In February of 2008, around the time of the 80th Academy Awards, Marfa, Texas, was thrust into the Hollywood’s eye-searing spotlight. Two films shot there were vying for a bevy of Oscars. Although the town, which is located about three hours south of El Paso and has a population of only 2,000, wasn’t unfamiliar with filmmaking—1956’s Giant, starring James Dean in his final role, shot there—nothing compared to the summer of 2006.
That’s when Paul Thomas Anderson and his There Will Be Blood production took over a ranch for months on end, and for a couple of weeks, Joel and Ethan Coen’s No Country For Old Men used Marfa’s unmistakable landscape in some key scenes for a film that went on to win Oscars for Actor In A Supporting Role, Directing, Best Picture, and Writing. (Most of the film, however, was shot in New Mexico, because of the state’s tax breaks.)
The Coens had become familiar with west Texas while driving through the area after shooting their first film, Blood Simple, outside of Austin. When they came to Marfa to scout, they had Chip Love, manager of the Marfa National Bank, show them around town. They didn’t end up using the locations, but Chip landed a part in the film as Anton Chigurh’s first cattle-gun victim.
Chip had been a fan of Raising Arizona, but he hadn’t really kept up with the Coens’ work, and when he saw the script, he figured the film was far too dark to be commercially successful. “So it shows you how good I am at judging scripts,” he says. But even Love’s quick scene required months of preparation: The original plan was to have a prosthesis with a squib in it to react to the cattle gun, so Love flew to L.A. to get fitted for that and his costumes and have a crash course in Hollywood.
Love’s scene was shot about 20 miles outside of town on a long stretch of underutilized FM 2810, which the production transformed into a full-service film site.
“It was like a convenience store in the middle of a pasture,” Love says. “They have the drink machines with bubbly drinks, and I remember when we were practicing the day before, and they kept saying ‘Do you want anything?’ And I just jokingly said, ‘How about a snow cone?’ ’cause it seemed like they had everything, and, sure enough, somebody showed up with a snow cone.”
As we told Chip, you gotta keep the talent happy. “When you’re blessed with this much talent, you gotta be catered to,” he said, laughing, which was one of his typical charming, self-deprecating comments. Shooting his scene kind of terrified him, so he didn’t even need Javier Bardem’s weird hair cut to get creeped out.
The Coens may not have used Chip’s locations, but they may have gotten an idea for one of the film’s last scenes when they visited his ranch. Remember the scene where Tommy Lee Jones visits his infirmed uncle Barry Corbin’s little ranch bungalow—the one that’s overrun by cats?
“We were driving by the ranch house, and we have this wild herd of cats at the ranch, and we always throw them a scoop of food,” Chip says. “There’s probably about 40 cats, and they’re all crunching on this dry cat food at the same time. And I remember they got a big kick of that going, ‘Man that’s crazy. Listen to that sound! Look at all those cats!’ They just seemed to be amazed with all the cats.”
Ah, Marfa’s famous cats: an attraction for filmmakers for ages. Well, not really. The artists—the “new Marfa crowd” as Chip likes to say—who have made the little town an unlikely artists’ community like to talk about the area’s light. No, not the Marfa lights. “The artists will tell you that Marfa has great light,” Chip says. “I don’t know how to quantify exactly what that means, but it is pretty country.”
It definitely is. We wanted to come to Marfa for Pop Pilgrims since we first had the idea to do the series, and we hung around there for a few days. Stick around in the coming weeks for more dispatches from Marfa, including our boneheaded move when we ran out of gas. Way to keep a low profile, A.V. Club.