Published in 1988, Glendon Swarthout's award-winning novel, The Homesman, is a
heartfelt and harrowing tale set in the newly created Nebraska Territories. The
story of the oft-forgotten frontierswomen without whom America's Westward
Expansion would never have been possible, it is an emotional portrait of the
resilient and resourceful pioneers of the American frontier, set against the
seemingly endless horizon of the Great Plains.
"It's 1855," says director, co-writer and star of The Homesman, Tommy Lee Jones.
"Three women who have been driven insane by the hardships of life on the
American frontier are being transported in a wagon across Nebraska by another
intrepid woman. It was important for me to explore the female condition in the
mid-nineteenth century American West because I think it's the origin of the
female condition today."
The project was brought to Jones' attention by executive producer Michael
Fitzgerald, with whom he had collaborated on his first directorial effort,The
Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada. "I've known Tommy for a long time,"
Fitzgerald says. "I hold him in a very high regard as an actor and a director,
and I'm constantly in awe of his capacity to do both jobs."
Looking for a new project to pitch to his old friend, Fitzgerald asked Sam
Shepard, the writer and actor, if he knew of anything that would be suitable.
"He immediately came up with this project," says Fitzgerald. "It was something
that he himself wanted to do for some years, but he'd never been able to get the
rights. I agreed that it would be absolutely perfect for Tommy."
Optioned years earlier by the late actor and filmmaker Paul Newman, The Homesman
had never made it to the screen, unlike several of Swarthout's earlier works,
including the western The Shootist (John Wayne's final film,) the contemporary
coming-of-age storyBless the Beasts & Children, and the classic spring-break
romp Where the Boys Are. Although the action takes place in the western half of
the United States, the filmmakers are hesitant to classify The Homesman as a
"I don't know how you define the term western," says Jones. "I have the
impression that a western is a movie that has horses in it and big hats and that
takes place in the 19th century on the west side of the Mississippi river,
although I've read critics who are bold enough to call a science-fiction movie a
western. It's a term that people use so often that I don't think it has much
Producer Michael Fitzgerald observes that the setting of The Homesman is not the
West traditionally seen in American films. "It's earlier on, in the 1850s,
whereas most westerns take place in the 1880s and '90s. In fact, this is about
life on the early frontier of the Midwest, so I wouldn't call it a western, even
though there are certain things that it shares with that genre, like horses,
wagons and guns. But more importantly The Homesman is really about the way in
which we can be transformed. What does it take to make a decent person? That's
the theme that moved me the most."
When Jones teamed up with screenwriters Wesley Oliver and Kieran Fitzgerald to
create the screenplay, he was shooting Hope Springs with Meryl Streep, who would
become one of his co-stars in The Homesman. "In between their scenes, we would
work onThe Homesman," recalls Oliver. "Tommy would do a scene with Meryl, come
across the street, work with us, go back across the street and jump 150 years
forward in time into a contemporary romantic comedy. It was a remarkable
achievement on his part to be able to do that and I think being around the
excitement of a film already in production energized our writing process."
The first draft was completed in an astonishing five days, the writers say. "We
worked from early in the morning till late in the evening with almost no
interruption," according to Kieran Fitzgerald. "It was the most productive time
The next step was to fill in the backstories of the three women that Mary Bee
must escort across hostile territory: "That was in some ways the most
challenging part of the writing," says Oliver. "In the novel, Glendon Swarthout
sometimes shows results without describing the steps it took to get there. So we
had to imagine background moments. We had to try to piece together in more
detail what happened to these women."
The writers began creating detailed flashbacks, or "memory hits," as Jones
refers to them. "That gave us a chance to get inside their minds and write a lot
of scenes along the way," says Oliver. "It helped clarify for us the lives they
lived, the hardships they went through, and the kinds of events that would have
led them to break down."
"Each of the women broke down for a distinct and different reason," adds
Fitzgerald. "That distinguished one character from another and stayed true to
One of the elements that make the film unusual is that it views frontier life
primarily from Mary Bee's vantage point. "We tried to take a woman's point of
view for the story," says Oliver. "We started that process by reviewing images
of women on the frontier. Tommy had a book with a number of really wonderful
photographs of pioneers and settlers in the 19th century. Many of those images
became part of the cinematic vocabulary we used once we started writing."
"The image of Mary Bee pumping water at the well in front of her house came from
those images," adds Kieran Fitzgerald. "The photographs of those pioneer women
really inspired the movie."
The resulting film is both historically accurate and relevant to today's world.
"Times have changed and customs have changed," says Fitzgerald. "The characters
in the movie have less access to healthcare and nutrition than we do, as well as
to material comforts, but I think the human condition is the same. People have
always suffered and they continue to suffer for various reasons. This is a look
at the suffering of those people at that time in American history, which is
something we have not had the occasion to explore honestly before."
Oliver adds that the emotional and psychological isolation and alienation on
display in The Homesman still loom over our modern world. "The digital age is
rife with stories of people more desperate to connect than ever despite, or
perhaps because of, the facility of communication today. Mary Bee's story is
very much about trying to find a connection that will sustain her soul."
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