UNTIL six months ago W. E. Love, also known as Chip, had not particularly intended to carry on his family’s cinematic legacy. Then Joel and Ethan Coen came to town.
Like many people raised in this isolated West Texas town near the Mexican border, Mr. Love, 49, grew up with a small connection to Hollywood: his grandmother was an extra in the 1956 film "Giant." That Texas epic, touted at the time as the most expensive movie ever made, irrevocably changed Marfa, a drought-plagued ranching town that had long seen better days. The film’s stars — Rock Hudson, Elizabeth Taylor and James Dean — drew crowds at the Hotel Paisano on Marfa’s main street, and the movie employed hundreds of locals as extras.
Operating on a somewhat less grand scale, the Coens — the writing and directing team behind "Fargo", "The Big Lebowski" and "O Brother, Where Art Thou?" — visited Marfa last March, as they searched for ranch land on which to film their latest project, an adaptation of Cormac McCarthy’s 2005 novel “No Country for Old Men.” Set in the late 1970’s in West Texas, the story is an ultraviolent neo-western about an antelope hunter, Llewelyn Moss (played by Josh Brolin), who stumbles across $2 million in a drug deal gone awry. Moss takes off with the money, prompting a chase up and down the Mexican border, as a psychopathic hit man (Javier Bardem) follows him, leaving a slew of bodies in his wake. On their trails is the aging local sheriff (Tommy Lee Jones).
The president of Marfa’s only bank, Mr. Love also owns a cattle ranch and gave the Coens a tour of his property when they scouted locations last spring. As the filmmakers and Mr. Love sat on his back porch talking, Joel Coen asked if Mr. Love would be interested in playing a small role in the movie.
So on the afternoon of May 24, Mr. Love stood on a desolate desert highway west of town, surrounded by cattle ranches peppered with cactuses and jackrabbits, and, in front of a collection of cameras and crew, was shot in the head with a cattle stun gun by Mr. Bardem. Dying on camera was harder than he expected, he said, and he was disheartened by the number of takes the directors called for. “I wanted to do well for those guys because they were so nice,” he said. “I felt a huge responsibility not to stink.”
By now Marfans have come to take a certain amount of celebrity presence for granted, thanks to their town’s reputation as an international art destination. Marfa is home to both the Chinati Foundation, a sprawling outdoor art space founded in 1979 by the minimalist artist Donald Judd, and the Lannan Foundation’s writers residency program.
But it is still three hours away from a commercial airport or a shopping mall and has just 2,400 residents, making the arrival this year of not one, but two Hollywood productions something of an event. Even as the Coens were shooting in Marfa, another well-known writer-director, Paul Thomas Andeson ("Magnolia", "Punch-Drunk Love") was preparing to shoot his first movie in four years on a 500-acre set south of town. That film, "There Will Be Blood" based on Upton Sinclair’s 1927 novel “Oil!,” is a turn-of-the-century epic starring Daniel Day-Lewis as a power-mad oil prospector whose greed menaces a small farming village.
The producers of both films said the presence of two major projects, bankrolled by the same studio, Paramount Vantage (with Miramax), and filmed in the same tiny town, was just a coincidence.