In a year filled with shocking and untimely celebrity deaths, Bill Paxton’s passing has been especially devastating for the Hollywood community. His spirit and vitality on and off set has left even those who never knew him feeling as if they’d lost an old friend.
For his real friends — those who saw his energy and love for life everyday — his death last month at the age of 61 still feels like an impossible mistake. Nathan Morlando, who directed Paxton on his final film shoot for the indie-thriller Mean Dreams, opens up to PEOPLE about losing a friend and a unique talent.
“It was brutal,” says the director, who woke up to a text explaining the news. “I was filled with disbelief. Bill had just taken me out for a beautiful lunch so our wives could meet, and we were becoming really close. Bill was becoming like a big brother to me and I was very grateful for that. I was really looking forward to our future together as friends and collaborators. So it was a lot of crying. We spent days crying actually, reflecting on him and his greatness and generosity.”
Paxton’s role in Mean Dreams, as a dirty cop and abusive dad, was a departure from his normal repertoire, which was part of what drew Morlando to him in the first place. “We wanted someone fresh for the role,” he explains. “I think when we normally think of Bill, we think of him in very vibrant, positive and often light roles. For us, it was a very fresh perspective.”
For Paxton, the role of Wayne Caraway offered more than just a chance to delve into a complicated villain — it was a chance to relive an episode from his own life with a new perspective. In the film, a teenage neighborhood farm hand rescues Wayne’s daughter after he witnesses Wayne beating her. The teenagers then go on the run with a bag of cash stolen from Wayne’s dealings as a dirty cop.
While there might not have been a duffel bag full of money in the mix when Paxton lived it, the film’s plot has some eerie similarities to an episode from his youth. “The character of Wayne was someone he knew from his past life, back when he was a teenager,” Morlando explains.
“He was compelled to rescue a girl from a very similar situation, so it struck a very deep chord in him — it was like confronting a ghost from his past. It gives me chills just thinking about it,” he adds. “It was a way of really confronting this time in his life, and this person in his life. It felt like something he needed to do and wanted to do. It was amazing.”
So, after wrapping up production on a Tom Hanks film in Los Angeles, Paxton flew to Northern Ontario to join the low-budget project, starring two unknown (for now) teenage actors: Josh Wiggins and Sophie Nélisse. As the biggest star on the film, Paxton’s commitment and enthusiasm was infectious for the rest of the cast and crew.
“When he came up to Northern Ontario, he had left beautiful, warm L.A. weather, where he was shooting a movie with Tom Hanks,” Morlando says with a laugh. “Then he lands in Canada, where it was freezing cold, he was making no money, and the whole production was a physical challenge. And he was just incredible, he did it for the role and it was just inspiring to all of us.”
Morlando remembers fondly the day Paxton first arrived in the small town of Sault Ste. Marie. Unbeknownst to the actor, it was Canadian Thanksgiving, and all the stores and restaurants were closed. In Paxton’s eyes, his new home for the month seemed like a veritable ghost town. “He was probably walking around like, ‘Oh my god, what I have gotten myself into,’ ” Morlando says with a laugh. When he finally met Paxton later in the day, he explained the situation.
“It was beautifully resolved when we hosted a Canadian Thanksgiving in a laundromat, because that was the only big space we could get,” says the director. “And he loved it. He really felt like he had found his artist’s truth, because there was a wildness to Bill. He really, really loved that and talked about it often.”
When he finally arrived on set, Paxton refused to be treated differently from the rest of the cast. “The moment you meet Bill, especially if he notices that you’re seeing him in a certain way, he breaks that down immediately,” Morlando says. “He is just a lovely, generous human being and he treats everybody with the same respect and regard. He’s just filled with such respect for people, and he instantly wasn’t the star, he was the artist.”
Paxton delivers a chilling performance in the film, seamlessly alternating between the paternal warmth of his Big Love character Bill Hendrickson, and the abusive, unhinged aggression of his Training Day character Det. Rourke. “We wanted to confront Wayne’s addiction in all its brutality and delusional nature and not shy away from it,” says Morlando, who wanted to capture “the Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde nature of addiction.” He adds, “When Paxton was in character you would feel Wayne’s energy. When he’d walk passed you it would give you the creeps, and just a moment before he was Bill Paxton, the lovely guy you want to hang out with.”
Paxton was fully committed to the part, which was as physically challenging as it was emotionally. “It was freezing outside for the shoot, much colder than it looks onscreen. The crew behind the camera was wearing literal arctic gear; we were filming outside for upwards of 15 hours a day,” says Morlando. “Bill’s in a thin leather jacket and a thin shirt and he’s toughing it out. His attitude on set was incredible. Even if he was not on camera, he was always an inspiring presence on set for others and he become everybody’s friend. It was so genuine.”
The director remembers on the last day of shooting, which required Paxton to lie in the mud and freezing rain, he took the time to thank the crew before getting warm. “Now here’s a guy who’s a movie star, lying in the mud, not getting paid for it, and then thanks this crew who worked so hard,” Morlando says. “This wasn’t a famous crew either, they were mostly young Northern filmmakers who were committed and inspired by him and he delivered a beautiful tribute while he was still wet with mud. He was just a wonderful human being and artist.”
Mean Dreams hits theaters on Friday, and Paxton’s memorial service will be held the following Monday. “This was a guy who was going to keep going. He was always in a new stage of creativity, and he was really excited about what was coming,” says the director. “It’s so hard to comprehend that he’s gone, he’s one of those forces that you believe will always exist.”