Monday, September 3, 2007

Bill Paxton homes in on Fort Worth for film festival, Kennedy miniseries


“Well, now,” Bill Paxton begins, “Fort Worth seems to be proud of me — and I’m certainly proud of Fort Worth. Which makes for as good a reason as any for me to want to be renewing my involvement with the ol’ hometown.”

We’ve parked ourselves around the dining table of a Texas & Pacific Lofts suite, a home-away-from-home setting for Paxton’s occasional return from Hollywood. The occasion is twofold.

The star player of HBO’s family-intrigues drama Big Love has become a participant in the development of a Lone Star International Film Festival in Fort Worth.

And for the longer term, Paxton is homing in on the city as a touchstone in his involvement with an HBO-network adaptation of Vincent Bugliosi’s Reclaiming History: The Assassination of President John F. Kennedy (Norton; $49.95). The 1,600-page book poses a polemic with such conspiracy theories as those presented in Oliver Stone’s 1991 film JFK.

I’ve been cordially acquainted with Paxton since 1985. We first met in a newspaper-interview setting in connection with Paxton’s scene-stealing impersonation of a bully who gets what’s coming to him in John Hughes’ Weird Science. In 1997, Paxton’s ambitious independent production of Traveller, about a clannish society of grifters, served as the inaugural attraction of an art-film program that I had developed for the downtown Fort Worth theaters. And he and I had pondered in 1998 the prospect of his participation in a Fort Worth Film Festival organization.

“The timing wasn’t right, back then,” as Bill has explained. “I didn’t feel, at the time, that I had achieved a ‘body of work,’ as the saying goes, that would merit such recognition. Maybe I still haven’t — although I have accomplished some directing credentials since then, in addition to quite a few movie roles. And the newer involvement of my moviemaking pal from way back, Tom Huckabee, with the Lone Star Festival project, kind of makes it a given that I should pitch in now.”

The Lone Star International Film Festival is announced for Nov. 7-12, with Tom Huckabee, newly returned to Fort Worth from Hollywood, as artistic director. Paxton’s participation as honorary chair of the advisory board amounts to what he characterizes as “that kind of name recognition, that local-boy-gone-Hollywood image, that we hope will encourage the business community to step up to the plate and make a commitment to support this project.”

The adaptation of Bugliosi’s Kennedy book will take shape as a serialized epic for HBO, with Paxton and the Playtone Co.’s Tom Hanks and Gary Goetzman as executive producers.

“It’s like Tom Hanks told me when I presented him with the idea,” says Paxton. “He said, ‘You take this on as a feature-length film, and all you’re gonna have is JFK II.’ It’s too big a story to tell, really, in a self-contained feature.

“The long-form series is the way to go with such a big story,” Paxton continues. “And I’m here, in part, to research the logistics of it — in the hope of bringing the production to the North Texas area during the next three years.

“Fort Worth is, after all, where the interest began for me — back when I was 8-1/2 years old.”

Paxton and his older brother, Bob, and their father, Fort Worth lumberman John Paxton, had visited the Texas Hotel at Eighth and Main in Fort Worth in 1963 to witness a ceremonial appearance by President Kennedy, shortly before the assassination in Dallas. The memory has remained vivid — Bill Paxton, astride his father’s shoulders, scarcely 30 feet away from the presidential entourage — but only in recent years has the actor turned up palpable evidence of his presence. With the help of Dallas’ Sixth Floor Museum, Paxton turned up news-camera footage from Nov. 22, 1963, showing him among the crowd.

“That discovery marked a turning-point for me,” says Paxton. “The story of Nov. 22, 1963, has always held a deep meaning for me, with my memories of having been there, at the Fort Worth rally. And as its 50th anniversary approaches, that meaning becomes deeper.”

The HBO network, which has launched a new season of Paxton’s Big Love series, also plans a documentary production as a supplement to the Kennedy project. The documentary will feature Bugliosi discussing an assortment of conspiracy theories, including those involving the KGB, the Mafia and Fidel Castro.

Paxton’s approach to Tom Hanks — the artists’ work together since the 1990s includes a co-starring hitch in Ron Howard’s Apollo 13 — led them to the Bugliosi book as a foundation. Bugliosi, the prosecutor-turned-author best known for his work on the Charles Manson serial-murder case and the resulting book Helter Skelter, had staged an imaginary prosecution of accused presidential assassin Lee Harvey Oswald for British television. He became convinced in the process that the Warren Commission had accurately cited Oswald as the sole agent. Bugliosi’s recently published book is the result of 20 years’ research.

“I totally believed there was a conspiracy,” Hanks’ production-company colleague Gary Goetzman has told the show-business trade paper Variety, “but after you read the book, you are almost embarrassed that you ever believed it … But time and evidence can change the way we view things.”

Variety also quoted Bugliosi: “Many more people will see the miniseries than will read the book. With the integrity that Tom, Gary and Bill bring, I think that we will finally be able to make a substantial dent in the [percentage] of people in this country who still believe the conspiracy theorists.”

With the Kennedy miniseries in planning stages and an enthusiastic popular following in place for Big Love, Paxton says the time seems right to renew his native-son ties to Fort Worth.

“Y’know, when I left to purse an acting career,” he explains, “I never thought about coming back. But the ties remain in place, and the timing seems right to acknowledge the cultural heritage and the overall bounty that Fort Worth represents — time to give something back. And if my movie-business identity can help this film festival get started, then I’m glad to have a hand in it.”