These days, most people think of Billy Bob Thornton as an actor, thanks to his unforgettable performances in pictures like the Coens’ “The Man Who Wasn’t There,” Sam Raimi’s “A Simple Plan” and Terry Zwigoff’s “Bad Santa,” so much so that it’s easy to forget that Thornton wrote, directed and starred in the Academy-Award winning “Sling Blade” (Best Adapted) and co-wrote genre classics like Carl Franklin’s “One False Move” and Raimi’s “The Gift.” His latest effort as a co-writer, director, and star is “Jayne Mansfield's Car,” which opens today in theaters and on demand, a charming comedic drama about a southern family whose matriarch leaves, marries a man in England, and then dies (you can read our review from Berlin earlier this year here). The movie takes place on the eve of her funeral, with the two families (one stiff-upper-lip, one deep-fried-south) collide.
Robert Duvall plays the woman’s ex-husband and John Hurt is her new widower, with Thornton, Kevin Bacon, and Robert Patrick playing the three American sons (Ray Stevenson and Frances O’Connnor play Hurt’s children from a previous marriage, who accompany their father with the body). Duvall has said that Tennessee Williams was in the back seat of “Jayne Mansfield’s Car,” and it’s easy to see why: the movie is full of long, elegantly composed sequences of people sitting together, engaged in thoughtful conversations (or inspecting the destroyed vehicle that a young starlet was decapitated in).
We talked to Thornton about what it was like to assemble the cast and shoot a period film on such a small budget, what he thinks the chances of “Sling Blade” would have been if released today, whether or not he’s still going to do “Bad Santa 2,” why he is drawn to characters with physical deformities (in “Jayne Mansfield’s Car,” he’s a badly burned war veteran), "Armageddon" and more.
Before we started you said you were calling from England which is appropriate considering this is about the culture clash between the English and the American South. Was that something that you had wanted to play around with for a little while?
Oh, yeah. I’ve always enjoyed a good culture clash. I’ve always wanted to do one between an Asian family and an American family—so maybe one of these days—because they always want their daughters to marry doctors, scientists, a computer company owner. Years ago I had a Chinese girlfriend and she wouldn’t even tell her family that she knew me. I wasn’t allowed to answer the phone.
Could you talk about where this project came from?
I wanted to make a movie about how different generations view war; how they pass it along to the next generation; and how the psychological damage of war manifests itself in a family, as well as a movie about the romanticism of tragedy and that’s where the title comes from. Jayne Mansfield’s car is a metaphor for that. And then the culture clash of this situation is the backdrop for that.
Did you start writing it during the Iraq War? I feel there were parallels to what’s going on now, but not overtly so.
Absolutely. We set it in the Vietnam War because the difference between the generations was much greater back then. In the last three decades war hasn’t been viewed that differently by each generation. Back then there was a huge canyon between people in WWI, WWII, and the Vietnam War so it made more sense; plus I’m a child of the sixties anyway and like making movies about that.
How hard was it to pull off a fairly elaborate period piece on what I’m assuming was not very much money?
Yeah, we didn’t have a lot of money. If I’d made this movie in 1997-98, or 2000 even, it would have been a $30, $40 million dollar movie but they don’t really make adult dramas for a big budget anymore. The reason being is because studios are usually the ones making bigger budget movies for younger audiences because that’s who goes to the movies. We have ourselves to blame for it, adults don’t go to the movies; they stay home and watch cable and then complain that there aren’t any good movies. Well, if they would go to the movies they’d make more adult dramas because movie companies are just selling stuff. They don’t care what they put out as long as people go.
It’s not like if suddenly adult dramas became hot, and people started going, that the studio would go “Oh, we still like Spider-Man” or whatever better; they’ll put out whatever the hell sells. We rely on people like yourself to put the word out there for us because movies like this don’t have a chance in hell. I don’t really make movies that are what’s popular now. "There’s too much talking in them," or "They’re too long"; ten years ago no one said that. Ten years ago you made a masterpiece, now you’ve made a confusing movie—is it a drama, is it a comedy? Well it’s both! So now dramas have to be over-earnest for anybody to understand what it’s supposed to be, and comedies have to be goofy with no heart; but if you mix it up together people go “Oh, I didn’t know what it was.” Yeah, you know what it was; it’s life.
Do you think if “Sling Blade” came out today it would have a much harder chance gaining that momentum?
Oh, absolutely. I don’t know if it’d have ever gotten made first of all. If it had gotten made, there’s no telling; nobody would have seen if it’d gotten made. I don’t know if anyone will see this one either. Maybe, they’ll leave it alone. I was really influenced more by Southern literature than by movies so I just made books on film.
Can you elaborate on making "books on film"?
Where I grew up we didn’t have a lot of movies. We had one movie theater, the Red’s Theater, and we’d see whatever was on. It was usually stuff like…what was the one with the flying Volkswagen? “Herbie Goes to Monte Carlo.” I enjoyed movies but when I was growing up we didn’t really want to criticize movies the way people do now. We went hoping to watch stuff, not hoping to hate it so we could say funny shit on the Internet. It was a different society at that time. I loved watching movies, so I didn’t have anything against movies I just didn’t see that many. Martin Scorsese grew up in New York, so he grew up with art theaters around him, so as a result he became a guy who was very knowledgeable about movies; he knows them all, and he was influenced by films and filmmakers. I grew up loving the Beatles and Frank Zappa; I was a music geek and a sports fan. So when I got into movies, my only way into them was through the books I read: William Faulkner, John Steinbeck, and Erskine Caldwell. I would probably want my movies to turn out the way they do; you have a lot of long takes, you have people talking, they usually have a Southern Gothic or Southern feel because that’s what I know the best. I lived in Los Angeles for 33 years, and I could probably make a pretty good film about Los Angeles, but sometimes we want to say something about where we came from; those are the things we don’t have out of our systems yet.