To get to the La Cancha de San Saba polo field just outside of West Palm Beach, Florida, you must first get off the highway, cross over a canal and amble a half-mile or so down an unpaved frontage road before you see the large red barn looming in the distance. Named after the West Texas town in which he was born in 1946, these green 50-odd acres are the winter home of Oscar-winning actor Tommy Lee Jones, who, when he’s not training his polo team here or at similar facilities in Texas and Argentina, still finds time to make a movie every once in a while. And if traveling here seems relatively arduous as interview locations go, it’s nothing compared to the journey that unfolds onscreen in The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada, the brutal, melancholic and grimly funny Western that marks both Jones’ latest acting gig and his second film (following the 1995 made-for-cable The Good Old Boys) as director.
Set along the U.S.-Mexico border region, The Three Burials, which was written by Mexican screenwriter Guillermo Arriaga (21 Grams, Amores Perros), charts the unlikely friendship that forms between stoic Texas rancher Pete Perkins (Jones) and the eponymous Mexican ranch hand who shows up one day looking for work. Over time, in true cowboy fashion, Pete and Melquiades bond over horses and women. But then Mel turns up dead of a mysterious gunshot wound and the local authorities couldn’t be less interested. So Pete takes matters into his own hands, ferreting out his friend’s killer and honoring a promise to bury Mel on the south side of the border. It’s a story, Jones says, partly inspired by a true case — the 1997 murder of 18-year-old Esequiel Hernandez Jr., an American citizen mistakenly gunned down near the banks of the Rio Grande by camouflaged U.S. Marines on a counter-drug mission — but also by a broader interest in his home state and its neighbor to the south. As we sat down in a gazebo-like structure adjacent to the horse stalls, the Harvard-educated, famously recalcitrant Jones popped a Robert Johnson album into the CD player, relaxed into a leather chair and opened up about his film, his home state and his double-barreled career.
L.A. WEEKLY: How present, physically and psychologically speaking, is the U.S.-Mexico border for people who live in Texas?
TOMMY LEE JONES: It depends where in Texas you live. I’m certain that there are people in North Texas — people who voted for that senator [Kay Bailey Hutchison] who declared that our borders are hemorrhaging— who want to increase government funding for the border patrol and who also propose to fund vigilante groups that want to roam the borders protecting us from foreign invaders. But I think the closer you get to the border physically, the more of a reality it becomes and the less paranoid you are. There are some people immediately on the border who’ve had their fences cut and their private property rights violated by illegal immigrants. There are some people along there who have no other source of labor. But the realities of the border clearly become more palpable the closer you get to them. I don’t think anyone that lives anywhere near that border believes that a fence that runs from San Diego to Brownsville makes any goddamn sense at all. And there are those in the Midwest and in the far north who can’t wait to build it.
Like a number of films you’ve acted in —The Missing(2003) and Lonesome Dove(1989) most notably, andThe Good Old Boys—The Three Burials can loosely be classified as a Western.
I never use the term Western. I get that label, which is sometimes?even pejorative. People immediately use it when they see a movie that’s got horses and big hats. If a person needs to put a label on a movie and identify a genre in order to convince themselves that they’re thinking, well, that’s fine with me. You can call this a sitcom if you want. Call it pornography — it’s got a naked woman in it. Call it a travelogue. Call it horror — I’ve got a dead body after all. So the idea of making Westerns means nothing to me. The idea of working at home and dealing with the history and the present time of where I live and where I’m from is the only thing I’m interested in. I wonder what Mr. Faulkner said when people asked him why all of his books were set in Mississippi?
Well, as in Faulkner, the landscape of The Three Burials is practically a character in the story, to the point that if I were to name the stars of the film, I would say: Tommy Lee Jones, Barry Pepper .?.?.
And the Northern Chihuahuan Desert.
Exactly. Do you have to direct that landscape as though it were an actor?
It doesn’t take direction. In fact, it doesn’t even know we’re there, and it doesn’t care. It’s very beautiful country, but very unforgiving to those who disrespect it. Everything out there?can bite you, sting you, stab you, kick you, wash you away. You disrespect that country at your peril. At the same time, it’s very delicate — everything out there is easily killed, by truck tires, for example. It makes people who they are. You have to tell your right name. It’s a part of the makeup of people who are from there, of course.
In the press notes, you’ve cited several filmmakers and artists as sources of visual inspiration for the film, some of which, like Sam Peckinpah and Akira Kurosawa, are easy to understand; others of which, like the minimalist sculptor Donald Judd and installation artist Dan Flavin, are a little farther afield.
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I would often sit around the monitor while things were being set up and ask different people if they thought there was any emotion in geometry. And they would say, “What?” And I would say, “Do you have any feeling for triangles? Hexagons?” There’s a geometry to the film that I find very pleasing. I think Judd’s work is highly intellectual and deeply emotional. And of course the influence of Flavin is obvious in the lighting, but nowhere more so than in the scene at the clinic where the border patrolman gets cured of his snakebite.
A decade transpired between The Good Old Boysand this film. Has directing been a pleasant experience for you, and is it something you look forward to doing with greater frequency?
Hell, those were some of the happiest days of my creative life — these two movies that I’ve directed. I’m very happy doing that. It just takes a while to get it organized. Of course, I had other things to do — raising kids; raising cattle; raising, training and selling horses; then looking for good material and people who you’re truly interested in working with. A guy like Guillermo Arriaga doesn’t come along every day. And neither do I.
Following its brief Oscar-qualifying engagement in late December, The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada reopens in Los Angeles theaters on Friday, February 3.