Cannes: Tommy Lee Jones on His Return to Directing With 'The Homesman' (Q&A)

Matt Carr/Getty Images
Tommy Lee Jones

Yep, he’s directing again, this time a film about a bunch of frontier women heading East. Just don’t call it a Western.

Oscar-winning actor Tommy Lee Jones is batting two for two. The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada, the first feature he directed, was invited to be part of the competition at the 2005 Cannes Film Festival. Nearly a decade later, Jones is back with his second directorial effort, The Homesman, which again has scored a coveted competition slot. Screening May 18, it stars Jones as a rascally claim jumper who teams up with a pious spinster (Hilary Swank) to drive a wagonload of women driven mad by the harshness of life on the frontier back East and deliver them into the care of a minister’s wife (Meryl Streep). Born in Texas, where Jones still lives outside San Antonio, the laconic actor always has played his cards close to the vest, but he did offer The Hollywood Reporter a few, sometimes curt, words about his new film, about directing, and about returning to Cannes.

After Three Burials, how actively were you looking to direct?

Well, you know, rather actively. I don’t know how actively you look for a job as a director. You have to kind of sit by the phone. I’ve been considering different directing jobs, but it’s hard to find a good one.

Sam Shepard suggested Glendon Swarthout’s 1988 novel The Homesman to your producing partner Michael Fitzgerald. What was your first reaction to it?

Fitzgerald called me up and asked me to read it to see whether or not I thought there was a movie in it. And I did read it, and I thought, “Yeah, there is a good movie in there somewhere.” It’s a women’s story. I thought that was intriguing.

STORY: 'Emperor's' Tommy Lee Jones on Understanding MacArthur, Directing 'The Homesman' (Video)

You wrote the screenplay yourself with Kieran Fitzgerald and Wesley Oliver while you also were acting in Hope Springs. How did that work?

It worked just fine. We were writing one screenplay and acting in another. It makes for a rich, full day. The movie looks at what life was like for women on the Plains in the early West. That’s not something we’ve seen often on film. Life was pretty tough on women, but that wasn’t really a discovery. But it was something we scrutinized rather closely. It was very difficult for these women to be on the cutting edge of the frontier.

Do you consider the film a Western?

You can call it a Western if you want to. You can call it anything. You can call it Fred. I don’t know what the term means other than being a way to describe a movie that has big hats and horses. I think that’s what a Western is. We have some big hats and we have some horses and that makes us a Western. I guess that’s all I can say. The traditional Western follows a man journeying from civilization into the West. But this movie sounds like a critique of the traditional Western, since it involves a man and a group of women traveling East, trying to get back to civilization. Yes, they’re women and they are heading East.

How did you go about casting? First of all, choosing Hilary Swank to play the main female character.

Hilary is perfect casting, and that was clear from the first moment I met her. I was very happy that she was willing to take on the job. The other girls, we just looked and we found them.

STORY: James Spader Joining Tommy Lee Jones, Meryl Streep in 'The Homesman' (Exclusive)

In the case of Meryl Streep, was this something you talked about while you were filming Hope Springs together?

You know when you’re sitting around a movie set, you make small talk. “What are you doing next?” is a question that is asked often. I told her I was working on a screenplay. She said she’d like to read it, which I thought was nice. She did read it, and some time later wondered if that part was available and of course I was delighted to hear that.

You filmed in New Mexico and Georgia. Why did you choose those locations?

Much of northeast New Mexico is flat to rolling grasslands, pretty much the same country as western Nebraska. And New Mexico has a very attractive tax incentive. And Georgia provided a handsome tax advantage. They also had the advantage of trees in Georgia and a perfectly appropriate town of old 19th century buildings that had been brought together. It was historically appropriate.

How severe was the weather?

It was about as severe as it could be. Lots of dust and wind, rain, hail, sleet, snow, baking sunshine. All of it very beautiful, but wild and varied. Very appropriate to the story we were telling.

STORY: Meryl Streep Calls 'Hope Springs' Co-star Tommy Lee Jones '50 Shades of Grumpy'

Luc Besson’s EuropaCorp also produced your first movie. Did you take the project straight to them or did you also talk to any of the U.S. studios or distributors?

EuropaCorp was the first company we spoke to about a distribution deal. We retained domestic distribution rights and raised money from equity investors for that.

Besson also directed the last movie you starred in, last year’s The Family. What’s your working relationship with him like?

It’s rather smooth. He’ll express ideas — some of them I like and some of them are not so good. But that’s natural. He doesn’t try to direct a director.

What do you recall of the experience of debuting your first film, Three Burials, in Cannes?

I was in a state of wonder: so many people, and so many of them were famous, and for the most part everybody was having a good time. It was all about the cinema and the movie was received well. It was just a wonderful time.