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.
Talk about your relationship with your co-writer Tom Epperson, and what that’s like..
We always had a pretty good working relationship. We’ve had our Lennon/McCartney times where we’re at each other’s throats, but we’ve known each other since I was 8 and he was 12; that’s just gonna happen. It’s not hard for us to know who should write what. We know each other’s strengths and weaknesses so we don’t even usually have to discuss it. We don’t have to say, “Hey, who should write this scene?” “Well I want to write it.” “No, I was thinking I would write it.” We kind of fall into things easily because it’s obvious to us who should write what. In that sense, we work really well together because ego doesn’t come into it about that kind of thing. And that’s not to say that I might write a scene that Tom may add a little to, or take away from, and vice versa; we do that too. Tom might hand me a scene and I go “Hey, I got this idea” and he’ll say, “Cool, go ahead, put that in there.” We do pretty well.
Do you ever see yourself directing one of your more thriller-y screenplays? Is that something that interests you at all?
Maybe. It depends on what type of movie it is. I kind of like to direct actors and compose shots. I’m not big on sitting around with a storyboard artist and planning out how the wolf attacks the dude; that doesn’t interest me a lot. “Oh, we have vampires. Okay, we gotta do that digitally” and then I have to meet a guy with a machine that makes the teeth grow out. I’m not real big on that. You know, what I would like to direct is a ghost story. So maybe if Tom or I ever write a good ghost story because I’m not big on modern horror movies—I like the old horror movies—but I really have always liked ghost stories, so maybe one of these days.
“The Gift” was pretty phenomenal; that was a pretty scary movie.
Well, Sam Raimi is terrific at that stuff. He really knows his stuff when it comes to that. I did “A Simple Plan” with him as an actor, and I gotta tell you it was so amazing going to set knowing the director was gonna set this world up and all I had to do was play the character.
You brought up actors; how did you assemble this amazing cast?
I tend to like to cast the main characters with people that I know so I don’t have to get in arguments with agencies, or even talk to them. Usually I have some people in mind already, so a lot of these people are friends who are right for the parts. We started out writing this movie for me and Duvall, so those characters we knew who they were gonna be. The other ones who were cast were people I just called myself; said, “Hey, man, we’re making a movie do you want to do it?” Those would include Kevin Bacon, Robert Patrick, Ron White, John Hurt. The ones I didn’t know before; I didn’t know Ray Stevenson and I didn’t know Katherine LaNasa or Frances O’Connor; those were people that during the process were suggested to me.
On the commentary for “Armageddon,” Michael Bay says that you love playing characters with physical imperfections and that you added your limp to the character in “Armageddon.” Obviously your character here is very badly wounded. Why is that?
Life wasn’t real easy for me growing up and I had physical injuries but nothing that really shows. I think they’re more representative of a wounded soul more than anything else. I’ve also known some people who have physical afflictions or terrible scars, and I’ve always been interested in their psyche because it really affects your insights. In this character, Skip, he’s in sort of a state of arrested development. He hasn’t grown much more than his years since he went in the war because once he saw what it was really about, he sort of stopped right there; there’s a real childlike quality to him. I think he’s trying to recapture childhood and remain a child because the adult world is too much for him. That’s similar to a few of my characters; the one in “A Simple Plan” and “Sling Blade” for example.
As an actor you’ve been interested in transforming into these characters physically. As you grow older you can’t transform physically, but with makeup and prosthetics you can change more easily. Is that a fair assessment?
I’ve never used prosthetics, but obviously in this I did [for my character’s scars]. It’s surprising how whatever character you’re playing can show through on your face. If you’re really into that character, you can transform; if you put the clothes on and you feel like that character. Sometimes it can make you look older, younger, dumber, smarter. I just played a prosecuting attorney in Boston in a movie with Robert Downey, Jr. and Duvall, and I was just a slick-ass prosecutor and now I’m over here in London playing a dying novelist. People have told me before, “Wow, you look so young for your age” and then it’s like wait until next month. It depends on what’s behind the curtain to really come across looking different. I’ll color my hair these days, when I go on the road with my band, or I’m about to color it for another project after this movie and I’ll look younger for awhile then. I got a cameo in “Parkland” that’s coming out and I was playing a guy in his mid-60s and I didn’t do anything. I just put on the clothes and some old man glasses from the early ‘60s and I looked like an old man. They didn’t doctor my face up or anything. I did get the flu when I was done there, that probably helped. It’s an interesting thing how you can transform sometimes by the way you feel. I’m sure you’ve looked at yourself in the mirror during a stressful time and said “Jesus Christ.”
There’s been talk of a “Bad Santa 2;” is that still something you’re interested in doing?
Oh, yeah. I would love to do it. The public demands it and I’m not big on sequels—I’ve never really done one—but I think this one makes sense to do. It’s made for a sequel and I love playing the character, so they’re working on it right now. We’re not sure it’s going to be made but that’s the talk and I suppose if they find a script that they like we’ll try to do it next year. I would enjoy revisiting that one.
People say “Why don’t you do a sequel to ‘Sling Blade‘?” but what’s that gonna be about? I don’t think I could do that. By the way, it’s okay to talk about “Armageddon;” it’s not really a soft spot. I don’t really do blockbusters, but I thought on the level that it was supposed to work, I always thought it did, and I enjoyed my time on that movie. There were some critics who I knew over the years and they would say, “Well, we love your movies but maybe not ‘Armageddon.’ ” Every time, when Bruce Willis is buying the farm on the rock and Dan hands me the patch, I tear up.
Would you do another blockbuster?
Usually they asked me to be the bad guy on one of those big ones, years ago. They told me how long I was gonna be in makeup and I said, “Nah, that’s okay.” Maybe I’ll do one one day. I’m past the age where I could play the superheroes so I’d have to play the deputy assistant mayor; Commissioner Gordon’s assistant.
Do you have plans for what will be your next script or directorial project?
I have a couple ideas; they’re in the really, really early stages. I haven’t written anything. There are a couple stories I’d like to do and they’re not too much off the beaten path. If anything, they’re probably less accessible than what I’ve done so far.
Did you ever watch the “Friday Night Lights” TV show?
I saw the pilot. I thought the pilot was pretty good. Pete [Berg] did a terrific job on the movie, and it was kind of nice to have a spin-off to a movie that you’d done and give it more life. I thought that was a good thing.
“Jayne Mansfield’s Car” is in select cinemas and on demand today and well worth a watch.