HBO’s movie “The Sunset Limited” is, on one level, just two guys sitting in a room talking. The filmed adaptation of Cormac McCarthy‘s play takes place in a single room, and we see only two characters, neither of whom are ever named, throughout its 90-minute running time.
But it’s pretty riveting material, thanks largely to the performances by Tommy Lee Jones and Samuel L. Jackson. Jackson plays a man who saves Jones’ character, a college professor, from suicide after Jones (offscreen) tries to jump in front of a subway train. Jackson’s character takes Jones’ character back to his small apartment, and they talk about why Jones’ character attempted suicide, God, the afterlife and other weighty topics.
Jones also directed the film, and he takes what could have been a very stagey, static-feeling piece and makes it visually interesting. The Oscar-winning star of “No Country for Old Men,” “The Fugitive” and “Men in Black” talked with Zap2it and a few other outlets last month about filming the movie, the challenge of directing in such a limited space.
Some highlights of the conversation:
What drew him to “The Sunset Limited”: “It was very good. I liked this play. I was fascinated with the idea of a dialectic, an essential dialectic rendered in the vernacular of Harlem [Jackson’s character] and southern Louisiana and the Ivy League [Jones’ character] — if the Ivy League can be said to have a vernacular. I know that it certainly can. The idea of … finding a way to make the biggest ideas in the world entertaining — that’s a happy undertaking for me.”
Making it visually interesting: “The challenge was to make it dynamic, visually dynamic, two guys sitting in a room talking. You could do it with almost no blocking. The [script] says there’s a table in the middle of the room and two chairs. I could put one actor in one chair, one actor in the other, then sit there for 90 minutes. But it’s not visually interesting. See, you have to … look for ways to motivate blocking, motivate ways to get up and move, thereby motivating a movement by the camera — a way to gracefully keep things moving in a natural way. And that helps. [Laughs] A 40-millimeter lens on you from this far away [points imaginary camera at eye level] has some meaning. If I can contrive a way to put that lens here [the imaginary camera moves to just above the floor], we have a whole different implication. And that helps the narrative.”
The challenges of a two-character piece: “It’s about how to keep things interesting to the eye. The other challenge was that we had 14 days to shoot it, so our lowest daily page count was 11. You probably know that on most feature films you’re pretty lucky if you can average one and a half pages a day. I had to figure out a way to do better than that. Our highest daily page count was 14. So that took some planning. …
“The other thing is having a dynamic set. We were very careful putting the set together. It was designed with 11 different pieces to the walls, so I could fly one, two, three, four, five or six, as many pieces as I wanted. ‘Fly’ is a theatrical term derived from the days when a winch would pull up a piece of scenery and fly it up into the flyspace. In movies, it just means that somebody picks it up and carries it away. So that enabled us to have a more athletic camera. … And, of course, Sam had to know not just a day and a half of dialogue, he had to be able to do pages of it. At any time. And so did I. So the actors had to be thoroughly prepared to do long takes and work consistently over a space of time with the camera, to know how to relate to the camera if it’s here, and then two and a half minutes later — well, for two and a half minutes to know exactly where it was and how you related to it as it moved and as you moved.”
Making the movie for HBO rather than as a theatrical film: “The first thing that would happen if you wanted to make a feature film of this is that somebody who [laughs] — somebody who speaks in clich�s would tell you, ‘We have to open it up.’ And I’d say, ‘What the hell are you talking about?’ They’d say, ‘There are no exteriors. Put in the exteriors!’ Which, of course, would kill the play.
“This play is dialectic, and that means that two people are talking. The whole point of writing, performing, or seeing this play is to observe that form, and … it really doesn’t lend itself to theatrical film. … It’s a hard sell, too, to the broader audience. But I think people will figure out that this play is a lot of fun.”
“The Sunset Limited” premieres at 9 p.m. ET Saturday (Feb. 12) on HBO. Here’s a preview: