Born and bred in Arkansas, Billy Bob Thornton has made a name as a premier American actor, screenwriter, and director, as well as an acocmplished musician. An Oscar winner for his Sling Blade screenplay, Thornton is also a two-time acting nominee (for Sling Blade and A Simple Plan). To date, he has directed five feature films: Sling Blade (1996), All the Pretty Horses (2000), Daddy and Them (2001), the documentary The King of Luck, and Jayne Mansfield's Car (2013). Thornton's other screenplays include Daddy and Them and four collaborations with Tom Epperson: One False Move, A Family Thing, The Gift and Jayne Mansfield's Car. All the while, Thornton has remained an in-demand actor, appearing in the Coen Brothers' The Man Who Wasn't There and Intolerable Cruelty (and soon to star in their Fargo TV series), Robert Duvall's The Apostle, Mike Nichols' Primary Colors, Oliver Stone's U Turn, Sam Raimi's A Simple Plan, Jim Jarmusch's Dead Man, Barry Levinson's Bandits, Richard Linklater's Bad News Bears, and Alex Cox's The Winner. When not logging memorable star turns in pictures like Bad Santa, Friday Night Lights, Monster's Ball, and Armageddon, Thornton has cultivated a music career, from solo releases to his current stint with the band The Boxmasters. Thornton came to Mill Valley to discuss his new film as writer-director-star: Jayne Mansfield's Car. We sat down to chat at El Paseo before Thornton collected the Mill Valley Spotlight Award at a Q&A screening of the film.
Groucho: I’ve heard you talk about your dyslexia and how that limited your reading, but the irony is I think your films are novelistic—
Billy Bob Thornton: Right.
Groucho: Given that you create a world big enough that if you take a left or a right, we’d see more going on. Any of these characters could be the lead. There’s a depth to the reality.
Billy Bob Thornton: Well, I personally am not influenced by filmmakers. Because where I grew up, there wasn’t a big deal, you know what I mean? In other words, when I went to the movies—we had one theater in my town, and we went and saw whatever the movie was that they would bring to our town. And it was usually like—
G: Hot Rods to Hell?
BBT: Yeah, yeah. Exactly, yeah. Those were at the drive-in. We had a drive-in also. But our local theater played whatever Disney had out, usually—like the, yknow, the Dean Jones movies or Kurt Russell, like The Computer Wore Tennis Shoes. Those are the kind of movies I saw growing up. Don Knotts, Ghost and Mr. Chicken—y'know, that kind of stuff. So I didn’t think about movies or someday being involved and all. It was rock and roll and baseball. That was my deal. And so my family—they were very much into literature, and my grandmother was a schoolteacher and a writer; she wrote newspaper and magazine articles. And my mom was an English major. My dad is a history teacher. And so growing up there, where we did—it was really in the middle of nowhere. And so I guess you might say I grew up—I know this area a little bit—we were sort of in the Bolinas of Arkansas, in terms of this area. And so I read what my parents and my grandmother gave me to read. So as a result, I read Erskine Caldwell, John Faulkner, William Faulkner, Flannery O’Connor, Eudora Welty, Tennessee Williams: these were the things that I knew. And since I couldn’t read, really, it would take me forever to read a book. So I only read what I knew I was going to like. Y'know what I mean? I have a friend who can—he’ll stack up the latest books. “Oh, these books just came out.” And he’ll read all of them and go “I like these two. I didn't like these.” I can’t imagine that. It was so hard that I wouldn’t want to read something that I didn’t know was gonna be down my alley. And so that’s kind of how that came about. So I would say novelists were much more an influence on me than anything else. I didn’t know anything else.
G: To me, the two things that the film is about are the family coming to terms and the lingering effects that war has—
G: On a person. And The Master is getting a lot of critical buzz right now with some similar themes, and I’m hoping that this is going to enter the conversation here.
G: First, on the topic of war and cars, which intersect in the film, your character is a former pilot, and he equates the cars that he has now with the planes that he used to fly. And if I understand correctly, the car of the title, the wreck of a car—Jayne Mansfield’s car—
G: Seems to sort of symbolize the shell of men that come back from the war. Am I picking up the right idea there?
BBT: It’s the wreckage of life. And also it represents—as I was telling the people earlier—the romanticism of tragedy. Because we love to see "Oh, that’s the car she got killed in" and imagine what it is. Like people will go to the war museum and imagine "There’s a Messerschmitt and there’s a B-51 Mustang" and have these ideas in your head about the guys being blown apart in the air. People really romanticize tragedy. And they romanticize war. Especially in the old days. Not so much now. But during the Vietnam era, [that] this movie was made about, that was when we first got a taste of the reality of war. I mean, before that—you still had enough guys around from World War II who still said, "Whiny bastards should go fight and shut up" or whatever. "People shouldn’t be protesting," this sort of stuff. And y'know, there were people who protested World War II. We just don’t hear that part of it. So yeah, I mean, there was actually a review with a big publication—like a place that’s known for only the artsiest stuff—and they hired some lady to send this review. And I was shocked. The title of the review was “Jayne Mansfield’s Car Is Not About Jayne Mansfield’s Car.” She went off for half the review about Jayne Mansfield’s car is only in one scene. And I thought, "Wow, a metaphorical title is lost on these guys?" That’s who’s supposed to get that. This is not written by some moron, you know. And so it’s interesting you brought the car up because you understood what it is. You know what I mean? When you’re making something, you kind of assume everybody is going to understand it, you know? Because this is not a tricky movie. It’s not Usual Suspects or something like that.
G: It’s sounds like the critic was feeling a little bit of the Duvall’s character puzzlement. Trying to piece together— not having too much luck—
G: Maybe if she dropped some acid, it would help...
BBT: Maybe so.
G: So the other aspect of the film obviously is family. A big part of that is the generation gap, right? And then there’s also this culture clash, which is interesting. I’m curious—what led you to that part of the story? I mean bringing the other husband in and the family from England.
BBT: Well, there were a couple of things that went into that. Usually, when you have an idea on something, it’s generally not an idea. It’s usually a few things put together. Like, for instance, the character from Sling Blade—people say, "Who'd you base that on?" Partly imagination, but also partially based on three different people. So it wasn’t one guy. So the idea of the family—I’ve always loved culture clashes. I mean, that’s just one of the things I think cinematically works. It’s always a crazy thing. In this case it’s English people and people from Alabama who really, at the end of the day, are the same people. And so, because of war, they realize they’re the same people. So I thought that’s an interesting way to show that these sort of upper-crust British people, they’re not much different from the people from Alabama once you boil them down to their essence. I’d always wanted to do—I’d planned on making this movie about this British Southern American family culture clash, at one point. And then when I started putting this one together, I thought this is a great way into the story—because if you only have the American family, they’re only kind of telling it to themselves. In other words, there’s no springboard to start this thing going. For the British people, they’ve probably never said this stuff out loud to each other, but when they saw these crazy Southerners who have to have an association—however distant it is—with them, I thought, "What a great way to actually start the ball rolling," because these British people who would never probably say this to each other, but they see it’s okay with them, so now that they mention it—
G: It’s funny. I didn’t even think of that. I always think about—like Tennessee Williams for example. The in vino veritas thing—usually it's liquor is the device that gets people talking or loosens them up, or drugs as the case may be. But that’s interesting that the culture—the connection of the two cultures—actually loosens them up to make the conversation—
G: And the reserve that’s associated with the Brits—there’s a line about the "stiff upper lip"—you also speak to, like you say, the similarity of the [Robert] Duvall character: that generation not being able to express themselves emotionally.
G: And obviously this is a work of fiction, but there's a semi-autobiographical element here, right?
BBT: Oh, no question.
G: There’s the three brothers and the reserved father—
G: And they try to break through there. When did you write the film?
BBT: A couple of years ago.
G: I wonder if it sort of dovetailed with a time in your life when you were sort of re-examining that—you put out your memoir recently.
BBT: Right. It was on my mind. Y'know? My father wasn’t the greatest guy in the world, to me. And his treatment of me wasn’t that great. Some of this stuff is directly taken from me and my father. And my father actually took me to see Jayne Mansfield’s car. They brought it to our town. So I saw that very thing. I mean, we set it up in the movie the way it was when I saw it. And my father was very morbid and took me to car wrecks, my brother and I, when we were little kids. He would stand there and stare at it for hours. You know. He would go back and look at the place where it happened, once the wreckage was gone: two or three months later. And my father wasn’t able to express himself very well. So I think he was a smarter guy, y'know, than we ever knew. Well, like I say, he was a history teacher; he was a basketball coach. But he came from Irish sawmill workers, and that wasn’t a culture that encouraged closeness or communication or anything like that. So I believe he probably...one way or the other, he just couldn’t do it. So years later I kind of—I don’t know how it is in your family, but maybe there are things that happen in your childhood that, years later, you kind of re-examine it, and you go "You know what? He didn’t have the capacity. It wasn’t really his fault. I don’t blame him." Because you get your own kids, or you have your own life, and you go, "Wow, I completely understand why he—he was trapped in something that he felt he was bigger than but didn’t know how to get out of it." And so I got my father and forgave him. So I think, through forgiving him, it allows you to sort of play around with him in the movies, y'know what I mean? I’ve played my father in movies before: in Monster’s Ball. I looked like my father in that movie. I walked like him—sort of channeled him a little bit. And the guy in Monster’s Ball who they described as a racist prison guard, which is kind of a—you know how they squeeze things down to where—sort of squeeze the complexity right out of it. Actually, wasn’t a bad guy, the guy in Monster’s Ball. It was the father who was the bad guy. And I think my father got his stuff from his father, and he got his from his father, and that’s the way it works. Maybe ultimately it starts to work its way out.
G: I think the film does show that evolution.
G: The next generation’s more willing to make those connections.
BBT: Yeah. Absolutely.
G: Can we talk a little bit about the period of the film: the late ‘60s period. It’s such an interesting—like you said, there were these movements—historical movements—of understanding something deeper about war through Vietnam. But still this very traditional setting...like I think of the ambulance drivers dressed like ice cream men.
BBT: Yeah, right. Exactly.
G: A street over there’s the war protest going on. What did you want to bring out about that time, and was it at all difficult on an indie film budget to recreate it?
BBT: The good news is is that we shot a town called Cedar Town, Georgia for the town. And it was sort of a depressed area. It wasn’t a town that they use down there. They shoot a lot around Atlanta now. And Cedar Town is a place that—the recession hit them a lot worse. A lot of the stores in that town were not in operation at the time, so you just had these empty storefronts. So for a production designer, there’s an easy job. It’s just a glass window. Go to an antique store, get some stuff, put it in the window. My guy, Clark Hunter, who’s done all my movies for me and some that I’ve been in, also, that I wasn’t directing: he’s a great production designer, and he knew what to do. And we had to change stop lights—because in the old days they weren’t on the metal poles; they were on the wires.
G: Right. Yeah.
BBT: Y'know, and a couple of things about the curbs—a few things. But it wasn’t that huge a job. Also, there’s plenty of stuff from the '60s around. Like wardrobe-wise—I can just go in my closet; I could probably put somethin' on everybody in the movie. And so it wasn’t a terribly expensive thing. It’s probably the difference between making what we did—an eleven-and-a-half-million-dollar movie and, say, what they want you to use these days, which is six or seven million, tops. So, yeah, it added some to the budget. And in terms of what I wanted to get out about that time—in the South—I think we’re perceived in the South as being an area of the country where there were no hippies or was no peace movement. And my town in Arkansas was full of hippies. I was one. And I think—there are a few things you don’t see in Southern movies in this movie: hippies and, y'know, smoking pot, doing acid in the '60s, and also you don’t see the people who have money in a small town in the South unless it’s really rich people. You know what I mean?
BBT: You would either see the old Southern plantation owners with a lot of money or you see poverty. And a lot of movies are about incidents of racism or something like that—mainly not made by Southerners. There are these people that live in these little towns who kind of run the town because they have the big ranch in town. So they’re not billionaires, but they have a big house. And they have a ranch. And they make money. And therefore, when Jim Caldwell shows up at the car wreck, the cops don’t say, “Get your ass away from here. You don’t have no business out here looking at a car wreck.” They go “Oh, hey Mr. Caldwell,” and they let him come in 'cause he’s a big rancher in town. Those are people you normally don’t see in these movies. So they’re not rich to the extent let’s say the people in Giant were, but they’re along those lines. You know what I mean?
G: Uh-huh. Yeah.
BBT: You know what I mean? And they still exist. And this is based on a family I knew. With my bunch thrown in there. I mean, we were poor, but still. Some of the emotional stuff is from my family, but the house and the cars—like I had three hot rods and all that kind of stuff, and I knew these guys back there that had all this stuff.
G: I had a little nostalgia with the cars 'cause one of the family cars that my family had when I was brought up was a '66 Chevy Chevelle.
BBT: Oh wow! Well, the '67 Chevelle in the movie is mine.
G: Oh yeah? Huh.
BBT: That’s actually my car. Yeah. Yeah.
G: Do you have a big collection of cars?
BBT: No. We have one family car, and then I've got my ’67 Chevelle. I’m kind of a—I’m still pretty bohemian. I mean, I live right in the center of L.A. in a neighborhood that I never dreamed I’d live in. But we kind of keep to ourselves. I’m not one of those guys—I’ve got one house. One house and two cars. That’s it. Y'know?
G: Another thing that I think works really well in the film, and I’m curious how much of it was part of your original design and how much maybe came out in the editing, but it has this elegiac feel about—time is almost like a character in the film—
G: This concern for precious moments, and then in the final film, there’s these passages of slo-mo, and I wonder: is that something you set out to do from the start, or something that your editor tried on you?
BBT: No, those were—that I did from the start. That’s in the script, actually. I don’t know if I wrote "slo-mo," actually physically wrote it on the script, but I knew I was going to do it. The reason I did it—and this is something that for some reason these days confuses people—you can look back through film history. There’s slo-mo in Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid—
BBT: And nobody’s saying anything about that.
BBT: And it’s like "All of a sudden, he’s got this unreal—" I don’t even get this. It's like "No, I’m just making a movie like we’ve always made them." I mean, I understand it’s not Spider-Man, but it’s just kind of like we always made movies. And there’s humor and drama and everything. The reason that I wanted to do that stuff in slow motion is because in life there are these moments that happen to you that feel like they’re in slow motion. They say in sort of—as analogy or metaphor or whatever you want to call it in these instances—when they say "When you have a car wreck, everything slows down like it’s in slow motion," right? And this is a lot about the "wreck" of these people. And so that sequence—in other words, the montage sequences were intended to be montages. The opening one is intended to be this slo-mo montage of this town: just sort of lull you into "this is this little town"—and then when you get to Duvall and Kevin [Bacon] there in the beginning, it’s like "But that’s the pretty part with the little girl on the horse and the café and the guy—"
G: A little bit Blue Velvet-y, actually.
BBT: Yeah. Exactly, exactly. So I wanted to let people know right off the bat: this is the town. This is what happens here on a Saturday afternoon. And then, this happens: at the end of the day. And the wreck montage was always going to be that way simply because it’s the night before the big funeral. So everybody’s in their heads, and I wanted to show what everybody’s doing. That night John Hurt’s in his pajamas; he couldn’t sleep in this creepy motel, he comes out with his cane, he’s sitting there thinking, "I'm in Alabama!" Y'know, I didn’t have to have a monologue for him. It’s just like "I’m in Alabama." Duvall went to another wreck, and at this one you can see, more so than the first wreck—the first one is kind of macabre that he’s interested in this, looking at the guy there. This one is more like this magical dream world of this tragedy. And you can see that he’s wondering about it; you see it hits him. He’s standing there watching this car on fire, and you see it in his eyes: "Why does this happen to these people? Why not me or why not that guy? Why did one son get horribly disfigured? Why is he fucked up in the head? Why is my other son here on the ranch?" But, you know, at the end of the day, all he thinks about's how much he hates his brothers because they’re decorated. "Really? Decorated?" And you see how I decorated myself in there.
BBT: So, in other words, there was a purpose for the slow motion. It’s something to bring you down so that you don’t just pass by—"Oh, he goes to another wreck." It’s like this is this sort of bizarre, mysterious world of death. Y'know? And they’re all thinking about that that night. And I don’t know. For some reason it confuses people. Never confused anybody before, but, then again, you know, I guess before the idea was that you're supposed to let yourself go into a world. When I was growing up, I never went to anything in my lifetime expecting—that’s the wrong terminology, I suppose. I never went to anything in my life with any other expectation than liking it. You know what I mean? It’s why you went. And when we all went to a live concert, and the band didn’t play the stuff the way they did on the record, we were thrilled because that’s what you wanted.
G: Yeah. Real. Spontaneous. Unique.
BBT: Absolutely. And when you go to an Eagles concert, you know, they sound like the record. But when Joe Walsh comes out—it’s Joe Walsh, and he just turns it on its ear.
G: Well, if it’s gonna be canned, what’s the point?
BBT: Exactly. You want to hear the mistakes. You want to see whoever it is: Neil Young, he trips over his stool when he’s trying to play an acoustic guitar or something, when he’s doing the breakdown set. You want to hear somebody sing slightly off-key. Not a lot off-key—
BBT: But slightly off-key is okay. You want whatever that person has for you that night. And I suppose the point is is that we went to the movies just to go to the movie. So we made this one in that spirit. Y'know, kind of the way I saw movies when I was growing up. This one has some of the things that we couldn’t do in movies before. I mean obviously in 1970 I couldn’t have put some of this in there: language-wise or whacking off-wise or whatever, you know what I mean? But still, by the mid-'70s, you could. And this is really kind of made like a '70s movie. Probably more so than a '60s movie.
G: I’m going to go way back here for a second because we’re almost out of time. But I would have been really curious to see—you used to do sort of one-man shows—
G: And even back in acting class, you said you did a one-man Othello and played all the parts.
BBT: (Chuckles.) Yeah.
G: Are you ever tempted to go back to the stage? How long has it been since you’ve done a theatrical—?
BBT: Right, right. I came up in the theatre in L.A.. And L.A. not being a theater town necessarily, it mainly is—generally you get involved in the theatre in L.A. for connections, for just a place to work out, and also, when you’re not successful yet, it’s all you got. Y'know? So there’s a certain desperation in the theatre in L.A., which is good for you, I think. So it was kind of guerilla theatre in some ways. And it was scary—and I liked that part of it. I don’t know that I’m a Broadway guy necessarily because I tend to like film acting. If I don’t want to have to yell it out, I like that opportunity.
BBT: I mean, I’m trying—I’m skirting the issue a little bit. So in other words, I’m not putting theatre down. I respect theatre actors so much, and they can be so brilliant, and it’s so dramatic and melodramatic and all this kind of thing. And it’s hard to do, and I respect it 100%. For me, it’s not my bag. I tend to like film acting.
G: Film is more interior work.
G: Where we can see what you’re thinking—
BBT: That's right.
G: Get the camera in there.
BBT: That's correct. So I’m not one of these guys who’s dying to go to Broadway. Not that I wouldn’t do it, but it’s not up at first on my list.
G: Well, we’ve got to wrap it up. They’re hovering on me, but—
BBT: You can ask another, yeah.
G: I did want to hear a little bit about the infamous Billy Wilder story. It’s kind of a legend.
BBT: Oh, yeah.
G: Like Lana Turner at Schwaab’s or something.
G: Did you recognize him at this dinner party?
BBT: I didn’t, no.
G: Somebody pointed him out to you? Or he just sidled up to you?
BBT: There was a bartender—no, no. I was—he started talking to me. I was delivering some (indicating hors d'oeuvres)—like, stuff like that. I was passing out stuff like that, right? And he takes one, and he started this conversation with me. “Oh, you want to be an actor, huh?” He was makin' a joke. I hadn’t been out there long enough to know the joke. Which is "all waiters are actors."
G: Right, right.
BBT: And so I said, “Yeah. How did you know?” You know, has the guy got ESP or what? Y'know? But I just thought he was some old German guy. I didn’t—and of course I knew who Billy Wilder was. But since the directors of that time—I didn’t watch a lot of—we didn’t have Turner Classic Movies that I was watching every day and seeing all these guys. And one of the bartenders, after I had finished my conversation, which was pretty lengthy—when I went back to the place to get some more of these (indicating), this bartender says to me, "What did Billy Wilder say to you?" And I thought, "Is that bartender language? Is that something I'm supposed to know, a code?" And I said, "What do you mean?" And he said, "Billy Wilder. You were talking to Billy Wilder." I said, "I was talking to Billy Wilder?" He goes, "Yeah. The little cat over there you were just talking to." I go "That’s Billy Wilder? No shit."
G: Probably better you didn’t know.
BBT: It was better I didn’t know. I probably wouldn’t have talked to him if I had known. In other words I wouldn’t have wanted to bother him, and I'd have gotten away sooner and everything. And I actually was—the guy whose party it was tried to chase me away. And Billy Wilder told him to get away. He said, “I’m talking to this kid. Leave me alone.” You know? And he was really helpful. And the difference in the Schwaab’s Lana Turner story and this is that Billy Wilder didn’t exactly discover me and give me a job! He just gave me advice. Which is still very cool, and then I got to know him later.
G: He basically told you, "Write what you know," right?
BBT: Mm-hm. That and mainly write stuff. Because writers they need. Actors they don’t need. And so it was a very eye-opening discussion. Because I'd kind of planned on that anyway. And was sort of doing it. But it was a great confirmation for me. And he told me to create my own characters, make my own stories. He said, "The town needs originals. Y'know, not another asshole like you standin' in line," (laughs) you know what I mean?
G: That’s a wonderful blessing to get from Billy Wilder.
BBT: It really was.
G: From one original to another. Well, thank you so much for talking.
BBT: Well, thank you. Thank you.
G: It’s been a pleasure.
BBT: And a great interview, by the way. It’s always nice to talk to a smart guy.