Jones, Jackson Bring McCarthy's 'Sunset' To Screen
In his latest role, actor Tommy Lee Jones is bent on suicide. He plays a professor who wants so badly to end his life that he throws himself in front of a subway car. But his suicide attempt is thwarted when he is pulled to safety by an ex-con who has found redemption in god, played by Samuel L. Jackson.
But all of this dramatic action occurs before the opening credits roll. From this jumping-off point, The Sunset Limited unfolds into a tense and philosophical two-person drama, taking place entirely in the ex-con's New York tenement apartment.
"It's a very fine play, it's a wonderful idea. It's full of lots of big ideas and they're all fun," Jones tells NPR's Steve Inskeep.
The film, also directed by Jones, is an adaptation of Cormac McCarthy's play of the same name. McCarthy is known for his novels Blood Meridian, The Road, and No Country for Old Men. Jones starred as Sheriff Ed Tom Bell in the 2007 film adaptation of No Country for Old Men.
In McCarthy's script, the characters are identified only as "White," the despairing college professor, and "Black," the religious ex-con. Jones says Jackson was the ideal candidate to play the role of the deeply Christian ex-convict.
"He's a very fine actor," says Jones. "He can understand the thinking behind the writing ... and there's plenty of it here."
McCarthy's writing requires insight and luckily for Jones, the author was on-hand for many of the rehearsals. The filmmakers chose to shoot the movie Santa Fe, N.M., because of attractive tax incentives — but it also happened to be the city where McCarthy lives.
"It was a very happy situation for us that Cormac lived there and was willing to come to rehearsal with us. I think we had 10 or 12 days of rehearsal entirely alone," Jones says — just the writer, the two actors, and a script supervisor. Save a brief visit from some HBO executives, no one was allowed to attend rehearsals, says Jones, and the one-on-one focus proved beneficial.
"We were able to ask questions of Cormac, run things by him, exchange ideas with him, and those were some of the happiest days of my creative life," says Jones. Adapting the play to the screen called for some major changes – and Jones needed to bounce ideas off McCarthy.
"I would show him a scene and ask him if he liked it. I needed to know what his reaction was," Jones says. "There was one scene, which we called 'The Jailhouse Story.' I directed that scene to be very graphic ... physically dynamic."
It was a dramatic departure from previous productions of the play — which had staged the scene as a speech delivered monotone by Black. That treatment would have worked onstage with an audience in the room watching Black breathe, says Jones, but the screen demanded a different approach. In the film, Black swings his arms violently as he acts out a brutal fight he had in prison.
When it came to the text, Jones stayed faithful to McCarthy's script, but the film still achieves a casual, improvisational feel. "We tried to make it look natural, tried to make it look easy," Jones says. " ... We don't have any use for improvisation. We like scripts — and good ones."
It's a serious play with dark themes, but Jones found ways to lighten the mood. "You have to be able to appreciate the humor that is on the page and you have to be able to play it," he says.
It wasn't hard to get HBO on board, though Jones says they did ask him how they were going to sell it. "I said, get a poster and emblazon across the bottom of it something like, 'If you liked Aristotle and Plato, you'll love The Sunset Limited,'" he jokes.
Although they didn't end up taking his advice on marketing, the film will air on Saturday on HBO. Copyright 2011 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.