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Real-Life Awkwardness Drives the Heart of Drama ‘Jayne Mansfield’s Car’

11 Nov, 2013 By: Ashley Ratcliff

Screenwriter Tom Epperson and childhood pal Billy Bob Thornton once saw the mangled vehicle of the late actress Jayne Mansfield. The awkward sideshow passing through their Arkansas hometown circa 1973 or ’74 stuck with them and would become the centerpiece of their latest film, aptly titled Jayne Mansfield’s Car, which they co-wrote and Thornton directed.

“I know this seems weird, but when we grew up, [in] little towns across America, little sideshows would show up,” Epperson recalled. “Like ‘See the three-headed cat.’ [People] would line up and pay their money to see the bearded lady of whatever.

“In this particular case … we heard that Jayne Mansfield’s death car was at a discount department store out on the highway. And we went out and saw it, and it was weird. It was in a trailer, just like in the movie. It actually had a mannequin’s head in the back seat.”

Thornton’s song about the experience jogged Epperson’s memory, leading the two to place the quirky bit of nostalgia in their project about a Southern family meeting a family from Great Britain. Thus, Jayne Mansfield’s Car was born.

“In the movie, the car’s in it for five minutes, then it’s gone,” Epperson said. “Actually it has a metaphoric significance. The John Hurt character says that, ‘We all have a crash of some sort awaiting us.’ So Jayne Mansfield’s car becomes symbolic of the death we’re all traveling toward and will eventually meet.”

The film — which also stars Thornton, Robert Duvall, Kevin Bacon, Robert Patrick, Ray Stevenson, Frances O’Connor, Katherine LaNasa and Shawnee Smith — examines how two families intersect after the death of one clan’s estranged wife, as old wounds are reopened during the funeral in an Alabama small town.

Anchor Bay Entertainment releases Jayne Mansfield’s Car on Blu-ray ($29.99) and DVD ($26.98) Dec. 10 (order date Nov. 13).

With multilayered conflict facing the characters, Epperson said Jayne Mansfield’s Car really is about how war affects people.

“You have three generations [in the film] who have been to war or may go off to war,” he said. “You have the older generation who was in World War I. The next generation was in World War II and then the youngest generation — it’s [set in] 1969, so it’s smack dab in the middle of the Vietnam War — they’re facing the potential of going to fight. We wanted to write something [about] war that’s not glamorous and romantic. War affects people … for the rest of their lives.”

Epperson and Thornton looked close to home when developing characters, modeling Duvall’s Jim Caldwell, the tough patriarch, after their own fathers.

“[Thornton’s dad] was kind of a hard-ass guy, kind of closed off, not good about showing emotion,” Epperson said. “He also had a fascination with car wrecks. He would take Billy and his brothers out on the highway and show them wrecked cars and dead bodies. It wasn’t the best relationship in the world …

“My dad was a little bit the same way,” he added. “… He was not the kind of guy to hug his kids or say ‘I love you.’”

Thornton and Epperson, friends since 1963, use their similar backgrounds and “easygoing, live-and-let-live personalities” to their creative advantage as writing partners, Epperson said. They collaborated on One False Move, A Family Thing, Don’t Look Back, The Gift and Camouflage.

“Billy’s a brilliant guy,” Epperson said. “He’s a wonderful with story and dialogue, and we just seem to mesh. We’re simpatico. Any disagreements haven’t really been about creative stuff. We’re always on the same page. … Our ideas evolve in an organic way.”

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