By Mike Collett-White
BERLIN (Reuters) - When actor-director Billy Bob Thornton was a boy, his father took him to the scene of car crashes to survey the wreckage. Now he has turned his unconventional childhood into a movie.
"Jayne Mansfield's Car" is a dark family comedy that explores how war affects men and how fathers and sons so often fail to communicate.
The picture, warmly applauded at the Berlin film festival on Monday ahead of its world premiere, is the first feature Thornton has directed for over a decade. He also stars.
"If you could say what this movie is about in one sentence, it's about the romanticism of tragedy," Thornton told reporters in Berlin, where the movie is in the main competition.
Jayne Mansfield's Car, a reference to the actress killed in a car crash in 1967, is set in 1969 in southern United States where Robert Duvall's character Jim Caldwell and his middle-aged children live a materially comfortable life.
Son Carroll, played by Kevin Bacon, is a drug-taking hippie and anti-war protester who is a constant source of shame to his gruff, conservative father.
Brother Jimbo is more like his father, while child-like oddball Skip (Thornton) lies somewhere in between.
Jim's ex-wife dies in England, where she remarried and had another family, and when they turn up on the Caldwells' doorstep to attend her U.S. burial, chaos ensues.
The male characters, including the visiting father played by John Hurt, are all defined by their experiences of war - World War One, World War Two and the Vietnam conflict.
The figure of Jim, cold, cruel and unable to express his feelings, was partly inspired by his own father, Thornton said.
"My father was a very violent Irishman and so there was abuse both verbal and physical in our household," the 56-year-old Oscar winner said.
"He was a Korean war veteran in the navy and he was a very intense guy who I don't think I ever had a conversation with."
CAR WRECK CHILDHOOD
Scenes in which Jim takes his grandson to see the aftermath of car crashes are based on truth, Thornton added.
"He (my father) would take my brother and I ... to car wrecks and he would stand there and smoke Lucky Strikes and stare at the car wreck for two hours while my brother and I were like 'why are we here?' That was how he connected with us.
"Through all of that, through beatings and no communication or anything when I grew up, I realized that I understood my father and I loved my father."
The comedy in the film stems from the Caldwells' failure to communicate -- Jim only lets down his guard after his tea is spiked with LSD -- and the interplay between upper class English visitors and straight-talking American southerners.
"That accent makes me hornier than Frank Sinatra," Skip confesses to his English half-sister, before trying to organize an unconventional sexual encounter with her.
But amid the laughs there is a serious side to Jayne Mansfield's Car, which had a budget of around $12 million and was funded by Russian money.
Thornton is in Berlin at the same time as ex-wife Angelina Jolie, whose Bosnian war drama "In the Land of Blood and Honey" was also screened at the festival.
"Angelina is a wonderful woman and one of my best friends in the world -- we talk on a regular basis," he said.
"When people split up, people like to make up stories about how much they are against each other. This was never true, it never has been and never will be. I'll love her to the end of my life and she'll love me, as friends."
(Reporting by Mike Collett-White, editing by Paul Casciato)