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‘Blood,’ ‘No Country’ Find Roots in Heart of Texas

Daniel Day-Lewis concedes the point. "When you're there, you feel like you could be in any time in America," says the actor, who is favored to win best actor for his turn-of-the-century oil baron in Blood. "There's nothing around you. You are a prospector. There's not too much to take you out of character."

"I thought they were OK," retired rancher Bill Owens, 61, says over an enormous dill pickle, a favorite theater concession.

Marfa, Texas Profile

Scott Bowles - USA Today

MARFA, Texas — Joel and Ethan Coen had just pulled into this one-stoplight town to scout shooting No Country for Old Men when a drifter approached their limousine.

Unshaven and unsteady, he hobbled toward the car with a sign under his arm. When he reached the directors, he raised the board above his head.

"Repent, Hollywood scum," it read.

This is not a place easily impressed by money or fame. Still, the high-desert town of 2,100 cowboys, ranch hands and rogue artists has become the unlikely epicenter of Sunday's Academy Awards.
No Country and There Will Be Blood were shot here, and the Westerns, which led all movies with eight nominations apiece, including best picture, are expected to dominate the Oscars.

Not that many Marfans have seen either film. The closest theater is in Alpine, 26 miles east. The tiny Rangra Theater, however, does have two screens. One is showing No Country, the other Blood. Neither sells out much.

"I thought they were OK," retired rancher Bill Owens, 61, says over an enormous dill pickle, a favorite theater concession. "I hope they win (Oscars) because it'll be good for Marfa. A little artsy-fartsy, though. They weren't no Giant, I'll tell you that."

He's referring to the 1956 James Dean oil epic that put Marfa on the map and, until this year, was one of the few films shot in these parts. It remains a favorite of locals who still prefer heroes who get the girl, occasionally sing and keep their cussing to a minimum.

Which may explain why Hollywood invaded this town about 200 miles southeast of El Paso. Marfa remains a throwback where, according to county surveys, each cow averages 64 acres of pasture.


"That's probably more than those actor types have," Owens says.

Daniel Day-Lewis concedes the point. "When you're there, you feel like you could be in any time in America," says the actor, who is favored to win best actor for his turn-of-the-century oil baron in Blood. "There's nothing around you. You are a prospector. There's not too much to take you out of character."

Timeless surroundings

Certainly, not much is needed to take you back a few decades, at least. Marfa boasts a general store, a barbershop and a gas station that doubles as a diner (chicken gizzards, $1.99 a plate). The only bank, Marfa National Bank, posts a sign reminding customers not to bring their pistols into the building; the warning is a red circle and line through a smoking six-shooter. Everyone has the same area code and prefix, so neighbors give out four-digit phone numbers.

About all that dates the city are a smattering of art galleries and the "We Will Not Forget September 11" bumper stickers on pickups and storefront windows.

"We'd look at old pictures to get a sense of the places, the clothing, the hairstyles we wanted," says Ethan Coen of No Country, set in 1980. "Then you find out some of the places still have that look."

Though it's easy to see why filmmakers would be drawn to the Marfa aesthetic, what's less clear is how they found the 1½-square-mile town in the first place. Founded in the 1880s as a steam-train water stop, Marfa is a three-hour drive from any big city or shopping mall and sits off a two-lane stretch of serpentine blacktop.

This isn't a blink-and-you'll-miss-it place. You can pass it by with your eyes peeled, particularly at night, when about the only light glows in neon from the El Cheapo liquor store. And while residents are no strangers to fame — Rock Hudson, Elizabeth Taylor and Dean strolled these streets a half-century ago during Giant — they're not ones to gawk. Or even lower their copies of Livestock Weekly, a popular read.

"They couldn't care less we were there," says No Country star Josh Brolin. "The whole Hollywood thing there revolves around Giant. It's a bizarre place."

Barbara Wood, co-owner of the Marfa Squeeze cafe, sees it differently. "We're just a small community," she says. "Maybe they get a lot of attention in California. We're not that excitable."

From rancher to producer

Count among the collected David Williams. The 39-year-old foreman of the McGuire Ranch tends 700 head of cattle and helped Blood director Paul Thomas Anderson build a 1900s town on the 60,000-acre spread. Williams led filmmakers to a picturesque gulch between Chapel and Goat mountains, where he oversaw construction of homes, a church, train depot and business district with plank sidewalks.

Anderson had wanted to build in California but says he "couldn't find a place where you could turn 360 degrees and not see a Burger King."

Filming in authentic locales, though, comes with its own perils. The dry Marfa landscape, where summer temperatures routinely hit 105, is a favorite of the deadly Mohave Green rattler.

"We knew if we got bit, we were done for," Blood producer Daniel Lupi says. "Because there isn't a hospital close enough to save you."

So Williams hired a snake wrangler who caught two to three Mohave Greens a day, dropped the reptiles in glass jars and set them free about 10 miles out of town.

Anderson became so impressed with Williams' soft-spoken handling of cows, crews and snakes that he surprised the Texan by naming him an executive producer. "That was mighty generous," Williams says. "Is that a good title?"

When Williams and his family flew to Los Angeles for the premiere, it was the first time he had seen the ocean.

"There was good and bad to it," he says, walking through the empty train depot. In tow is Williams' 7-month-old chocolate Lab, Bear. The dog has discovered a fallen placard from the set — a valuable prop if it went on eBay — and carries the hunk of wood with him for the remainder of the day.

"I don't think I could stay out there long," Williams says. "One time we were on the freeway, and we were going 5 miles an hour. You can walk that fast. The only time I drive that slow is when a bull won't get out of the way."

If a film is successful enough, cities typically maintain set pieces to lure tourists and future films. But Williams says the days of his plywood village are numbered.

"We'll tear this down," he says. "Should make for good lumber."

'Not easily impressed'

Like Williams, W.E. "Chip" Love had little interest in being a Hollywood player. He already had a connection to the industry: His grandmother was an extra on Giant.

But when he met the Coens, he obliged. "They said all I had to do was get killed with a stun gun and fall down," says Love, 50, president of the Marfa bank. "I figured I could do that. I could fall down."
When shooting began, he was stunned by the work for a two-minute scene. "They must have had me killed eight different ways. Heck, I had a stunt double — for falling down. It's funny how much it means to movie people."

Those most starstruck may have been other celebrities. When No Country arrived in Marfa, Javier Bardem became obsessed with tracking down his idol.

"When I first heard that Daniel Day-Lewis was in town, I was shaking," Bardem says. "(I thought) 'Oh, my God, I wish I could run into him in the coffee shop,' because there was only one coffee shop. So a couple of times, I woke up early and went there. But he didn't show up."

That's probably because Day-Lewis spent his mornings jogging through Marfa, where he became something of a local. "I'm not sure one person stopped and bothered him," says Christine Olejniczak, an artist who was one of 350 locals tapped to be extras and play small roles in Blood. "People have other concerns than who's in town."

Over the past two decades, Marfa has grappled with drought and a sagging economy that has shuttered many buildings. The city teems with border patrol agents struggling to stem the flow of immigrants and cocaine from the Rio Grande about 60 miles south.

Author Cormac McCarthy has made a career chronicling hard living in cities like Marfa, though not all Texans consider the region no country for old men.

"I have to disagree with him on that," says No Country star Tommy Lee Jones, a friend of McCarthy's.


"I know many an older man who has done fine for himself in those parts. I consider myself one of them. It isn't always easy, but the people are good company. They're just not easily impressed."

Cassandra Kulukundis learned that firsthand. The casting director for Blood was pulled over for speeding on the day she was trying to get to the home of 10-year-old Dillon Freasier, whom she later cast as Day-Lewis' son, H.W. She talked her way out of the ticket after discovering that the highway patrol officer was Dillon's mother, Regina. But the trooper warned Kulukundis that she would be ticketed next time, whether or not her boy got the part. "Ooh, she was furious," Kulukundis says.

Blood producer Lupi guarantees that both movies "helped the local economy — with tickets. You gotta watch those cops. They sit 10 miles out of town and wait for you.They don't care where you're from. Especially Los Angeles."

Williams grins at the stories. He says that Marfans welcome Hollywood anytime, and hopes the Western enjoys a revival here. Just don't expect the city to fawn.

"They'd have to come to us," he says. "I don't think we'd go chasing after their business. We've got our own lives to lead."

He rumbles back toward the ranch. In the bed of the pickup, Bear doesn't bother looking up, still slobbering on the chunk of Hollywood turned chew toy.

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