If you could choose a period of time to go back to, which would it be? For Billy Bob Thornton, the late 1960s clearly hold a special place in his heart and nowhere is it more evident than in the new film he directed, Jayne Mansfield’s Car, in which he brings together several generations of actors — himself, Robert Patrick, Kevin Bacon, and Robert Duvall — to play the men in a family who in 1969 Alabama find themselves torn apart by their experiences in three different wars.
“I had to set it in ’69 because I wanted to comment on this idea of the different generations and how they deal with war and how it affected them all differently,” Thornton tells EW. “And in the last three decades the way people look at the wars we’ve been in, there’s not that great a difference in it from decade to decade, but from World War I to World War II to Vietnam, there was a huge difference.”
The late 1960s shaped a generation, and Thornton says he’s drawn to those times as a director. “1969 was the pivotal year,” he says. “The social network has changed a lot about how we look at the world, who comments on it, and I think I’m just very attracted to the ’60s, I like the way things operated then.” And don’t forget the tunes. “People can tell me music’s as good right now as it was in the 1960s, but they’re just wrong.”
The film, which first premiered at the Berlin Film Festival in 2012, reunites Thornton once again with his mentor of 20 years, Duvall, who got some advice on filming a key scene involving an LSD trip from the notoriously rough-around-the-edges director.
“He [Duvall] asked me a few questions about that because he’s never done anything like that. He needed to know what it was like so I got an ‘expert technical advisor,’” Thornton says with a laugh. “People always assume it would be scary directing Duvall or one of your heroes, but to tell you the truth when you’re directing a great actor like him it’s not hard at all. It’s pretty easy actually, he’s terrific — you don’t have to do much.”
In the exclusive scene below, we see Duvall clashing with his son (Bacon) after he’s been arrested.
The films Thornton chooses to direct (Sling Blade, All the Pretty Horses) are few and far between, telling only stories that he finds personal. This one hit home. Thornton says he identifies with the character he plays in the film, Skip, who is the son most affected and damaged by his war experiences.
“When I was a kid I wanted to be a fighter pilot,” he says. “And as I grew up and learned the reality of it — I knew some fighter pilots from World War II, some older guys I used to work out at a gym with — and I would have these discussions with these guys all the time and then I learned how much pride they had all the time about what they did, what cowboys they were in those airplanes. But at the same time I learned the dark side of it and how it’s not quite as romantic as you might think when you’re a little kid and you just want to fly one of those cool looking airplanes.”
While Thornton stresses that his primary focus is acting, he may direct again — if the inspiration strikes. “I do have one idea that I’ve always wanted to do…” he muses. We’ll just have to wait and see.
Jayne Mansfield’s Car opens in theaters on Sept. 13.