The Homesman: Tommy Lee Jones on Learning From Good & Bad Directors

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To capture the feel of 19th century Middle America, The Homesman director and star Tommy Lee Jones (watch The Fugitive online for his Oscar-winning role) was kind of lucky. There was a man back in those days, who traveled around the area whose work proved quite priceless.

Tommy Lee Jones Directs The Homesman

“[He made] his living taking photographs of people and their houses. He had a motif usually -- with a pretty wide lens he would feature 100 percent of the house which is very useful to us in providing architectural details as we began to build these houses ourselves,” Jones said.

“These people lived very isolated lives and photography wasn’t a part of their lives. They had a chance to get their picture taken, it was a big deal.”

Witnessing these works allowed Jones and his team to impeccably recreate a time and a locale that was traditionally not well documented. 

“The whole family would get out of the house with their best clothes on, and if they had a good crop of watermelons that year they would be put on a table. If they had a piano or a melodeon, they would bring it out of the house and get that into the picture and Granddad would be in the middle and they would all be there posing with their guns -- anything they were proud of,” Jones said.

“It is a wonderful record for costumes, hair and makeup. It was very useful to us.”

As you can see in The Homesman trailer, Jones stars with Hilary Swank in a story of the Old West that we’ve never seen before. Swank is a woman living alone in Nebraska who takes it upon herself to help her community and ride with three mentally ill women to Iowa where they can get help from Meryl Streep’s pastor’s wife. As the journey is about to begin, she runs into Jones and through a series of events, she gets him to go with her and help.

Jones, who made his directorial debut with The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada, returns to the director’s chair with The Homesman and told us that it was through no formal training, other than what he gleaned from acting with some of the most gifted storytellers of all time.

“My education as a filmmaker has been entirely practical. I started working professionally in the film business since 1970 and I have been at it steadily since. I pay a lot of attention and I’ve worked with some really good directors and some very bad ones,” Jones said.

“I learned a great deal from both. From the untalented people you learn what not to do, and when you work with highly talented people, you want to emulate them. So my education has been practical or on-the-job training. Every day is a bigger, broader, brighter day than the day before.”

The Homesman Tommy Lee Jones Hilary Swank

Jones knew he’d gotten an incredible actress in Swank (a two-time Oscar winner for Million Dollar Baby and Boys Don't Cry). But what he never expected was that the man from Texas would find a kindred spirit in his love of horses. But, it wasn’t always that way.

“She didn’t know a lot about horses or driving a team of mules or plowing with a double shovel. She worked at it until she was able to make a very convincing picture of all of those. Between takes, there she would go. It got to the point where I would have to send a wrangler with a radio on his belt to make sure she didn’t fall off in a gully or canyon somewhere or have a wreck or just not know when to come back,” Jones said and smiled.

The Homesman is based on the book by Glendon Swarthout, and as a man who adores novels of that nature and movies of a Western nature, Jones thought it would make a great movie. But, it would all ride on the casting of the lead female, Mary Bee.

“The book offered us the chance to make a screenplay that had some originality to it, and of course our lives as filmmakers is a never-ending search for originality -- desperately clawing for originality. It’s not always readily available,” Jones said.

And then, there was Swank. “We worried about Hilary for probably two or three seconds. We met at that Italian restaurant and it was immediately obvious to me and Michael Fitzgerald that Hilary was absolutely perfect. I had seen all of her films before meeting her, but I knew immediately that if we could talk her into playing Mary Bee Cuddy, half our job would be done.”

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The Homesman Review

Over his decades-spanning work as one of our finest actors, Tommy Lee Jones has only directed one film -- The Three Burials of Melquiades...

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