Exclusive Interview: Billy Bob Thornton on Jayne Mansfield’s Car

Jayne Mansfield's Car Billy Bob Thornton Kevin Bacon

The 1990s were an exciting time for independent cinema, and one of its highlights was Sling Blade, a film written, directed by and starring a then-largely unknown actor named Billy Bob Thornton. Nominated for two Academy Awards including Best Actor and Best Adapted Screenplay (he won the latter), Thornton took advantage of his increased visibility as an actor to appear in high profile films like Armageddon and Bad News Bears, while continuing to write and direct unusual tales of Southern drama in the form of All the Pretty HorsesDaddy and Them, and now – twelve years after directing his last narrative feature – Jayne Mansfield's Car, an ensemble drama about cultures clashing and the impact of war on the male psyche in Alabama, 1969.

Billy Bob Thornton made a variety of unusual creative decisions in Jayne Mansfield's Car, narratively, musically, editorially and in the casting process, so I got on the phone to discuss his mindset, ideas about drama and, just because a lot of us are still waiting, an update about the director's cut of All the Pretty Horses, which seemed like a lost cause for many years. Fortunately, Thornton has some good news about that. Give the interview a read.

CraveOnline: I was kind of surprised by Jayne Mansfield's Car. It's a film that struck me as being about very poor communication, and in the first act in particular, it feels like the film has to hold something back in order to illustrate that. And that seemed very risky. That seemed kind of daring.

Billy Bob Thornton: Yeah, well, here's the thing. These days, if you don't make a movie that people are used to seeing, they're gonna bust its balls, anyway. So, I figure if that's the case, do exactly what you feel like doing, and I'm more influenced by literature than I am movies, really. I kind of make books on film. So, the people who like them or don't like them can blame it on me reading Southern literature because that's really kind of what I do.

In terms of holding back, I think the thing you've got to do in a story is you've got to show who people are, show kind of what their warts are and then get into the story and tell them what it's all about, and learn about the people as you go because in life, that's what we do. We're not handed everything on a platter in life, so that's just kind of the only way I know how to do it, to tell you the truth. I don't really make movies to win any popularity contests or anything like that. I want the investors to get their money back, and for the people that I make these movies for, I hope they like them but they're not made for everybody, especially in these days and times. If I'd made Sling Blade last year, it would have probably fallen on its ass. Maybe this one will, too. I have no idea.

What sort of literature? Were there specific books that inspired Jayne Mansfield's Car?

Well, when I say inspired by that stuff, I mean this is stuff that's sort of in your core, anyway. It's not a real conscious effort to do anything. This story came about because I'm a fan of culture clashes and I wanted to make a movie about how different generations view war and how they pass that along to the next generation and how the psychological effects of tragedy manifests itself in a family, and talk about the romanticism of tragedy. Therefore, you have the metaphorical title of Jayne Mansfield's Car

There was actually a review of this, early on before anybody… The only people who review movies really quickly are ones who hate them. [Laughs] So, it’s like you take it to a film festival and a few bloggers come out of the woodwork with a backpack and they slam your movie, but they came there to do that, anyway. So, one person in the beginning, with a really reputable firm, we’ll say… [Laughs] You know, sort of like, a high-brow organization. They did a review of this movie and the person who wrote this review said, "Jayne Mansfield's Car is not about Jayne Mansfield's car," and then talked about that for like, three paragraphs. It's like, "Wait a minute. You're supposed to be smart. You're writing this for smart people!" It's like, "How can you not know that it's a metaphor?" [Laughs] It's like, wow, wait, who are they hiring today? Maybe the writers were off that day and they just got the janitor to do it.

So anyway, one way or the other, that's the kind of movie I wanted to make. I had actually seen Jayne Mansfield's car, when they brought it to my town and I had always wanted to put that in a movie. So, I found the perfect way to do it, through this, because it could be representative of something deeper than just a sideshow. The reason I set it in '69 is because the differences in the generations were much wider at that time. The difference between the World War II-minded person was much different than the Vietnam-minded. Whereas these days, the last three decades, people don't really view war that differently.

Did this start with the idea of incorporating Jayne Mansfield's car into a narrative or was that something you lucked into as you were writing it?

Oh no, that was from the beginning. You need a backdrop for any movie, so that was the thing. I'd already wanted to make a movie about a British family and a Southern family and I didn't know what that was but I knew it would involve the death of someone and that they would come together over that. So, I put that together with this whole idea of this family, with this father and the three sons and war, you know and added in Jayne Mansfield's car. Those things all kind of came together to make this story. It's kind of odd because sometimes people don't… If you have humor and drama in the same movie, for some reason in the last few years, that's become perplexing to people. That's kind of what movies always were, and now, dramas seem to be over-earnest and comedies seem to be just comedy and no heart. So the way I like to do them is, real life is full of both, and you've got to put them together.

Yeah. How do you work with Tom Epperson, as a writer? Do you work in the same room and throw ideas back and forth? Do you exchange pages? How does that process work for you?

We work it out first. So, in other words, we'll meet for a few weeks and just talk things out. And then after we've done that, we never see each other again. [Laughs] We've been working together for so long. I've known Tom since I was 8 years old and he was 12. So, we know each other well enough to know who should write what. That's the good thing about our partnership is that we don't really ever have to discuss who's going to write what. It's kind of obvious to us, you know?

It's the little decisions sometimes that I'm most fascinated about in a movie. And I had this image in my head, of you two trying to figure out, "What is just the right poem for you to masturbate to, on camera?" Was that a tough decision?

I'll put it to you this way, the masturbating and the naked British girl was my idea, Charge of the Light Brigade was Tom's idea because he reads many more poems than I do. I said, "Tom, what's a poem? Name a poem." [Laughs] "How about Charge of the Light Brigade?" "Yeah, that sounds good to me." [Laughs]

I saw that Tippi Hedren was credited online as playing Naomi. Did she have a lot of scenes that were cut out?

There were two scenes. There were actually two scenes. At the end of the day, as usual, there are things that you have to lose and those were two scenes that we could lose and not hurt the movie. And I hated to lose them because they were terrific scenes and she and John [Hurt] were both terrific in them. They were toward the very beginning but finally, in cutting the movie, the place we found we could cut the most and not damage the movie was in the beginning of the movie. And then we had the idea that, "Well, look, who needs to see the British people until they get here? Let's look at it through the point of view of the people in Alabama who are waiting for them." So, we don't see them until Alabama sees them.

We originally even had a phone call, between Ray Stevenson and Duvall, where we cut back and forth on the phone call. We took that out also and just made a decision, since we're gonna have to cut this stuff, what should we do? Well, let's just cut all of it. Because that way, we don't see them until they get to Alabama. There was actually a very funny scene at the little airport that cut out too, but we cut it before we ever shot the movie. We knew it was a big expense and we didn't have a lot of money to make the movie, so we knew it was a big expense for a payoff, only as a standalone scene. In other words, it didn't really service the story that much. But she was terrific.

Is that on the DVD, perhaps? The deleted scenes?

I'm sure, when they get ready to put a DVD out, I'm sure they'll ask me to do some kind of Director's Cut or add some deleted scenes to it. Those would absolutely be some scenes that we'd probably put on there, yeah.