The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada

DISTRIB/RELEASE DATE: Sony Pictures Classics, Dec. 14

CATEGORY: original

STORYLINE: Pete (Tommy Lee Jones), a Texas rancher, kidnaps border patrolman Mike Norton (Barry Pepper), who killed his ranch hand and best friend Melquiades, an illegal immigrant. He forces Norton to dig up the body, and the two men and the corpse set out on a harsh, darkly comic journey to fulfill a promise.

ABOUT THE SCRIPT: Based on Jones’ admiration for Arriaga’s writing, the two men struck up a friendship and spent days hunting deer on Jones’ West Texas ranch. They began talking about a story.

“We have the same obsessions and themes,” says Arriaga. “One day I was watching a coyote eat something, and I thought, what if that was a wetback that was killed and buried there to cover it up?” He pitched the idea to Jones, who liked it, then went home to Mexico City and spent a year writing the script in Spanish.

Arriaga says Melquiades is based on a friend of his, “a peasant who now lives on a small ranch in Wisconsin.”

Jones, who is fluent in Spanish, loved the script. He and Arriaga worked with a translator to “put the Texas into it,” and adapted it to locations they would use around Jones’ property.

Arriaga says Jones brought to the cross-cultural story “some of the humor as well as its criticism of both societies.” As for the structure, which takes the form of a journey told in several chapters, Arriaga credits influences including William Faulkner and Juan Rulfo.

BIGGEST CHALLENGE: The story’s chief hurdle would seem to be explaining why the rancher would go to such outlandish extremes to keep his promise to take his friend’s body home, but to Arriaga, the answer was simple. “These are lonely people in a lonely place, so the attachments are stronger. Melquiades gave Pete his horse, and for a cowboy to do that, that’s a hell of a gesture. It touches Pete deeply.”

For Arriaga, the main challenge of the script was “to make it feel Texan, not Mexican, so that a cowboy from Texas could watch this movie and say, ‘Yes, that’s how it is.’ ” Jones was deeply involved in pulling that off.

BREAKTHROUGH IDEA: Arriaga says the story came easily and in its entirety, including the surprise that Pete encounters at the end of the trail.

FAVORITE SCENE: Among the movie’s darkly comic high points is a scene in which Pete tenderly tries to brush ants from the blackening face of Melquiades’ corpse, then resorts to flames to rid his buddy of insects.

For Arriaga, the best scenes hew more closely to theme. “When Pete takes (Norton) to Melquiades’ house and says, ‘This was the place where he lived, he drank from that cup, he ate from that plate,’ in his primitive way, he is trying to make this man understand the damage he has done. That’s what justice means to him, and this is not a movie about revenge, it’s about justice.”

CHOICE LINES: (Arriaga’s favorite) The border patrolman wakes up in Mexico and asks the guy who saved his life, “Who are you?” The Mexican says, “I’m your private 911, dude.”

WRITER’S BIO: A novelist and screenwriter, Arriaga scripted “Amores perros” and “21 Grams,” both directed by Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu.

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