Contrary to his fearsomely eccentric reputation, we are happy to report that in person, writer/director/actor Billy Bob Thornton is a charmer. Attending The Berlin Film Festival for the premiere of his first directorial outing in over a decade, "Jayne Mansfield's Car" (you can read our review here), he won over press left and right with his mixture of soft-spoken Southern gentlemanliness, and frank rebuttals of some of the more outre rumours that have dogged him throughout his career.
And so we learned that the "vial" of Angelina Jolie's blood he was reported to wear was in fact "a locket with a tiny smear. People made it sound like we were carrying around quart jars of the stuff…," that his phobia of antique furniture is actually based in truth "I just don't like it. It creeps me out…" and that his current relationship with Jolie is that of firm, close friends. He said "I'm so glad she turned to directing. I always wanted her to" and reiterated often how impressed he was with the fruits of her labors, and the scope of her ambition in "In the Land of Blood and Honey."
When we got to sit down with him later, we turned the conversation to his current film. "Jayne Mansfield's Car" is a sixties-set tale of family rifts and reconciliations, particularly focussing on the generational divide between fathers and sons as demonstrated by clashing attitudes to war.
How did you approach writing and casting the female characters within the context of a film that explores the evolution of masculinity?
I was raised with a lot of women, and Southern women are very, very different and amazing in so many ways. Sometimes they're larger than life. Some people could see that performance of [Katherine LaNasa's] and think it might be slightly big, but it's really very authentic and she was perfect for the part. As was Shawnee Smith who plays the sister-in-law.
Shawnee, I was the most surprised and delighted by her of anybody. She didn't just do what I told her, she came up with some things. She made a little part seem like it's through the whole movie, you know? It was her idea to start making out with [Robert Patrick, who plays her husband] in the living room…when an actor does that that's when they can help a director. Writing the female characters or directing them, I tend to be more at ease with women than I am with men. So directing them was no sweat, and writing it, I kind of wrote them based on bits and pieces of different women I knew.
The problem sometimes with writers is…and this goes for film and novels, whatever it is…to be a good writer you need to have a different voice for every person and not your own voice because then you don't have any characters. You've got everybody talking the same. In a lot of commercial movies you notice that. Every character, you can tell is written from the same mind.
Mostly just a vessel to move the plot forward.
Exactly. So this is something I really try to avoid. Tom [Epperson, Thornton's writing partner] and I have always talked about this. You've got to come up with very clear-cut characters and it helps sometimes if you base them on people you may have known. It could be people in your family or somebody down the block or whatever. Let's say you have a woman's character, and she's got a fairly straight story in the thing, nothing particularly surprising, she's a regular woman, a housewife or whatever, and then let's say I take a guy that I knew who had these certain quirks and weird attitudes about things. And then I take that ordinary housewife and I write her as that guy with those traits. Then all of a sudden you have a character.
The person who particularly impressed me on this level was Frances O'Conner. Her role, on paper, is small, and mostly consists of having to react to Skip [Thornton's character], but she invests it with an inherent weirdness that makes it her own. As opposed to just a sounding board.
That's very, very observant of you. I'll tell you, there are two things about that. One is Frances has a very coy manner, and this very quirky flirtatious nature about her, and so that was perfect. The other thing is there were two or three scenes cut from the movie with her where she acted kind of crazy. Three scenes. It was one of the major changes I made in the editing. I haven't told anybody this, but since you seem to care…
Originally Frances' character was supposed to be a lunatic who had been in the asylum. And in having to cut the movie down to a reasonable length and having to figure out how to do this and make the movie better, I cut out the crazy scenes and now it's just these two people who aren't really listened to much by anybody, who meet each other. Skip will just talk to any girl that will talk to him, he just wants to be loved or noticed or accepted, you know? And she…is thrown into this thing in America, but actually finds this strange, poor war-torn guy… like the "Phantom of the Opera" in a way…In cutting that down it became this quirky little romance.
A less-is-more approach?
Yes. So in other words, [her performance is] what's left over from that. What you're seeing in her that looks slightly off was she really was building to that craziness. And if the crazy scenes had never been there, she may not have been like that.
Another aspect of the film, even the title, is the American relationship to the car. How much did that inform the screenplay? Is that something that you have yourself? A love of cars?
Oh yeah, absolutely. My character's whole life is about driving those hot rods and pretending he's still in the clouds. If you remember the scene where they reveal the cars and I take Frances out there to see them? The middle car, the Chevelle, the Hell Cat, that's my car. That's actually mine. And so I'm into '60s muscle cars, that's one of my passions. But the cars of the '60s, those were the last great cars. Everything since then…there's some into the '70s, but since they've tried more and more to make all cars look the same. These cars have personality and because of the title, because of Jayne Mansfield's car and because of the car wrecks, we did purposefully have bits and pieces of car stuff everywhere. The car stuff was a theme.
You just mentioned the sixties setting. And you said elsewhere that that time felt very alive to you. Does today feel less alive by comparison?
Yes, absolutely. Apathetic in a lot of ways. I think people are more interested in their own back yard than anything else. Not that people haven't always been that way, to a degree, but you know especially in America, it takes the economy being bad for them to take notice of what's happening. Because then it affects them directly.
I guarantee you there are plenty of people who are not paying attention to what's happening in Syria right now, instead they're paying attention to the Republican caucus. Let's see who's going to get in here and get jobs back, which I understand why they want it, but also we have to be careful here because the world could come crashing down around us. So I think there's a lot of apathy.
I think people are so desensitized too. I think too much access has made people less interested in life. No magic or mystery anymore. And I think that's part of the problem. I'm not big on Facebook and Twitter and everybody being a star. Once you let everybody be a star then there's no magic.
The cast all seem to turn in incredibly generous performances, no one-steps on anyone else. How did you marshall that as a director?
It was easy. These actors are not…there are actors who might take issue with certain things. "I want another scene" or "why don't I get to stand out there on the porch?" or whatever it is, but these are not those types of actors. I purposely cast actors, not only who are good actors and right for the part but whose personalities fit our vibe on set because we're pretty loose on set. We don’t get into problems and arguments and stuff.
I only get dictatorial when people get like that. I don’t mind telling somebody, "Here's the deal, you're either with this team or you can go home, I don't care. I don't care what your agent says or the studio or anybody else." That's where…as a director you have to really know that you're a leader, it's very important. Like a ship's captain. You know it's like once there's a mutiny…
It's not a democracy.
Exactly, I don't hire people like that and we don't have problems like that on the set. Plus, I knew a lot of them. I mean [Robert] Duvall and John Hurt and I go way back, I've known them for years and years… Robert Patrick and I are old friends, I've directed Robert before. So, that was all easy. And they're pros. And happy to be in a movie like that, an ensemble of terrific actors doing a real story, they're eager to be there.
We shared some details Thornton gave us on "Bad Santa 2" and his next directorial project "And Then We Drove" last week. In other Thornton project news, long-idling Halle Berry reunion "Tulia" looks to be dormant to the point of extinction: "…the thing just kind of disappeared, they never quite got their stuff together and that was several years ago. I was very excited about that project and they never quite got it off the ground. I'm not sure what happened but very likely a financing deal I would guess. Probably that and maybe a director falling out or Halle not wanting this other director, you never know what it's going to be but one way or another I didn't hear about it again."
That's not to suggest Thornton isn't busy; he was flying directly from Berlin to Vancouver to start shooting a new film for "Saw V" director David Hackl. " 'Red Machine' is what I’m going to do when I leave here, in Canada. It's got an environmental message to it; I play a bear tracker up in Alaska."
"Jayne Mansfield's Car," is currently without a U.S. release, but we can only hope that it finds homegrown distribution easier to obtain than financing. Ironically, Thornton's slice of Americana is backed by Russian producer Alexander Rodnyansky. It's a relationship that must have gelled, as Rodnyansky will be signing checks for "And Then We Drove" as well.