TOMMY LEE JONES - Testing borders in Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada

 "The desire for belief is a serious concern. It's an important theme here. Faith, the function of faith, and the meaning of belief, believing in belief, is a concern of ours. The mechanics of it, how does it work? An important American writer, Flannery O'Connor, has been an important influence on my creative life. I wrote a Cum Laude thesis on her at Harvard and I've read every word she wrote, two or three times, and when you mention the word belief or faith, I would offer her definition of it, which is: faith is that which you know to be true, whether you believe it or not."

How was this directing experience?

"It was my second. It was fine. My first film was a made-for-television movie called The Good Old Boys, which we made for Ted Turner's television network."

From whom did you study directing?

"I have worked with 50 different directors and I pay attention all day long, every day. I've seen them achieve wonderful things and horrible things, and that pretty much comprised my education. That plus the reading I have done and the study of architecture and art history, my experience with the use of lenses in the 35mm format."

What do you think of the general representation of Mexicans in American cinema? Your film takes great pains to portray the main Mexican character, Melquiades Estrada, as a fully rounded character, which I think is unusual.

"I'm not a real big fan of Zorro or the Cisco Kid. You know, ethnic stereotypes are boring, and stressful, and sometimes criminal."

Would the film have been the same without you playing Pete?

"There's probably some other actors that could have played that part. I don't know who. I prefer myself."

Are you tough on yourself as a director and actor? Do you have to take two roles?

"Um, I try very hard. I wouldn't say that I'm tough. I work all day every day. They're two different jobs but as a writer, producer, director, actor on one movie, I could say that having any one of those jobs makes the other three much easier."

This is only your second directorial outing. Why do it so infrequently?

"Directing jobs are hard to get."

Is this a timeless story or does it say something about America now? There seems to be a political edge to it.

"Well, yeah, there is an argument that every breath you take is a political act."

Yeah but are you making an explicit point about America's racial border politics?

"I prefer to let the movie speak for itself. It's time for the movie to go forth on its own and stand on its own legs and make its own way and speak for itself. I just like to get out of the way, personally."

OK but it's a Texan movie rather than an American movie, maybe?

"Um, you could easily say that. That's what it is."

How was working with the screenwriter Guillermo Arriaga?

"Oh he's an angel. We're good friends. We're hunting buddies and family friends, good pals, and he's a very elegant writer."

His Mexican background helped to make the Mexican character more real I suppose.

"I hope so. It would be good if that were the case."

Was that one of your conscious aims when you set out to do this project, to challenge stereotypes?

"Yeah, I don't like stereotypes very much. They're insulting at best, stupid and destructive points of view that lead to all kinds of trouble."

That's why it gives it a resonance beyond Texas, isn't it?

"Sure. Absolutely. I would hope so. I would hope that people anywhere could identify with the characters and their struggles, follies, achievements."

Do you think that there is too much stereotyping on the world political stage at the moment?

"Yeah. I think any stereotyping is too much. It's just not a good way to think. It's non-thinking. As I said, it's stupid and destructive."

The film has qualities found in the movies of Sam Peckinpah and Clint Eastwood. Do you feel part of that same family?

"Well, I admire Sam Peckinpah's work and Clint Eastwood is a good friend and heroic character. I really admire his style of working and learned a great deal from working with him, and there's many things that he does as a director that I try to do because they're the right things to do. There are other important directors that have had an influence on me. I would say Akira Kurosawa and Jean Luc Godard, John Ford, Peckinpah, Oliver Stone are all directors that I admire."

I've never seen that part of Texas photographed so beautifully. How much were you paying homage to your native Texas, and how much were you just trying to record something that hadn't been recorded before?

"Well, I wouldn't say an homage to my native Texas. I wanted to shoot in a country that I'm familiar with and a country that is part of my upbringing, and places where cameras don't ordinarily go. We went to the roughest, toughest country I could find."

Was it hard to shoot there? It looks pretty tough.

"Oh yeah it was. It is tough. One of the reasons we went there is it's part of our quest for originality."

Who had the original idea for this story? You or Guillermo Arriaga?

"It's kind of a story we thought up together. As I said I wanted to work with Guillermo on the movie because it's about that border. As a starting point there was an incident three or four years ago in which a kid was killed by a government authority and nothing was done about it. That was pretty much the kernel, the seed, of the development of our narrative."

Did Guillermo's non-linear narrative structure pose a challenge?

"That was interesting. My idea in terms of managing a narrative, or in thinking in my creative life, is that you could easily argue that the past, the present and the future all occur simultaneously, and if you can postulate that, then you're not strictly bound to a linear narrative. You just have to open your mind and your eyes, it's all it takes."

Do you think your character, Pete Perkins, is doing heroic things for entirely noble reasons? He seems like a borderline sociopath at times. He seems to be doing strange and destructive things. What motivates him?

"Um, well, borderline sociopath - that's interesting. Pete wants to see the right thing done, that's what he wants, and he doesn't really have any respect for anything that would stand in the way of that. It's an interesting point of view, sort of intriguing."

But you think he's doing the right thing?

"Sure."

Even Melquiades at the end has strung Pete along and told Pete some lies. He's not whiter than white as he appears to be, but Pete wants to believe in a more heroic, noble reality.

"The desire for belief is a serious concern. It's an important theme here. Faith, the function of faith, and the meaning of belief, believing in belief, is a concern of ours. The mechanics of it, how does it work? An important American writer, Flannery O'Connor, has been an important influence on my creative life. I wrote a Cum Laude thesis on her at Harvard and I've read every word she wrote, two or three times, and when you mention the word belief or faith, I would offer her definition of it, which is: faith is that which you know to be true, whether you believe it or not."

How did you build this relationship between Pete and Melquiades because it works very well?

"Well it's on the printed page of the script. We read the script and everyone learned it; I picked out a lens and decided where to put it. That's how we did it. Every picture tells a story, don't it?"

Some actors do a tremendous amount of background reading. So is your technique as straightforward as you've just said?

"Yeah it is that straightforward. Of course you do lots of preparation and lots of background reading. I gave Dwight Yoakam a copy of Camus's L'Etranger. Why? Why'd I do that? Because Dwight's very bright and we were making a study of what alienation feels like and what it's roots might be in materialism, and how that might contrast with a different point of view that might be happening on the other side of the river, which is also you."

It's a mirror of yourself, the Mexican side of the river, you mean?

"Yeah. So, you know, we made a lot of literary references as we were preparing this. Also a lot of references to painters and architects, writers, everything but the kitchen sink."

Architecture is an interesting reference for a movie. Which architects did you refer to?

"Mainly Donald Judd. He did a lot of architectural work, although he didn't have a degree in architecture. The work of Donald Judd is very important to us, and Dan Flavin."

And they influenced the look of the movie?

"Yeah. I don't know if you're familiar with Dan Flavin's work but you can certainly see evidence of it in the movie."

It's interesting because there's hardly any buildings in the movie.

"Yeah and when you do see buildings they're all this plain geometry. I did a lot of thinking and a lot of talking about the elegance, and the passion, of plain geometry."

Will you make another movie?

"I hope so. I'd love to go to work tomorrow."

You have another project?

"No, that's the only problem."

Do you like to direct yourself?

"Yeah, sure."

You didn't fall out with yourself?

"No, I do everything I tell myself to do."

The story you tell is a tragic one but there is humour in it. Was the humour important?

"Yeah because that's the way life is. At least that's my point of view. Human beings are glorious and preposterous characters. We just tried to stay right on the edge of humour all the time. Humour is a great matrix for communication. It's grease to the wheels of industry."

Your previous film, Man of the House, was also shot in Texas. Was it pure coincidence or do you prefer staying close to home now?

"You know, it's more convenient to be close to home."

The Three Burials Of Melquiades Estrada is available to buy on DVD now

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