Billy Bob Thornton, Georgia on His Mind

The Oscar-winner shared his candid thoughts of the South and details of his latest film, Jayne Mansfield's Car.

Photo by Vince Talotta/Toronto Star/Getty Images Thornton promotes "Jayne Mansfield's Car" on the red carpet at 2012's Toronto Film Festival.  

There are only a handful of leading actors that exude Southern charm, whose voices are unmistakable, their drawls seemingly unshakeable. We’re talking about the Oscar-winning writer, actor and director Billy Bob Thornton. In a call with FrontDoor, his charisma and gratitude could be felt over transcontinental phone lines as he discussed his latest project Jayne Mansfield’s Car, filming in Georgia and the things about the South that inspire him. The movie opens this Friday, September 13 in limited release and is also available now on Demand. It will screen at AMC Barrett Commons and West Cinema Cedartown

Though the story is set in post-Summer of Love 1969 Alabama, the film was shot entirely in Georgia. Thornton wrote the script with friend Tom Epperson whom he has known since childhood in Arkansas. Dripping with bourbon-soaked Southern Gothic contradictions, it is a tangled tale of war, broken hearts and rattling skeletons. Georgians will, no doubt, enjoy playing spot the location while watching Jayne Mansfield. Most scenes are centered around the family home, a sprawling Greek revival mansion set on a plantation. The historic homes primarily used for shooting were the Bailey Tebault house in Griffin; Glenridge Hall in Sandy Springs; the Burge Plantation in Mansfield and a private home in LaGrange. 

Photo by: Van Redin Billy Bob Thornton directs Robert Duvall in a scene shot in downtown Cedartown, Ga. 

The opening scene of the film was shot right in downtown Cedartown. And the town’s West Cinema, which will also show the film this Friday, enjoys a large cameo. The Lackey & Sons Funeral Home in Covington is prominently featured and Decaturites and architecture buffs will immediately recognize the Neel Reid-designed Solarium at the Old Scottish Rite building, which is subbed for a hospital. An Oakhurst grocery store was also tricked out for the “death car” scene with its existing exterior retro-ized. 

The juxtaposition and composition of the scenes translate Thornton’s obvious respect of classic architecture and all things Southern. The lens lingers just long enough to fall in love and the lighting is romantic and dreamy. Characters are drenched in glowing humidity that slows everything down. The entire film is a love letter to the South or is it a Dear John letter? You be the judge. 

Mr. Thornton shared candid memories of his life and some details of filming in Georgia. 

Q: Do you think that being a storyteller is part of being a Southerner? 

Photo by: Van Redin Katherine LaNasa and Billy Bob Thornton stand on the porch of a historic home in LaGrange, Ga.

A: Growing up in the South, storytelling is kind of everything when you're a kid. Especially where I grew up because until I was eight or nine we lived with my grandmother who had no electricity or running water. So that is pretty much what you have. You know this South has a rich storytelling background and I grew up in that. And the description in the books I read of the characters and the scenery are so vivid and colorful it was all very important to me growing up. It is just as important to me now when I make a film about it.

The South is full of characters and I was just vastly interested in characters as a kid. You know, there are ghosts in the South. The air is heavier there. It's just a different vibe. There is a difference between getting off the plane in Seattle, which is a lovely place that has its own culture but it's so different than getting off the plane in New Orleans or Jackson, Miss., or Birmingham, Ala., or wherever it is down there. There's a heaviness to it and maybe that's because our major war was predominantly fought on our soil down there. I feel there's a certain heaviness, but Southerners have a way of mixing heaviness with humor. That is how I was raised. Sometimes dramas to me are over earnest and comedies are just funny with no heart and soul.  I like to mix the two together and that is the Southern literature I was raised on, those darkly humorous dramas.

Q: What literature inspired you? 

A: I am really inspired by the Faulkner brothers, both William and John.  Not a lot of people knew about William's brother. Both my mom and grandmother were always reading the southern writers; my mom still does. I was really into Erskine Caldwell, Flannery O’Connor, Eudora Welty, and Tennessee Williams.

It's funny about movies that take place in the South. Southerners are not always as keen on them because they are made by people who aren't Southern, especially in the old days. When people watch Tennessee Williams come to life on the screen, people are usually astounded by it. Obviously the writing was great but like Gone with the Wind was a great book if you really want to get down to it. It is an entertaining movie and it's sad and emotional and all that stuff, but if you were to ask a Southerner if it is realistic, maybe not so much. 

Photo by: Van Redin A key scene with Robert Duvall and John Hurt was filmed in High Falls State Park, Jackson, Ga. 

Often times you have people playing the parts of Southerners because they are movie stars but not necessarily right for the part. I mean I'm probably not going to be playing Winston Churchill any time soon, for instance.

Q: Can you tell us about some of the locations where you shot the film and what it was like?

A: The people of Atlanta were great to us. I love it down there anyway. I've got a lot of friends down there so it was really great to be able to film there. The small towns that we shot in, the people could not have been more welcoming. 

Cedartown, where we set the downtown area, they bent over backwards for us and they were wonderful people. The town looked exactly like the town I had in my mind for the script and it was set in Alabama but was really based on the town I grew up in located in Arkansas. They had a main street that looks just like the one I grew up in. It is about the same size. The area was a little depressed economically so there were a few stores that were empty, which for the movie was great but not great for the town. We were happy to be able to spend some money in that town to help out because the people couldn't have been nicer. 

We also shot down in LaGrange where the people were also wonderful. I love shooting in the South. That is where we shot the main scenes in the house, which someone lived in. The owner was actually a retired colonel. I am always really nervous that we're going to screw something up in someone's house when we're shooting. I told the crew to be really careful around there because the place was beautiful and immaculate. I think we left it in good shape, which that was the important thing.

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