In Sling Blade, a mentally challenged man—described by writer-director-star Billy Bob Thornton as a cross between Frankenstein’s monster and Boo Radley—named Karl Childers is released from a psychiatric hospital 25 years after committing a murder, befriends a mother and her young son, and is gradually tasked to help save them. Thornton would become a household name following his Oscar-nominated performance in the film, and for winning the Academy Award for Best Adapted Screenplay. In honor of its 20th anniversary, here are some facts about the movie that pair well with French fried potaters.
1. KARL WAS BORN FROM BILLY BOB THORNTON'S FRUSTRATION WITH A MADE-FOR-CABLE MOVIE.
Daniel Mann, Thornton’s director on 1987’s The Man Who Broke 1,000 Chains, insisted he “overact” for all five of his lines. Back in his trailer during lunch, Thornton looked in the mirror, which is where he imagined Karl’s visage for the first time. He also came up with the character’s distinctive manner of speaking right then and there. Thornton developed the character of Karl Childers further via a one-man show titled Swine Before Pearls.
2. BEFORE THE FEATURE, THERE WAS A SHORT FILM TITLED SOME FOLKS CALL IT A SLING BLADE FEATURING MOLLY RINGWALD.
The 29-minute movie was released in 1994, written by Thornton and directed by George Hickenlooper. Molly Ringwald portrayed the newspaper reporter in Hickenlooper’s version; she was replaced by Sarah Boss in the feature. Thornton did not mention the short during the Sling Blade Oscar press tour because he had a falling out with Hickenlooper, who was claiming the movie was based on the short, while Thornton said it was based on his one-man show. At the time, Thornton said he "would have been glad to have talked about the short if George hadn't bad-mouthed me all over town. This whole thing is based on the character, and I created that before I ever knew George Hickenlooper existed."
3. THORNTON WROTE THE SCRIPT IN LONGHAND, MOSTLY ON THE SET OF A SITCOM.
The show was titled Hearts Afire, which Thornton starred in alongside Sling Blade co-star John Ritter. Thornton finished the script on a Christmas Day on his mother’s dining room table.
4. VAUGHAN WAS BASED ON A CHOIR LEADER IN AN ARKANSAS CHURCH.
Thornton also wrote the character with his friend Ritter in mind, knowing he could handle the rhythm of Vaughan’s words.
5. RITTER GAVE VAUGHAN THE LAST NAME "CUNNINGHAM" AS A REFERENCE TO HAPPY DAYS.
The former Three’s Company star revealed as much on Late Night with Conan O’Brien in 1997. As an in-joke to some of his friends who were on the cast of Happy Days, Ritter made his character a Cunningham to open up the possibility that Vaughan was actually Chuck, Richie and Joanie’s older brother from season one of Happy Days, who was written out of the show and never spoken of by any of the characters again after he disappeared. In Ritter’s mind, Chuck had a “different alternative lifestyle” that he was too ashamed to reveal to his parents. Thornton had no idea this was the reasoning behind the surname choice.
6. IT WAS MADE FOR $1 MILLION.
Sling Blade was filmed in just 24 days. It made more than $24 million at the box office.
7. CHARLES BUSHMAN’S CHAIR DRAG WAS THOUGHT UP THAT DAY BY THORNTON.
Thornton explained: “I was trying to think of a beginning. You always want that first image to hook you, and if J.T. (Walsh) had just walked over and fucked with the other patients on the way, and then sat down, that would have been too normal.”
8. FRANK DIDN’T HEAR KARL’S VOICE UNTIL HE HAD HIS FIRST SCENE.
Lucas Black figured that his co-star/director wanted to give him the element of surprise.
9. DIRECTOR JIM JARMUSCH MADE A CAMEO.
Jarmusch played Gene, the Frostee Cream employee. The director agreed to take the rare acting role because he knew Thornton, and thought it might be fun.
10. EACH SCENE WAS SHOT IN TWO TAKES.
A rare third take was used if there was a lighting or a technical issue. Robert Duvall (Karl’s father), when referring to Thornton as the “Hillbilly Orson Welles,” explained that Thornton believes that two takes and no rehearsals are best, because you can “catch the freshness.”
11. "NERVOUS HOSPITAL" WAS A SAYING FROM THORNTON’S GRANDMOTHER.
She said it to avoid the terms “nut house” or “asylum.”
12. THORNTON PUT CRUSHED GLASS INSIDE HIS SHOES.
It gave him Karl’s famous limp.
13. HARVEY WEINSTEIN PAID $10 MILLION FOR THE DISTRIBUTION RIGHTS AFTER WATCHING THE FIRST 30 MINUTES.
The head of Miramax initially agreed to give Thornton the final say on editing. Weinstein then saw the rest of the movie and wanted Thornton to cut 20 minutes. Martin Scorsese told Thornton not to change his edit, before Weinstein went ahead and edited it without Thornton’s knowledge. For what it’s worth, Sling Blade producer Larry Meistrich later admitted that Weinstein’s edit was better than Thornton’s.
14. MIRAMAX ALSO SUGGESTED A DIFFERENT TITLE.
They asked Thornton if he would change Sling Blade to The Reckoning. He got his say on that one.