Absurdity & Carnage: A Coen Brothers Profile (Part 1)

Trevor Hogg profiles the careers of filmmaking siblings the Coen brothers in the first of a four part feature

Coen BrothersUsing a Super 8 camera, Joel and his younger brother Ethan were inspired to remake the Hollywood movies being broadcasted on television; their naivety about motion picture production did not hinder their innovative spirit when shooting a new version of The Naked Prey (1966). “We had very weird special effects in that film,” reminisced Joel Coen of the childhood project entitled Zeimers in Zambia. “We actually had a parachute drop – a shot of an airplane going overhead, then a miniature, then cut to a close-up of the guy against the white sheet as it hit the ground.” Their enthusiasm for the craft of filmmaking led the brotherly duo to venture into the realm of scriptwriting. “The first one was called Coast to Coast,” stated Joel. “We never really did anything with it. It was sort of a screwball-comedy.” The unproduced tale was a product of the brothers’ surrealist sense of humour; it dealt with Chinese communists creating twenty-eight clones of the legendary physicist Albert Einstein.

After their post-secondary studies, the two siblings from Minneapolis, Minnesota reunited in New York; they renewed their creative partnership which proved to be so intuitive that upon meeting the brothers, an interviewer wittingly remarked that the Coens were “joined at the quip”.

While Ethan Coen earned money as a part-time typist, his older sibling immersed himself in the movie industry. “I was an assistant editor on a few low-budget horror films, like Fear No Evil [1981],” recalled Joel. “There was another one which I actually got fired from called Nightmare [1981], which had a small release here in New York, and The Evil Dead [1981].” The latter film would solidify an ongoing artistic relationship between the Coens and cult-horror maestro Sam Raimi (Darkman) who hired them to write a script for him called The XYZ Murders.

Blood SimpleIndulging in their appreciation for the film noir genre, Joel and Ethan began to construct what would become their feature length debut. “You can’t get any more independent than Blood Simple,” declared Joel. “We did it entirely outside of Hollywood.” The director of the picture went on to say, “The main consideration from the start was that we wanted to be left alone, without anyone telling us what to do. The way we financed the movie gave us that right.”

In regards to the literary influences for the murderous tale about a sleazy private investigator (M. Emmet Walsh) hired by a cuckolded husband (Dan Hedaya) to follow his adulteress wife (Frances McDormand), Ethan said, “[James M.] Cain is more to the point for this story, than [Raymond] Chandler or [Dashiell] Hammett. They wrote mysteries, whodunits.” The writer-producer explained further, “Cain usually dealt with three great themes: opera, the Greek diner business, and the insurance business.” Completing his brother’s answer, Joel replied, “Which we felt were the three greatest themes of twentieth century literature.”

Shooting the picture in Texas had an aesthetic appeal for the moviemaking brothers. “Your classic film noir has a real urban feel and we wanted something different,” stated Ethan. There was another major decision revealed director Barry Sonnenfeld (Men in Black), who served as the cinematographer for the film, “I think we were afraid that to shoot the film in black and white would make it look too “independent”, too low-budget.” Sonnenfeld’s remark caused to Ethan to deadpan, “We wanted to trick people into thinking we’d made a real movie.”

Two cinematic classics served as major inspirations for the rookie filmmakers. “The Conformist [1970] is one of the movies we went with Barry to see before we started shooting, in terms of deciding what we wanted the visual style to be, the lighting, and all that,” confided Joel. “Also, we went to see The Third Man [1949].”

Making use of storyboards, the Coens, Sonnenfeld and the assistant director met each day for a breakfast conference at Denny’s; they discussed what was going to be shot and how it was going to be lighted. “On the set, we’d put it together and look through the viewfinder,” stated Joel. “Barry might have an idea, or Ethan might come up with something different, and we’d try it. We had the freedom to do that, because we’d done so much advance work.”

Blood Simple Frances McDormandRealizing the need to lighten the mood of the picture, the Coens sought to include humour into the plotline. “We didn’t have an equation for how to balance the blood and the gags,” responded Ethan. “But there is a counterpoint between the story itself and the narrator’s attitude toward the story.” The mischievous spirit worked itself into the production credits where film editor Roderick Jaynes (a pseudonym for the brothers) was mentioned for the first time.

Influential film critic Pauline Kael of The New Yorker was unimpressed by Blood Simple upon its release in 1985, “The reason the camera whoop-de-do is so noticeable is that there’s nothing else going on. The movie doesn’t even seem meant to have any rhythmic flow; the Coens just want us to respond to a bunch of ‘touches’ on routine themes.” Responding to the accusation that style had triumphed over substance, Joel Coen declared, “If somebody goes out to make a movie that isn’t designed primarily to entertain people then I don’t know what the fuck they’re doing…What’s the Raymond Chandler line? ‘All good art is entertainment and anyone who says differently is a stuff shirt and juvenile at the art of living.’”

A far warmer critical reception was found at the Sundance Film Festival where the picture was awarded the Grand Jury Prize – Dramatic. Twenty-four years later, Zhang Yimou (Huozhe) loosely remade the drama as a comedy with the title A Simple Noodle Story (2009); the cinematic action was transplanted from a small town Texan bar to a Chinese noodle shop located in a desert.

With The Evil Dead achieving cult status among horror fans, Sam Raimi captured the attention of Embassy Pictures which agreed to finance the script Raimi co-wrote with Joel and Ethan Coen. The filmmaking brothers felt at the time that Raimi should produce Crimewave (1985), also known as The XYZ Murders, independently. “We’ve always let Sam make those mistakes for us,” said Joel. “ ‘Sam’, we’ll tell him, ‘you go do a movie at a studio and tell us what happens.’” The black comedy about a young technician on the run from a pair of hired guns who becomes implicated in a series of slapstick killings, turned into a production and commercial fiasco. Bruce Campbell (Bubba Ho-tep), the original star of the picture, was bumped to a minor role while onset rumours circulated that lead actress Lousie Lasser (Requiem for a Dream) had a cocaine habit. “At the time we had no idea how good an experience Evil Dead was,” reflected Campbell. “Sure we burned off four years of our lives and didn’t pocket a cent, but we had total creative control. Jumping into the big time meant dealing with the excruciating specific and alternatively vague demands of a studio – unlike [the] Michigan dentists [who financed The Evil Dead], Hollywood executives took an interest in everything.”

With Blood Simple securing the Coens a distribution deal with Circle Films, the two siblings where able to maintain their independence as filmmakers for their sophomore effort. “With [Raising] Arizona we didn’t begin by thinking about diving into a genre,” stated Ethan in regards to the origins of the story which revolves around an infertile couple, played by Nicolas Cage (Leaving Las Vegas) and Holly Hunter (Thirteen), who kidnap a baby in an effort to start their own family. “We’d wanted to broadly make a comedy with two main characters. We concentrated on them, more than the movie in a general sense.” When it came to constructing the tale, Joel said, “The idea of kidnapping the baby was really secondary. We weren’t that interested either in the problem of sterility or the desire to have a child, but in the idea of a character who has that desire and at the same time feels outside the law. This conflict allowed us to develop the story, that aspiration of a stable family life, and at the same time a taste for unusual experiences.”

Raising ArizonaHandling the cinematography once again was Barry Sonnenfeld who has nothing but admiration for the storytelling abilities of Joel and Ethan. “Given any topic, they could write an excellent script. Topics are incredibly unimportant to them – it’s the structure and style and words. If you asked them for their priorities, they’ll tell you script, editing, coverage, and lighting.” Executive producer Jim Jacks (Hard Target) observed of the two moviemaking brothers, “You watch Ethan walk in a circle this way and Joel in a circle that way; each knows exactly where the other is and when they’ll meet. Then they go to Barry.”

Breaking into the Coens’ inner circle proved to be difficult for actor Nicolas Cage, who declared, “Joel and Ethan have a strong vision and I’ve learned how difficult it is for them to accept another artist’s vision. They have an autocratic nature.” Cage’s attempts to make a creative contribution did not go unnoticed. “Nic’s a really imaginative actor,” stated Joel. “He arrives with piles of ideas that we hadn’t thought about while writing the script, but his contribution is always in line with the character we’d imagined. He extrapolated from what was written. The same with Holly. Even if she surprised us less because we had her in mind when we wrote the part, and we’ve known her for a long time.” Future Oscar-winner Holly Hunter, said of the brothers, “Joel and Ethan function without their egos. Or maybe their egos are so big they’re completely secure with anybody who disagrees with them.”

“I remember a specific image which pleased us when we wrote the script: to see Holly in uniform hurling orders at the prisoners,” recalled Ethan. “It might appear secondary, but that image had great importance in setting the writing in motion.” Frances McDormand, who married Joel after the completion of the Coens’ cinematic debut, makes a cameo appearance in the film. “They love the performance part of their job,” said McDormand of her husband and brother-in-law, “like the minute you walk on the stage or the camera starts rolling. For them, the writing is one part of it, the budgeting and the preproduction another, but it’s all building toward the shoot. And then in postproduction, that’s when they get to lead the artistic life. They get to stay up late and get circles under their eyes and smoke too much and not eat enough and be focused entirely on creating something. And then it starts again.”

For the Coens, storytelling inspiration comes from the simple things in life. “Their favourite midtown lunch place is the counter at Woolworth’s,” explained Michael Miller (Ghost World) who edited Raising Arizona. “They go to hear dialogue that will find its way into a script. The opening of Blood Simple – many of those lines they’d overheard. Their attention is never more riveted than when they’re in the backseat of a taxi. I’ve seen Joel draw out taxi drivers in a way he doesn’t draw out his friends. Once, on the way home from the airport, the driver had a ball game on – the Mets were playing someone and it was in the heat of the pennant drive – and Joel said, ‘What’s the game?’ and the cab driver said, ‘Baseball, I think.’ They loved that.”

Raising Arizona Nicolas CageInserting the motorcyclist into the picture was the consequence of the Coens entering the mindset of ex-con Herbert “H.I.” McDunnough (Cage). “We tried to imagine a character who didn’t correspond specifically to our image of an “Evil One” or a nightmare become a reality, but rather to the image that Hi would have,” explained Joel. “Being from the Southwest, he’d see him in the form of a Hell’s Angel.” He went on to add, “There are people who find the conclusion too sentimental. Once again, that doesn’t reflect our attitude to life. For us it’s written in the context of the character, it fits his ideas about life, what he dreams about accomplishing in the future.”

Released in 1987, Raising Arizona was described by Caroline Westbrook in the British film magazine Empire as a “Hilarious, madcap comedy from the Coens brothers that demonstrates why they are the kings of quirk.” The picture received a more divided reception from American movie critics. Pauline Kael wrote in The New Yorker, “Raising Arizona is no big deal, but it has a rambunctious charm.” While Roger Ebert in the Chicago-Sun Times declared, “The basic idea of the movie is a good one and there are talented people in the cast, what we have here is a film shot down by its own forced and mannered style.”

Screened out of competition at the Cannes Film Festival, the picture which cost $6 million to make was not a commercial failure; it grossed $23 million in box office receipts.

Miller's CrossingMiller’s Crossing is really closer to film noir than to the gangster movie,” said Ethan Coen of the 1990 picture produced by the brothers. “The movie is a gangster story because it’s a genre we’re attracted to – a literary rather than a cinematic genre, by the way – but the conflicts of the characters, the morality have a more universal application.”

Tom Reagan (Gabriel Byrne), a confident of Prohibition-era Irish gangster and political boss Leo O’Bannon (Albert Finney), attempts to protect the brother (John Turturro) of his lover Verna Bernbaum (Marcia Gay Harden) from Italian mobster Johnny Caspar (Jon Polito); however, Reagan’s intervention sparks a gang war between Leo and Johnny.

“The starting point of the script was an image, or a series of images,” explained Joel as to the origin of the tale on which he collaborated over an eight month period with Ethan, “the desire to make a movie whose characters would be dressed in a certain way – the hats, the long coats – and would be placed in certain settings that were unusual for the genre: the countryside, the forest.” The director of the picture went to say, “In Miller’s Crossing the actors did not change a single word of the dialogue. We follow the script very faithfully, and a large number of the production elements are already included. That said, in the middle of the shooting we rewrote the whole second part of the script.”

Other changes were required such as in the area of casting the character of Leo O’Bannon. “The part had been written for Trey Wilson (A Soldier’s Story), who died just before the beginning of shooting,” revealed Joel. “We had to delay it for ten days. It just happened that [Albert] Finney (Murder on the Orient Express) was available and could commit himself for a few months. We didn’t rewrite the dialogue for him, but the result would undoubtedly have been very different with Trey.” Ethan did not regret the choice of the last minute replacement. “What’s strange is the part would never have been written without Trey in mind, whereas now it’s impossible for us to imagine any other actor than Finney in the Leo role.”

Selecting a famous Louisiana setting for the principal photography was a judgment made out of creative necessity by the Coens. “We had to shoot in the winter, and we didn’t want snow for the exterior shots, so we had to choose a Southern city,” remarked Joel. “New Orleans happens not to be very industrially developed and many districts have only slightly changed since the twenties.” Once filming commenced, another significant artistic decision was made. “We took care not to show the picturesque or tourist aspects of the city,” stated Ethan. “We didn’t want the audience to recognize New Orleans. In the story the city’s an anonymous one, the typical “corrupt town” of Hammett novels.”

Miller's Crossing Gabriel Byrne Marcia Gay HardenGabriel Byrne (The Usual Suspects) convinced the Coens to revise the role of Tom Reagan. “The characters are of Irish extraction, but their parts weren’t planned to be spoken with an accent,” recalled Joel. “When Gabriel read the script he thought it had a style, a rhythm that was authentically Irish, and he suggested trying the lines with his accent. We were skeptical at the start, but his reading convinced us. So Finney took on the accent too.” Responding to criticism that the story was too complicated to comprehend and that the manner in which Byrne spoke made him hard to understand, Joel replied, “It doesn’t really concern me if the audience sometimes loses the thread of the plot. It’s not important to understand who killed the Rugs Daniel character, for instance. It’s far more important to feel the relationships between the characters.”

As to the significance of the recurring dream Tom Reagan has of the hat blowing in the wind, Joel responded, “It’s an image that came to us, that we liked, and it just implanted itself. It’s a kind of practical guiding thread but there’s no need to look for deep meanings.” There is a sequence about which the two brothers talk enthusiastically: one of the two assassins sent to kill Leo loses control of his machine gun causing him to do an impromptu and fatal jitterbug to the strains of the traditional Irish ballad Danny Boy. “Thomson guns are not light guns,” said Joel. “It’s difficult to hold one while it’s firing and bucking, and also with the squibs going up your back.” Ethan was in agreement with his older brother’s comment. “It’s hard. You have to sell all that body language taking the bullet hits. What sells the hit is the dance.” Even with the logistical problems of the weapon constantly jamming, Joel remained engrossed in filming the macabre death scene. “You keep thinking of things you want to add to the scene. He shoots up the chandelier, the paintings, his toes. All kinds of fun things. It was lots of fun blowing the toes off. The only regret is that it goes by so fast, you almost kind of miss it. It’s a highlight.”

Unfortunately for the Coens, movie audiences failed to embrace the romantic onscreen chemistry of Gabriel Byrne and Marcia Gay Harden (Mystic River), and the wayward plotlines; the picture which cost $14 million to make earned $5 million in the box office receipts.

Questioned as to whether or not he and Ethan would consider producing someone else’s screenplay, Joel answered, “For us, creation really starts with the script in all its stages; the shooting is only the conclusion. It’d be very difficult for us to direct a script written by a third person.”

For their fourth cinematic effort, which became a critical sensation at the 1991 Cannes Film Festival, Joel and Ethan Coen turned to intimately familiar subject matter – screenwriting.

Scene from Miller’s Crossing:


Continue to part two.

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.

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