You Don't Know Jack (But You Will)
An interview with Tom Laughlin, the creator of Billy Jack
Tom Laughlin began his career as an actor, doing small parts in mainstream films (Gidget, South Pacific). As the turbulent '60s came to an end, however, Laughlin turned his head to writing, producing and directing. Beginning with the 1967 film Born Losers, Laughlin launched one of the most successful independent film series in movie history. It wasn't until the 1971 sequel Billy Jack that Laughlin's creation achieved its full pop cultural icon status, though.
The character of Billy Jack was a “half-breed” Indian, freshly returned from Vietnam, who used a curious mixture of martial arts and hippie-era pacifism to fight injustice. Billy Jack, which cost less than a million dollars to produce, ended up grossing more than $30 million at the box office. The Trial of Billy Jack followed in 1974. But 1977's Billy Jack Goes to Washington, in which Billy fought government corruption, was lost in a swirl of controversy.
Now, all four of the Billy Jack films have been released in a 35th Anniversary Ultimate DVD Collection by Ventura Distribution. Alibi took the opportunity to chat with Laughlin from his home in California where he maintains his political activism (operating two websites, billyjack.com and endtheiraqwar.com) and contemplates plans for his newest film, Billy Jack's Crusade.
You had been acting in Hollywood for some time in mainstream films. How did you make the transition to making your own films?
I was a working actor. We came to Hollywood because I wanted to make movies. My wife and I, Dolores Taylor, we came out here because we wanted to change things and make a difference. We wanted to use films to do that. When we came here, you couldn't do that. You couldn't be in the cameraman's guild unless you were legacied. You couldn't be a director unless you were legacied. When we did make our first independent picture, what we found out was that you couldn't play it in the theaters because the IA guys [International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees] would scratch the lenses or tear it up. We came out here to [make film], but I couldn't get to direct, so I thought, “OK, I'll act and I'll become a big star and then they'll let me direct myself like, say, Marlon Brando.”
It took 17 years from the time we wrote Billy Jack until we could get financing. Whether it was a studio or private money, they all said, “There's no money in Indians, it's box office poison.” Finally, I went back to my home in Milwaukee and with some successful business colleagues from college, we raised some money to make our first picture [Among the Thorns], which starred a young girl named Taffy Paul—she became Stephanie Powers. So that was our first attempt. We, along with John Cassavettes and Roger Corman, were the pioneers of independent film.
When it came time to do Born Losers, you worked with [drive-in kings] American International Pictures, right?
No, never. What happened was, we were still struggling with Billy Jack. Being turned down everywhere, including AIP. I came home one night and Dotie said, “I got it! There's a motorcycle gang up in Porterville, Calif., that raped five girls and are now terrifying them from testifying. Billy Jack can take on the motorcycle gang. No one will object to that. We can go out and try and raise the money to make that, and then if it's successful, we can make Billy Jack.”
We did it and that picture became the most profitable independent film of its time. We made it with our own money and then got a release deal with AIP. We've done everything with our own money. We've never had studio money.
That seems like a smart way to do things.
Well, it's the hardest way, but that way you don't run into trouble. Like, Michael Moore made a film with $5 million of Disney's money [Fahrenheit 9/11], and they decided they were gonna bury it. Fortunately, [Harvey] Weinstein bailed him out. That's what can happen if you're making powerful movies.
Billy Jack is a unique film. It has that similar drive-in, exploitation structure that Born Losers has, but it draws on so many cultural touchstones of the time. Where did all that philosophy and all those ideas come from?
Well, our whole life, I guess. Dolores, when I met her she was living just off the Rosebud Reservation in South Dakota. I went back there to try and woo the girl, and that was the first time I was introduced to the unbelievable poverty of the Native Americans there. She had seen it all her life and it disgusted her and she wanted to do something about it. I came along; and that week while I was there, we wrote Billy Jack as our protest against that. But that sense of justice, of what's fair, has been a passion of mine since as long as I can remember.
Billy Jack and The Trial of Billy Jack were both shot in New Mexico. What brought you here?
It was both Arizona and New Mexico. When Billy Jack was halfway through, Sam Arkoff [president of AIP] tried to screw me and Dolores on the picture—really tried something rotten and evil. So we shot the picture and worked on a deal to buy him out. At that time, the Academy Awards were on and all the state governments had their film commissions trying to hustle you to come shoot in their state. We had shot half of it in Arizona already, just because it was closer to us in Los Angeles. They had a big meeting. The governor [of New Mexico] came out. He'd been partying a bit the night before. He came out in his stocking feet. He saw Dolores there and he quickly changed. He comes out and he says, “I want you to finish this in New Mexico. What do you need?” She says, “I need helicopters for a week.” He says, “You got 'em!” She listed everything. “You got it! You got it!” Well, we couldn't say no to that. Later on, guys on the [film] commission, after he gave us all those, they really ripped him. They said, “You stupid idiot, those helicopters cost us 150 bucks an hour.” But in any event, the locations in both places were spectacular.
When you finished Trial of Billy Jack, you ran into some trouble. Did you wind up distributing that yourself?
Well, the trouble starts with Billy Jack. We made it ourselves. Warner [Brothers] promised us the moon, then got into a pissing contest between Steve Ross, the owner, and Ted Ashley, the head. Ross insisted [Ashley] play that picture, so he opened it in a porno theater in Chicago, The Owl and the Pussycat, to try to kill it. So, for two years, we took them to court. Finally, we got the rights back and we did our own campaign. We rereleased it in '73, which is when it had its huge success.
In those days, the absolute only way you could open a film, any film—Dr. Zhivago—was in the downtown battlewagon in each city—one major showplace theater. Then, after that, go to the rich neighborhood showcases and then wide. Our research—we're fanatic for research—had shown that this was stupid. If you opened in 1,200 theaters on the same day and date, you'd make a fortune. No one would do it for three years, so we did. We bet our house, we bet everything we had on it. We opened in 1,200 theaters on the same day and date. We were the first [film] to ever buy a national television commercial. We broke every record. We did over $30 million in 30 days when the tickets were $1.
You've refered to your next film, Billy Jack Goes to Washington, as the film that was not “allowed” to be released. Was that a function of political pressure in the country, or a result of changing corporate structure in Hollywood, making studios and theaters much more corporate controlled?
Well, not only controlled, but [the studios] were the chief fundraisers for any politician, Republican or Democrat. Universal's Lew Wasserman, my dear friend, took care of the Democratic party. Pat Scrieber, the second-in-command, took care of the Republicans. They played the game.
We had a screening of [Billy Jack Goes to Washington] and Sen. Vance Hartke from Indiana came in. He stands up and attacks me afterward. Present is Lucille Ball, Walter Cronkite's daughter, Sen. Bill Cohen from Maine, and he attacks me. “You son of a bitch, you'll never get this movie released.” And, indeed we didn't. Now, three years later, he gets indicted for the exact same crime as we expose in that movie. But tell me another picture of that quality that was never allowed to be in the theaters. Here's the point: If that had happened today, do you know the brouhaha it would have raised? This is what's important to me. The exposé, the material that's dug up in that movie.
This DVD set is not an end. It's the beginning. That political activism that started with Born Losers and Billy Jack and then erupted in the film that was so powerful they wouldn't allow it to be seen, now finally people can see it.