Life's meaning debated in an HBO drama pitting Tommy Lee Jones against Samuel L. Jackson
NEW YORK, N.Y. - A college professor distraught about his life and the state of the world hurls himself in front of a subway train. He is rescued by a born-again ex-convict.
We don't witness this event. "The Sunset Limited" takes place wholly in the rescuer's one-room tenement apartment, where he has brought the would-be suicide to try convincing him that his life has value and is worth holding onto.
Between this pair of lonely strangers, a spirited — in many ways — debate ensues.
"The Sunset Limited" stars Tommy Lee Jones as the tormented atheist (labeled, simply, White) who has abandoned all hope for mankind and "the primacy of the intellect," and Samuel L. Jackson as a killer-turned-believer (dubbed Black) who claims he doesn't know anything that's not straight from the Bible.
Black wants to argue White out of making another suicide attempt. White, though repeatedly starting for the door, sticks around to make his own bleak case and defy the other man's hard-won faith.
Premiering Saturday at 9 p.m. EST on HBO, "The Sunset Limited" is gripping, disturbing and, at times, mordantly funny.
"I have to go," White says, but Black, fearing a bad end, implores him to stay: "I know you ain't got nothing you got to do."
"How do you know that?" White fires back gruffly.
"'Cause you ain't even supposed to BE here," says Black, reminding him of that morning's intended mission.
"I see your point," White concedes.
"The Sunset Limited" is remarkably animated for such a scaled-down film, propelled by two fine performances and drawn from the 2006 play of the same name by Cormac McCarthy, Pulitzer-prize-winning author of such novels as "Blood Meridian," ''All the Pretty Horses" and "No Country for Old Men," which became a hit 2007 Oscar winner in which Jones starred.
"I read the play some time ago and I always liked it, was fascinated by it," says Jones during a recent joint interview with Jackson at HBO offices. "I happened to run into Cormac one day in Santa Fe, and I got around to telling him that I thought it would be a good idea to make a film of it. And he agreed with me."
The film, though set in New York City's Harlem, was made in Santa Fe, N.M., in fall 2009, with Jones executive producer as well as director.
When asked about the challenges of adapting a two-man play into a TV film, both he and Jackson agreed: Stay true to the source material, and the rest takes care of itself.
"All we got to do is figure out a way to convey what Cormac wrote," says Jackson.
Fortunately, McCarthy was heavily involved in the production.
The first day, Jones says, "We read through the play with him and exchanged a few ideas." Then they retreated to the soundstage — "just the three of us and a script supervisor for a week, 10 days, all by ourselves — the three of us were putting the play together."
After that, shooting took 13 days.
What about Jones' contribution as director?
"It's two guys in a room talking, so you have to make that interesting — be interesting but stay real," says Jones. "You need some blocking: When is it time to get up and go to the sink? Well, it's time to go to the sink just as you begin to get tired of sitting there. That's not hard to understand."
Jackson, tickled by Jones' what's-the-big-deal tone, erupts with a laugh.
"But T.L. is comfortable enough to let his actors just sit still at times, and have thoughts," Jackson adds. "It's great to have a director who allows you that moment, 'cause most directors want you doing (stuff). They don't want the audience to watch you think."
He and Jones make an engaging pair. Jackson, clad in sweat shirt and jeans, with his running shoes plopped on the conference room table, is relaxed and effusive. By contrast, Jones, looking natty in a pinstriped suit and horn-rim glasses, is deadpan with flashes of wry wit.
He is willing to acknowledge at least one piece of staging of which he is proud: a sequence when "the Professor" sprawls disconsolately on the couch, while his host claims the adjacent armchair. They are arranged like a shrink with a patient.
"It was a very serious thing he's talking about — the death of his father," says Jones, "and the blocking seemed kind of silly when I decided to try it: a pun, a shameless pun. But after rehearsing it, it seemed there was no other choice."
"It fit the words so perfectly," Jackson agrees.
"Suiting the action to the words, and the words to the action, would lead us to no other choice than to create" — Jones pauses for the right playful phrase — "this Thurber-esque tableau vivant." He grants himself a smile. "Hey, that's good."
"I want that on a T-shirt," Jackson chuckles.
"But that's why you rehearse," says Jones. "You try everything, then you quit doing the things that don't work, and you wind up with characters."
And in the case of "The Sunset Limited," the characters will ensnare viewers in their passionate debate.
"We hope so!" says Jackson, pleased at the thought.
HBO is owned by Time Warner.
EDITOR'S NOTE — Frazier Moore is a national television columnist for The Associated Press. He can be reached at fmoore(at)ap.org.