On Location: 50 Years Of Movie Magic In Marfa, Texas | Texas Public Radio

On Location: 50 Years Of Movie Magic In Marfa, Texas

Jul 23, 2012

Marfa is a tiny town in West Texas with just 2,000 residents, about 60 miles from the Mexican border and nearly three hours by car from El Paso. But it's been the backdrop for some of Hollywood's most notable movies. It was the site of the 1956 epic Giant, which starred James Dean as a rancher turned oil tycoon, and recently, two Oscar winners, No Country For Old Men and There Will Be Blood.

Why is Hollywood so attracted to Texas? The drive-in movie critic, Joe Bob Briggs, says it's "because evil thrives in Texas." People seem especially drawn to West Texas, a land of limitless desolation — and possibilities — onto which they can project greed, lust and violence. Which makes it perfect to visit as part of our series On Location, which looks at the places where great American movies were filmed.

Chip Love sits in a conference room of the Marfa National Bank, where he's president. Love is affable, direct and self-deprecating, just like a West Texan. Love had a small role in No Country For Old Men as a salesman driving along a lonesome highway who gets pulled over by a police car driven by a psychopathic hitman played by Javier Bardem.

"Frankly, at this point, I've decided I carried that film because of all the lines that I had, which is, 'What's this about?' It's challenging, it's a lot to remember and I was able to remember it," Love says. He repeats the line with a laugh: " 'What's this about?' "

Bardem smiles, and puts a cattle bolt gun to the banker's forehead. Definitely evil. But why Marfa?

"Yeah, it's a good question," Love says. "The artists will tell you that Marfa has great light. I don't know how to quantify the light other than I know we have some beautiful sunsets. There are still plenty of places you can get and not see anything man-made. Maybe the camera likes that."

The tiny town is a pinprick on the great Trans-Pecos region. Its odd name was bestowed by a railroad man's wife, after a character from a Dostoevsky novel. On all sides, it's surrounded by immense cattle ranches, the edge of vision bounded by blue mountains.

"We still are some of the wide-open, just pretty country that you don't really get to see anywhere else," says David Williams, manager of MacGuire Ranch, where There Will Be Blood was shot in 2006. "You can see for — those mountains we're looking at over there are 20 miles away."

Williams, a fourth-generation cattleman, had spent the morning separating yearlings from mama cows. He has come to like movie people — he says they're fun and they help the declining ranch economy. Williams even earned an executive producer credit on There Will Be Blood. In the movie, Daniel Day-Lewis plays a ruthless California oilman who hits a gusher. Williams' duties on the film included helping to erect a replica of a turn-of-the-century drilling derrick.

"It was a great big ole huge thing and they ended up burning it down in the movie," Williams says. "I was kind of sad seein' 'em burn it down after they spent several months buildin' it."

With Hollywood types, it doesn't hurt that Marfa is, well, a different sort of Texas town, with just one blinking traffic light but 14 art galleries, an independent bookstore and an organic grocery. In red, red West Texas, Barack Obama carried the county.

Are you getting the picture?

In the land that created the Highland Hereford cattle breed, it is now possible to get a specialty coffee served by a young man with a verse from the French poet Rimbaud tattooed on his forearm. On the edge of town, there's a new hotel called El Cosmico where you can stay in a vintage trailer, a yurt or a tipi.

Though ranching is still the region's mainstay, Marfa's artistic side has been growing ever since the artist Donald Judd came here in the 1980s. He too was attracted by the primordial emptiness of the country, where he installed large-scale steel and concrete sculptures.

Liz Lambert, who owns the El Cosmico hotel, comes from a ranching family that has been in far West Texas for decades. Although she is a successful hotelier living in Austin, she says her heart is in the Trans-Pecos.

"My grandfather would always say you can see clear into next week," Lambert says. "And I think that probably translates magically onto film."

There have been other movies shot out here over the years: Andromeda Strain, Fandango and The Good Old Boys, but Marfa's place in movie history begins in 1955 with Giant. The 3 1/2-hour epic about a clash between a rancher and an oilman starred Elizabeth Taylor, Rock Hudson and James Dean.

Giant junkies have been visiting Marfa for decades. But the current newcomers to the town seem puzzled by the film's cult following.

"I saw the movie when we came to town," says Allyson Feeney, a 26-year-old Californian teaching art classes in town. "It was hard to watch. It was just, it was long, y'know? It's not the same pace as contemporary movies and that's the problem."

Despite being a period piece, Giant — more than any other movie made around Marfa — features the sprawling, windblown landscape as a character. It was shot on the Ryan Ranch, west of town, a sea of rippling wheat-colored grass more than 1 1/2 times the size of Manhattan.

Ranch owner Clay Evans, now 75 years old, was 19 when the crew and cast arrived on his family's ranch. All the cowboys gawked at 23-year-old Elizabeth Taylor.

"Aw, I remember Elizabeth Taylor," Evans says. "She cussed a lot and we thought she was good lookin' but we didn't pay much attention to her."

George Stevens, who would go on to win the Oscar for Best Director for the film, paid $20,000 to use the Ryan Ranch, cattle and horses included. Today, the skeleton of the towering mansion built for the film still stands. But last month, Evans put his ranch up for sale.

"I can't get around. I can't tend to it. Nobody else to tend to it. So I got to sell it," he says.

Asking price: just under $29 million. At that price, no one expects the new owners to buy the ranch purely for cattle. Increasingly, the worth of this desert grassland around Marfa is measured in its austere beauty.

The late-breaking gossip is that movie scouts were recently in town looking for a location to shoot a remake of The Lone Ranger.

Copyright 2018 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

MICHELE NORRIS, Host:

This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Michele Norris.

ROBERT SIEGEL, Host:

And to kick it off, we asked our correspondent John Burnett, who's based in Austin, Texas, to go west, to Marfa, Texas. That's the site of the 1956 epic "Giant" and two modern-day Oscar winners, "No Country for Old Men" and "There Will Be Blood."

JOHN BURNETT: The drive-in movie critic Joe Bob Briggs says filmmakers like to set movies in Texas because evil thrives in Texas. Filmmakers especially like West Texas, a landscape of limitless desolation and possibilities onto which they can project greed, lust and violence.

CHIP LOVE: I am Chip Love. I'm the president of the Marfa National Bank. And the reason you're interviewing me today is because of a small part I had in the film "No Country for Old Men."

BURNETT: Love sits in the conference room of his bank. He's affable, direct and self-deprecating, just like a West Texan. His character in "No Country" is a salesman driving along a lonesome highway when he gets pulled over by a police car driven by a psychopathic hitman played by Javier Bardem.

LOVE: Frankly, at this point, I've decided I carried that film because of my - all of the lines that I had, which is what's this about?

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

LOVE: It's challenging. It's a lot to remember, and I was able to remember it. What's this about?

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN")

LOVE: (as Man in Ford) Howdy. What's this about?

JAVIER BARDEM: (as Anton Chigurh) Step out of the car please, sir.

LOVE: (as Man in Ford) What is that?

BARDEM: (as Anton Chigurh) I need you to step out of the car, sir.

(SOUNDBITE OF CAR DOOR OPENING)

LOVE: (as Man in Ford) What is that for?

BARDEM: (as Anton Chigurh) Would you - would you hold still please, sir?

BURNETT: Bardem smiles and fires a cattle bolt gun into the banker's forehead.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN")

(SOUNDBITE OF CATTLE BOLT GUN FIRING)

(SOUNDBITE OF MAN FALLING ON THE GROUND)

BURNETT: Definitely evil. But why Marfa?

LOVE: Yeah, it's a good question. The artists would tell you that Marfa has great light. I don't know how to quantify the light other than I know we have some beautiful sunsets. There are still plenty of places you can get and not see anything manmade. Maybe the camera likes that.

(SOUNDBITE OF CATTLE MOOING)

BURNETT: The tiny town is a pinprick on the great Trans-Pecos region of far West Texas. The odd name, Marfa, bestowed by a railroad man's wife, comes from a character in a Dostoevsky novel. The town is surrounded on all sides by immense cattle ranches, the edge of vision bounded by blue mountains.

DAVID WILLIAMS: We still are some of the wide- open, just pretty country that you don't really get to see anywhere else. You can see for, you know, those mountains we're looking at over there are 20 miles away.

BURNETT: The fourth-generation cattleman spent the morning separating yearlings from mama cows. Williams has come to like movie people. He says they're fun, and they help the declining ranch economy. He even earned an executive producer credit on "There Will Be Blood." His duties included helping to erect a turn- of-the-century drilling derrick.

(SOUNDBITE OF CATTLE MOOING)

WILLIAMS: It was a great, big, old, huge thing, and they ended up burning it down in the movie. You know, I was kind of sad seeing it burn down after they have spent several months building it.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "THERE WILL BE BLOOD")

(SOUNDBITE OF MACHINERY)

BURNETT: In the movie, the actor Daniel Day-Lewis plays a ruthless California oilman who hits a gusher.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "THERE WILL BE BLOOD")

(SOUNDBITE OF MACHINERY)

DANIEL DAY: (as Daniel Plainview) What are you looking so miserable about? There's a whole ocean of oil under our feet. No one can get at it except for me.

BURNETT: Unidentified Woman: Two double iced lattes, please.

BURNETT: Unidentified Woman: Thank you, Eal(ph).

BURNETT: On the edge of town, there's a new hotel called El Cosmico where you can stay in a vintage trailer, a yurt or a tipi.

LIZ LAMBERT: I'm Liz Lambert. I own El Cosmico. I also come from a ranching family that's been out in the Big Bend region, far West Texas for decades.

BURNETT: Liz Lambert is a successful hotelier in Austin, but she says her heart is in the Trans-Pecos.

LAMBERT: My grandfather would always say you can see clear into next week, and I think that probably translates magically onto film.

BURNETT: There have been other movies shot out here over the years - "Andromeda Strain," "Fandango" and "The Good Old Boys" - but Marfa's place in movie history begins in 1955 with "Giant."

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "GIANT")

BURNETT: The three-and-a-half-hour epic about the clash between a rancher and an oilman starred Elizabeth Taylor, Rock Hudson and James Dean. Dean played Jett Rink, the ranch hand turned oil tycoon.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "GIANT")

JAMES DEAN: (as Jett Rink) I'm gonna have more money than you ever thought you could have - you and all the rest of you stinking sons of Benedicts.

ROCK HUDSON: (as Jordan "Bick" Benedict Jr.) Leslie, you go out in the house. Take the women with you.

BURNETT: Allyson Feeney is a 26-year-old Californian teaching art classes in town.

ALLYSON FEENEY: Now, I saw the movie when we came into town. It was hard to watch.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

FEENEY: It was just - it was long, you know? It's not the same pace as contemporary movies, and that's the problem.

BURNETT: Ranch owner Clay Evans, now 75 years old, was 19 when the crew and cast arrived on his family's ranch. All the cowboys gawked at 23-year-old Liz Taylor.

CLAY EVANS: Oh, I remember Elizabeth Taylor. She came out here, and we all looked at her and she cussed a lot. And we thought she was good looking, but we didn't pay much attention to her.

BURNETT: George Stevens, who won the Oscar for Best Director, paid $20,000 to use the Ryan ranch, cattle and horses included. Today, the skeleton of the towering giant mansion still stands. Last month, Mr. Evans put his ranch up for sale.

EVANS: I can't get around. I can't tend to it. Nobody else to tend to it. So I got to sell it.

BURNETT: John Burnett, NPR News.

SIEGEL: At npr.org, you can watch scenes from "There Will Be Blood" and see photos of the mansion from "Giant," what it looked like then and what it looks like now. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.