It’s been over a decade since a then-unknown Billy Bob Thornton took home an Oscar for the chilling drama “Sling Blade,” a film which he wrote, directed and starred in.
Two lack-luster directorial gigs and a marriage to Angelina Jolie later, Billy Bob is back behind the camera with the quirky drama “Jayne Mansfield’s Car.”
The movie, set in the late 1960s, explores the stories of two war-torn, dysfunctional families that are forced to cohabitate in the wake of an unexpected death. The large ensemble cast includes Robert Duvall, Kevin Bacon, John Hurt, Robert Patrick and more.
“I wanted to make a movie about how the psychological effects of war manifest themselves in a family,” Thornton told me during a recent interview. “That and the romanticism of tragedy.”
In addition to directing, 58-year-old Thornton co-wrote and stars in the film, which was heavily influenced by his family and personal memories of growing up in a small Arkansas town.
Billy Bob plays Skip Caldwell, a former military pilot who lives with his father Jim, a deeply conservative war veteran who is obsessed with car wrecks and struggles to relate to his three very different sons – played by Thornton, Bacon and Patrick.
Thornton wrote the role of Jim Caldwell specifically for Duvall, and based the part on his relationship with his own father, who served in the Navy during the Korean War.
“That [part] was inspired directly by my father who had a fascination with looking at car crashes, plane crashes, whatever he could find,” Thornton said. “He was a very funny guy, and by funny I don’t mean ‘haha’ funny. I loved my dad, but I think he couldn’t articulate his feelings very well and spent a lot of time figuring life out. He stared at those tragedies, they were mythical to him. He couldn’t figure out why life was so random. That was the point of it… getting that aspect of my father, because I actually had those experiences with him, going to car crashes when I was a little kid. Who knows what scars it left on me, but it gives you something to write about.”
The actor credits his appreciation for Southern novelists, his heaviest film making influence, to his mother and grandmother, who he often found reading the likes of William and John Faulkner, Erskine Caldwell, Flannery O’Connor, Eudora Welty, and Tennessee Williams.
“Growing up in the South, [stories were] everything when you’re a kid. Especially where I grew up, because until I was 8 or 9, we lived with my grandmother who had no electricity or running water,” Thornton said. “The South is full of characters, and I was vastly interested in characters as a kid. There are ghosts in the South, the air is heavier there. Maybe the reason is because the major war that was fought on our soil was down there.”
Thornton, who ranks the Coen Brothers and Sam Raimi among his directorial inspirations, finds many of today’s dramas to be “over-earnest,” while comedies are funny but lack “heart and soul.” He believes Southerners have a unique way of “mixing heaviness with humor,” something he attempts to bring to his movies in order to create, what he calls, his “darkly-humorous dramas.”
Despite taking a ten-year hiatus between “Jayne” and his previous directing gig, Thornton is open to the prospect of helming a film in the near future — if the material is right. “If I get another seed of an idea like that in my head again, maybe I’ll direct again,” he revealed. “And maybe it won’t be 10 years next time, maybe three years. But directing is hard, it takes a toll on you, so you have to tuck your tail between your legs and go off to a corner and sleep for a while and then do it again. You know, it makes you sweat.”
One thing he isn’t afraid of? Being himself.
“I just find that you’re going to get criticized for whatever you do these days. If you say something off color in public, and then you don’t apologize, you’re criticized for not apologizing. And if you do apologize, they say ‘Oh, they’re just apologizing so they can save their endorsements,’” he said. “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.”
Watch the Trailer for “Jayne Mansfield’s Car” Now
The opinions expressed are solely those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Comcast.