Trevor Hogg profiles the careers of filmmaking siblings the Coen brothers in the third of a four part feature... read parts one and two.
Combining a case of a mistaken identity with a staged kidnapping, the Coen brothers produced a film which has established its own cult following – The Big Lebowski. “The narrative is suggested by Raymond Chandler’s Philip Marlowe novels,” stated Ethan Coen of the movie which gave performer Jeff Bridges his signature role of Jeff “The Dude” Lebowski. “It’s this episodic narrative about a character who’s not a private eye in this case, just a lay-about pothead who works his way through L.A. society trying to unravel this mystery.”
The other aspect which paid homage to the famous crime noir author was the cast for the picture. “We bore in mind Chandler’s pattern, a story like The Big Sleep ,” remarked Joel Coen. “We had a millionaire [David Huddleston] in Pasadena and, as so often with his novels, a mature and sophisticated woman, Maude, played by Julianne Moore [Boogie Nights], and a licentious and depraved girl, Bunny, played by Tara Reid [American Pie]. The main character is often involved in a romantic sub-plot with the first type of woman.”
Overseeing the proceedings is a narrator voiced by Sam Elliott [The Contender] who subsequently appears in the last scene. “The Stranger [Elliott] is a little bit of an audience substitute,” revealed Joel. “In the movie adaptations of Chandler it’s the main character who speaks offscreen, but we didn’t want to reproduce that though it obviously has echoes. It’s as if someone was commenting on the plot from an all-seeing point of view. And at the same time rediscovering the old earthiness of Mark Twain.”
To better understand the world of The Big Lebowski, the movie needs to be viewed from a certain social context. “The action itself takes place at the beginning of the nineties, but all the characters refer to the culture of thirty years ago, they are its aftermath and its mirror,” said Joel. “Jeff Bridges is an aging hippie, John Goodman is defined by his Vietnam experience, while Maude has for her blueprints the sixties New York Fluxus artists like Yoko Ono before she met John Lennon, or Carol Schneeman, who literally threw herself into her projects for physical support…Ben Gazzara [who plays loan shark Jackie Treehorn] also echoes people like Hugh Hefner from that period.”
Portraying Treehorn’s three hoods as hapless German nihilist-pornographers was a matter of artistic license. “We are always looking to make characters geographically or sociologically or ethnically as specific as we possibly can,” replied Joel. “The more specific they are, the easier it is to develop them and make them more interesting for ourselves and for the audience. But people miss that, and they sometimes mistakenly extrapolate it into some grand statement about that region.”
Serving as a prominent motif for the picture is a particular recreational pastime. “We like the design aspects of bowling,” explained Joel. “The sort of retro aspects of it seemed like the right fit with the characters. One of the people this is loosely based on was in an amateur softball league in L.A. that really took up a lot of his time. We changed that to bowling because bowling seemed more compelling from a visual point of view.” He mischievously added, “It’s the only thing that calls itself a sport where you can smoke and drink beer.”
Walkouts were reported during some of the initial screenings of The Big Lebowski. Peter Howell of The Toronto Star wrote, “It’s hard to believe that this is the work of a team that won an Oscar last year for the original screenplay of Fargo. There’s a large amount of profanity in the movie, which seems a weak attempt to paper over dialogue gaps.” A sign that the future was not entirely bleak for the film came from Janet Maslin of The New York Times who stated in her review that, “Mr. Bridges finds a role so right for him that he seems never to have been anywhere else. Watch this performance to see shambling executed with nonchalant grace and a seemingly out-to-lunch character played with fine comic flare.”
Since being release in 1998, the movie which cost $15 million to make has earned $47 million worldwide. Fan enthusiasm for the film has spread so much that an annual festival called Lebowski Fest was founded in Louisville, Kentucky in 2002 with 150 fans showing up; it has since expanded into other cities including London, England. The main event features a series of contests happening around a night of unlimited bowling. Contributing significantly to the growing cult status of the picture is Jeff Bridges’ stoner persona. The Church of the Latter-Day Dude, which preaches “dudeism” via the internet, was established in 2005 with over 50,000 “Dudeist Priests” being ordained. More recently, in the 100 Greatest Movie Characters poll held by Empire Magazine, The Dude was listed as #7.
Trading the world of cinema for literature, Ethan Coen published a collection of short stories called Gates of Eden in 1998. “As we’ve been working on movies I’ve been writing stories. Three of them have been published in magazines. At a certain point I just had a sufficient number of them to peddle as a book. My agent circulated a manuscript consisting of eleven of the stories and a promise to write three more within a certain amount of time.” When the time came to produce the audiobook version, a group of Coen film alumni lent their vocal talents: Steve Buscemi, John Goodman, William H. Macy, and John Turturro along with newcomers Ben Stiller [Meet the Parents] and Matt Dillon [Crash]. “The virtue of working alone is that you can follow the ideas without having to justify them.” However, Ethan did not find his solo literary effort to be an entirely liberating experience. “The liability is you don’t have the immediate feedback, and you don’t have anybody to share the burden of having to come up with ideas.”
Another project Ethan worked on without Joel was a script with J. Todd Anderson, who has served as the storyboard artist for a number of the Coen brothers’ movies. The Naked Man released in 1998, marked the directorial debut of Anderson. Michael Rapaport (Beautiful Girls) stars as a chiropractor who moonlights as a wrestler; when his family is murdered, he seeks revenge by adopting his wrestling persona outside of the ring. “I thought it was very funny,” remarked Ethan. “I enjoyed it, and it’s not just in the pride of ownership, ’cause it’s really J. Todd’s thing. It didn’t get a theatrical release, for reasons I can understand. It’s nobody’s idea of a big audience mainstream movie.”
Working with each other again, the Coens produced an adventure-comedy which borrowed from Homer’s Odyssey. “It’s the story of a prisoner [George Clooney] in a convict camp in the southern states, during the Depression,” explained Joel, “who manages to escape and tries to return home, going through different episodes in which he resorts to tricks like Ulysses.” Ethan is quick to point out that it is a very loose adaptation of the ancient Greek tale. “We availed ourselves of it very selectively. There are the sirens; the Cyclops, John Goodman, a one-eyed Bible salesman.”
The title of the Coens’ 2000 release pays homage to Preston Sturges’ 1941 classic Sullivan’s Travels; a successful director who is tired of creating mindless entertainments desires to make a serious film called O Brother, Where Art Thou?. “In our minds, it was presumably the movie he would’ve made if he had the chance,” stated Joel. “The important movie. The one that takes on the big, important themes.”
For the more theatrical moments in the story, the brothers borrowed from a revered Hollywood blockbuster. “One of my favourite shots in the film is strongly reminiscent of The Wizard of Oz ,” revealed Joel Coen. “It’s a shot of George Clooney [Syriana], Tim Nelson [The Grey Zone], and John Turturro peering through some bushes while looking down on a Ku Klux Klan meeting.” Referring to the elaborately choreographed performance the escape convicts witness, Joel remarked, “The dance combines aspects of the witch’s castle scene in The Wizard of Oz, a number from a Busby Berkeley [Gold Diggers of 1935] musical and some interesting old films we saw of the Klan.” Despite the appearance of the notorious white supremacy organization no social commentary was intended. “The political undercurrent of the movie functions primarily for dramatic purposes, because the politics are frankly pretty primitive. The bad guys are racial bigots and KKK Grand Dragons, and the good guys are the heroes of the movie.” Questioned on why not concentrate on telling a present day tale, Ethan replied, “We tend to do period stuff because it helps make it one step removed from boring everyday reality.”
Cinematographer Roger Deakins had a good idea of how the Coens wanted O Brother, Where Art Thou? to be filmed. “Before I read the script, Joel and Ethan told me they had a film they wanted to shoot in the South. They imagined something dry, dusty and very hot.” Necessity caused Mississippi to be the location of choice. “It would have been a different scenario if we had been shooting in the winter or if we’d been able to take the fall colours, but our film was scheduled for a summer shoot. I had to find a way to desaturate the greens and give the images we were going to shoot the feeling of old, hand-tinted postcards, [which was the look] favoured by Joel and Ethan.” A contingency plan was implemented to accommodate the fickle natural elements. “We built a couple of sets in a warehouse, because the weather is a bit unpredictable in that part of the country at that time of year. But we were only rained out once – lucky, I guess!”
Asked on how close the finished picture followed the screenplay, Roger Deakins answered, “We stayed pretty close to the plan, veering from it only when something spontaneous presented an unexpected opportunity.” There was one area where the Coens had to concede, stated Deakins. “We originally wanted to shoot in black and white, but the project’s backers wouldn’t allow it. Instead, we decided to go for a harsh, desaturated look using a bleach-bypass system that had just been discovered by the lab that was testing for us. The challenge was to create the very golden, colourful looks for the scenes that required them as a counterpoint to the starkness of the main body of the film.”
Integral to O Brother, Where Art Thou? is the music soundtrack featuring renowned artists such as Alison Krauss, Emmylou Harris, and Gillian Welch. “At an early stage we sort of decided what music we wanted,” recalled Joel. “Then T-Bone [Burnett] brought in a lot of different musicians and [we] collectively decided who was going to do what.” The selection process involved two days of auditions which left a lasting impression on Ethan. “Ralph [Stanley] coming in was kind of funny. Everyone is sort of hanging out and playing, picking, whatever and then Ralph walked in. It was like they’d wheeled in one of the heads from Mount Rushmore. The whole room kind of fell silent for a moment.”
Incorporating the assortment of bluegrass, gospel, blues, and country songs into the storyline became a fascinating challenge for the filmmaking brothers. “In the movie we used a sort of mixture of period recordings and rerecorded music,” explained Joel. “But the stuff that was redone and produced by T-Bone [Burnett] is all featured essentially live – it’s music you see performed in the movie itself.” The efforts of Burnett and the Coens did not go unnoticed for the picture’s music soundtrack album won five Grammys, including: Album of the Year, Producer of the Year (T-Bone Burnett) and Best Compilation Soundtrack Album; it also sold over seven million copies in the U.S. and spawned a documentary and concert film, which reunited the soundtrack artists, called Down from the Mountain (2000).
Screened at the Cannes Film Festival, O Brother, Where Art Thou? competed for the Palme d’Or. At the Academy Awards the picture was nominated for Best Cinematography and Best Adapted Screenplay; while at the BAFTAs it was up for the Anthony Asquith Award for Film Music, Best Cinematography, Best Production Design, and Best Original Screenplay. The movie, which grossed $72 million worldwide, was not completely shutout as George Clooney won the Golden Globe for Best Actor – Comedy or Musical.
Determined to produce a black and white picture, the Minneapolis-born filmmakers finally achieved their ambition with the release of The Man Who Wasn’t There (2001).
Ed Crane (Billy Bob Thorton), who works in a suburban 1950s barbershop owned by his brother-in-law Frank (Michael Badalucco), has dreams of opening his own dry cleaning business. To acquire the necessary financial funds Crane enters into a blackmailing scheme which has fatal consequences.
When the two Coens were composing the script they had particular actors in mind. “With this one we wrote the part for Fran [McDormand who plays Crane’s wife Doris], and we wrote the part that Michael Badalucco [One Fine Day] plays, but that was about it. We didn’t know who was going to play the lead character.” The solution to the major casting problem came in the form of Billy Bob Thorton [Sling Blade]. “Ed says very little, he’s very still, and that would just drive most actors crazy. They’d be very insecure about it, thinking they weren’t doing enough; we had a feeling that Billy Bob would understand.” Thorton could identify with his cinematic persona. “It’s this guy and the guy in A Simple Plan  who are the closest to myself. I feel like a ‘the man who wasn’t there.’ I got my wife, my kids, my mom. I’m not interested in things outside the basement and the backyard. I always identified with John Lennon, who loved to stay at home.”
On why the Coens chose to do a story about a barber, Joel replied, “We wanted to examine exactly what the day-to-day was like for a guy who gives haircut after haircut.” As for setting the tone of the picture, he went on to say, “We were interested in the whole idea of post-war anxiety, you know, atom bomb anxiety and the existential dread you see in fifties movies, which curiously seems appropriate now.”
Interestingly, The Man Who Wasn’t There was originally filmed in colour and reprinted on high-contrast black and white title stock. “That’s basically because no one in the last forty years has developed a new black and white film,” explained Joel, “so you can’t find high-speed, fine-grade, black and white stock”. Complicating the situation further for the Coens was the issue of commercial viability. “Black and white stigmatizes a movie in the eyes of the exhibitors,” stated Ethan. “It means it’s an art film.”
“We still cut on film and not on the computer,” confessed Joel. “It’s to do with idiosyncratic things, about what kind of screen I want to look at all day. I like handling the film, too; how I learned to edit was on flatbed editing machines and Moviolas, all the dinosaurs of the trade.” However, he acknowledges that the digital moviemaking is the way of the future. “The technology’s evolving and someday all movies will be made like that, but right now I don’t find the results it yields are at the same level as shooting on film.”
In addressing what it is like taking onset instructions from her husband, Joel Coen, actress Frances McDormand confided, “Sometimes it’s easier getting direction from Ethan. He’s more direct. Since Blood Simple, it’s a huge improvement how they have dialogue with actors. Their not communicating was to the peril of certain performances.” Billy Bob Thorton had no qualms about working on the picture. “I really don’t care about commerciality. God knows if anyone will see this film. But I love these guys, the Coens, and their sense of humour. I agreed to do the film when Joel told me, ‘It’s about a barber who wants to be a dry cleaner.’”
The Man Who Wasn’t There, which earned $19 million worldwide, found a more than welcoming audience at the Cannes Film Festival, where it was nominated for the Palme d’Or. “We go to competitions because the movies get more attention,” stated Joel Coen who was presented with his second award for Best Director at the famous French film festival. “That’s the main reason. The press attention is important with our movies. We don’t have the advertising budget that, say, Pearl Harbor  does.” Veteran Coen collaborator Roger Deakins also garnered accolades for his work on the picture; he received both a BAFTA and a Oscar nomination for Best Cinematography and was named Cinematographer of the Year by the American Film Institute.
Next on the Coens’ cinematic agenda was a $60 million adaptation of the novel To the White Sea by James Dickey. “It’s about an American airman who’s shot down over Tokyo the night before the city is firebombed,” recounted Joel. “He then walks from Honshu to Hokkaido. Because he’s alone, there’s no dialogue for ninety percent of the movie.” Slated for the starring role was Hollywood superstar Brad Pitt [Twelve Monkeys]. “The lead character is a tailgunner in a B-29 and there’s something all-American about Brad Pitt that’s appropriate. Brad is actually far too old to play the part, so the fact that he has a boyish quality is good.” Pitt’s looks were a key factor in casting him for the movie. “He also kills a lot of people, so the actor can’t be somebody you’re going to detest,” reasoned Ethan. “He’s killing to survive, but the killings are fairly graphic.”
With the Coens wanting to shoot on location in Hokkaido, 20th Century Fox left the project causing it to collapse. “It wasn’t anybody’s fault,” reflected Joel, “there was just a certain amount of money available to make the movie, and a certain amount was necessary to actually make it properly, and it came to the point where we had to either radically reconceive how we were going to shoot the movie or move on to something else.”
Taking a break from being behind the camera Joel Coen passed over the directorial reins for Bad Santa (2003) to Terry Zwigoff [Ghost World]. Co-written by Zwigoff and the Coens, the dark comedy featured Billy Bob Thorton as a hedonistic and alcoholic mall Santa Claus who robs his employers with the aid of his dwarf companion (Tony Cox).
Moving onto more mainstream material, the Coens reunited with George Clooney to produce a screwball comedy that would pit him against an Oscar-winning starlet.
Continue to part four.
For more on the Coen brothers, visit fansites You Know, For Kids! and Coenesque.
Trevor Hogg is a freelance video editor and writer who currently resides in Canada.