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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 Chris Menges?
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 anything done.

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 earlier?
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


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