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Jones, Jackson Bring McCarthy's 'Sunset' To Screen

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Jones, Jackson Bring McCarthy's 'Sunset' To Screen

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Jones, Jackson Bring McCarthy's 'Sunset' To Screen

Jones, Jackson Bring McCarthy's 'Sunset' To Screen

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Tommy Lee Jones (left) and Samuel L. Jackson in The Sunset Limited.

Tommy Lee Jones (left) and Samuel L. Jackson co-star in a new film adaptation of Cormac McCarthy's two-character drama The Sunset Limited. McCarthy's script identifies the characters only as "White," a suicidal college professor, and "Black," a religious ex-con. Dawn Jones/HBO hide caption

toggle caption Dawn Jones/HBO

In his latest role, actor Tommy Lee Jones is bent on suicide. He plays a professor who wants so badly to end his life that he throws himself in front of a subway car. But his suicide attempt is thwarted when he is pulled to safety by an ex-con, played by Samuel L. Jackson, who has found redemption in God.

But all of this dramatic action occurs before the opening credits roll. From this jumping-off point, The Sunset Limited unfolds into a tense and philosophical two-person drama, taking place entirely in the ex-con's New York tenement apartment.

"It's a very fine play. It's a wonderful idea. It's full of lots of big ideas, and they're all fun," Jones tells Morning Edition host Steve Inskeep.

Tommy Lee Jones and Cormac McCarthy. i

Author Cormac McCarthy (right) was on set for consultation during rehearsals. Jones (left) says, "We were able to ask questions of Cormac, run things by him, exchange ideas with him, and those were some of the happiest days of my creative life." Dawn Jones/HBO hide caption

toggle caption Dawn Jones/HBO
Tommy Lee Jones and Cormac McCarthy.

Author Cormac McCarthy (right) was on set for consultation during rehearsals. Jones (left) says, "We were able to ask questions of Cormac, run things by him, exchange ideas with him, and those were some of the happiest days of my creative life."

Dawn Jones/HBO

The film, also directed by Jones, is an adaptation of Cormac McCarthy's play of the same name. McCarthy is known for his novels Blood Meridian, The Road, and No Country for Old Men. Jones starred as Sheriff Ed Tom Bell in the 2007 film adaptation of No Country for Old Men.

In McCarthy's Sunset script, the characters are identified only as "White," the despairing college professor, and "Black," the religious ex-con. Jones says Jackson was the ideal candidate to play the role of the deeply Christian ex-convict.

"He's a very fine actor," Jones says. "He can understand the thinking behind the writing ... and there's plenty of it here."

McCarthy's writing requires insight, and luckily for Jones, the author was on-hand for many of the rehearsals. The filmmakers chose to shoot the movie in Santa Fe, N.M., because of attractive tax incentives — but it also happened to be the city where McCarthy lives.

"It was a very happy situation for us that Cormac lived there and was willing to come to rehearsal with us. I think we had 10 or 12 days of rehearsal entirely alone," Jones says — just the writer, the two actors and a script supervisor. Except for a brief visit from some HBO executives, no one was allowed to attend rehearsals, Jones says, and the one-on-one focus proved beneficial.

Samuel L. Jackson (left) and Tommy Lee Jones. i

Jones and Jackson stuck to McCarthy's script word-for-word, but the film has an improvisational feel. "We tried to make it look natural, tried to make it look easy," Jones says. hide caption

toggle caption
Samuel L. Jackson (left) and Tommy Lee Jones.

Jones and Jackson stuck to McCarthy's script word-for-word, but the film has an improvisational feel. "We tried to make it look natural, tried to make it look easy," Jones says.

"We were able to ask questions of Cormac, run things by him, exchange ideas with him, and those were some of the happiest days of my creative life," Jones says. Adapting the play to the screen called for some major changes — and Jones needed to bounce ideas off McCarthy.

"I would show him a scene and ask him if he liked it. I needed to know what his reaction was," Jones says. "There was one scene, which we called 'The Jailhouse Story.' I directed that scene to be very graphic ... physically dynamic."

It was a dramatic departure from productions of the play — which staged the scene as a speech delivered in a monotone by Black. That treatment works onstage, with an audience in the room watching Black breathe, Jones says, but the screen demanded a different approach. In the film, Black swings his arms violently as he acts out a brutal fight he had in prison.

When it came to the text, Jones stayed faithful to McCarthy's script, but the film still achieves a casual, improvisational feel. "We tried to make it look natural, tried to make it look easy," Jones says. "We don't have any use for improvisation. We like scripts — and good ones."

It's a serious play with dark themes, but Jones found ways to lighten the mood. "You have to be able to appreciate the humor that is on the page, and you have to be able to play it," he says.

It wasn't hard to get HBO on board, though Jones says they did ask him how they were going to sell it. "I said, get a poster and emblazon across the bottom of it something like, 'If you liked Aristotle and Plato, you'll love The Sunset Limited,' " he jokes.

Although they didn't end up taking his advice on marketing, the film will air Saturday on HBO.

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