By Sven Mikulec
The filmmaking debut of the Coen brothers, Blood Simple, is a blood-soaked neo-noir thriller set in Texas and characterized by unexpected humor, colorful characters, solid acting and a viciously packed, audacious storyline that seems to enjoy toying with the viewer’s expectations to shocking effect. Considering the fact that it was Joel and Ethan’s first project, no one knew what exactly to expect, which definitely made the impact of the film resonate even stronger. But to get their chance to shine, the brothers needed to be patient. They knew what kind of a movie they wanted to make, but at the same time they were fully conscious of the fact they would hardly be able to sell it since they wanted to be the ones who actually make it. The Coens decided to make a promotional, proof of concept trailer, a two-minute presentation of the film’s main ideas that could be used as a selling point. They estimated $1.5 million would be enough and in one year of door-to-door donation raising, the budget was secured. It’s interesting to note that they were greatly inspired by Sam Raimi, who resorted to the same method of securing funds for his The Evil Dead project and convinced the Coens this was the way to go. If you look closely at the trailer, which also features Raimi’s The Evil Dead star Bruce Campbell, it’s easy to notice that the Coens have indeed studied Raimi’s breakthrough film. Having raised the necessary amount, the Coens went into production and made Blood Simple in the course of eight weeks during the fall of 1982. Another year was spent in post-production, and the film premiered at the USA Film Festival in Dallas and at Sundance, where it won the Grand Jury Prize. The box office results were modest, but more than satisfactory considering the project’s budget, while the critics greeted it warmly. Roger Ebert immediately noted “the high energy and intensity we associate with young filmmakers determined to make an impression.” And what an impression it was, for the Coen brothers made their introduction with a bang so impressive that it would propel them into creating one of the most interesting and entertaining bodies of work the contemporary American cinema had the pleasure of witnessing.
Starring John Getz, M. Emmet Walsh, Dan Hedaya and introducing Frances McDormand, Joel Coen’s wife, in her feature film debut, Blood Simple was also the debut of cinematographer Barry Sonnenfeld, who would later have an impressive directorial career of his own, as well as composer Carter Burwell, who would continue to work with the Coens, providing scores for most of their films. After Blood Simple, he too became a popular commodity in the filmmaking community. The editing was also done by the Coens under the pseudonym of Roderick Jaynes. The reason why Blood Simple is still so respected and considered by most an extraordinary filmmaking debut is that Joel and Ethan Coen’s first movie echoes the themes, motifs and the principle of filmmaking that they would continue to exhibit to this day. The themes of passion and violence, revenge and betrayal; nuanced, morally grey characters we’re unable to label as either good or bad; the heavy reliance on powerful imagery; sparse, to-the-point dialogue with lots of dark humor.
Blood Simple introduced their style and modus operandi to the world, establishing the filmmakers as a fresh force to be reckoned with. The fact that they made the film without the opportunistic help of some big Hollywood financier perhaps shouldn’t influence us at all in the process of evaluating the quality of the film, but the tireless door-to-door screenings of the fake trailer that eventually allowed them to fulfill their dream somehow makes the story more mythic. The Coens had the ambition, vision, technical quality and inspiration to start off their journey on their own two feet, following only their own rules, a courageous defiance to American studios that would have potentially transformed their envisioned movie into an easily digestible, low-quality pop-corn flick had they been given the chance. A true gem of independent filmmaking, Blood Simple is still a delight to go back to every once in a while, especially to observe to what degree the Coens remained faithful to the postulates they established with this debut.
Screenwriter must-read: Joel & Ethan Coen’s screenplay for Blood Simple [PDF]. (NOTE: For educational and research purposes only). The DVD/Blu-ray of the film is available from the Criterion Collection and other online retailers. Absolutely our highest recommendation.
Watch a fake trailer made by the Coen Brothers and starring Bruce Campbell which was shot to entice investors to contribute to their debut film Blood Simple. New 4k restoration from Janus Films opens July 1st at Film Forum in New York City and then expands to theaters across the country. The following is an excerpt from the book My First Movie edited by Stephen Lowenstein.
Joel Coen: (To make Blood Simple) we followed the example of Sam Raimi. Sam had done this trailer, almost like a full-length version of The Evil Dead, but on Super 8. He raised like sixty or ninety thousand dollars that way, essentially by taking it around to people’s homes to find investors. He financed the movie using a common thing people making exploitation movies had used, which was a limited partnership… So Sam, also told us how to set that up and we did that in conjunction with a lawyer here and then went out and shot a two-minute trailer in 35mm… The trailer emphasized the action, the blood and guts in the movie. It was very short. We had a very effective soundtrack, which was cheap to do. And we schlepped that around for about a year to people’s homes and projected it in their living rooms and then got them to give us money to make the movie… If you call people up and you say ‘Can you give me ten minutes so I can present an opportunity to invest in a movie?’, they’re going to say, ‘No I don’t need this,’ and hang up the phone. But it’s slightly different if you call up and say, ‘Can I come over and take ten minutes and show you a piece of film?’ All of a sudden that intrigues them and gets your foot in the door. That’s something Sam made up wise to which was invaluable in terms of being able to raise the kind of money we were trying to raise… I think there ended up being about sixty-five investors in the movie, most of them in five or ten thousand increments. I think sixty to seventy per cent of them were from Minneapolis.
Ethan Coen: The good thing about Minneapolis is those horrible phone calls you have to make to people you don’t know—you’ve just got their names from whoever. They’re too polite to hang up.
Joel Coen: That’s absolutely true. In New York, they’d just go, ‘yeah, yeah,’ and hang up; because the dangerous thing with any salesman is to keep talking to them. (Laughs.)
Sent on a publicity tour to promote their first film Blood Simple, the Coen Brothers discuss James M. Cain, claustrophobic filmmaking and their hopes (or lack thereof) for the future.
What the Coen brother’s first film teaches us about their style.
This article originally appeared in the April 1998 issue of Venice Magazine.
So how did Blood Simple come about?
Ethan: Having written these things, especially for Sam, and going through the process of watching people raise the money for their own movies, starting with very limited, or no experience, as we had, in production… we figured, if they can do it, why not us?
Joel: And we’d been writing together, so we thought we’d write something that theoretically we could do for a low enough budget that we could go out and raise the money for ourselves. And Sam was very helpful in terms of he’d sort of gone about setting up a legal entity in order to raise it, what you had to do…
Ethan: And some people aren’t very forthcoming with that sort of information and want to treat it as a sort of trade secret, but Sam was really generous in terms of giving us all the benefit of his experience.
Joel: Yeah, he was an early mentor of ours in terms of showing us how to get something off the ground.
How difficult was that first one? Was it a major hurdle?
Joel: Very difficult. It’s a very frustrating process raising money that way, especially in the economic climate at the time… It took about a year to finally raise the money. To be honest with you, it was the last time we had any real trouble getting money for a movie. —The Coen Brothers: The Hollywood Interview
Blood Simple was also the debut of composer Carter Burwell, who would continue to work with the Coens, providing scores for most of their films.
In 1983 I was playing music with Stanton Miranda in a group called Thick Pigeon and Skip Lievsay, a friend and sound effects editor, asked if I’d be interested in writing music for a film. With no experience and no demo tape, I went to the editing room and met Joel and Ethan Coen, who showed me a reel of Blood Simple. I had never seen a rough cut of a feature film before and to my eyes it looked very rough. What would later seem to be deliberate pacing just seemed slow at the time. And I wasn’t sure if the bits I was laughing at were supposed to be funny.
That day I started working on a few musical ideas, “on spec” as they say, to show how I’d approach the film. I was director of the Digital Sound department at the New York Institute of Technology and I used their Synclavier along with my piano at home and some basic tape techniques to develop a handful of sketches which I brought back to the Coens a few days later. We listened through. They liked the repetitive hypnotic melodies, some of which used manipulations of industrial sounds or field recordings of chain gangs played backwards. They left me with “don’t call us we’ll call you” and I left for Manchester, England, to record an album with Thick Pigeon and two members of New Order, Steve Morris and Gillian Gilbert. The LP, Too Crazy Cowboys was released by Factory Records (and reviewed as “a walk through the civilisation of your soul”).
Toward the end of my stay in Manchester I got a message that the Coens were trying to reach me. They wanted me to score their film. This was very nice news, but I only had a few weeks before I had to leave for Tokyo where I had a job doing animation for the film Lensman, so I rushed back to New York. Neither the Coens nor I knew how to synchronize the recording of music to picture (SMPTE time code synchronization was a new and crufty piece of technology), so we did it all very roughly, mostly with a stopwatch, a familiar tool from animation.
We went with the same melodies I’d come up with right after seeing that one reel of the film, and that experience has given me a lot of respect for my first impressions. Those sketches were fairly electronic in tone but as I rehearsed we saw that solo piano had an interesting effect on the picture. It added a warmth and poignancy that drew us to the characters, and which made the psychological torture of those characters all the more excruciating for the viewer—and satisfying for us.
So although our plan was to work with synthesizers (we rented one of the first Yamaha DX7’s in New York) and samplers (Emulator) and a few other instruments (my friends Miranda and Steve Bray did some playing), in the end we stripped most of the score back to a very spare arrangement which mirrored the look of the Texas landscape.
The day after we finished mixing I left for Japan for a few months. After my return I went to a screening of Blood Simple. I really liked the movie but I was taken aback by the changes to the music. Joel, who had worked as a film editor before making this movie, had cut the music to the picture with a freedom that, shall we say, amazed me.
Ethan was quite honest in telling me not to expect the film to be distributed. but eventually it was shown at the Toronto and New York Film Festivals, and Circle Films picked it up for US distribution. I saw it at the New York Film Festival and the audience watched it with silent concentration as befits a work of art. I saw it some months later at a midnight show at the Waverly Theater and the audience was howling with laughter all the way through. Context is everything.
Years later the Coens told me that after our initial meeting they continued to interview composers, ranging from newcomers like myself who had the virtue of being cheap, to established names like Jan Hammer, who at the time was composing the music for Michael Mann’s TV show Miami Vice and who, good German that he is, wore shorts, socks and sandals to the interview and began by handing them his contract and asking them to sign it. They also told me that they did actually hire two musicians before me to score the picture. After receiving some very electronic music the Coens began to doubt that was the right direction. The composers opined that the Coens were squares. Then they reported that their work had been lost, and Joel and Ethan took the opportunity to beg off. At least this is the story I’ve been told. I guess that’s why I ended up with three weeks to write and record the score.
I didn’t plan to do another film score after Blood Simple, but a year or so later Tony Perkins sent me the message that he’d liked the score and he wanted me to work on Psycho III. Soon after that Joel and Ethan were making Raising Arizona, and I found myself with less and less time to do anything else. —Carter Burwell’s Notes
Joel Coen, Ethan Coen, and cinematographer Barry Sonnenfeld recall how and where various sequences from Blood Simple were shot and some specific ideas about the film’s visual design before and during the shooting process.
Photographer Grant Delin created a video that compares scenes from the film to their original storyboards, with commentary by Joel and Ethan Coen, cinematographer Barry Sonnenfeld, and actor Frances McDormand.
The 2013 The Art of the Score discussion hosted by Alec Baldwin and featuring the Coen brothers plus their long time composer Carter Burwell. A great meeting of the minds which dares to examine film music from a psychological perspective. Highly entertaining and worth every minute.
On 13 December 2007, Joel and Ethan Coen came to BAFTA in London to talk to Mark Kermode about their diverse career in filmmaking. In the full video, available to watch on BAFTA Guru, the brothers talk about their influences, their favourite films and the process of working together, before taking questions from a lively and engaged audience.
An ongoing film journal by filmmaker Cameron Beyl: Murder & Mania is the first installment of The Directors Series’ examination into the films and careers of directors Joel and Ethan Coen, covering their pair of independent debut features set in the American southwest.
MASTERCLASS WITH JOEL AND ETHAN COEN
From Scorsese and Lynch to Wenders and Godard, interviews with twenty of the world’s greatest directors on how they make films—and why. Each great filmmaker has a secret method to his moviemaking—but each of them is different. In Moviemakers’ Master Class, Laurent Tirard talks to twenty of today’s most important filmmakers to get to the core of each director’s approach to film, exploring the filmmaker’s vision as well as his technique, while allowing each man to speak in his own voice. Martin Scorsese likes setting up each shot very precisely ahead of time—so that he has the opportunity to change it all if he sees the need. Lars von Trier, on the other hand, refuses to think about a shot until the actual moment of filming. And Bernardo Bertolucci tries to dream his shots the night before; if that doesn’t work, he roams the set alone with a viewfinder, imagining the scene before the actors and crew join him. In these interviews—which originally appeared in the French film magazine Studio and are being published here in English for the first time—enhanced by exceptional photographs of the directors at work, Laurent Tirard has succeeded in finding out what makes each filmmaker—and his films—so extraordinary, shedding light on both the process and the people behind great moviemaking. Among the other filmmakers included are Woody Allen, Tim Burton, Pedro Almodovar, Joel and Ethan Coen, Jean-Pierre Jeunet, Wong Kar-Wai and John Woo. We can’t recommend this book enough and consider it required reading for all aspiring filmmakers. You may purchase it from Amazon or Book Depository. It is also available at Barnes&Noble, as an ebook and in paperback. The following is an excerpt.
Joel: Teaching is not something we’ve ever really considered. There is a selfish reason for that—it would take too much of our time and prevent us from working on our projects—but also a more pragmatic one, which is that we would probably have no idea what to tell the students. We’re not the most articulate filmmakers around, mostly when it comes to explaining what we do and how we do it. Sometimes we go to film schools, show one of our films, and answer some of the questions the students might have. But they tend to be very specific questions, which rarely have to do with the craft itself. Most of the time, really, film students are looking for advice on how to raise money.
Ethan: I guess one way to teach could be to show films. Though, once again, our tastes are not what you might call classical. In fact, most of the films we love and that have inspired us are obscure movies that most people consider terrible. I remember when we worked with Nicolas Cage on Raising Arizona, we talked about his uncle, Francis Ford Coppola, and told him that Finian’s Rainbow, which hardly anyone has ever seen, was one of our favorite films. He told his uncle, who I think has considered us deranged ever since. So anyway, if we did show these kinds of films in a classroom, it might get a good laugh but might not necessarily teach anyone how to make a good film. Though I guess getting exposed to different kinds of filmmaking, and becoming more open-minded about cinema, is one of the advantages of going to film school.
Joel: The other advantage of film school is that it does give you some experience in dealing with the chaos of the set. It’s all on a much smaller scale, of course. You’re dealing with crews of five to ten people, budgets of a few hundred dollars. But the general sense of how things work, and the dynamic you have to deal with in terms of people and time, and even money, isn’t that much different.
Ethan: Joel went to film school, but I didn’t. I learned the basics, the nuts and bolts of how a film gets made, by working as an assistant editor and then, eventually, as an editor. And I think that’s actually a very good way to learn because going through all this raw material lets you see firsthand the way a director took a script and broke it down. You get to see what good coverage is and what bad coverage is. You see all the shots that are useless, and you understand why. Also, it gives you a good idea of what actors do. You see the raw material and you see them do take after take after take, and you can observe how they evolve. In my view, it really is the best learning experience you can have. Short of actually making a film, of course.
Ethan: I’m tempted to say that the biggest lesson we learned about filmmaking is that there is no net, which is a line from David Mamet’s Speed-the-Plow. But I guess the main lesson is that you have to remain flexible. You have to remain open-minded and accept that sometimes you can’t get what you want. You can’t be too married to your own ideas. Well… that’s not quite true: there has to be a sort of central idea that you’re after, that you’re aware of and that you don’t let circumstances distract you from. And there is a danger, actually, of letting yourself be seduced from the original idea that got you interested in the movie. And there is often a lot of pressure to alter your ideas because something is going to be too difficult to achieve, logistically or financially… And you have to know when to resist that.
Joel: That’s true, making movies is a balancing act. On the one hand, you need to be open to new ideas if the reality of the situation requires it and not rigidly try to reproduce your original ideas. But on the other hand, you must have enough confidence in your own ideas so that you’re not changing in response to any sort of exterior exigency that will want to make you push the movie one way or another. But there are no lessons, really, no rules that you can rely on. It’s always a fluid situation where you have to kind of use your instincts.
Ethan: Since we’re controlling the film pretty much from beginning to end, it’s easy to keep on doing what we want to do. However, reality always remains an obstacle. You get to the set and a scene doesn’t work the way you planned it, or the light doesn’t look like what you wanted… And the fact that we do our own thing makes everything we want even more specific and precise. So circumstances are even more likely to not give us what we want.
Joel: It’s hard to say where our original desire comes from, whether it’s the writing or the images. Our interest is in stories, that’s certain. We like telling stories. But we don’t see the writing as the best form to do that. It’s just a step. We really think in terms of images.
Ethan: The main difference for us between the writing and the directing is that we’re willing to write for other people but we wouldn’t direct a script that has been written by somebody else. Part of it comes from a purely pragmatic point of view: writing a script takes a few weeks, sometimes a few months. Directing a film can take up to two years of our lives. So it better be worth it!
Joel: Also, writing for other people is an interesting exercise. It gives you an opportunity to work on material that is interesting but that you wouldn’t consider filming yourselves. It’s a way to experiment in a relatively safe way. We don’t even mind getting rewrite notes from studios, whereas we would never accept it on one of our own films. Because when you write for hire, it becomes a problem-solving game. And we have fun doing it.
Ethan: When we work on our own films, however, we really try to shut out outside points of view. And we don’t test much, we don’t show work in progress, because we find that you can get really conflicting information from that process. The major thing you’re concerned about, really, is clarity. And that’s a hard thing to determine by yourself. It’s really like looking at two color cards and asking yourself, “Does this one work better than the other?” rather than showing it to a bunch of people and asking, “Which do you like better?” Of course, you’re not really making the film for yourself; you’re always making it for some audience, but it’s a very generic audience for us. It’s kind of an abstract audience. When we’re on the set making decisions, we’re always wondering whether a scene works or not, whether it’s going to play or not, and really, we’re wondering that in regard to the audience, not for us specifically. But it has to work for us too. In fact, it has to work for us first, I guess!
Joel: When we start writing a script, we don’t necessarily know what it’s about, or what form it’s going to take, or where it’s going to go, and it comes to life little by little. It’s true with the movie too, but in a slightly different way. With us, the finished movie probably resembles the script more than with most directors, mainly because we tend to shoot the script and not revise it extensively in production. But on the other hand, there are so many subtle changes, every day, that the movie really becomes different at the end from what you originally had in mind. Everything has kind of shifted, and you usually can’t even remember what your original vision was.
Ethan: Filmmaking has its own grammar, just as literature does. Everybody knows what basic coverage should be, and just because you have some kind of idiosyncratic ideas that might work even though they’re breaking the rules, the fact remains that there are rules that are there and that work. There is such a thing as a conventional way to cover a scene. A good director knows what the most basic way to cover is, and I guess most will try to go for that. But of course, following the rules does not guarantee that the film will work. That would be too easy.
Joel: We usually storyboard most of the shots. But when we get on the set in the morning, we start by rehearsing with the actors. We walk around the set with them a lot, and usually they sort of figure out the best blocking among themselves, depending on what is most comfortable or most interesting. After that, we go to the director of photography and decide, from what we’ve seen of the acting, how much we want to stick to the storyboard or not. And most of the time, we’ll ignore it because the blocking of the scene makes the storyboard academic.
Ethan: We know pretty much exactly how we want to shoot each scene. Sometimes exactly, and usually at least roughly. How much we actually cover depends on a lot of things. We frequently shoot scenes—especially in our most recent movies, and particularly in Fargo—that have no coverage at all because they’re done in one shot. And in other scenes we do so much coverage that we look at each other at the end of the day like we’re a couple of morons who’ve never made movies!
Joel: I guess we tend to cover more at the beginning of the film, because it’s usually been a long time and we’re a little nervous and afraid. And then, as we get back into the rhythm, we become more confident.
Ethan: We’re not particularly purist about anything technical. We’re ready to try anything. Although, in terms of lenses, we probably tend to use wider lenses than most directors. That’s always been true. One of the reasons for that is that we love moving the camera, and wide lenses make the moves much more dynamic. And they give a longer depth of field. On the other hand, the longer lenses tend to be more flattering to actors, and though I know it is a concern to most directors, I have to confess it’s never really been the case for us. Our new director of photography, Roger Deakins, whom we’ve been working with since Barton Fink, is slowly trying to change that. I don’t think he had ever used a wider lens than a 25-millimeter before working with us. And I don’t think we’d ever used anything longer than a 40-millimeter, which most people already consider pretty wide.
Joel: The two films we probably experimented the most on were Blood Simple and Barton Fink. Blood Simple, because it was the first one and so everything had the virtue of novelty. And to tell the truth, we weren’t quite sure what we were doing. Barton Fink, because it is the most stylized film we’ve made and also because it faced us with the question, How do you make a film about a guy in a room, pretty much, and still make it interesting and compelling? It was a real challenge. But The Hudsucker Proxy was also an experiment in extreme artificiality, and Fargo was an experiment in a sort of extreme reality—which was a fake reality, because it was as stylized as the other ones. Compared to all that, the films we’re making today are not real adventures. Not that we don’t like the way they look, but they’re all stuff we’ve done before, pretty much.
Joel: Neither of us has any acting background; we sort of came to filmmaking from the technical end or the writing end, as opposed to someone who comes from the theater and has experience working with actors. So we hadn’t worked with professional actors when we made our first film, and I remember that we had very specific notions of what a line should sound like, or how a reading should be done. But as you get a little more experienced and start having a little more fun with it, you realize that you have one idea and it may not be the best idea. And that’s what you hire the actors to do, to improve on your conception—not just to mimic it but to expand it, to create something of their own which you couldn’t have imagined yourself.
Ethan: Working with actors is really a two-way system. And the director doesn’t tell them what to do as much as explain to them what he wants so that the actors can adapt to that, to help them out. Because you’re not there to teach them how to act. You’re there to give them what makes them comfortable, to give them the kinds of things they’re looking for from you. Sometimes they’ll want to talk a lot around what you’re doing but not specifically about it. Or sometimes it’s just “Tell me where to stand and how fast to talk.” So it’s a question of getting a feeling in the first few days of what their process is, to be sensitive about that. And maybe that means to stay out of their way.
Joel: Actors like to work in all different kind of ways. No question about that. But the really easy actors to work with from a visual point of view are the ones who have their own ideas, which may not conform to how you imagine a scene being blocked or may not fit into what your visual plan was for the scene. But they tell you what their ideas are. And they’re also sensitive to a certain extent to what you’re trying to do visually. Jeff Bridges, for instance, is very much like that. He’ll adapt his ideas to your vision. He has his own thing, but he can work it around to compromise with your ideas.
Ethan: Of course, casting is important. And you have to be open to surprises. Sometimes you cast someone obvious, and sometimes you have to take a risk to get something more interesting. For instance, Miller’s Crossing wasn’t written for an Irishman. But Gabriel Byrne came in and said he thought it would sound pretty good with an Irish accent. And I know I was thinking, “Yeah, right.” But then he did it, and we realized it did sound pretty good. And so we changed the part. Same with William H. Macy for Fargo. We had in mind the total opposite: someone kind of fat and a little schleppy. But Bill came in and made us totally reimagine the character. That’s why we often like to see actors read, even if we know their work, because that kind of thing does happen.
Joel: Once we’ve cast and have started working on the set, though, we’re not too open to surprises anymore. We don’t like to let actors improvise, for instance. That isn’t to say that actors don’t sometimes rewrite lines or come up with their own lines, but that’s different from improvisation. The only time we do actual improvisation is during rehearsals, to bring certain things out, but that usually doesn’t affect the scene itself. What we’ll usually do is ask the actors to invent the parts of the scene that aren’t written, the five minutes that take place before and after the scene. We find that it helps them get into the scene better. Jeff Bridges and John Goodman liked to do that a lot on The Big Lebowski. And sometimes it was very funny. Actually, sometimes it was even better than what we wrote!
The brothers, who are varying involved in the directing, screenwriting, producing and editing aspects of their films, are no strangers to BAFTA attention. Their 1996 film Fargo picked up the award for Best Director and was nominated for the screenplay and editing awards. 2000’s O Brother, Where Art Thou? attracted a Best Adapted Screenplay nomination, and the pair took home a Best Film award in 2008 for No Country for Old Men. Most recently, at the 2011 Film Awards, True Grit was nominated in 8 categories.
Here are several photos taken behind-the-scenes during production of Joel & Ethan Coen’s Blood Simple. Photographed by Blaine Pennington © MGM, River Road Productions, Foxton Entertainment. Courtesy of Getty Images, Gracenote. Intended for editorial use only. All material for educational and noncommercial purposes only.
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