JONES, TOMMY LEE Ė THREE BURIALS
The compleat Q & A with Texas-born Tommy Lee Jones, star and director and
driving force behind The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada, winner of Best
Actor award at Cannes 2005, where Guillermo Arriagaís screenplay was also voted
best of the competition. From deer hunting in California to the badlands between
Texas and Mexico, and the stories that touch our hearts.
Where did the idea for Three Burials originate?
Guillermo Arriaga and I are good friends and hunting buddies. I met him 3 Ė 4
years ago in California and he started joining us on our deer hunts on the WD
ranch in West Texas. Michael Fitzgerald, the producer, is also part of those
hunting parties and the three of us were driving around in a truck one day and
we said, "We have a lot of talent in this truck. Letís make a movie." Like a
bunch of kids we set about it. But unlike a bunch of kids we were able to bring
it into reality.
And the subject for the movie?
All the thematic matters that I wanted to touch on were embodied in the true
story of a young man who was killed by the US government, stupidly and partially
by mistake. It was an outrageous incident and the events that followed were
objectionable to the people who live along the border between North Mexico and
South Texas. That pretty much opened the floodgates for me. I wanted to put a
motion picture lens on my country and my people, on our culture and consider the
issues that come to bear on us from within and without. Of course, I love the
country and thatís why I wanted to shoot there.
How did your collaboration with Guillermo Arriaga work?
Guillermo has a unique point of view on the world. Heís an original thinker and
pretty much out of anyoneís control. Heís very independent. Weíre very good
friends. It has nothing to do with the relationship of the characters in the
movie. Itís lucky for me that one of my best friends happens to be one of the
best living screenwriters in the world. Guillermo wrote the screenplay in
Spanish and had it translated by somebody he often works with. I hatched a plan
to hire two other translators so I would have three English translations before
I began to put together my own. Several drafts later we had language that looked
like it belonged in South Texas and sounded right, with the right rhythm, the
right poetry, and we had the northern Mexican Spanish in the movie well
polished. Guillermo has a very poetic ear for dialogue in Spanish and I tried to
have the English dialogue match that poetic quality.
The structure of the film is not chronologically linear. Was that a
deliberate decision from the outset?
Guillermo indicated that he wasnít really a sequential writer. Strict
mathematical sequence didnít interest him. I said thatíll be fine because the
point of view Iím going to take on this story is that the past, the present and
future happen simultaneously. My point of view will be to present different
perspectives in so called sequential time and different perspectives in terms of
the witnesses to events. As a result, the sequence of events is looked at from
many different points of view, some are in the past, some are in the present.
People are always looking at each other. This is a recurrent theme. So we have
lots of witnesses. Some of them are more thoughtful than others.
What was your approach to the aesthetics of the film with cinematographer
To love the colours to death and to be very bold. My sense of colour comes from
Mexico, Mondrian, Matisse, Jean-Luc Godard, Akira KurosawaÖ Thatís just the way
I look at colour. Itís the way I am.
Who is Pete Perkins? What does he want?
The same thing an angel might want. Heíd like to see peace on earth. Thereís
something allegorical about the movie. In fact, itís entirely allegorical. Pete
wants to see mankind do right. Thereís not much else to know about him. You can
see who he is right from the beginning. Heís the foreman of a big ranch in West
Texas. Heís part of a bi-cultural society. He speaks both Spanish and English,
and Mexican culture has been integral to him all his life from the food he eats
to the words he uses to name his work tools. When one of his ranch-hands is
killed and he finds out that no further action is going to be taken, nobody is
going to be brought to justice, heís outraged at the disrespect to his friend
whom he respects for lots of good reasons and whom he does not disrespect simply
because heís from Mexico and has no passport. So he decides to remedy the
situation by kidnapping the killer at gunpoint and making him dig the vaquero up
for the second time, put him on the back of a mule and haul him down to Mexico
to his home town and bury him there.
And Melquiades Estrada, the illegal immigrant who becomes Pete's best friend?
Thereís a lot of desire in Melquiades Estrada and most of it is expressed in
terms of fantasy. He would love to have a simple agrarian life. Itís a dream
that he has. Circumstances have separated him from that dream, maybe even put it
out of reach but not killed it, as long as he can dream it. Heís a little bit
sentimental. Heíd like to be buried at home and he makes his pal promise, if he
dies on this side, to take him and bury him at home. "I donít want to be buried
up here among all these fucking billboards," he says. Thatís his explanation but
itís possible there might be more to it. Melquiades is an insightful character
worthy of respect not of being shot down like a dog. When he gives Pete his
horse, he tells him: "Sometimes you carry things around with you that you think
are yours but they really belong to somebody else." Melquiades is an angelic
character. Thereís an honesty there that I could only call glorious. He brings a
blessing to people wherever he goes. There are people like that.
How did you choose Julio Cedillo to play Melquiades?
Julio learned to speak English and actually to become an actor by watching
American TV. Thatís the most important aspect of his training. Heís a very fine
actor and he understands all of the issues and all of the glories of his
characterís journey very, very well. He knew what the hell we were talking about
and he was very happy that it was being brought before camera. He lived with our
cowboys on the ranch for a month and made every track they did all day long
every day. At the end of it, he knew how to wear his hat and boots and he could
see what they concerned themselves with every day.
When Pete tries to get justice done the regular way, Belmont, the county
sheriff, rejects his help. Why?
I think Guillermo described Belmont as a man who has seen too much in life and
doesnít want to see any more. Heís capable of achieving precisely nothing. I was
interested in that kind of situation. Heís not a dummy, he just canít get
The movie contains some biting ironies, like the fact that Melquiades has an
affair with the wife of the man who kills him.
Itís kind of human, isnít it? The events are allowed to make their own point,
particularly in regard to raw bleeding irony. It is ironic that our border
patrolman is not a very caring husband and that his young wife is driven to a
relationship with an illegal Mexican immigrant. The husband later kills the
vaquero but he doesnít know that heís been taking his wife to bed and the
vaquero doesnít know that the guy who killed him is someone that he put a set of
horns on. Itís like the way human beings operate.
Pete drags Mike Norton, the Border Patrolman, on an epic journey to Mexico to
bury Melquiades for the last time.
The movieís about Mike's journey. His character is representative of the common
man. The stupid, brilliant, funny, sad, redemptive things that people go through
on the road to enlightenment are of interest and thatís what the movie concerns
itself with. Thereís a Socratic quality to Pete and Mikeís relationship. Pete
becomes something of a mentor, who learns from his student.
And at the end, why does Pete give Mike the horse Melquiades gave him
Because heís done what heís supposed to do. Heís supposed to ask for forgiveness
and mean it. Heís supposed to go through hell or look into the jaws of hell and
ask for forgiveness. Itís not like ďAw, man, Iím sorry. Iím sorry, dude, youíre
dead." Contrition, not some version of it but the real thing, and the idea that
there is a difference between some version of contrition and the real thing, is
important to the end of the film.
Can you say a few words about Barry Pepper's performance as Mike?
Barry Pepper Ė what a fine young actor! Heís physically perfect for the role and
then he fulfilled all the other requirements or ambitions that a director might
have for an actor. He did a terrific job of playing a role that is very
demanding physically, emotionally and intellectually. It was very important that
he was able to think about the role and what meaning it might have because the
words are kind of simple. There is a Chekhovian aspect to the screenplay because
when you read the words on the page, it doesnít look like it means a lot but
once you begin to perform those words, they begin to take on their real meaning,
that is deeper than it might appear. Barry was able to understand that. Barry
did a wonderful job. He understood the part and as you sit watching his
performance you can tell that heís given it some good thought. What impressed me
throughout is that he remained aware of his character's place in the narrative,
exactly which brick in the wall he was meant to be at that particular moment.
You wrote, produced, directed and starred in the film. Was it hard to keep
all those plates spinning?
Iím a good actor for me as a director because I do everything I tell myself to
do. Iím a good director for me as an actor because I can read my own mind. And
Iím a pretty good writer because I know what these other two guys want to hear.
And Iím a good producer because I know what they like to shoot so I donít give
them anything they donít need but I am there with what they need. The filming
went beautifully. We were extremely well organized so we were ready to go to
sometimes very remote or dangerous places and get our work done. We made every
day as planned. I gave this movie everything I have. Thatís a good way to live,
as far as Iím concerned. Thereís a chance of getting hurt, hell yes, but thatís
the wonderful thing about a 35mm lens. It asks you for everything youíve got and
if you love movies, you happily give it up.
You had the chance to experience a standing ovation at the Cannes Film
Festival to reward your efforts, as well as receiving the prize for Best Actor.
Where you nervous before the official presentation of the film there?
I donít get nervous anymore. Iím too old and jaded. But it was astonishing. I
never expected a fifteen-minute standing ovation at the Cannes Film Festival. I
couldnít even have thought that up and the thing that impressed me most was the
quality of the audience. It wasnít just one decent, thinking person there. They
were all decent, thinking people. I felt like a doctor whoís had a hospital full
of patients that got well. It made me feel really good. Thereís no way round the
fact that that was one of the most gratifying moments in my working life.
What does the movie say about human beings and how they interact?
What I kept telling the cast and crew as we went through this movie was that the
questions are far more important than the answers. Thatís what weíre after.
Weíre after the really good questions. The answers will follow. These
complicated interwoven relationships are just meant to be normally, humanly
stupid. The way we are. People act like that. I think people are monumental and
impossibly stupid, and easily capable of amazing glory and horrible crime. Iíd
say all the characters are lonely. You can see that. Alienated would be the term
that springs to mind. When I cast Dwight Yoakam to play Belmont, I gave him a
copy of Camus' L'ťtranger and asked him to think it over in his mind. If youíre
giving out Camusí work to people who are playing redneck sheriffs, the theme of
alienation is certainly going to come into play. At the same time, there is a
strong undercurrent of humour. I favoured, in this particular case, the
mechanics of comedy. Whether the ultimate is morbidity or tragedy or
sociological or political comment, our convention is essentially comic. We
carried every scene just about that far from comedy. We used that as the grease
that lubricates the wheels of narrative. I just love myself when I say things
like that. [grins] Itís narrative mechanics. I think it's the most interesting
way to sell horror or danger or love or any of the big words that are supposed
to be coming at us off the movie screen. They're all transported by humour just
mechanically. These horrible moments are made entertaining and given their true
quality of horror with the same mechanics that take you to laughter. Itís just a
machine that I happen to use. So weíre right on the edge of comedy all the time.
Itís a very sharp edge.
Did the cast key in right away to what you were trying to say?
They're beautiful actors. They understood the stories and they found ways to
play it with originality and insight. They appreciated the ironies and the
absurdities, just put them on their feet and walked them round in very good
order. In the film, the geographical reality of a separation between the United
States and Mexico, as symbolized by the Rio Grande, feels totally artificial.
Because of our subject matter and location and because of my intentions, the
movie comes not from two countries but one, and that country does not have a lot
to do with Mexico City or Washington DC. If you look at all the realities here,
the existence of an international border is not right up at the top. What I
would like the audience to take away is the realization that itís possible to
look across the river and see yourself, maybe even the willingness to do so,
maybe even the need. I think from Arriagaís point of view and from mine, the guy
standing on the other side of the river is me.
Published May 18, 2006
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Tommy Lee Jones