Jones has a knack for directing

March 03, 2006|By SUSAN KING | SUSAN KING,LOS ANGELES TIMES

Working with tough-guy actor and Oscar winner Tommy Lee Jones on his feature film directorial debut was, in a word, different.

Set in southwest Texas and Mexico, The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada is an offbeat drama that has been nominated for four Independent Spirit Awards. (It is scheduled to open next week at the Charles Theatre.) The plot revolves around an earnest ranch hand named Pete Perkins (Jones) who goes to great lengths to bury his friend and co-worker, illegal immigrant Melquiades Estrada (Julio Cedillo) in his hometown in Mexico after he is accidentally killed by a cruel, foul-mouthed border agent (Barry Pepper). Some scenes were shot on Jones' sprawling Texas ranch.

To start with, Jones would speak only in Spanish to Cedillo on the set, as their characters converse in Spanish in the film. "Somehow or another it helped both of us," Cedillo said.

And there was little rehearsing, said Cedillo, who describes Jones as an alchemist of sorts.

"He can look at you and read you, and he knows what you are made of," the actor said. "We did rehearse, but we didn't rehearse the way you think we would rehearse."

Cedillo recalls the time they had only 20 minutes to shoot a pivotal scene in which Estrada tells Perkins he wants to be buried in Mexico if anything happens to him.

"We had 150 head of cattle behind us ... and my horse was a little jittery," he recalled. "Tommy put his arm around me and said, `Just remember, it's forever.'"

Certainly not words of relief, but Cedillo said he found solace in them, anyway: "When you put it in that context, it takes away the typical mind-set of making a film. You have to remember you are a responsible storyteller."

With Pepper, Jones gave the actor a rifle and sent him up to the mountains for several days before production began to prepare for the role.

"There would be a tent and a fire pit," recalled Pepper. "There were elk and deer and mountain lions and rattlesnakes. You would sit up there on these 7,000-foot towering cliff faces or search for ancient native hunting grounds for arrowheads or just stare at the fire all night."

At first, Pepper says, he didn't know the method behind Jones' madness.

"But you just go with the flow and where it took you," he said. "I had my most profound revelations about the character up there. Tommy was never concerned with my ability to portray the devil or angel, he was only interested in the fragile moment of enlightenment the character has, that dawning of the gift of redemption that Pete offers him."

Jones' insight to the characters was equally unconventional - he often used literature, music and even riddles to convey what he was looking for.

"The music," in particular, said Pepper, "was eclectic. It was old Southern country ballads and Spanish acoustic guitars, really simply beautiful music."

Still, Pepper persisted in asking Jones how he could best portray the character.

"The only thing he gave me was `You're spiritually vacuous,'" Pepper said. "He gave me the Bible and asked me to read Ecclesiastes and gave me a series of novels by Flannery O'Connor. I read a lot of her work and a lot of the Bible. I spent a lot of time in the mountains. It was as simple as that."

Pepper discovered Jones' approach was freeing and empowering for the actors.

"He left it in your hands and challenged you to think. He couched everything in a story or a riddle or a joke. I think he scares the [heck] out of most people, but once you get to know him, he has a wonderful sense of humor and is a really fascinating guy to work with. Beneath the grizzly surface is this real Southern gentleman."

Cedillo, 35, felt a real kinship to Estrada - he was born in Mexico and moved to Fort Worth, Texas, when he was 5.

For once in his career, he said, he felt a great responsibility to his race. "I had to try to be sensitive how I approached this role. I had to make sure I kept in mind that Melquiades is an angel, a metaphor for the innocent."

In the end, both Cedillo and Pepper, also 35, described working with Jones as a personal journey unlike any other.

"This is a man who does things his way, to search out an unknown actor to play the title character. That takes a lot of guts," Cedillo said.

"With him, what you give is what you get," Pepper said. "He has a ruthless work ethic and a genius-level intellect. He is constantly challenging you to explore and think, but not in a conventional actor-director way."

Susan King writes for the Los Angeles Times.

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