I knew I was in trouble when a publicist called, long in advance.
Tommy Lee Jones was willing to talk about his work directing and starring in a film of Cormac McCarthy's two-man play, The Sunset Limited, for HBO. And friendly as the folks from the channel were about scheduling our meetup, they also made it obvious: He will eat you alive if you're not well prepared.
Let me say here that The Sunset Limited was an engaging, if a bit overlong, work for me. Frankly, I'd watch Jones and Samuel L. Jackson re-create scenes from a SpongeBob script. But McCarthy gives them a wonderful premise: Jackson is Black, a born-again ex-con trying to save Jones' White, a college professor who tried to commit suicide by throwing himself in front of a certain train in the title.
You start the play, which takes place fully in Black's apartment, wondering if this story is about White's redemption. You may leave it wondering if the story isn't about Black's faith, and what happens when it meets White's boundless despair.
But Jones wasn't in the mood to help with any analysis. Here's a heavily edited version of our conversation:
What's the ultimate message of this film?
Oh, I don't know. I think the question is much more important than the answer. … It's an argument meant to shed light, provoke thought. I don't know that we have a message. You know, we have some pretty good questions.
Samuel L. Jackson seems one of the few actors who could hold the screen with you.
I never thought of anyone else. It requires someone who could convince you that he's familiar with both Harlem and southeast Louisiana. … When you think about those things, Sam is the first fellow that comes to mind.
Is it more of a challenge to direct a film that's this intimate?
Oh, I don't know anything about degrees of difficulty, and the concept of challenges is mysterious to me.
So you didn't see this as a particular challenge because it's the two of you in a room for 90 minutes?
Challenge is not a word that I … you use in regard … I don't know what the hell you're talking about (laughs).
What, for you, were the most important questions dealt with here?
The most important question in American cinema, I've learned, is 'When is lunch?' "
How did you work with Cormac?
The first thing we did on the first day was sit down together and read through the play. Then we did it again in the afternoon and asked Cormac to join us. For the next week or 10 days, (we) worked (with a script supervisor) in a sound stage alone with this set indicated by tape on the floors and improvised articles of furniture, and built the play. The play is, in effect, only one scene but I divided it into 52 pieces that could be worked on individually and then welded together.
Is this a dark play?
It really invites us to think about the meaning of faith. I'm reminded of Flannery O'Connor and her definition of faith, which was, 'Faith is that which you know to be true, whether you believe it or not.' And I don't … personally, I don't conclude that Black's faith is shaken.