Buxom blonde movie star Jayne Mansfield is remembered more now for her death than for her life. She was killed in a car wreck in the middle of the night on a road through the swamps of southern Louisiana in 1967. Killed with her were the driver of the car, a young man named Ronnie Harrison, her boyfriend, a slick lawyer named Sam Brody, and her little chihuahua. Three of her five children, Mariska, Zoltan, and Miklos Jr., were sleeping in the back seat and survived unhurt. The accident happened when Harrison drove into a white mist laid down by a mosquito fogger and slammed into the back of a tractor-trailer. What everybody knows about the accident, that Jayne Mansfield was decapitated, turns out not to be true. It was the top of her head that was sheared off.
Jayne Mansfield’s car was a gray 1966 Buick Electra. A few years later in Malvern, the small town in Arkansas where Billy Bob Thornton and I grew up, Billy and I found ourselves staring at it, or at least at the twisted remains of it. It was inside a big trailer in the parking lot of a discount store on the outskirts of town. It was being hauled around the south so rubes like Billy and me could pay our 50 cents or whatever and shuffle past it and gape at it. In the back seat was a mannikin’s head with long blonde hair and a horrified look on its face.
Cut to, as they say, Los Angeles some 40 years later. It had been 10 years since Billy had directed his last movie, All the Pretty Horses. I had done a rewrite of the script. Everyone involved believed they had made a great movie, but unfortunately audiences never got to see it, because the film was taken away from Billy and butchered by its producer. When it came out on Christmas Day in 2000, the reviews were brutal and theaters mostly empty. It had been a rotten experience for Billy, but now he was ready to climb back into the directorial saddle. He’d had an idea for a while about a family in Alabama in the late sixties who are visited by a family from England. We started working up a script. One of us, I can’t quite remember who, said something like: “Hey, you remember when they brought the car that Jayne Mansfield was killed in to Malvern? That was fuckin’ weird, man. Maybe that could happen.” We both liked the idea, and pretty soon we were calling the movie Jayne Mansfield’s Car.
We wrote the script over a few months in 2010. An elderly American woman dies in London, and her British husband takes her back to the small Alabama town she was from to be buried. He’s accompanied by his son and daughter. In Alabama, they meet up with the rich rancher whom the woman had been married to before she left him for the British guy. The American has three sons and a daughter. We thought we were going to be writing about a comic cultural clash, but once we got into it, it took a darker turn. It became about war, or rather the effects of war on the men who fight it. Both the American and the Englishman are veterans of World War I. Their sons all served in World War II. All the men carry physical and/or psychic scars from their wartime experiences. And two of the American brothers have teenage sons who are in danger of being sucked into the whirlpool of blood that’s the Vietnam War.
Billy and I had known Robert Duvall since he had starred in our script for A Family Thing in 1995, and he agreed to play the American patriarch, Jim Caldwell. Billy also was friends with John Hurt, who came on board to play Caldwell’s British counterpart, Kingsley Bedford. The next step was to find someone to finance the film. I guess it’s sad in a way that it never even occurred to us to go to the studios. It would have been a waste of time since our script had only human beings in it, not a superhero in sight. The people our movie might appeal to wouldn’t be included in the two audiences the studios target, namely, children and adults with the minds of children. Several independent companies were willing to make the movie at a budge of five or six million, but that was only about half what Billy and his line producer thought was needed.
Things were looking bleak for JMC but then fate stepped in, as it has a habit of doing, for better or for worse. Billy was doing publicity for a movie that he’d acted in, and was quoted in a newspaper article lamenting the fact he hadn’t been able to get the money for his new movie. A young guy named Ivan who worked in a movie company owned by a Russian media mogul named Alexander Rodnyansky happened to read the article. He brought it to the attention of Rodnyansky, who was a huge Sling Blade fan, and just like that we had our dough.
The movie was shot in Georgia in the blazing summer of 2011, in various small towns outside Atlanta. We had a killer cast: Billy, Kevin Bacon, Robert Patrick, and Katherine LaNasa played Duvall’s children, while Ray Stevenson and Frances O’Connor rounded out the British family. It was the great actors Bobby Duvall and John Hurt who in the movie went together to see Jayne Mansfield’s car. “I suppose we all have a crash of some sort awaiting us,” mused Kingsley Bedford afterward. Mine and Billy’s long-ago visit to the discount store parking lot had provided us with the perfect metaphor for our movie. We all must live our lives with as much courage and honesty as we can muster until we pass into the white fog and then into the mystery beyond.