Combustible Celluloid

An Interview with Billy Bob Thornton

Diary of a Junketeer

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

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Junket (noun): a package tour for journalists surrounding a new movie. Publicists put journalists up in fancy hotels, pay for meals and transportation, show them a free movie, sit them down for interviews with the stars and director, and give them presents related to the movie. In return, we provide lots of ink about the movie.

I'm skeptical of the whole junket thing, but one particular invitation -- my first -- intrigued me. I would fly to New York City for a weekend and meet two of America's greatest modern-day filmmakers, Joel and Ethan Coen. In addition, I would meet the stellar cast of their new movie, The Man Who Wasn't There, including Frances McDormand, Billy Bob Thornton and James Gandolfini as well as genius cinematographer Roger Deakins. I accepted.

In the meantime, September 11 came and went. The Emmys were postponed, and the junket was postponed so that Gandolfini could attend the Emmys. By the time it was rescheduled for October 19 and 20, it was now in Los Angeles, and Gandolfini would not be attending. (He doesn't like to leave New York, I'm told.)

While I waited for the new date to arrive, I caught a screening of The Man Who Wasn't There in San Francisco. Though it lacks the sheer energy of O Brother, Where Art Thou? I still consider it a masterpiece. A direct opposite of the Coens' last film, it's a murder story, focusing on a man who's completely dead inside and unable to connect with anyone.

Two days before my plane took off I received a frantic e-mail stating that Joel and Ethan Coen and Joel's wife Frances McDormand would not be attending the junket, due to an illness in their family. Thornton and Deakins would still be available, however. It truly was The Junket That Wasn't There.

Due to increased airport security, my wife and I spent far too much time at SFO before our plane finally took off Friday afternoon. Upon landing at LAX, the police hastily shooed us away from the taxi stand thanks to a bomb scare: someone reportedly left a mysterious bag or a package in a restroom. ("Happens all the time," one junketeer later told me.) We hoofed it across the freeway to another terminal, managed to catch a cab, and barely made our hotel (the Four Seasons in Beverly Hills, thank you very much) literally two minutes before check-in time ended.

The gods smiled upon us and the Four Seasons upgraded our room to a suite that contained two full bathrooms, four TV sets, two balconies, and more. The woman behind the counter casually let us know how much the room would cost us if we were paying for it: literally a month's rent in my apartment.

My wife and I caught the movie that night (my second time, her first). The private screening room offered more legroom per seat than a limo. We both loved the film, myself even more the second time. We then retired in style.

The next morning, my wife took a lazy bath and enjoyed some cable and room service while I went to work. I ate a catered breakfast and tried to join in on some conversation with my fellow junketeers. I quickly learned that these people do this for a living, and hence the only thing they could talk about was how many times they've met Mena Suvari (three) or Leelee Sobieski (four) this year.

The publicists crammed the print journalists into one small room containing a big round table with twelve chairs. I was the twelfth journalist to enter the room and take a seat, but the final chair was not for me. It was Billy Bob Thornton's. (D'oh!) So I found a small table at the back of the room to lean against. (Fortunately, it gave me a height advantage.)

Billy Bob finally entered the room, stopping only to use the facilities. (Yes, it's true -- stars have to go from time to time just like you and me.) He wore a very cool off-white print shirt with images of Clint Eastwood movies all over it, and a baseball cap with the cryptic slogan "45's." He was in good spirits and seemed to enjoy the whole junket process.

I got one question in, about how Billy Bob never eats or drinks anything in The Man Who Wasn't There, despite the fact that he's constantly being offered food and drink, and how that contributed to his "empty" character. He explained that he never eats or drinks in movies and goes out of his way to find things to do in order to not eat. "In movies, if you start eating during a scene, depending on how many takes -- you're locked into it," he explained.

Billy Bob also laughed over the question of making love in movies. In The Man Who Wasn't There, Scarlett Johansson plays an uncomfortable seduction scene with the 46 year-old actor/writer/director. "People ask you about movies it's like, 'what was it like doing that love scene with so-and-so?' It's like anything. They don't ask, 'what was it like killing that guy?' But you obviously didn't kill anybody."

After Billy Bob left, the room buzzed about how great he was and what a big star he is. But I couldn't help thinking how none of us actually got to meet him. If I were to bump into Billy Bob on the street tomorrow, I'm sure he wouldn't recognize me.

Another long wait followed before cinematographer Roger Deakins breezed into the room. A white-haired Brit, Deakins had photographed some of the great movies of the 90s, including The Shawshank Redemption, Fargo and Kundun. Unfortunately, he wasn't quite enjoying the junket as much as Billy Bob. To be frank, he was a bit on the grouchy side.

He discussed photographing The Man Who Wasn't There in black-and-white, and balked when I tried to get him to talk about cinematographer Gregg Toland and Citizen Kane, though the two movies are fairly similar in style. When I asked him about his favorite actresses to photograph, I hoped for an eloquent answer about the beauty and variety of women's faces. Instead he grunted, "Fran... and Jennifer Connelly." (Fran, of course, is Frances McDormand, star of Fargo and The Man Who Wasn't There, while the lovely Connelly stars in the upcoming A Beautiful Mind, which Deakins photographed.)

Clearly a knowledgeable man, Deakins spoke of such obscure cinematographers as the great John Alton, who got marvelous use out of extreme contrast in his early black-and-white film noirs like Raw Deal (1948). I longed to let Deakins know that I alone knew what he was talking about and to elevate the conversation beyond the basics. But with such a large group, it was alas not to be. It's impossible for one person to guide the discussion in a round-table, and everything gets dumbed-down.

On our way out, we collected our free gifts. In The Man Who Wasn't There, Thornton plays a barber, and so the gift was -- inevitably -- a barber kit full of sharp metal objects. It took only a moment before I realized I'd need to smuggle this treasure onto the plane home through the heightened airport security, and that it would most likely be confiscated. (Fortunately, I only lost a long nail file. Everything else, including a razor, remained amazingly intact.)

Though my wife and I still had several hours left to enjoy L.A. we decided to head home early. The whole trip was a strange combination of intoxicating opulence and annoying phoniness. I was still uncertain as to whether or not I'd ever attend another junket, and who knew if I'd ever get to meet Joel and Ethan, but for the time being it was great to be back home.

October 25, 2001

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