Tommy Lee Jones Directs Acclaimed 'Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada' (2/06)

Of the various T-words that have been applied to Tommy Lee Jones-tough, tall, Texan-the one that seems to stick to his cantankerous hide best is taciturn. It sits particularly well in the saddle on the big screen when he is asked to be a man of few words and much action, but it tends to chafe a lot in real-life interview situations when his unadorned responses usually break the fourth estate out into a collective sweat. In terms of sheer verbiage, the questions without fail outrageously outweigh the answers.

So it is indeed fortunate that, saints be praised, we are catching him now-if not necessarily on a good day, at least on a good film. "I believe in the film," he declares in his usual blood-drained, down-to-the-bone-marrow fashion, "so I really don't mind doing promotion on it at all. It's necessary. It would be more difficult to do if I hated the film."

Difficult to the point of impossible, one shudders to imagine, but this time out of the chute is worth the shameless shilling, so he has again entered the press arena-short fuse in plain sight-to do a little drum-beating for The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada.

Even the title smacks of no compromise, so it's not surprising to find that Jones not only stars in the Sony Pictures Classics release, but also co-produced it with Michael Fitzgerald and Luc Besson, helped create the original (very!) screenplay with Guillermo Arriaga, made his feature-length film-directing debut with it and, in a pinch, rustled up some vitals on location for his cast and crew.

Jones' only other directorial effort occurred a decade ago when he helmed (and co-scripted) for TNT The Good Old Boys, a Lonely Are the Brave-like drama about a cowboy coming to the end of his era in West Texas, where Jones lives and has family roots. The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada similarly has a regional resonance for him, since it was inspired by an actual local incident in which a Mexican worker was shot by U.S. marines.

"This was a kid watching his father's goats by the river," Jones relayed to one press gathering, "and, out of boredom and stupidity, three marines decided they were taking fire from drug smugglers and shot him dead. They were whisked away and got away with it. Many of us who live in that part of the country were insulted." But Jones did something.

He pitched the premise to Arriaga, who fashioned a script where Jones functioned as a kind of avenging angel who meted out proper justice. "We actually wrote it together," says Jones. "It was a terrific experience. I'd seen the films he had written for Alejandro González Iñárritu [Amores Perros and 21 Grams] and liked them and had an occasion to tell him that. We became friends and good hunting buddies. He and his wife, Maria, wound up coming to our house in Pacific Palisades when I was working in California."

The storyline they concocted presents Jones as Pete Perkins, a righteous, right-doing ranch foreman, whose best friend, an illegal immigrant he hires (Julio Cesar Cedillo), is accidentally killed by a trigger-happy border patrolman, Norton (Barry Pepper), who hastily buries the body in the desert, only to have it dug up and gnawed on by a hungry coyote before hunters happen by and retrieve the corpse. It is given a proper burial in the Van Horn town cemetery by the local sheriff (Dwight Yoakam), who declines to take action against the patrolman. This inaction prompts Perkins to kidnap Norton at gunpoint, force him to exhume the body and rebury it below the border as per the deceased's request to Pete.

It makes a long, grueling trek, and the corpse is lucky to be dead, given the indignities and brutalities it is subjected to (including grisly discoloration, hair coming out in clumps, and a burning to remove swarming ants). An additional fatality is an unlucky packhorse that suffers a spectacular fall from a high cliff.

Which invites the obvious question, "Were there any animals injured during the shoot?" The man who wasn't kidding when he once said, "I do not have a sense of humor of any recognizable sort," lies in wait for that question, and then he deadpans, "Horses are really cheap out there." When the duped reporter registers a startled reaction, he laughs lustily.

There was no computer-generated effect for that realistic fall, he happily confesses. "We taught a ranch horse how to stand up on his hind legs and rear and paw the air as if attacked," he explains. "He learned how to do that and actually enjoyed that. Quite a hambone! Then you cut to his feet as he stumbles backward, and then to a long shot and throw a dummy off the cliff-an 'articulated dummy.' 'Articulated' means he's got a little motor inside, which moves his feet and his head a bit so that he looks alive."

This hyper-realistic shot may be but one of several things you've never seen in a film before-not the least of which is the gradual discoloration of the corpse-on-horseback.

"John Blake, head of makeup, did a wonderful job. We found a company in the San Fernando Valley that does nothing but make dead bodies, so we had three corpses built at different stages to depict stages of decomposition. Also, we consulted with doctors and morticians about what actually happens to the human body when its occupant departs."

This ghastly playing-with-dead-things aspect of the film brings to mind Sam Peckinpah's 1974's Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia-a movie Jones admits to having seen 15 times-but he reined in reporters so they wouldn't jump to the wrong conclusions. "I love Peckinpah's work, but I've seen Pierrot le Fou [by Jean-Luc Godard] about 20 times and [Akira] Kurosawa's Dreams 20 times, so there have been a lot of influences on me." (Mostly, however, the majority of critics concentrated on the Peckinpah connection.)

As a general rule, Jones eschews any discussion of his own directors-the good or the bad. "I don't want to start naming my favorites. They know who they are. If I named one or two, I'd have to leave out 48 others." Conversely, he won't comment on the bummer direction he got that finally drove him into taking up the megaphone. And, no, it doesn't surprise him that he made that move. "I did it on purpose," he replies, wryly ruling out the "surprise" factor. "Directing was something I've been wanting to do a long time. It comes from a simple desire to satisfy my lust for creative control." Did he gain new respect for that profession, having done it? "No. I knew what it was. There were no surprises."

Jones set the plan in motion himself when, during a hunting trip with Arriaga and Fitzgerald, he suddenly realized he had the key ingredients sitting next to him in his pickup truck. So he popped the proposition to them right then and there and promised, as director, he could secure a high-priced talent for the lead at dirt-cheap rates-meaning, of course, himself.

The whole picture was produced for an estimated $15 million, which happens to be $5 million less than what he got (plus a percentage of the gross) for doing Men in Black II.

Some money was saved by shooting in his own backyard-a 3,000-acre spread in the northern slopes of the Davis Mountains not far from San Antonio-as well as in assorted sparsely populated counties in West Texas and comparable terrain in Northern Mexico.

One thing gained from this location work was the grizzled grandeur of scenery seldom (if, indeed, ever) seen in films. "There's probably a reason for that," Jones is quick to inject. "It's hard to get a movie crew there. It's rugged and remote and logistically very difficult. There's not a lot of motel rooms for your crew. We started in Odessa, Texas, did a day of work at a town close by and settled in Van Horn, which is 33 miles from the headquarters of the ranch I owned at the time, so we were picking up as many exteriors as we could."

The landscape, as Arriaga reckoned it, was a kind of character that shaped the lives and actions of the other characters. He calls the results "a border film" as opposed to "a western"-a word that brings out Jones' bristles in spades. "The term," contends the novice director, "has become pejorative if not epithet, and I don't think it applies to our movie...It's as Guillermo says: It's a movie about a culture, a country that has a border."

To that end, Jones has gone to some pains to show the similarities as well as the contrasts of these two worlds that are separated by a river serving as a border. "One of the ways to look at it," he has told reporters, "is to compare small towns on both sides of the river. How are things the same? How are things different? And what is this thing we call a border between people, and why is it that we are apart? Why is it that we cannot work together?"

By way of illustrating his point, he has Levon Helm (who played his pappy-in-law in Coal Miner's Daughter) pop up in one sequence as a blind old coot who listens to a Mexican radio station without understanding one word of Spanish, just because he likes the sound of the language. In another sequence, on the other side of the border, some vaqueros huddle around a campfire watching an American soap on a battery-run TV set.

"I'm hoping," Jones says, "it might open the possibility for anyone to stand on one side of the river and come to understand that the person looking back at them is them."

It's a message rarely voiced in western trappings, and it came over loud and clear last May when The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada ran the glittering gauntlet at Cannes as the last film in festival competition. The Good Old Boys cost Jones the Camera d'Or award for his feature-directing debut, but he copped the Prix d'interpretation masculine (Best Actor award) and the less visible one for Best Screenplay that was given to Arriaga.

Three Burials is his last film to date, both as actor and as director, but he's itching for another shot at directing. Any prospects? "Not at the moment," says Jones, strong and silent to the end.