The BMD Interview: VFW’s William Sadler

In which Scott talks to the once and future Grim Reaper.

You probably won't remember this, but we met on the set of Machete 2.

William Sadler: Really!

Yeah. And all we talked about was Tales From The Crypt.

Haha, well, I honestly don't remember.

I don't blame you! But it is funny, because when I mentioned I was speaking to you on Twitter today, a lot of folks were like, "Ask him about Demon Knight!" I imagine you saw some similarities to that film while making VFW.

Oh, sure. They were both low budget - though I'm sure Demon Knight had a bigger budget - but those kinda siege movies are always fun to make: you create a character and then things start to go bad [for that character]. That was such a terrific collection of actors on Demon Knight to be trapped in a building with. Everyone had a character and a really strong presence, and you could just bounce off of 'em. You could really just unload! You'd look around the room and there's CCH Pounder giving it right back to you, or Thomas Church. It was great. And the same exact thing was true of VFW: you'd throw something out there, and you're standing opposite another group of terrific actors, giving it right back. I'm not sure I like the term "character actors", but that is who we are. We create characters as opposed to just playing ourselves. 

And what a cool assortment of people you worked with on this one. I feel like this must've been a particularly rowdy set, especially with Joe Begos at the helm. 

Joe was like a kid in a candy store! My strongest recollection of him is that he's always holding the camera and moving around the room. Catching a piece of this, then whip-panning over to that. It was very loosely organized. Joe did not direct us to death. Everyone sorta knew what the game was. It was all just very fun, especially since we'd all worked with each other before. I'd worked with Steve Lang several times, I did a play with David Patrick Kelly off-Broadway, Marty Kove I did a show with called Hard Times on Planet Earth. We'd all been knocking around in the trenches together forever, so once they put us all together it was pretty great.

I feel like doing a siege movie - or, really, any movie that takes place almost entirely within a single location - would be tough after a while. I feel like that would try my patience. Does that ever happen?

Well, the task at hand keeps changing. Every day it's a different scene, a different set of tasks, different problems. I guess it does get a little claustrophobic after a while, because day after day you're going back into the same room - 

Yeah, that's what I mean!

- But why you're in that room keeps changing. It's "the showdown when they come through the door", or it's "the scene at the bar before the shit hits the fan". It does get claustrophobic after a while, but I think that actually helps the feeling of the film, too, that we're all trapped - that there is no getting out of this room.

I'm thinking about it in terms of my home office. I mostly work from home, and I've made my home office as comfortable as one could hope to make a home office. But!

(laughs) "But!"

But...even though the day-to-day tasks change, and some days are more exciting than others, I kinda go nuts sitting inside the same room for weeks at a time.

Well, we shot the whole thing in, like, eighteen days, so there was always a light at the end of the tunnel. We were sometimes shooting eleven, twelve pages a day! We barely had time to learn the words.

Do you prefer an operation like that? Quick and dirty, like?

I can see upsides and downsides. This one was very by the seat of its pants. Working that way can sometimes be disconcerting, like, "Wait, you're gonna throw me into the table and then what's gonna happen?" It can seem unplanned, or even unhinged. But I have to admit, I really enjoyed the spontaneity of it, because things happened. Things happened that might not otherwise have happened if everything had been so carefully planned. Shawshank was carefully planned. Every shot, every angle, every moment. There were very few opportunities for improvisation. You do ad-lib a little, or add little notes of music that you'd add to the song, but they were being added to a very carefully-planned framework. 

Y'know, since you brought it up, The Shawshank Redemption just had a big anniversary last year...

It did!

...and I'm wondering if that movie looms larger to you, on your filmography, than others. It is a classic.

That movie, in particular, has a very special place for me now, especially now that the world has decided it's such a unique and special thing. I don't think any of us knew when we were making it. We all knew it was a strong story and a great cast, certainly, but also: you came to work and you did the gig and you had fun and went home. I don't think any of us realized that it would catch on in people's imaginations like that, or become so important to them in the way that it has.

Why do you think it has?

Well, it's a story of friendship and hope. And love, really! This growing sense of affection between these two men, in a completely nightmarish place, and the triumph of that, over the corruption and deliberate cruelty of the place. I think that spoke to people, of hope. I'm not exactly sure why it holds such a special place, but it does, and maybe that's it. People tell me, "I watched that movie with my father when he was sick" or "We watch that movie once a month!" I think it just speaks so eloquently to love.

I would be remiss if I did not talk to you a little bit about what may be your most iconic role, The Grim Reaper, which you'll be returning to soon in Bill & Ted Face The Music. People are insanely excited for this movie.

I know! I worry that the anticipation is so great that there's no way on Earth that it can live up to their expectations.

They were trying to get this movie off the ground for years and it kept stalling out right before crossing the starting line. Were you privy to all that back and forth?

I wasn't directly involved in any of those conversations, no. I would hear about it, certainly. Ed Solomon, one of the writers, contacted me years ago and said, "Hey, I'm writing the Reaper into Bill & Ted 3, would you be interested?" And I said, "Of course I would!" So I was very excited to be asked back, once it got off the ground.

Well, we're all excited, too.

Thank you! And I'm excited to see it. Y'know, the Reaper isn't all the way through it, like he is in Bogus Journey. So there's a bunch of this movie that I wasn't even there for the filming of. But I love the script and I know what Alex [Winter] and Keanu [Reeves] are capable of, so I'm as jazzed to see it as everyone else.

(Note: Header photo by Eliana Pires)