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Tommy Lee Jones: The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada

Tommy Lee Jones directs and stars in a tragically relevant Western penned by Amores Perros screenwriter Guillermo Arriaga

After a long career in front of the camera, craggy-faced Hollywood veteran Tommy Lee Jones has directed his first cinema feature, The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada. “It was a lust for creative control,” states the laconic 59 year-old, who also takes starring and co-producing credits on the film. “It’s good to be the king,” he adds tersely, mustering a rare smile. “He’s a man of few words,” Jones’s co-star, Barry Pepper, tells me later. “He’s not a guy who talks just to hear himself speak.”

Shot on and around one of Jones’s ranches, Three Burials develops as a multi-layered existential drama set along the Tex-Mex border. Jones plays a cattle rancher called Pete whose best friend, Melquiades (Julio Cedillo), an illegal immigrant, is shot dead by a US border patrolman (Pepper). When the local Sheriff (Dwight Yoakam) dismisses the case, Pete kidnaps the killer and forces him to accompany him to Mexico, with his dead friend in tow.

The idea for the bi-lingual film, which was originally written entirely in Spanish by Jones’s hunting buddy, Guillermo Arriaga (Amores Perros, 21 Grams), was inspired by the real-life shooting of a young Mexican by US border guards. But the divisions they are protecting, suggests Jones, are more notional than real.

“When you've lived where I live, you think: ‘What border?’” he laughs. Jones knows this part of the United States well; he grew up there and learned to speak Spanish at a young age. “There is one country there, one culture in that river valley, and it doesn’t have a lot to do with Mexico City or Washington D.C. – the Rio Grande valley has its own culture. It is a superficially imposed barrier. A sort of enforced schizophrenia. I live in San Antonio, Texas. I live in a bicultural society. My wife is of Mexican descent. That’s just who we are.”

Given this context, it seems fair to assume that Three Burials is a political statement. Absolutely, confirms Arriaga. Jones is more cautious, however. “There is an argument that every breath you take is a political act,” he says. “I prefer to let the movie speak for itself. I just like to get out of the way, personally.” He is just as unhappy with the Western tag critics keep pinning to the film. “The term has become pejorative if not epithet,” he snarls. “I don’t think it applies to our movie. Maybe people use it because the film has some horses and big hats.”

So what has he made? According to Arriaga, the film is a love story. ”Love is the main theme of all my movies,” he says. “Love is my obsession, and death. Not because of the sake of death, but because of the sake of life. Like in this case, Pete and Mike [Pepper’s character] learn more about themselves through the dead man than from any other thing.”

Indeed, Three Burials is about the common humanity of people on either side of the border, as well as their differences. Pete forces Mike to see Melquiades as a fully-rounded human being, and to acknowledge the loss that his death represents. Forgiveness and redemption are core themes. For both Arriaga and Jones, the film was a chance to shatter stereotypes.

“I’m not a real big fan of Zorro or the Cisco Kid,” says Jones. “Ethnic stereotypes are boring and stressful and sometimes criminal. It’s just not a good way to think. It’s non-thinking. They’re stupid and destructive points of view that lead to all kinds of trouble.”

“I’m happy I wrote this movie,” adds Arriaga, “because I can free Mexican characters from the stereotype. They're always banditos with these bullets crossing their chests, or something. It’s like imagining American characters in shorts and Hawaiian shirts, it’s absurd. It’s important to explore this relationship between Mexico and the United States in a film, and I’m happy to do it in this way.”

Interestingly, Pete’s way of making Mike see Malequiades as a person -- by making him wear the dead man’s clothes, drink from his cup, and so on – mirrors the way Jones made his cast prepare for their roles. It was tough going, by all accounts.

Pepper was packed off to camp in the mountains alone, and given Ecclesiastes and Mary Flannery O’Connor to read. Jones actually wrote his cum laude thesis on the Southern Catholic author at Harvard, and her work informed the film thematically.

“She has been an important influence on my creative life,” he says airily, “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.”

Elsewhere, Yoakam was given Albert Camus’s tale of alienation and immigration, L’Etranger, to pore over.

“Why’d I do that?” asks Jones rhetorically. “Because we were making a study of what alienation feels like and what its 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.” So that explains that then.

Cedillo, meanwhile, grafted on Jones’s ranch, repairing waterlines, fixing fences and herding cattle. “I was getting up 6.30 in the morning and not going to bed until the sun went down.”

One day, Jones insisted on Cedillo joining him for dinner straight from work. “A lot of important key people were there, and they were all nicely dressed, and I show up smelling like cows,” recalls the actor. “I felt so embarrassed and I was very withdrawn. I felt like Melquiades.”

Clearly, it is not easy serving King Tommy. The pay-off, however, has been rave reviews, and acting and writing awards for Jones and Arriaga respectively at Cannes.

Jones plans to go behind the camera again, although he doubts whether any studio will dare give him money to direct Blood Meridian, his screenplay based on the apocalyptic novel by another of his favourite authors, Cormac McCarthy, because of the level of violence in it. He will, though, be acting in the Coen brothers’ film of McCarthy’s most recent work, No Country for Old Men.

When Tommy Lee Jones does direct again, you can almost be certain that Tommy Lee Jones the actor will also be there.

“I do everything I tell myself to do. I can read my own mind," he laughs. "So it’s a lot easier than getting someone else.”

He does have a sense of humour after all.

© Stephen Applebaum, 2007

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