Robert Duvall and John Hurt star in Jayne Mansfield’s Car, ©2011 Cuabalo, Ltd.
Barry Markowitz, ASC has made a specialty of shooting intense, well-acted, literary films that generate big OSCAR® buzz without $100-million budgets. His credits include Sling Blade, which won an OSCAR® for best adapted screenplay, along with a best actor nod for director Billy Bob Thornton; The Apostle, which earned a best actor nomination for director Robert Duvall; All the Pretty Horses, a beautifully rendered adaptation of the Cormac McCarthy novel; and Crazy Heart, a box-office phenomenon that garnered three nominations and a best actor OSCAR® for Jeff Bridges.
On the heels of Crazy Heart, Markowitz has re-teamed with Thornton and Duvall on Jayne Mansfield’s Car, a culture-clash drama with comedic elements that unfolds in the American South. As director, star and co-writer, Thornton attracted a knockout cast that includes Kevin Bacon, Robert Patrick, Frances O’Connor, Ray Stevenson, Shawnee Smith and John Hurt.
Thornton has acknowledged the influence of Tennessee Williams on the script. In it, a wealthy, eccentric Southern family is forced to adjust to a proper British clan because of the death of their mother, who had moved to England and remarried 30 years earlier. Her final request was to be buried in Alabama. Duvall’s character comes face to face with the man who stole his wife, as well as confronting his own mortality. Set in 1969, the story smoothly shifts from comedy to pathos.
“It’s so well written,” says Markowitz of Jayne Mansfield’s Car. “It was an honor to be involved, and a pleasure to shoot something without car chases and vulgarity. The dialogue is fascinating, and with this cast, you’re following each thread. It came straight out of Billy Bob’s head — he’s just a master at this sort of thing.”
The schedule was roughly 35 days, which meant that the production had to move quickly, at times covering nine pages a day. Markowitz and Thornton chose to shoot 35mm film in the 3-perf Super 35 format for a widescreen 2.40:1 aspect ratio. The film stock was KODAK VISION3 500T Color Negative Film 5219, and the A camera was a PANAVISION MILLENIUM XL2 with PANAVISION PRIMO lenses.
Markowitz says that Thornton is “old school,” offering as evidence his preference for dark images and film texture. “Billy likes dark,” says Markowitz. “Our shorthand on the set was the ‘Claude Rains’ school of lighting – referring to the 1933 The Invisible Man (shot by Arthur Edeson, ASC). Whenever Billy wanted a shot dark, he’d ask for ‘Claude Rains’ lighting!”
That aesthetic was carried to extremes for a scene in which the power goes out. Eventually, candles are brought out, but for the interim, Thornton asked for “the feeling you get when your eyes have adjusted to almost complete darkness.” Markowitz shot the scene 3 1/2 stops underexposed based on tests he had done. He crushed it further in the digital intermediate, and then Thornton crushed it again. “When I saw it, I said ‘Who lit this? This is juicy!’” Markowitz says with a laugh.
The entire movie was produced on practical locations around Atlanta and Covington, Georgia. “We try to do everything real, no matter what,” Markowitz explains. “Some producers would prefer to shoot everything on the stage, but sometimes one wants to see and feel the exterior. That’s one of the main reasons we love film. When you put ND12 on the windows, you eliminate any chance of putting a light through that window. That’s not how we do things.”
In day exterior situations, Markowitz was most pleased when he had even, overcast light to work with. “The northern light really reads naturally well on film,” he says. “There are positives and negatives with both formats.
With digital, hot skies can present contrast problems. Lighting for digital is essentially subtraction; you have to control and shape the light and you may have to minimize your sky. If you’re locked off, then the DI can help, so to speak. Using older lenses can also help. But depending on how you go about it in post, the texture of film will always be there.”
Jayne Mansfield’s Car screened at the Berlin, Toronto and Mill Valley Film Festivals. Andrew Pulver, film critic for The Guardian, called it “an intelligent, polished character drama.” Anchor Bay Films picked it up for theatrical distribution in the U.S. and United Kingdom.