We catch up with the director and star of THE HOMESMAN…
This month, Tommy Lee Jones steps behind the camera for his latest Western THE HOMESMAN; the story of Mary Bee Cuddy (Hilary Swank), a pioneer woman who undertakes bringing three mentally ill women from Nebraska to Iowa. Along the way, Cuddy saves the life of a petty criminal (Jones), and brings him along to help her on her journey.
Movies.ie caught up with Mr Jones at the Cannes press conference for the film to find out more about co-writing THE HOMESMAN, the challenges of making a Western and what he, as a director, thinks of himself as an actor…
As a director, what draws you to a story?
Tommy Lee Jones: I don’t know. You look for a door, a window, a pathway to originality. Then you open that door, climb through that window and run down that path.
This time you co-wrote the script of the movie, how important was it for you to be part of the process of scripting the story?
TLJ: Yeah it’s important as a director and an actor, to have me as a writer. It’s particularly important as a producer. Having any three of those jobs makes the fourth one a breeze.
How did you go about casting Hilary Swank?
TLJ: It took me as long as 5 seconds after meeting her to realise that she is perfect for the role; physically, mentally, emotionally and, I suppose, even ethnically; she’s from Nebraska and not afraid of a horse or a mule. I had been looking for a long time, and it was an enormous relief to meet Hilary at that Italian restaurant in Beverly Hills, and have that burden off my shoulders.
Westerns, as a genre, are not really being made at the moment, how difficult was it to make such a melancholic Western?
TLJ: We were trying to make the best movie we could. It’s a consideration of the history of westward expansion, a way of looking at what the schoolchildren of America learn when the subject of manifest destiny comes up. Taking a consideration of that theme in the study of history. We didn’t think about Westerns and genre, other than making a movie about American history from our own point of view.
Were you concerned about portraying Native Americans in the film?
TLJ: I don’t have any concern about that whatsoever. Those people were all Native Americans; they were of Puebloan descent. They all claimed to be expert riders; not one of them could ride one side of a horse, but they did look like Pawnees. The costumes were thoroughly researched. I was really proud of the fact that they look like Pawnees, and not ashamed of the fact that they were considered, by our characters, to be potentially homicidal. We are not bending the truth at all, or stereotyping anybody; that’s the last thing we want to do.
You have a very international cast in the film, and there was a great mix of people in America at the time that the film is set. How much research did you do on this?
TLJ: The United States has been, and was intended to be, and is and will continue to be a melting pot; we come from everywhere, so it’s not unusual for people from other parts of the world to appear in the 19th century, in the West. It’s kind of normal, it’s real, and that’s why we did it.
How did you research the rest of the film?
TLJ: We read a lot of books, and paid particular attention to the photographers of the day. One book specifically dealt with the subject of insanity among women in the 19th century; it was a book from which we learned about various treatments for various illnesses. For example, it was commonly thought that the best cure for schizophrenia was a soak in ice water for 8 hours… And it got worse. The photographic record was very valuable to us as well; the architecture of Western Nebraska… How do you build a house where there are no tress, and it’s hundreds of miles to the nearest sawmill. In other words, how do you build a house without lumber? Well, you build it out of dirt; you dig a hole in the ground; not a real inviting place for a woman of the Victorian Era. Most of our research was photographic; that’s not real research, we’re not curing Polio, we’re just looking into the past in every way we can.
It seems impossible to have a film like this and female role like Hilary Swank’s in the Hollywood system nowadays, would you agree?
TLJ: Our lives are a never-ending search for originality, and we were lucky enough to find some in this movie. We don’t think of ‘systems’, we don’t think of ourselves as being in or out of any ‘system’, we are a system of our own. We can get up and running and wind up in a place like Cannes; we’re happy as can be.
Were there any specific films that you referenced in THE HOMESMAN?
TLJ: I made reference to every movie I have ever seen; trying to stay away from some of them, and trying to imitate the better qualities of others. The work of Donald Judd and Josef Elbers were important to me every day; they’re not film directors. My friend Norman Mailer said that good artists borrow or copy, and great artists steal; and I steal from anybody that has anything worth stealing.
Can you talk about the shift in tone throughout the film – from comedic to tragic – and how this worked during filming?
TLJ: Well, having been a part of writing the screenplay it was not hard to remember what the tone was supposed to be, and how it was going to change tomorrow. We had to know what we were doing when the sun came up every day, and the question of tone was important; subtle, predetermined, and we kept it straight by reading the script. That’s part of filmmaking.
Usually you have the move towards the West, but this film is about a move back East. Can you talk about this?
TLJ: The journey you see in this movie is the inverse of what you usually see in a movie that has wagons and horses in it. The subject matter is insane women, not so-called heroic men. That’s just our point of view. I think all our themes harmonise and come together. It was interesting to shoot that so-called disparity.
How did you choose the music for the film?
TLJ: We had two sources of music; one is history, songs from the past. We had a music supervisor who went through the archives of 19th century music that would have been expected in that part of the world. That music supervisor, I am happy to say, is my son; Austin Leonard Jones, who is the banjo player n the barge at the end of the movie. He found some important and rare songs for us. The other source of the music, of course, is Marco Beltrami, who is a very fine composer, who enjoys working with us, even though we don’t pay any money, because we are in search of originality in any way we can get our hands on it. He’s doing things, musically, with our company that he would not be able to do, in what you call ‘the system’.
What does Tommy Lee Jones, the actor, think of Tommy Lee Jones, the director, and vice versa?
TLJ: As a director, I can tell you I do everything I tell myself to do! [laughs] As an actor, I listen very carefully.
THE HOMESMAN is released in Irish cinemas on November 21st 2014
Words: Brogen Hayes