Nothing like going for a swim with Anton Chigurh -- er, Best Supporting Actor Javier Bardem -- the cattle gun-carrying serial killer in Best Picture No Country for Old Men. His deadly-white countenance and horrible haircut were every bit as repellent in person as on screen. I drank my mid-day milkshakes fearful that at any moment my shake -- and more -- might be sucked dry by Daniel Plainview -- I mean, Best Actor Daniel Day-Lewis-- the oil-mad, bowling pin-wielding anti-hero of There Will Be Blood. Day-Lewis, as you may have heard, stays in character throughout filming. Such was daily life during the 40 days and 40 nights I exiled myself to the high desert, one-stop-light cattle town of Marfa, Texas -- three hours from the nearest commercial airport -- to write a pirate movie I'll probably never finish. But that's another story.
At the eightieth annual Academy Awards. Marfa [population 2400] won bragging rights to seven Oscars. No Country for Old Men and There Will be Blood, filmed simultaneously during my visit. Together they won six awards including Best Picture. In 1957, George Stevens won Best Director for Giant, also filmed in Marfa, and starring Elizabeth Taylor, Rock Hudson and James Dean.
Marfa is the most counter-intuitive place I've ever visited. Lift Marfa's cow town veneer and you find a place that's weirder that the fictional island of the TV series Lost. For example, copper pennies don't tarnish in Marfa. It's so hot you can fry eggs on the sidewalk, but outdoor swimming pools have to be heated or they're cold-as-ice. Marfa has 15 art galleries (including the 340-acre Judd and Chianti Foundations), but no doctor. Three gourmet coffee shops, but no proper grocery store. The town has its own National Public Radio station, the Fed Ex man has a PhD in physics, and the nearest Wal-Mart is three-hours away. Marfa even has a Prada boutique. Well, a Marfan Prada boutique. Sitting on cattle-dotted land along the desolate road between Marfa and Valentine, "Prada Marfa" is a fully-stocked Prada store where you can't buy anything. Locked and sealed in 2005, it is a fashion time capsule, a permanent public sculpture by Ingar Dragset and Michael Elmgreen. It's jumping the shark to add that UFOs known as "Mystery Lights" visit the canyons of the Chisos Mountains every night, so go, see for yourself.
But back to swimming with Javier Bardem. At the retro chic Thunderbird Motel nearly everyone had won -- or was about to win -- an Oscar. Javier and I were not alone. Actress Tess Harper, Sheriff Bell's wife in No Country, was liberally dispensing sun block as actor Zach Hopkins, a.k.a. "Strangled Deputy," discussed the intricacies of being garroted by Senior Bardem. Javier worried whether he could successfully disguise his Spanish accent. Given that his character, Chigurh, was a man of few words, this turned out not to be a problem. Academy Award-winning actress Frances McDormand [Ethan Coen's wife] peeked out the door of her motel room to test the 102° heat as the Academy Award-winning writer/director/producers Joel and Ethan Coen returned from the morning's shoot in their rented pickup truck and stopped at the pool gate.
Tess had just begun complaining to Javier that Tommy Lee Jones, a 1994 Oscar winner for The Fugitive, had not looked at her a single time during their husband-and-wife scene earlier that morning. The past Oscar nominee (Crimes of the Heart, 1986) was working only two days after all, how could she establish the couple's on-screen relationship if Tommy Lee wouldn't look at her? She was incensed enough to walk over to the Coens and discuss the problem. This was not, by any means an average day, except in Marfa where anything can and does happen.
Tommy Lee, was the only cast member staying off-campus at a four-star 30,000-acre resort, featured in Architectural Digest, called Cibolo Creek. I later ran into a Cibolo Creek guest who reported running afoul of Tommy Lee by complimenting him on his lovely daughter. Seems the lady was his wife. With thousands of acres of open land not to mention dozens of available toilets, Tommy Lee settled the score Texas-style by urinating on a car tire in the resort's parking lot.
After an hour of jollity, Javier began to worry that too much time in the sun would harm the deadly-white skin pallor he was cultivating for Chigurh. He got out of the pool and sat in the shade.
I'd seen Daniel Day-Lewis, biking across the high desert earlier, but screenwriter/director Rebecca Miller (check out Personal Velocity), Day-Lewis's wife, and their two young sons wouldn't be at the pool until later. Five-time Oscar-nominated director Paul Thomas Anderson's baby mama, Maya Rudolph formerly of Saturday Night Live had been in my Pilates class at the Marfa bookstore that morning. [Did I mention the book store's proprietors own a private jet?] Academy Award-winning Actress Sissy Spacek was due in that weekend to visit her husband Jack Fisk, Oscar-nominated art director of There Will Be Blood. Fisk graciously included me on a tour he gave his wife of the town, railroad station, and homestead he'd constructed for the film.
I climbed the oil derrick and sat in the church pew where Daniel Plainview submitted to baptism and reluctantly shouted, "I've abandoned my child." I walked the glen where Plainview explains to an old codger how he has stolen the oil beneath his property. MSNBC anchor Keith Olbermann and Saturday Night Live writers Seth Meyers and Eric Kenward have gone the extra mile to make Daniel Day-Lewis's milkshake-and-straw monologue in-speak among the country's wittiest. SNL writer James Downey, btw, wrote the Hillary Clinton/Barack Obama debate sketch. "The Debate Part Two" coming up this Saturday night will rock your sox off. I had dinner with Downey in Marfa. He was actually in There Will Be Blood playing land agent Al Rose.
During my 40 days and 40 nights in Marfa, almost everyone lived within blocks of one another. Cast, crew, residents, tourists, and indigenous people -- we shared the same restaurants, coffee shops, art, entertainment, and acquaintances. And every day there was some new strangeness multiplied exponentially by the combination of Hollywood and the odd town of Marfa.
It's delightful to watch combinations of words like "friendo" and "what's the most you've ever lost on a coin toss?" leap from Cormac McCarthy's written page to the Coen brother's script, through a character's lips into popular culture. As clear as you may be on the difference between film and reality, trust me, you do not want to be in line with Daniel Day-Lewis at the Marfa Book Company Coffee and Wine Bar in a town named for a character in Dostoyevsky's Brothers Karamazov as he leans in close to the counter clerk and orders the house specialty. "I drink your milkshake," he rasps, "I drink it up."
Anybody here seen Juno?