It has been 12 years since Miramax Films unceremoniously dumped Daddy and Them, the third film written and directed by Billy Bob Thornton, into a straight-to-cable release and, it seemed, put an end to Thornton’s directorial ambitions. Coming on the heels of the company’s mangled 2000 release of his All the Pretty Horses, the one-two punch from Miramax (which had also distributed his 1996 breakthrough effort, Sling Blade) caused the Oscar winner to swear off filmmaking, focusing instead on acting and music. But now, all those years later, there is a new Thornton film. It’s called Jayne Mansfield’s Car; Thornton directs and co-stars (alongside Robert Duvall, John Hurt, Kevin Bacon, Robert Patrick, and many, many others), and co-writes with his old friend and writing partner Thom Epperson (their other scripts include One False Move, The Gift, and A Family Thing). It’s good to have him back.
The picture is set in the late 1960s, in the midst of antiwar protests and societal upheavals, in the small town of Morrison, Alabama. “I wanted to make a movie about how the psychological effects of war manifest themselves in a family,” Thornton says, by way of explaining the theme. “That and the romanticism of tragedy.” The big, shambling ensemble is comprised of two families: an English family in town for the funeral of their matriarch and the Southern family she left behind.
“You know, the South has a rich storytelling background,” Thornton explains, “and I grew up in that, and the descriptions in the books of the characters and the land were all very important to me growing up, so it’s just as important to me now when I make a film about it.” His influences tend to be homegrown novelists as much as filmmakers, “because my mom and my grandmother, they were both — and my mom still is to this day — really into reading the Southern novelists, so I was big on the Faulkners and Erskine Caldwell, Flannery O’Connor, Eudora Welty, Tennessee Williams.”
Much of Jayne Mansfield’s Car is deeply personal for Thornton — his character’s father (played, beautifully, by Robert Duvall) is based on his own father, and his dialogue and characters are inspired both by his own experiences and the Southern storytelling traditions. “Growing up in the South, [storytelling] is kind of everything when you’re a kid, especially where I grew up, because until I was eight or nine, we lived with our grandmother, who had no electricity or running water, until I was about that age. So that’s pretty much what you have. The South is full of characters, and I was just vastly interested in characters as a kid, and there are ghosts in the South. The air is heavier there. It’s just a different vibe.”
FLAVORWIRE: It’s really good to have you behind the camera again, both as a writer and a director. Obviously you’ve been very busy acting in the dozen or so years since you last took on these jobs, but why has it been so long since we’ve seen a “Billy Bob Thornton Film”?
BILLY BOB THORNTON: Well, the main thing is it takes a long time to direct a movie. It’s not like — as an actor, you’re kind of in and out and you do your bit. And when you direct a movie, it’s a couple of years out of your life, so it has to be something that you really believe in or something that you want to say — and maybe it’s not that way for everybody. I don’t know. Some people — well s, I’ll put it this way: I’m not a director-for-hire type, so if they were looking for someone for a new science fiction movie or something, I’m probably the wrong guy. I just like to make movies about people that I knew and observed growing up, and I’m influenced more by Southern literature than anything else, so if I get another seed of an idea in my head for something like that, then I’ll direct again, and maybe it won’t be ten years again next time — like three years or something. But you know, directing’s hard. And it takes a toll on you, so you have to kind of tuck your tail between your legs and go off in the corner and sleep for awhile, then come back and do it again because it makes you sweat.
I’ve read that you had to find international financing for the film. I’m curious as to how that element, the fundraising, has changed since you were doing this last. Is it getting harder for unique, idiosyncratic filmmakers like you to get films made, even just compared to the ‘90s?
Yeah, you’re absolutely right… If you’re going to make a movie these days about people, and it’s a movie for adults and by adults, and I don’t mean only people who’re 75 years old — people who are 30, even, are staying home and watching television a lot, so it’s hard to make a movie for adults, a movie that’s about people, that has a lot of talking and whatnot. It’s hard to get those movies financed for the budget that they require, and it was really ironic to me that we couldn’t find the financing that we needed in the United States when it’s a very American movie. It was financed by Russians who were fans of mine, and they actually got a hold of us; I didn’t seek them out. They heard that I was having trouble financing the movie, and they said, “Well, let us look at it,” and they did, and they loved it and financed it, so they couldn’t have been kinder to us, and we really appreciate them financing the movie. The financers came from a movie background — the main guy, Alexander [Rodnyansky] is a big reader and he reads all types of literature and watches movies from all over, so it wasn’t like he was an alien saying, “Let me meet this curiosity.”
As an actor-turned-director, what kind of a working relationship do you have with the actors on your films? Were there certain directors you had who inspired you in the way you do the job?
Well, the Coen Brothers and Sam Raimi are ones that come to mind; I love those guys. But then some of the old directors too: Stanley Kramer and, to an extent, John Ford. Sometimes the acting in those movies was kind of over the top, so I wouldn’t say I was influenced by John Ford on that side of it, but more visually, in terms of telling a story, I would say. And we all, I think, love Kazan. He was a terrific director, so I’d say out of all those people, probably Kazan is the one that everybody’s trying to be because he was great with telling the story as well as working with actors, and most of us will never achieve that goal, but he’s certainly a person that we look toward, as well as Frank Capra.
The film comes to what seems to be a fairly conventional ending — and then it goes on for one more scene, which ends the movie on a more ambiguous and uncertain note. Why did you choose to conclude the movie in that way?
Well because then, at the end of the day, the point of the film is that sometimes we want to teach our children the right lessons, but sometimes they form their own opinions and sometimes those opinions are formed by your actions and not as much as your words. And to end the film, driving away into the sunset, that’s one way to do it, but I just find that — you know, look, you’re going to get criticized for whatever you do these days, so if you say something off-color in public and then you don’t apologize, you’re criticized for not apologizing, and if you apologize, then they say, “Oh sure, they’re just apologizing so they can save their endorsements or whatever,” but there’s nothing you can do, so what I choose to do is have some balls and say what I feel in terms of making a motion picture.
Jayne Mansfield’s Car is available now on demand and out in theaters Friday.