You may not know who Gene Jones is, but odds are you have seen him in at least one movie he has co-starred in. Many know him best for his role as the gas station owner who is subjected to one of Anton Chigurh’s terrifying coin tosses in “No Country for Old Men,” and he also appeared as Wild West Barker in “Oz the Great and Powerful” and co-starred in “The Odd Life of Timothy Green.” But after watching him in Ti West’s “The Sacrament,” it will be impossible to forget who Jones is as he gives us a character who seems sweet on the surface but is really a vicious devil in disguise.
“The Sacrament” follows a couple of reporters as they travel out to a commune located out in the middle of nowhere to find one of a long lost relative. Upon their arrival, they discover the commune is a technology-free zone called Eden Parish, and they meet Father (played by Jones) who is the leader and treats his loyal followers with tremendous warmth and care. But when these outsiders arrive, he quickly sees them as a threat and eventually convinces his followers to take a sinister course of action which leads to an unspeakable tragedy.
The press day for “The Sacrament” was held at the Magic Castle in Hollywood, California, and many who worked on this movie, be it in front of or behind the camera, participated in an informative press conference. Among those there was West who told us he wanted to audition Jones after seeing him play a pharmacist on “Louie.”
Ti West: There’s a scene where there is a woman waiting in line and asking all these inane questions to the pharmacist who’s not paying attention, and Louie (C.K.’s) waiting behind her and he’s getting bored. And then Gene eventually turns to her and is like, “Have you had a bowel movement today and was it soft?” And then she gets uncomfortable and then that’s the scene, and I was like, “That’s the guy.” So, what we did was that we tracked him down and then I asked him to do a quick audition. Most of the reason I asked him to do the audition wasn’t so much to see if it would be any good. I just wanted to see if he would not be into the material. So I knew that if he did the second audition that he wasn’t going to be uncomfortable with the subject matter like that because you never know if you don’t know people. Gene likes to say that the first audition wasn’t very good and that’s why I asked him to do a second one which is not true. But there was enough from those, just seeing him do it, to know what I had thought was going to happen was going to happen.
The plot of “The Sacrament” was largely inspired by the 1978 Jonestown Massacre when Jim Jones made the followers of the Peoples Temple commit mass suicide. When Jones first appears onscreen as Father, you can’t help but be reminded of Jim, especially with those sunglasses he’s wearing. But in describing his preparation to play Father, Jones shot down our assumptions of what he did to prepare for this role.
Gene Jones: It’s less than one day in Father’s life, and not a typical day. So, I didn’t do any Jim Jones research about what he read and how he interacted with people on a daily basis. What I tried to do was be a guy who was so nice, you would leave your family and you would leave your country and go with this guy. I never met Ti until I stepped onto the set. I did audition for it, but it was a video audition. Actually it was two auditions and Ti commented on those, and those comments gave me the freedom to go where I wanted to go which was in the direction of being so damn trustworthy and so avuncular and nice. A phrase that popped into my head a few weeks ago when I was doing one of these (press conferences) was I wanted to show you somebody who was evil but not mean. Somebody who believed absolutely poisonous things but was the nicest fellow you ever met.
West said when he first met Jones in the flesh was when he arrived at the movie’s set located in Savannah, Georgia. Jones’ first big scene was when he does the interview with the two reporters, and it involved a lot of work and memorization on his part. West was more than prepared for things to go wrong as he described this scene as a “massive undertaking,” but we all felt his astonishment at how things actually turned out.
Ti West: It’s the kind of production day that you dread because it’s a night shoot, there’s 200 extras, it’s 12 pages which is like six times more than anyone wants to shoot in a day and there’s just so many moving parts, and it was cued up to be a disaster. I remember on the very first take I hadn’t told the extras what to do yet, and you’ve got to keep in mind that the extras are just there for one night to be in a movie. They don’t know what the movie is about and they haven’t read the script. They are just like, “Yeah we’re in a movie!” They’re all seated and you figure that some of them aren’t going to be good and will have to move them around, but before we do any of that let’s just wing it. Let’s just try one where Gene comes in and we’ll tell them to cheer. He can come in and then start talking to A.J. (Bowen), and its 12 pages so if the lines get screwed up we’ll stop and then we’ll do it in chunks, and this is how we are going to get through this night. Well on the very first take, Gene came in everybody went crazy. He sat down, did a 17-minute unbroken take without dropping a line, got up, everybody cheered and he walked out, and all of the reactions from the extras were their genuine reactions. They weren’t me feeding them things to do because I just wanted to assess the situation, but the assessment of the situation was we don’t need to do anything because Gene nailed that so effortlessly, and then all the extras chimed in perfectly. Gene had figured out how he was going to do it, and all I had to do was just capture it.
Jones’ comment on how the extras fueled his performance was great because he made it sound like he was doing a play more than making a movie.
Gene Jones: I loved, loved the congregation, and there’s little variations each time you shoot. They were tuned to that and I didn’t have to say, “Give me an amen somebody.” They would give me an amen. They would just give it to me and they would nod, and it was just alive. It was like talking to a group of friends. They all chimed in and they were great.
In a business which can be so ridiculously youth-oriented, it is nice to see an actor like Gene Jones defy the odds. If this were a studio movie, executives would have probably forced Ti West to cast a young adult who was more demographically desirable. But in the end, there are certain parts only actors of a certain age can pull off, and this is one of them. Jones succeeds in giving us a villain for the ages as Father draws people in with ease and then destroys their lives for the most selfish of reasons.
Click on the video below to check out the interviews I did with Ti West, A.J. Bowen, Joe Swanberg and Amy Seimetz about “The Sacrament” for We Got This Covered.