A Simple Plan features withered corpses, hungry ravens, mysterious FBI agents, and cold white expanses of snow. Yet the creepiest thing in it is three men sitting around a duffel bag full of money, convincing themselves to do something that—deep down—they know will go terribly, terribly wrong. Adapted from the best-selling novel by Scott B. Smith, A Simple Plan follows the downward spiral of two brothers, Hank (Bill Paxton) and Jacob (Billy Bob Thornton), as their lives are torn to pieces by greed. Although director Sam Raimi (The Evil Dead, Army of Darkness) previously garnered a cult following with his wild camera effects, he eschews spectacle in this film, delivering a lean, insidious thriller that will linger in your memory long after the cattle-prod jolts of Scream and I Know What You Did Last Summer have faded.
A Simple Plan
directed by Sam Raimi
starring Bill Paxton, Billy Bob
Thornton, Bridget Fonda
Opens Friday at the Meridian 16 only
"The book is much more violent than the movie," admitted the author/screenwriter in a recent interview, "more graphic in its violence. It was Sam's choice to be more restrained, to bring out the characters." Dressed in a comfortable T-shirt and speaking in a soft, relaxed tone, Smith described the rather tortuous, five-year, cast-of-thousands journey his book took to the screen.
"I wrote a horrible, amateurish draft for Mike Nichols, which I think scared him away from the project," he said. "He brought in Ben Stiller to direct, and Ben really taught me how to write a script. He was about a month and a half from shooting it when he got into a budget conflict with the studio, Savoy, who forced him out. At that point Nicolas Cage was going to play Hank—it was a completely different movie, much more a thriller, very frenetic. Savoy brought in John Dahl (Rounders, The Last Seduction), who was going to do minor rewriting and shoot it the next winter; then Savoy decided they weren't going to make films anymore and sold it to Paramount and producer Scott Rudin, and I wrote this completely different draft. Rudin brought in John Boorman (Excalibur, Hope & Glory), and Boorman cast Billy Bob Thornton and Bill Paxton, and about a week and a half from shooting he got into a budget conflict with Paramount, who pulled the plug on it. Boorman had a conflict after that and Thornton had a very narrow window of availability that winter, so Paramount brought in Sam. Sam originally wanted to shoot the Ben Stiller draft of the script—which had more of a thriller, potboiler quality—but Billy Bob would die in the center and Billy Bob was already signed up and didn't want to die in the middle of the story. . . ."
Here, we both paused to catch our breath and get our bearings.
BRIDGET FONDA PLAYS Hank's pregnant wife, Sarah, who convinces her husband to take steps to ensure their future happiness—steps that make everything horrifically worse. But Fonda's character never quite moves front and center. "I feel a little bad toward Bridget," Smith said ruefully, "because I don't know how much she was given to work with. In the book she and Hank are really the major characters; she's really the engine that drives the book—Hank does everything, but Sarah thinks it up. I don't think it comes through to that degree in the movie. The transformation of her character is a little abrupt—she goes from this sweet, happy homemaker to Lady Macbeth, and I wish there was a scene or two to ease that transition."
But this is a quibble. Though most books get mangled in the process of becoming movies, Smith liked the changes to A Simple Plan. "I was most pleased with the sense that Bill Paxton and Billy Bob Thornton were really brothers. That was missing, I think, both from the script and from the novel. In the book, right from the start there was animosity and mistrust. It really added a lot that, even when they were going head to head, it pained them." The emphasis on character not only makes the movie richer in empathy, it also makes it more unnerving; watching Hank's morals slip is twice as scary as watching a masked psychotic with a knife. Smith generously deferred credit: "Sam and the actors were largely responsible for that. I can look at the movie and see what each of these people brought to it. I wonder if I'm the stone in a stone soup."
Smith looked around the comfortable hotel room and smiled. "I've been working on a second novel for about three and a half years, in between doing the rewrites on the screenplay. It's not ready yet, though this would be a good time for it to come out, as my agent says." He laughed. "Even my mother says that, actually."