Tommy Lee Jones has battled aliens in Men In Black, been shot in The Executioner's Song, and had his head cut off in Natural Born Killers. Now the veteran of more than 50 films doubles as star and director on The Three Burials Of Melquiades Estrada, a powerful, existential drama that is worthy of being mentioned in the same breath as films by Sam Peckinpah and Clint Eastwood. Below, one of the grumpiest men in Hollywood talks about borders, stereotypes and human nature.
How was this directing experience?
It was my second. It was fine. My first film was a made-for-television movie called The Good Old Boys.
Who had the original idea for this story? You or the screenwriter, Guillermo Arriaga?
Guillermo and I are friends and hunt deer together. He loves to hunt and is awful good company. One day we were out hunting with Michael Fitzgerald, one of our producers, and driving around in a truck, and I said "Gosh, there is a lot of talent here in the pick-up. Why don't we make a movie?" and they said "That would be fine!" As a starting point there was an incident three or four years ago in which a kid was killed by a government authority and nothing was done about it. That was pretty much the kernel, the seed, of the development of our narrative.
Did Guillermo's non-linear narrative structure pose a challenge?
That was interesting. My idea in terms of managing a narrative, or in thinking in my creative life, is that you could easily argue that the past, the present and the future all occur simultaneously, and if you can postulate that, then you're not strictly bound to a linear narrative. You just have to open your mind and your eyes, it's all it takes.
Your film takes great pains to portray the main Mexican character, Melquiades Estrada, as a fully rounded character. What do you think of the way Mexicans are represented generally in American cinema?
I'm not a real big fan of Zorro or the Cisco Kid. I think any stereotyping is too much. Ethnic stereotypes are boring and stressful and sometimes criminal. It's just not a good way to think. It's non-thinking. It's stupid and destructive.
Would the film have been the same without you playing Pete?
There's probably some other actors that could have played that part. I don't know who. I prefer myself.
Is this a timeless story or does it say something about America now? There seems to be a political edge to it.
Well, yeah, there is an argument that every breath you take is a political act.
Yeah but are you making an explicit point about America's racial border politics?
I prefer to let the movie speak for itself. What I will say is that there is one country there, one culture in that river valley, and it doesn't have a lot to do with Mexico City or Washington D.C. - the Rio Grande valley has its own culture. It is a superficially imposed barrier. A sort of enforced schizophrenia.
You speak Spanish in the film. Are you actually fluent in Spanish?
Yeah, I learnt it as a child playing with kids who spoke Spanish, and then in school, I think in my educational process, there's eight-and-a-half-years of academic Spanish. I've also travelled extensively in Mexico, Spain, Argentina, and when we work cattle in US Texas, we speak Spanish and English.
The film has qualities found in the movies of Sam Peckinpah and Clint Eastwood. Do you feel part of that same family?
Well, I admire Sam Peckinpah's work and Clint Eastwood is a good friend and heroic character. I really admire his style of working and learned a great deal from working with him, and there's many things that he does as a director that I try to do because they're the right things to do. There are other important directors that have had an influence on me. I would say Akira Kurosawa and Jean Luc Godard, John Ford, Peckinpah, Oliver Stone are all directors that I admire.
How did you build the relationship between Pete and Melquiades, because it works very well?
Well it's on the printed page of the script. We read the script and everyone learned it; I picked out a lens and decided where to put it. That's how we did it. Every picture tells a story, don't it?
Some of your actors were required to do a tremendous amount of background reading. So is your technique as straightforward as you've just said?
Yeah it is that straightforward. Of course you do lots of preparation and lots of background reading. I gave Dwight Yoakam a copy of Camus's L'Etranger. Why'd I do that? Because Dwight's very bright and we were making a study of what alienation feels like and what its roots might be in materialism, and how that might contrast with a different point of view that might be happening on the other side of the river, which is also you.
You tell a tragic story but there is also humour. Was that important?
Yeah, because that's the way life is. At least that's my point of view. Human beings are glorious and preposterous characters. We just tried to stay right on the edge of humour all the time. Humour is a great matrix for communication. It's grease to the wheels of industry.
The Three Burials Of Melquiades Estrada is released in UK cinemas on Friday 31st March 2006