The Sunset Limited - Director Tommy Lee Jones
Tommy Lee Jones directing © 2011 HBO

Tommy Lee Jones executive produces, stars and directs HBO’s new film The Sunset Limited. Based on the play of the same name by Pulitzer Prize-winning writer Cormac McCarthy, the two-character drama tells the story of a deeply religious ex-con (Samuel L Jackson) who thwarts the suicide attempt of college professor (Jones) who tried to throw himself in front of an oncoming train, the Sunset Limited.

Locked in a philosophical debate, both men passionately defend their personal credos and try to convert the other.

Tommy Lee Jones spoke of his latest venture working with his friend Samuel L Jackson at the TV Critics Association tour.

Can you talk about how this project came together?

The Sunset Limited - Samuel L Jackson with director Tommy Lee Jones
Samuel L Jackson discusses a scene with dirertor Tommy Lee Jones © 2011 HBO

Well, I talked to Cormac and was able to secure the rights. And the first thing I did was send a copy of the play to Sam, and he read it and called back in a few days and said he liked it and sure would like to do it. So we then had a package of Sam and me and Cormac’s material that we could take to Len Amato with HBO, with what I trust was an irresistible price tag on it.

Usually in a movie you might get one or two really great scenes, here you and Samuel have wonderful dialogue throughout it.

It’s like working in the theatre. This play is made of language. Language is what we are working with as actors and also as a director. I get to play with cameras, too. And it’s a happy occasion for me, and I was happy to see Sam take such joy in working with car-crash-free language.

Since you’ve worked together before did you find that you had a shorthand that you could rely on with each other?

I suppose you could say that. Yeah, we’ve worked together. We know each other. There wasn’t a lot of self-explanation necessary on anybody’s part.

Since this is essentially a two-hander, and Mr Jackson has a lot of professional weight, did you ever get into a disagreement over how things were going?

There were no disagreements. We’re pretty much of a single mind all the time, largely because we had good rehearsal time that was undisturbed. We had a rehearsal studio as big as this room, with tape on the floor, and some furniture to represent the set. And we didn’t let anybody in there.

There were only four people in that rehearsal studio for a week. And those four people were Sam and me, and a script supervisor, and Cormac. And those were some of the happiest, most creative days of the process. And certainly there was no argument, no dissent, no friction at all. We knew what we were doing, and we knew what we were going to do.

Can you talk about how you tackled the challenge of only filming in a single room?

The Sunset Limited - Tommy Lee Jones
White (Tommy Lee Jones) © 2011 HBO

That was the main challenge. This play is two guys sitting in a room talking. The first thing is to realize that this play has a dialectic construction, so you can’t shoot exteriors; that would simply kill it.

But you do have to make it visually interesting, so we moved the camera a great deal, but we only moved it in service of the language, and in service of the actors. I had to keep the camera moving, but I didn’t want it to move for its own sake. I didn’t want to make a shot that’s about a camera. I wanted to make a shot that was about Sam as he moves across the room, and around the room. So that camera moves up and down, it pans, it tilts, it booms.

When did you know you wanted to be a director? And who are the directors you’ve learned the most from?

I started wanting the director’s job when I was just a little boy, and I’ve wanted everybody’s job since then. I’m afraid to start mentioning directors that have been important to me because I’ll leave somebody out.

Every director that I’ve worked with has influenced my work as a director in one way or the other. I try to do things better than them in some ways. I try to do things as well as them in some ways. I try to avoid what they did in some ways. The sum of the parts of my education is working. My education as a director has been entirely practical, and my teachers have been all of the other directors I’ve worked with or for. And the same thing applies to acting, I would say.

Did you like directing yourself, or do you hire yourself because you are a big name and that just makes it easier to get the job made?

The Sunset Limited - Director Tommy Lee Jones with writer Cormac McCarthy
Director Tommy Lee Jones with writer Cormac McCarthy © 2011 HBO

Both really, I like being an actor and a director on the same movie. I like being the actor and the director, also the writer. We had a better writer this time!

Do you feel like the best way of getting your vision across is to take multiple jobs on it?

Oh, I don’t know [about] getting my vision across, I’m just greedy for creative control!

What did Cormac McCarthy think about the production?

He was very supportive in rehearsal and shooting and in the post-production. As the author of the play, he understood that we were the interpreters of this particular production, and he respected that. I could tell often that he liked what we were doing. He always had opinions, and we tried to be prepared with responses.

Judy Sloane

Judy is Film Review Online's regular Los Angeles based reporter.