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Filming Three Burials Q&A with Tommy Lee Jones
The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada was filmed on location in West Texas from the end of September through the first week of December, 2004. The forty-three day shooting schedule was roughly divided between locations near the town of Van Horn and the surrounding Davis Mountains, and the Big Bend area further south on the Mexican border. These are some of the most remote and majestic areas in the United States—canyons, and mountains spread over the vast desert basin of the ancient Permian Sea—a geography as wild and varied as its weather. "The country is capable of giving you a heat stroke or washing you away in a flash flood or making you weep with such beauty,” said Jones. "It'll treat you fifteen or twenty different ways in a day.” This unpredictable territory was perfectly suited to a narrative structure, and a cast of characters that are constantly being redirected, reoriented, and reevaluated. As Arriaga noted, "I wanted this huge, lonely landscape to be as much a character as anybody else.” Working together with renowned cinematographer Chris Menges, Jones succeeded in capturing the border country in all its manifold forms—unrelenting desert sands, thunderstorm sunsets, towering cliff faces and stretches of moonscape limestone.

As much as the land and climate contributed to the film, they also made its production an extremely challenging and often treacherous endeavor. Cast and crew traveled miles off the paved road into harsh, unforgiving territory, to work in temperatures that vacillated as much as fifty degrees in a single day. In addition, though autumn is typically a dry season in West Texas, the production was confronted with almost unabated rain. The shooting schedule was subject to constant revision in order to work around locations that had flooded or turned to knee-deep mud. Negotiating between the merciless weather and a rapid filming pace (averaging between twenty and twenty-five camera setups per day), cast and crew managed to work continuously through the middle of November. Then, just as they were preparing to film along the Rio Grande, torrential rains raised the river over ten feet in one day, suspending production for a week, but returned to drier weather for the completion of principal photography in December.

EOK: As a producer and a director, you and your crew faced some daunting obstacles shooting The Three Burials in rugged terrain typical to the border lands.

TLJ: We did. That country is as much a character in this film as Pete Perkins or Melquiades Estrada. It wasn't always easy to work with, but it gave us a hell of a performance.

EOK: What about the sequence where Pete and Mike lose that pack horse over the cliff. Happens quickly on film, but it undoubtedly took days or even weeks to set up.

TLJ: Months.

EOK: To scout it?

TLJ: No, to craft it. Those cliffs I can see right out the front door of my ranch house. Finding them was easy. I knew the shot I wanted. But to execute it our first step had to be to get a horse that would be visible from a long distance away. Hence the buckskin we chose that stood out against the red rocks.

EOK: Were did you find it?

TLJ: Right there on my ranch. Good cow horse, but not a stunt horse. It became clear that we would have to train him, and we did. Our stunt man, Billy Burton (Collateral Damage, Hidalgo), spent two or three weeks working with him. The horse got to where he liked raring up on cue. And we would reward him every time he responded to the reins and the little wires we put on him. It got to be a lot of fun for him. Then we had an articulated dummy horse with a little motor inside that moves his head and his front feet as he falls. And we just pitched him off the cliff, which leads to our other principal consideration: camera p


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