; and another picture that had science fiction elements to it, that was a teenage comedy, Weird Science."
Aliens was a tremendous follow-up to a tremendous movie. Was there a problem in trying to follow on from such a huge hit?
"The script was incredible. I read the Aliens script and thought, 'My God, he's going to knock this one out of the park!' I remember reading the script for Terminator before it was made and thinking, 'This is one of the best screenplays I've ever read, if not the best.' I read Aliens and weirdly enough I was over here seeing my girlfriend - who's now my wife and the mother of my 18-month-old son, James - and I got the call for the audition. They were all over here starting to do the casting at Pinewood. I went in to meet Jim and read for him, and it's always very difficult reading for your friends because you really have no mystique with them. They know your bag of tricks. I much prefer to read for someone who doesn't know me. that way I can throw a persona at them, and they can't really know: 'Is he acting, or is he really like this? What's his story there?' The magician doesn't like to show how the trick is done, as it were.
“So I had a good reading, but I didn't feel like I'd really set the world on fire. I went back and I didn't hear for - oh God, it must have been six weeks. So then I got a call in the morning - it was night-time here - it was Jim calling to say, 'I want you to play the role of Hudson'. You could probably hear me howl all the way back to California. That was a great experience for me; a great role in a great production. I think Jim was very smart on a fundamental level. Alien was like this ride in a spook house, where you never knew when the monster was going to jump out at you. I'm boiling it way down. So Jim, instead of going down that road that had been so well travelled, he decided to make Aliens this ride on a wild roller-coaster. Alien was a whole departure for science fiction films in terms of the incredible design of HR Giger and the whole evolution of that monster from the pod to the face-hugger to its birth out of the human host to ... God almighty!
“It preyed on a lot of primordial fears: the idea of parasitic oscillation, that feeds off its host. It took a lot of fears: the classic vampire myth; the idea of cancers, of tumours that grow inside you. It really got you on a very gut level, a very primordial level, and it was so cleverly done. To have this heroic part played by a woman - Sigourney Weaver is the heroine of this movie as opposed to the classic hero - it really was an amazing piece of work. Ridley Scott did such a fantastic job on that film: just the sound of that movie and the way that story unfolds visually. I remember seeing Alien in a movie house in Times Square. If you had told me I was going to be in the sequel I would have just laughed at you, thought you were mad."
We have a thing in London called Alien War, which is Aliens as a sort of walk-through interactive experience.
"I've only heard about it. I don't really know anything about it."
If you get a chance while you're in London, you should check it out.
"Maybe I should do that. They'd better not mess with Hudson! That would be incredible. I was offered the chance to do one of these ride things and re-enact Hudson, but it wasn't going to be directed by Jim and I just felt that it was exploitation of the character. There's something sacred about that picture. It's a great piece of film-making, just like Apollo 13 is a great piece of film-making. It's so rare that you get a great story married to a great piece of film-work, with a great cast, under the guidance of a Ron Howard or a James Cameron. They're sacred things. You hold them and you're loyal to them and you guard them from any kind of explanation."
Continue to Part 2 of this long interview, where Bill Paxton discusses Predator 2, Weird Science and Twister.