In “The Sunset Limited,” an HBO film directed by Tommy Lee Jonesand starring Mr. Jones and Samuel L. Jackson, two men are locked in a room but have almost nothing in common save their time together. In the movie, based on the play by Cormac McCarthy, White, Mr. Jones’s character, is a college professor at the end of the line, a man so pummeled by despair that he attempts to throw himself in front of a train driven by … Black, a redeemed, religious ex-convict played by Mr. Jackson. White is brought back to Black’s spare New York tenement, and they commence a mortal, desperate debate about the value of life and whether ending it — taking the Sunset Limited — is a valid choice given the amount of misery and alienation that can go hand in hand with everyday existence.
Mr. Jones, Mr. Jackson and Mr. McCarthy — the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of “The Road,” “All the Pretty Horses” and “No Country for Old Men” — spent weeks in rehearsal pulling the play apart, examining each passage for meaning, and then Mr. Jones, who directed “The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada,” deconstructed what is really one long scene into 52 components, each shot from a distinct perspective. The room’s walls were broken into sections so that pieces could “fly” out of the way, allowing the cameras to roam freely and intimately in the space between and around the two men.
Mr. Jones and Mr. Jackson, along with Mr. McCarthy, who rarely does interviews, agreed to meet at the offices of HBO in New York to talk about the film (which has its premiere on Saturday), the play and working with one another. The three collaborators had lunch and after the dishes were cleared away, David Carr hosted a chat that veered into philosophy and some very big themes but had laughs too, not unlike the movie itself. Excerpts of that conversation follow.
Q. The issues you tackle in “The Sunset Limited” don’t come any bigger. Viewers are literally watching a life-and-death struggle unfold right in front of them, although it is the collision of language that creates the sense of danger, not cars or bullets.
TOMMY LEE JONES I don’t think the subject matter is too dark, but it’s big and very old. In Cormac’s hands it’s rendered fresh, original and funny as hell. I think it’s wonderful too to see a play that’s made out of language and see the two characters in the play just loving language, having fun with language.
SAMUEL L. JACKSON It’s two people having a very genuine conversation and enjoying themselves as they’re having it because there
are fun moments between the two of them. They laugh, they get a little testy at times and then a little disappointed, but it’s the full gamut of the emotional spectrum. You don’t get to do that a lot as an actor.
CORMAC MCCARTHY I think that the issue some people had with it is it would be confining, you know, two people in a room, what is that? But as it turns out it’s not that at all. That stage, that room, is the world. Besides, literature is about tragedy.
Q. Without getting deep into spoilers, White, after listening carefully to Black for most of the movie, becomes a kind of evangelist for the darkness, arguing very forcefully that suicide is a rational choice. That’s not exactly your average Hollywood hug of an ending.
JONES A Hollywood hug? I wouldn’t do that to you. But you have to remember that White’s exit to go do what he is going to do is not the end of the play. The end of the play is a plea to God from Black, or at least a question, with him asking if he has done well. He asks, “Is that all right?” It’s a pretty good place for mankind to be in and a pretty happy ending as far as I’m concerned.
MCCARTHY Mother Teresa was in conversation with a reporter one time, and he said, “You must get very discouraged,” because she’s dealing with dying people, and she said, “Well, he didn’t call upon me to be successful, he just called upon me to be faithful.” I think that’s the kind of reassurance that Black is looking for at the very end of the film.
Q. This story goes off in New York City. If people in this city walked around with thought bubbles above them, would some of them read as desperate and scary as the ones in White’s head?
[They all immediately say yes, and laughter breaks out.]
MCCARTHY It’s not just the city, it’s life.
JACKSON The city is the city. I think what we are talking about in the end is the world.
Q. Mr. Jones, you were in “No Country for Old Men,” and you’ve written an adaptation of Mr. McCarthy’s “Blood Meridian.” How did you end up deciding to make a film out of “The Sunset Limited”?
JONES My wife and I were having lunch at the Santacafé in Santa Fe, and we were talking about “Sunset Limited,” and I said I wish I could talk to Cormac about it, and she looked up over my shoulder and said, “Hello, Cormac,” and there he was.
MCCARTHY Tommy is a talented man, and he’s smart. That’s really about all it takes for me, plus having a genuine interest in the project,
which I sensed right away.
Q. In the play White is a man who has read many books, who knows a great deal about a great many things, whereas Black has really read only one book, the Bible. Somewhere in there White suggests all knowledge is vanity. Is there such a thing as knowing too much?
MCCARTHY I’ll say what I said before: I don’t think it’s true that an education necessarily is going to drive you to suicide, but it’s probably true that more educated people commit suicide than people who are not educated.
JONES I don’t believe there’s a message here that says education is the road to suicide.
Q. [to Mr. Jones] So in theatrical terms you are working with an ex-con philosopher and a suicidal professor locked inside a noisy, dangerous New York tenement, an exercise that you describe as one of the happiest professional experiences of your life.
JONES Well, yes, I’m working with Sam Jackson, I’m working with Cormac McCarthy, there’s the three of us in a huge studio by ourselves with only a script girl in attendance putting a play together. The HBO people stopped by for a few days to make sure we weren’t wasting their money, but they mostly sat quietly in the corner with their hands folded in their laps. We worked out the language, I diagrammed the camera angles and then directed the movie. What is there not to be happy about?
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