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The enduring influence of Sling Blade is still felt 25 years later

When Sling Blade hit theaters in 1996, it set the tone for movies set in the South and catapulted Billy Bob Thornton to stardom.

BENTON, Ark. — In the early 90s, Arkansas native Billy Bob Thornton found himself at a crossroads. The up-and-coming actor wasn't happy with the direction his career was headed. 

One day, Thornton was in his trailer shaving when he started playing around with a voice, which would become the voice of Sling Blade’s protagonist Karl Childers. 

What started as a one act play became a short film that helped Thornton raise enough money to make it into a full-length movie. 

Once the funds were secured, Thornton could only think of one place to shoot his vision: Benton, Arkansas. 

He also wanted Arkansas actors, like Natalie Canerday, to bring several of his characters to life.

“His exact words were ‘Oh Natalie, screw auditioning. I wrote the part with you in mind. It's yours if you want it,’” Canerday remembered. 

Canerday admitted she wasn’t sure about the idea when Thornton called, but that all changed when he started telling her about the movie.

“Well, I get the script and read it and it was so good,” Canerday said.

Thornton then recruited Hollywood stars like John Ritter and Robert Duvall, as well as country music star Dwight Yoakam and child star Lucas Black, to round out his cast.

Despite the big names, Tim Holder, who got a small part as an undertaker, said it was Thornton who stole the show.

“He would tell the cameras where to go and wherever when to sit and what to do exactly,” Holder told us. “Then when the director of photography said action, he was immediately Karl. He was so used to the character that he would go straight from director into Karl. I mean it was stunning.”

Thornton and the crew shot the movie in 24 days. A year later, on November 25, 1996, Sling Blade hit theaters.

Jeff Nichols was a student at Central High School in Little Rock at the time when the movie came out.

“There is no doubt that Billy Bob Thornton was fully obsessed with that character in that story,” Nichols said.

Now 25 years later, Nichols is an award-winning director responsible for movies like Loving, Take Shelter, and Mud.

“My films do not exist without the influence of Billy Bob Thornton and this movie,” Nichols said.

Canerday believes it’s Sling Blade’s portrayal of the South that got people’s attention.

“Every character in it was, you know, you believe they were real and existed,” explained Canerday. “You either knew somebody like that or were like that. That’s why I think it resonates.”

It wasn't long before Holder realized he was in something special.

“I started seeing a lot of celebrities talking about it in interviews, that had nothing to do with Sling Blade,” Holder remembered. “People were saying, ‘If you haven't seen Sling Blade, you've got to see it.’”

Thornton would go on to receive nominations for several Academy Awards and took home the Oscar for Best Adapted Screenplay.

Glamor aside, Sling Blade’s influence is still felt 25 years later.

“It showed me what was possible from the state of Arkansas,” Nichols said. “You could not watch that film and have it exist anywhere else, any other southern state. It exists in Arkansas.”

You still see signs of the movie’s presence in Benton. For Canerday and Holder, it's something that will stay with them forever.

“It really did change my life in terms of it opened doors for me, and people wanted to hear me audition and wanted to meet me,” Canerday said.

“It's just an honor to have been a part of something that's that historic that is that important for Arkansas,” Holder said.

And Sling Blade's impact goes well beyond its cast. The movie continues to inspire the next generation of Arkansas filmmakers. 

“What it did was inspire, you know, a kid in high school to come back here and dedicate himself to making movies here,” Nichols said.