Director's Chair: Billy Bob Thornton - 'Jayne Mansfield's Car'
Issue: October 1, 2013

Director's Chair: Billy Bob Thornton - 'Jayne Mansfield's Car'

Billy Bob Thornton is a writer, director, actor and musician, who says his best work comes from that inspired by real life. He recently completed work on Jayne Mansfield’s Car, an Anchor Bay Films feature set in Alabama, back in 1969. The comedic drama centers around two very different families, brought together by a funeral.

Thornton, who won an Oscar for his work on 1996’s Sling Blade (Best Screenplay) and was also nominated for his lead performance in the film, wore a number of hats for Jayne Mansfield’s Car. He co-wrote the project, along with collaborator Tom Epperson, and also served as its director. In addition, he is a main character, portraying Skip Caldwell, and is joined by a cast that includes Robert Duvall, John Hurt and Kevin Bacon.

Post caught up with the filmmaker while he was in London, where he once again had his actor’s hat on for 2014’s London Fields. Here, in an exclusive interview with Post, he talks about his experience making Jayne Mansfield’s Car, including the shoot in Georgia, post production, and how he approaches his work.

Post: How much of Jayne Mansfield’s Car is rooted in fact?
Bill Bob Thornton: “It’s rooted not so much in fact, but it’s autobiographical in the sense that some of the character are based on a combination of people that I either observed or was involved with over the years, including my own family. It’s part imagination and part truth. You make a combination of it. It’s just like when I did Sling Blade. People asked me if that character was based on someone? And it was, in fact, based on two or three people put together. I think when you draw on your own life, or at least life that you have observed, it’s going to be your strongest work.”

Post: The film takes place in Alabama, but you actually shot in Georgia?
Thornton: “I set the movie in Alabama, but they don’t have the incentives that Georgia has, so that was the reason. It was the tax incentives. The great news is that northern Alabama and northern Georgia look pretty much the same. We ended up finding a great town called Cedartown, Georgia, which fit the bill. I wanted that old-time, main-street look and Cedartown was really conducive to 1969. We had to change some stoplights and stuff, but not much.”

Post: You opted to shoot on film, rather than a digital format?
Thornton: “Absolutely. Panavision and Kodak. That’s what I have always used, and I will use it until they take it away or it’s all gone. Here’s the thing: Film is magical because it is film. It creates a separation between the audience and the film. A lot of people are saying digital has gotten so great and it’s really realistic. The point is that you don’t want it to look realistic as much as you want it to look like a movie, because that’s what excited us growing up — watching a film. Digital has made great strides, but there is a certain magical quality that we don’t just see with digital yet, and frankly, I’d rather not have everybody see every wart with every hair in it.”

Post: How do you review material?
Thornton: “We had video playback, so the scenes that I’m in, I’d watch a couple of them back. I generally have a feeling when we’re in a scene, whether we got it or not. My DP (Barry Markowitz, ASC), who I’ve worked with forever, if he’s satisfied, then I don’t even look at it. In other words, I don’t watch dailies.”

Post: How long was the shoot and were there any unexpected challenges?
Thornton: “We shot 31 or 32 days. It was really hot and humid. We shot in Georgia in the summer, and it got up to 105 degrees a few times. Hydration was the main need. That was really it. The shoot went really smooth. We didn’t run out of time or anything, so it all worked out really well.”

Post: How involved in post production and the edit are you?
Thornton: “I am always completely involved in the edit. As a matter of fact, we edited this in my basement in my house [in LA]. I have a recording studio down there, so we moved the Avid in and the editor Lauren Zuckerman and I were down there every day. We put a fresh water tank and some food down there, and that was their dungeon for a while. That way I could go upstairs and play with my kids for a while and come back down and check in on it.”

Post: Do you own an Avid?
Thornton: “The movie company rents the system for the edit. Mike Minkler is my post production mixer, and we do that over at Todd-AO.”

Post: Are you hands-on when it comes to editing?
Thornton: “I’ll put it to you this way: I know how to use an iPhone to call someone or text someone, and I can play Angry Birds and take a picture. Other than that, everything else may as well be in Arabic. I am only hands-on in terms of the creative part of it. I defer to the editor and all the post production people.”

Post: You worked with E3 Media. How many VFX are there?
Thornton: “Not too much really. We darkened some things in the process and there were a couple of things in a shot that we really wanted. We couldn’t avoid a modern day gas station, [so] we got that out. Little things like that. Very little. Mainly, just in terms of darkening some things. There is a storm [where] the power goes out and we only wanted the candle light. What they had to light outside, we want to bring that down some, so we brought that down.”

Post: As a musician yourself, does music play a big role in the film?
Thornton: “Music had a big role, since the movie has dark humor as well as drama. Sometimes in life there is a soundtrack in your head, where something sounds bigger to you than to someone else. And sometimes something may seem grand or very important. I wanted whatever is in the people’s heads to be reflected in the music, so that’s what we tried to do with the score. I got some guys I knew, who are really terrific musicians, to do the music. Rick Clark was the music supervisor, a guy I’ve known for a long time, who’s predominantly worked out of Nashville. He and I are both ‘60s garage band geeks, so all of the source music in there is from ‘60s garage bands, which would have been listened to by our characters at that time. The other thing is, when you are making a movie on a budget, you are not going to get ‘Let It Be,’ so this way we can have music of the time and not pay and arm and a leg for it.”

Post: Did the film turn out as you had anticipated?
Thornton: “Absolutely! We would never let it go until it was. If 10 people like the movie or if a million people like the movie, we can sit back and watch it and say, ‘Yes, this is what we intended to make.’ So we are very, very happy with it.”

Post: What’s next for you?
Thornton: “I am currently in London doing a movie called London Fields. I have also Parkland coming out. I have what I guess you would call a big cameo, that’s also coming out. After that, I’ve got two or three other movies as an actor. I probably won’t direct again for two or three years, but I’ve got the seeds of some ideas in my head. I’d like to do another one at some point.”

Post: Is the filmmaking process fatiguing? Do you need time off after directing a film?
Thornton: “Oh yes, absolutely. That’s the thing about directing: As an actor, you go in for two or three months, and once you are done with it, you are done with it. But as a director, it takes a year and a half out of your life. You only want to do it when there is something you want to say, or something that means something to you.”