Telling a crooked tale: ''Traveller''
Looks like acting opposite computer-generated tornadoes wasn’t challenging enough. With his current con-man drama, Traveller, former Twister storm chaser Bill Paxton took on the task of making charming characters out of the Travellers, a band of Irish gypsy thieves who roam the Southeast preying on the unsuspecting by pulling house-repair and used-car scams, among other crimes. ”We definitely romanticized them,” admits Paxton, who produced and helped cast the movie, in which he costars with Mark Wahlberg and Julianna Margulies. As first-time director Jack Green puts it, ”They’re really not very nice people.”
Although screenwriter Jim McGlynn read up extensively on his wily subjects, Traveller is a bit of a sham itself. ”We say their girls get married when they’re 16. In fact, they’re promised at 12 and married by 14,” says Green, who’s been the cinematographer on seven Clint Eastwood films, as well as Twister, where he met Paxton. ”And they’re much wealthier than we present them. What we depict was probably their lifestyle 30 years ago.” Green says he sanitized their habits to make the film ”more palatable to a larger audience and more morally acceptable.”
Authorities who chase drifter grifters around the Carolinas find nothing palatable or acceptable about the Travellers. ”In this business you sort of admire the chutzpah of certain con men,” says Dave Kirkman, an assistant attorney general in North Carolina’s Consumer Protection Division, whose special interest is a similar group called the Redneck Mafia. ”[But] after seeing how they treat their kids, dressing up 6- and 7-year-old girls like little sluts, it’s hard to have any compassion for those folks.” Paxton, however, hews to his film’s less objectionable characterization. ”They were not allowed to really settle in any one place,” says the actor. ”When you understand them from a historical perspective, it’s not that you forgive them, but you can look at them in a compassionate light.”
What will Travellers, whose low profile has helped them prosper, think of Traveller? ”I’m just waiting,” says Green. ”I know we’re going to get those veiled threats. Not even veiled, probably.” Paxton isn’t so worried. ”I think they’ll dig the movie,” he says with a smile. ”Let’s face it: We’ve made heroes out of these antiheroes.”