A chat with Tommy Lee Jones, Tommy Lee Jones interview, The Sunset Limited
Tommy Lee Jones

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Everyone warned me about Tommy Lee Jones. They said, “He’s not a good interview, he hates doing press, and if you’re not planning to bring your A-game, then you might as well not come at all.” But, dammit, it’s Tommy Lee Jones. If you know he’s going to be in attendance for the TCA Press Tour, how do you turn down the chance to sit in the presence of that guy? Better yet, I’d watched and really enjoyed his adaptation of Cormac McCarthy’s play, “The Sunset Limited,” which he’d directed for HBO and starred in as well, along with Samuel L. Jackson. Sure, I was intimidated, but I’d done my research, I had my questions, and I was ready to roll. Plus, I felt a little bit of the pressure dissipate when I learned that, rather than doing a one-on-one, I’d be participating in a roundtable with two other journalists, Rick Porter of Zap2It and Sean Daly of the New York Post. Normally, that would be a disappointment, but in this instance, I felt like the phrase “strength in numbers” might well apply.

So how was Mr. Jones? Well, I’ll let you be the judge of that, but for my part, I think I managed to make it through the experience without embarrassing myself. I will say that I can see how he’s developed a reputation for being rather reticent when it comes to interviews, and there’s little question that he’s a man who does not suffer fools gladly. I’m still thanking the good lord above that I found the time to watch my screener of the film in advance of the interview and research McCarthy’s other works. It made all the difference in the world. All told, however, it was Rick Porter who took home the win, asking about the directorial challenges of the project. Just compare the length of Jones’s answers to those questions to anything else that he was asked, and I think you’ll agree.

Sean Daly: How are you today?

Tommy Lee Jones: I’m fine, thanks!

SD: Congratulations on getting this off the ground and on the air. You must be quite excited.

TLJ: Sure. Have ya’ll seen it?

Bullz-Eye: Yeah!

Rick Porter: Yes.

TLJ: Did you like it?

RP: Yeah.

BE: Yeah, I did. Very much so.

SD: I haven’t.

TLJ: You have not seen it…?

SD: No, I have not seen it yet.

RP: Not the happiest subject in the world, but it was really kind of fascinating to watch.

TLJ: Hm.

RP: It seems like your character is really, really passive, at least for the first half of it. Or he comes across that way, unwilling to talk or be drawn out. What is that like to play? What’s the mindset when you’re playing that?

On putting "The Sunset Limited" on HBO rather than releasing it theatrically: "I’m interested in this play, and I thought that was the best forum for it, and they were willing to do it. It doesn’t represent a sea change in career management, or any such preposterous thing."

TLJ: That’s just the material. It’s not like anything. There’s not an applicable simile. You just… (Starts to laugh) That’s what it says on the page, so that’s what you do.

SD: Where does this fit in for you in the larger picture, career-wise? Is doing something on a forum like HBO a natural next step? Is it something you’d like to do more of going down the road?

TLJ: I don’t know.

SD: As opposed to, you know, feature films or…

TLJ: No, I’m interested in this play, and I thought that was the best forum for it, and they were willing to do it. It doesn’t represent a sea change in… (Spits out the phrase) ...career management, or any such preposterous thing.

BE: When did you first discover the work of Cormac McCarthy? I mean, obviously, you were in “No Country for Old Men” prior to this, but…

TLJ: I don’t know. I think the first book of his I read was “Child of God,” and that was several…a long time ago. Several years. And I thought, “This is a very fine writer,” and I began to read the other books. And one day I was…for some reason, I was in Santa Fe with my friend Bill Whitliff, and he suggested that I join him one morning for breakfast at the La Fonda Hotel, because he was going to meet Cormac there. And that’s where we met. And I continued to read the books, and… (Hesitates) Does that answer your question?

BE: (Laughs) Sure. What was it about his work that drew you to it?

TLJ: It’s very good.

BE: Fair enough. Did his philosophy speak to you, or…

TLJ: I don’t know anything about philosophy. I don’t know anything about it.

BE: Okay.

RP: What was it about this particular work that made you want to…

TLJ: It was very good. I liked this play. I was fascinated with the idea of a dialectic, an essential dialectic rendered in the vernacular of Harlem and southern Louisiana and the Ivy League…if the Ivy League can be said to have a vernacular. I know that it certainly can. The idea of making the…finding a way to make the biggest ideas in the world entertaining is…that’s a happy undertaking. For me.

RP: When you’re directing something like this, where there’s not a lot of action and it’s all in one space, how do you find the line between making it visually interesting and not having us really notice the camera’s moving around all the time? And what were the challenges?

Tommy Lee JonesTLJ: Well, the challenge was to make it dynamic, visually dynamic, two guys sitting in a room talking. You could do it with almost no blocking. The table says there’s a table in the middle of the room and two chairs. I could put one actor in one chair, one actor in the other, then sit there for 90 minutes. But it’s not visually interesting. See, you have to…you look for ways to motivate blocking, motivate ways to get up and move, thereby motivating a movement by the camera. A way to gracefully keep things moving in a natural way. And that helps. You can… (Starts to laugh) A 40-millimeter lens on you from this far away has some meaning. If I can contrive a way to put that lens here, we have a whole different implication. And that helps the narrative. If you keep things in motion, you can give different meanings to the lenses. They can support narrative in a variety of ways. If that makes sense.

SD: You’re clearly very passionate about the play. People who are passionate about you are going to tune in to this. What are you hoping that they connect to?

TLJ: To the material. To the play.

SD: But what part of the subject matter?

TLJ: You know, I’ve already said that. I’ve already answered that question.

SD: I…I didn’t really feel that you answered it in a way that…

TLJ: I suppose you had to be there. (Laughs) It would help if you had seen the movie. Or the play. The appeal to me, and I hope the appeal to the audience, is finding a way to be entertained by a dialectic discussion of the biggest ideas in the world. That’s what I said to them… (Gesturing toward myself and Rick Porter) …and that is the best answer to the question you’ve asked.

SD: Okay, I mean, the truth of the matter is that we’re going to be writing this material for people who have not seen it and trying to essentially sell your product through our words, and through your words.

TLJ: Tell them they’re going to have a hell of a time. (Laughs)

SD: (Laughs) Now, there you go. This is what I’m trying to get.

TLJ: Tell them, “If you liked Aristotle, Socrates, and Plato, you will love ‘Sunset Limited.’” (Laughs)

SD: There you go! That’s the best quote we’ve heard so far.

"The first thing that would happen if you wanted to make a feature film of ('The Sunset Limited') is that somebody who speaks in clichés would tell you, 'We have to open it up.' And I’d say, 'What the hell are you talking about?' They’d say, 'There are no exteriors. Put in the exteriors!' Which, of course, would kill the play."

TLJ: Good!

BE: In the case of your co-star, obviously, you’ve worked together before on “Rules of Engagement,” but was this a case where he was the right man for the job, had you been wanting to team up with again, or was it a little of both?

TLJ: All of that, yeah.

BE: Did you find the chemistry pretty quickly? Was he already familiar with the play?

TLJ: He read the play. He can read plays. He knows…he knew the quality of the material. We get along very, very well. There was certainly no period of “getting to know you.”

BE: I talked to Barry Pepper a few weeks ago for “True Grit,” and he said he was hoping that you’d be directing more.

TLJ: Yeah…?

BE: Now, when you first got behind the camera for “Good Old Boys,” was it something you had always wanted to do?

TLJ: Oh, yeah. Sure.

BE: When it comes to choosing projects to direct, do you just always keep an eye open for something that interests you? I mean, obviously, you like this play, so that’s what sold you on it…

TLJ: Of course. I’m always looking for work.

BE: Right, but are you more conscious now when it comes to look for directorial efforts?

TLJ: I’m looking for directorial efforts all the time. As well as acting efforts, as well as writing efforts.

SD: Do you have others lined up?

TLJ: Oh, yeah, there’s always things in development.

SD: Anything you can share with us that’s coming up that you’re particularly excited about?

TLJ: No, not really, in fairness.

SD: Okay.

RP: When you’re directing yourself as well, which I know you’ve done a couple of times…

TLJ: Three.

RP: Was it a different challenge this time, given that there was so little else in the frame? It’s just you and Samuel L. Jackson.

TLJ: Well, yeah, the challenges, we spoke about some of those earlier. It’s about how to keep things interesting to the eye. The other challenge was that we had 14 days to shoot it, so our lowest daily page count was 11. You probably know that on most feature films you’re pretty lucky if you can average one and a half pages a day. I had to figure out a way to do better than that. Our highest daily page count was 14. So that took some planning.

RP: (Laughs) I would guess so. Was that mainly just cutting down the number of set-ups that you did, or…

TLJ: Well, the dynamic camera, you keep the camera moving, and you’re very careful about it, you can shoot longer. Secondly, if the frame changes within that shot several times, it makes a difference between one lighting set-up and one camera set up or four and five. If you’re shooting with Sony’s new camera, the F35, it’s an HD camera, you’re not limited to the ordinary 500-foot cinematic magazine. 500 feet rolls out sooner or later. (Laughs) But you don’t roll out with HD! And the other thing is having a dynamic set. We were very careful putting the set together. It was designed with 11 different pieces to the walls, so I could fly one, two, three, four, five or six, as many pieces as I wanted. “Fly” is a theatrical term derived from the days when a winch would pull up a piece of scenery and fly it up into the flyspace. In movies, it just means that somebody picks it up and carries it away. So that enabled us to have a more athletic camera, that enabled us to get a boom in with a remote head, but the important thing was to design that set so that three guys could pick up one of those 11 pieces and get it out of the way in seven minutes…and, when it was time to move the camera, put it back in seven minutes. So we had to do some innovation and some invention to make that possible. Those are some of the challenges. And, of course, Sam had to know not just a day and a half of dialogue, he had to be able to do pages of it. At any time. And so did I. So the actors had to be thoroughly prepared to do long takes and work consistently over a space of time with the camera, to know how to relate to the camera if it’s here, and then two and a half minutes later…well, for two and a half minutes to know exactly where it was and how you related to it as it moved and as you moved. Those are challenges, defined by our lack of time. So you can call them problems or you can call them solutions. They’re problems if it doesn’t work… (Laughs) …and they’re solutions if it does.

Tommy Lee Jones

RP: Was that short shoot just a budgetary question, or time?

TLJ: Budgetary.

BE: As far as other McCarthy works, I don’t know if it’s true or not, but I’d read that you own the film rights to “Blood Meridian.”

TLJ: That’s not true. I was hired by Sony to rewrite a screenplay for “Blood Meridian,” and I did that. But I don’t control it.

BE: I’d heard that Scott Rudin, I guess, is producing it.

TLJ: I’ve heard the same thing.

BE: Would you have any interest in participating in the film version?

TLJ: Sure!

BE: Is that one of your favorites as well?

TLJ: Absolutely! I think there’s a terrific movie there.

BE: Was there ever any consideration for you for “The Road” as well?

TLJ: I don’t think so. (Laughs) If there was, I didn’t hear about it.

SD: Our readers are always very interested in what other television you’re watching, besides your own. Can you share some favorites?

TLJ: I don’t really watch a lot of television. I’ve been watching football.

SD: Who’s your team?

TLJ: I’m just trying to keep up. I like the sport. I mean, my favorite college team would be Harvard, my favorite professional team would probably be the Saints, my favorite high school team is St. Marks School of Texas, in Dallas.

SD: So you’re following it on all levels. That’s a lot to keep up with. (Laughs)

"I was fascinated with the idea of a dialectic, an essential dialectic rendered in the vernacular of Harlem and southern Louisiana and the Ivy League…if the Ivy League can be said to have a vernacular. I know that it certainly can. The idea of...finding a way to make the biggest ideas in the world entertaining…that’s a happy undertaking. For me."

TLJ: I don’t keep up with it all. I go to the Harvard/Yale game on even-numbered years. And if I happen to be in New England, or maybe even New York, in the fall and there’s a home game, I’ll usually probably go to it.

SD: But as far as, y’know, television is concerned, as far as scripted or reality…

TLJ: Oh, other television. I like… (Hesitates)

SD: We’re all big fans, I think, of the HBO format. They’re mini-movies, really. Do you lean that way? Do you lean toward the broadcast stations, the 30-minute format…? What do you like to watch?

TLJ: I like to watch The Military Channel. And…HBO has a wide variety of things, so, I mean, I really have the highest regard for HBO. Particularly the HBO films, because they liked me enough to do this movie.

SD: Would you ever want to do a series with them?

TLJ: I could…sure, I could see doing that. If they had the right one. I had a wonderful time with HBO Films, and everyone there, starting with Len Amato, the boss. They’ve been terrific people to work with.

RP: This project, too, seems like one that would not get much purchase as a feature film.

TLJ: The first thing that would happen if you wanted to make a feature film of this is that somebody who… (Starts to laugh) Somebody who speaks in clichés would tell you, “We have to open it up.” And I’d say, “What the hell are you talking about?” They’d say, “There are no exteriors. Put in the exteriors!” Which, of course, would kill the play.

RP: Right. ‘Cause half of it…well, not half of it, but a lot of it, for the audience, is thinking about what happened before.

TLJ: This play is dialectic, and that means that two people are talking. The whole point of writing, performing, or seeing this play is to observe that form, and…it really doesn’t lend itself to theatrical film. I think, though, that…it’s a hard sell, too, to the broader audience. But I think people will figure out that this play is a lot of fun.

RP: Yeah, there’s definitely a lot of great… (Hesitates) I don’t know if you’d call it verbal jousting or whatever, but there’s…

TLJ: Verbal jousting? (Laughs) That’s great! Wonderful!

RP: There’s a lot of good back and forth between you and Sam.

TLJ: Sir Black, jousting with the evil Sir White. (Laughs)

BE: It definitely had funnier moments than I was necessarily expecting.

TLJ: I hope so.

BE: I’m thinking in particular of the line where you assure him that you did not jump into his arms, and he says, “Well, how did you get there, then?”

TLJ: Yeah! (Laughs) That’s pretty funny!

BE: Yeah, I laughed out loud…which was a pleasant surprise, because I didn’t really know what to expect from it when I went in. It looked really deep, which it is, but it’s not 100% dark throughout.

Tommy Lee JonesTLJ: We’ve touched on that twice: how do you make the biggest ideas in the world entertaining? That’s an intriguing question.

BE: Now, did you say that you had actually seen the play performed?

TLJ: No, it was done at Steppenwolf first, with Austin Pendleton directing, I think. And then they moved that production to New York for awhile, and…it’s been done in other places, I’m sure. I don’t know the history of it entirely. I will always…I read it a long time ago, and I’ve read it a few times since, and I’ve always thought it was screen-worthy.

BE: Would it be your hope that this would inspire more performances?

TLJ: Of the play?

BE: Yes.

TLJ: I would hope that it would inspire more people to see my movie. (Laughs)

SD: Why did you choose to not see it? You clearly could make yourself…

TLJ: I didn’t choose to not see it. It just wasn’t available to me. The Steppenwolf production and the New York production had closed and gone away before I had a chance to them.

(We get the one-more-question announcement from the publicist.)

RP: I’m just curious if you gave any thought, just in your own head, to what happens after your character walks out.

TLJ: Well, as is often the case with Cormac and his work, the question is a lot more important and a lot more intriguing than the answer. (Grins) Well, thank you, gentlemen. Glad you all were here. Thank you all for coming by!

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