AFF2012: Billy Bob Thornton Steers 'Jayne Mansfield's Car'

The actor returns to the writer/director's chair

Calling Austin his "second home," Billy Bob Thornton presented his new film, Jayne Mansfield's Car, as the closing-night film of the 2012 Austin Film Festival on Thursday at the Paramount Theatre. Thornton directed and co-wrote the film with his frequent writing partner Tom Epperson, in addition to taking on a co-starring role.

Jayne Mansfield's Car is a Southern family drama about the thorny relationships between fathers and sons. In addition to Thornton, it also stars Robert Duvall, John Hurt, Kevin Bacon, Robert Patrick, Robert Stevenson, Frances O'Connor, and Katherine LaNasa. In his prefatory remarks, the filmmaker emphasized to the audience that this was a film about "your people," and hoped that we would "see somebody in there you recognize."

Photo by John Anderson

Thornton's film has made several stops along the festival circuit since its premiere in Berlin back in February. On the whole, the reviews have been mixed, but it was obvious Thornton's hide is smarting from some of the negative reviews. He shared with the crowd a review he found "funny," in which the critic went on and on about Mansfield's car not making an appearance until midway through the film. He wrote a letter to this paper for the "high-brow intelligensia," which said: "If a metaphorical title is lost on you guys, I'm screwed."

Following the screening, Thornton participated in a nearly hourlong Q&A from the stage conducted by Austin-based screenwriter Anne Rapp (Cookie's Fortune), who also served as the script supervisor on the production of Jayne Mansfield's Car. Before the conversation began, Thornton again returned to the subject of his detractors, defensively mocking all the "guys with backpacks" who exited the theatre as the film's credits began to roll, presumably rushing home to peck out reviews and rip him "a new asshole." Later on, while discussing his frustrations with the way the last film he directed – All the Pretty Horses – was slashed by the studio, Thornton returned to those "12 little guys with backpacks," who had apparently gotten under his skin. These are the guys the studios listen to – "guys who don't mow their lawns." Odd, indeed.

Billy Bob Thornton and Kevin Bacon in "Jayne Mansfield's Car"

During the Q&A, the Arkansas-born Thornton expressed his feelings about why he keeps returning to the South as settings for his films. "There are always interesting people in the South. Even the street people are interesting here. In L.A., they're dazed." Rapp's observations about Thornton's filmmaking approach as being refreshingly old-fashioned led to a long discussion of his feelings about technology. Although Thornton doesn't use email, he does send text messages. Modern communication technology, he feels, "has taken the magic and joy out of life" and has allowed us to become "more mean-spirited." (Sounds like someone may have been reading too many message boards.) Again, returning to the subject of the warped wisdom of the studios, Thornton decried test screenings and commented that an artist like "Edward Hopper didn't have to test his art at the mall" before putting it on display. Of course, this obviates the whole aspect of film as a commercial commodity distributed by company seeking to profit from its investment. But this is the world according to Billy Bob, and the fascinating presentation made for a lively close to this year's edition of the Austin Film Festival.

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Jayne Mansfield's Car, AFF2012, Billy Bob Thornton, Anne Rapp

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