Carl Franklin’s One False Move (1992), from a screenplay by Billy Bob Thornton and Tom Epperson, tells a largely familiar crime story through an elegantly bifurcated structure, jumping with ease and calm between two threesomes on opposing sides of the law. With blood on their hands and cocaine in their pockets, Ray Malcolm (Thornton), Ray’s girlfriend Lila “Fantasia” Walker (Cynda Williams), and the bespectacled Pluto (Michael Beach) are hustling to evade the authorities after a home invasion. Meanwhile, a pair of straight-shooting LAPD cops (Jim Metzler and Earl Billings) join forces with the hapless police chief Dale “Hurricane” Dixon (Bill Paxton), whose small town of Star City, Arkansas, is thought to be Fantasia’s next destination. Coaxing tense, understated performances from the ensemble and arranging the narrative with a canny patience, Franklin weaves a first-rate thriller with tender human underpinnings — an achievement he would repeat in such later works as Devil in a Blue Dress (1995) and High Crimes (2002).
In recent years, Franklin — who got his start in show business as an actor for stage and television before turning to directing following an education at the AFI Conservatory — has migrated mainly to television (Homeland, The Affair). In something of a victory lap for his screen accomplishments, One False Move screens this month in 35mm on both coasts: first, at BAMcinématek, this Saturday; and again, on Sunday, April 29, at the Aero Theatre in Santa Monica, California. Franklin spoke to the Voice by phone about working with the late Bill Paxton, his sensibility regarding screen violence, and the difficulty of getting straight dramas made in today’s Hollywood.
The BAM screening is the latest in a programming venture called “Beyond the Canon,” which aims to pair a “canonized classic with a thematically or stylistically-related — and equally brilliant — work by a filmmaker traditionally excluded from that discussion.” In this case, One False Move is being paired with Touch of Evil (1958). Plenty in One False Move — like a brother-sister reunion involving crop dusters wheezing over an open field — suggests an awareness of the canon this series seeks to expand. What do you think of the movie being shown in this context?
That was an homage to North by Northwest. Hitchcock is one of my favorite directors, among several. Noir is a genre of movies that magnetized me. I was always drawn to them for a reason that I can’t necessarily explain. There are noir films that I return to; Chinatown, of course, is one of my favorites. I’m sure that unconsciously I’m always influenced by them. Probably you’ll see some unconscious references just because it is a genre that I really do like.
But at the time I didn’t really think of this as noir. The “neo-noir” term was kind of attached to the movie once it came out. I just thought it was a crime drama when we were shooting it. I looked at it and I tried to examine it and approach it from a sociological perspective and, having been an actor, from a psychological perspective. I didn’t necessarily see Fantasia as a femme fatale character, because she wasn’t driving the action in the beginning. Of course, she does, finally — the decision to go to Arkansas certainly brings about the demise of those characters. But in a lot of ways, I didn’t think noir at the time.
Fred Camper once wrote, in the Chicago Reader, that “playing a dull person of average intelligence is arguably an actor’s toughest challenge.” Dale is a little too aggressively amiable to be considered “dull,” but Paxton does manage the tricky balancing act of channeling Dale’s dim-wittedness while also grappling with the man’s complex internal currents. Can you talk about directing that performance?
I always feel that an intelligent person can play someone less intelligent. It’s difficult for an unintelligent person to play someone intelligent. [Laughs] It’s harder to scale up than it is to scale down. Bill was someone we always wanted. He was a very guileless guy. Bill was just like a clear channel. What you saw was what you got. Bill was one of those guys who was an honest, upfront guy. And that was the character “Hurricane.” I hadn’t seen a lot of his work. I’d seen Near Dark and I’d seen him in Aliens, I believe. There was something about him that we just felt automatically: That’s the guy. But we weren’t allowed originally to cast him. We had to go through the process and look at other actors who the people that financed [the movie] thought were bigger names, because they always want people [to] help guarantee a return.
But the thing about Bill, I felt, is that he’s a guy who has a wide range of things that he could do. The real issue was trying to get him not to do as much, and to recognize that he’s a leading man. He had played roles that always were kind of outside the convention of what a leading man is. A lot of it was because Bill just wanted to work and couldn’t sit still. But I felt that he should have focused on those [lead] roles for a while, because I felt that he had that presence of a leading man. In the way that there was something about Jimmy Stewart that you trusted, there was something about Gary Cooper, going back, looking at the old movies. Of course, we’ve learned different things about some of those guys in recent years [laughs]. But Bill felt like he could somehow sway you with his honesty. That’s really all you want for a film actor.
In the first phone call between Dale and the LAPD squad, you articulate the tension of the script — the big-city boys’ derision toward the gawky small-town policeman — through dry, low-key reaction shots. Jim Metzler, in particular, seems to be communicating his condescension at the level almost of a whisper or a barely there glance. How did you go about directing the ensemble?
Well, that’s something I try to get from all my actors. I like to try to mirror life as I see it. People kind of hide their…we’re not so upfront with our emotions and our criticisms. There are people who are, and they usually are the exception, and they usually are known for that. For the most part, there’s a decorum that people follow. The police, they follow it — if you listen to a police officer speak about a crime, they’re very careful in the way that they select their words. “The victim did this and that, and Mr. So-and-So was at this place at that time,” and whatever. It’s a kind of controlled communication, and that felt appropriate to me. The inadvertent things that come across are what really stand out in communications with people — and on the screen. I just wanted it to have the gravitas of a real crime, and that, in my opinion, demanded that the performances be as close to real as possible.
I tried to go for a kind of local-news violence. Even in the murders themselves. It’s like: You pick up the newspaper and there’s a coed, someone who’s got a smiling face. Usually a graduation photo. Underneath, you find out that that person was killed at 2 a.m. on such and such a corner. And the feeling that gets you is that, when you read about the crime juxtaposed against the image, it gives you an emotional connection. Because that person had people who loved them. That person had a life that was taken. I wanted to keep that in mind throughout: the emotion.
Speaking of violence, in One False Move, you display a careful attitude toward screen carnage. Pluto, one of the villains, picks a knife as his weapon of choice, which is horrific enough to seem gratuitous. At the same time, there is something incredibly thoughtful about, say, your cutting from a shot of a crying baby standing in a house of dead bodies to a shot of Dale racing toward his own wailing child in the middle of the night. Where might that sensibility have come from?
To me, what’s violent — of course, the actual acts are violent — but it’s the fallout that really is violent. It’s the emotion that’s connected to it, it’s the way it affects the other people, it’s the fear that gets struck in someone. It’s the violation of humanity that’s important. So it’s important [for a storyteller] to establish that humanity if you’re going to take it away. There was a lot of violence that was necessary in the beginning. It’s what precipitated the entire story, really — the murders in the beginning. Then we don’t show a lot of violence throughout the rest. Instead of the protagonist going out and meeting the opposition, the opposition is coming toward him. So we have to set that up, because he’s not being active in terms of going out and pursuing what he wants. It meant that the violence had to resonate — it had to have the power that would drive the rest of the story and also make you feel those people coming toward him.
I looked at a lot of movies that summer. I remember Total Recall, where there were all kinds of big, violent scenes. But the only time the audience actually made any real response — emotional response — was when the goldfish fell on the floor. When the goldfish was gasping for air, you could hear a collective “Aw.” And I just thought we should have that response for people. So I focused on the violation of the life, more than wanting to get graphic about getting into the blood and seeing the gore or whatever. Even though the knife is up when it’s stabbing that woman, it’s really more about her reaction to it, these people in a home-invasion robbery, which is a terrifying thing for anybody. We use the videotape to again really drive home that whole local-news thing, where you see this person who was dancing, having a good time, and now she’s being stabbed to death. It’s important in my opinion to let people know: Man, this stuff’s not fun, when people get killed.
One False Move was released the year of the Rodney King riots; viewers seeing it today will also be meeting it amid a climate of police brutality. But unlike the Dark Blue or Rampart school of swaggeringly evil movie cops, Dale is a more complicated specimen of racial ignorance. He casually drops a slur at the dinner table in the company of a black colleague, yet he also displays no fundamental inclinations toward violence. He mentions that he hasn’t had to draw his gun in six years, saying that his job consists of “busting Peeping Toms and stop sign runners.” Can you talk about this dueling psychology?
[This] wasn’t really our issue, but I am interested in police brutality. And when that’s the subject matter, I’ll get into that. But in this case it wasn’t the subject matter. In this case it was really about a guy who was not up for the big-city crime that was coming his way. My perspective on police brutality and police violence is that I think the overwhelming majority of police officers are just doing their job. But there are some people, and there are a significant number of them, who violate that principle. And the real problem is that police cover for them. The other folks go along with it. I don’t know that most police officers are comfortable with some of the things that some of the other officers do. But for some reason the leadership seems to have conditioned the officers to have this gang mentality where they don’t rat each other out. That really, more than anything, is the problem. Because it makes a fundamental decision that they are not part of the community. They are not part of the people they serve. And I don’t mean that in terms of the black community, the white community, or whatever. I mean, this democratic society we claim to be so proud of…they kind of, by making the pact of secrecy, violate the very principles that are supposed to rule this place.
There is a poignant theme of fatherhood in your work, and not only in One False Move. Your AFI thesis project, Punk (which I haven’t seen), also centers on paternal concerns. Can you talk about this thread?
I don’t know that it’s anything I seek out. But…I’m acutely attuned to that. My dad died before I was born. I was raised by my mom and by a stepfather. And [with] the stepfather, it’s never quite the same. Because my father, the memory of my father, was very strong in the house. I wonder what it would be like if I’d actually grown up with him. Maybe he would have deconstructed the image of him that my mom carried and that she passed on to us, as someone who was almost a saint. I’m sure that I — again, probably unconsciously — seek out or focus on [that] simply because it’s part of my story, my own life story. There’s always a lot of us in everything we do. We can’t hide it [laughs].
Over the past decade-plus, your productivity in movies has dropped, while your productivity in television has shot up. Has it been difficult for you to get movie projects off the ground? Or do you find that, in the current landscape, you can express yourself better on television?
It’s both. I’ve been offered films, a lot of thrillers. And, you know, that’s not my forte. I’ve done a couple of thrillers, but I don’t want that to be my signature. I don’t want to go down that road where every time someone’s got a thriller, they want me to do that and that’s all I do. Because that’s not all I do. It’s difficult to do the kinds of movies I’ve done in the past, which are primarily dramas. “Drama” is a bad word now. It’s almost like the word “liberal.” [Laughs] You go into a room, even liberals are shying away from it. Now we call ourselves “progressives,” you know? And I don’t know why, because I didn’t [learn that] in school.
You know what I think has happened? It’s that the people who go to see dramas…they skew older, the demographic. The industry has recognized where the cash is. And the cash is in the pockets of kids. Because the grown-ups, you don’t feel…it’s not incumbent upon you to be the first on your block to see a movie. To stand in that long line. You talk to people and say: “Haven’t you seen whatever movie?” Then they say, the dads with kids: “Oh, I’ll wait until it comes to cable.” They don’t realize that the paradigm of distribution is set up in such a way that if you don’t go see it those first couple times, you’re not supporting it, and they will stop making those movies. And I think they recognize that the adults basically…they’ve got mortgages, they’ve got insurance, they’ve got tuitions they got to pay, all kinds of car payments that they have to think about before they lay out cash for entertainment.
But the money in the kids’ pocket is liquid. I mean, it’s there to be spent. They go straight to those guys [and] girls. And there’s an endless supply of them, because people keep having kids. Now, features, for the most part — unless it’s a small, independent film — are geared toward young people. The movies that I guess fall under the heading of a drama — that’s been relegated to television, cable. And cable’s done some good work. You can also, with the miniseries format, tell more of a story. It’s hard sometimes to tell a complete story in two hours. It’s not like when David Lean or people like that were making films, or Francis Ford Coppola, and you could go for three hours. That’s not the case now. Because people want to make sure they can have a large number of bookings. If it’s a three-hour movie, you can only have so many bookings a day in the theater. If the theater is open for ten hours, that’s three showings. But if [the movie is] two hours, that’s five showings. The industry has changed a lot since I started directing.
Click here to sign up for our weekly film and TV newsletter.