When Bill Paxton was a boy in Fort Worth, Texas, his father, John, would scan the newspaper for lurid killings. He told his son that the culprits sounded like nice people whom the Paxtons should invite for dinner.
Paxton said his dad's macabre sense of humor eventually rubbed off.
"I've always been fascinated by crime stories and the idea of murder out yonder, where people are isolated and things go on for a long time undetected," the actor explained in a recent interview.
When Paxton became frustrated by the roles he was offered a few years ago, he let his childhood interest guide him. Producer David Kirshner showed him Brent Hanley's script for Frailty, about a man who believes an angel has told him to slay demons disguised as human beings.
Paxton thought it was a perfect fit. It took place in Texas. It was creepy. And it had that down-home touch of vigilantism.
Paxton would play the lead but feared the movie would devolve into a gross-out fest in the hands of a young director. Then it hit him: He would direct it, too.
"I didn't have an agenda," said Paxton, whose creation opened in theaters Friday. "I didn't make this to be controversial. It's gonna play into a lot of the country's feelings in terms of their personal beliefs. To me, on the surface, it's not the gospel according to us. It's a what-if movie. It's like a Stephen King type of world that in the end you find out this world is ruled by a vengeful god."
Paxton, 46, built a career on supporting roles in popcorn fare such as Weird Science, Apollo 13, Twister and Titanic. He sprinkled in edgy leading roles in One False Move and A Simple Plan. The idea of directing always percolated in his mind, he said. All he needed was an envelope-pushing story.
Frailty got the green light when Paxton secured fellow Texan Matthew McConaughey to play one of his sons. That led to a 1,500-screen release deal with Lions' Gate. The distributor delayed the film's opening twice to meet its quarterly budget, Paxton said, not because of Sept. 11, as had been reported.
Frailty casts a light on religious fanaticism, but Paxton sees the movie as more of a familial tragedy. Paxton's character drags his two sons into the killing spree and one takes to the slaughter with more zeal.
"I'm hoping audiences will savor the dark journey into the night this movie takes them on," Paxton said, "as if you were sitting by the campfire and you're hearing a really disturbing, intense story."
The budget of Frailty was just $11 million. Paxton had a good teacher in price-conscious filmmaking.
Working as a set-dresser for B-movie king Roger Corman was Paxton's first job when he moved to Los Angeles in the early '70s. Corman had a knack for using L.A.'s landscape without investing too much in pre-production. Once, Paxton recalled, Corman found a row of houses to be demolished and cut a deal to stage a gunfight there for a film called Big Bad Mama.
"I got out there one night, and it was dark, and I found out there wasn't any security guard hired," Paxton said. "I was just expected to sleep in the truck on the set, which I did."
Paxton performed for the first time onscreen in the Corman-produced Crazy Mama (1975). After studying in New York under Stella Adler, he began carving out a niche as the virtuous Everyman. "Water does seek its own level in a way," he said.
In 1998's A Simple Plan, he tweaked his good-guy image by portraying a father who caves in to greed when he, his brother and another man find a cache of money in a plane. A Simple Plan got him the notice he had hoped for -- but not the outcome.
"I carried that film on my back, and I got great reviews for it," he said. "I was hoping it would equate to bigger opportunities for me as an actor with certain writers and directors."
The disappointment that followed led Paxton to Frailty and his biggest attempt as an auteur.
Paxton recently finished a World War II movie called Resistance with Julia Ormond and has moved on to harvesting the fruit of 60 avocado trees on his property north of Los Angeles, where he lives with his wife and two young children.
He has another directing project in mind, a British romantic comedy about two painters.
Does he want to direct something bigger?
"I just wanna direct better," he says.