By Tim Pelan
After the success of Raising Arizona, Joel and Ethan Coen were given the chance to do something a little more ambitious, with a budget of somewhere between $11 million and $15 million. They settled for a labyrinthine period gangster film loosely based on Dashiell Hammett’s The Glass Key, with elements from the author’s Red Harvest thrown in for good measure. Gangster movies of the 1930s were a secondary template, films Ethan referred to as “dirty town movies.” The first image that cemented in their heads was that of “big guys in overcoats in the woods—the incongruity of urban gangsters in a forest setting.” Perhaps not surprisingly, they took a while to get past this and shelved Miller’s Crossing for two months whilst they wrote Barton Fink, ironically the tale of a screenwriter with writer’s block.
In the opening scene of Miller’s Crossing, before the recurring dream motif of Tom’s hat blowing through the titular wood to Carter Burwell’s gorgeous Irish tinged theme and the title reveal, Johnny Caspar (Jon Polito), a mob boss ball of repressed fury, “negotiates” with his nominal superior Leo O’Bannon (Albert Finney) and his right hand Tom Reagan (Gabriel Byrne). Here is demonstrated the other recurring motif of doublespeak and rich underworld slang—tipping off on an already rigged fight goes against Caspar’s “ethics.” But Leo’s not the lead, Tom is, and he doesn’t even speak until after five minutes. He moves through the office to stand silently behind his boss as Leo turns to gauge his opinion on the matter of Casper’s demand to rub out Bernie Bernbaum (John Turturro) for the aforementioned ethical divergence. The script describes his response as “an almost imperceptible shrug.” Tom silently expresses surprise as Leo turns Casper down—Bernie pays Leo protection. He’s also the brother of his mistress, Verna (Marcia Gay Harden), who we later find out Tom is also seeing. Tom’s first words as Caspar and his menacing right hand Eddie Dane (J.E. Freeman) leave are, “Bad play, Leo.” Tom’s loyalty, despite his personal treachery, is both his strength and weakness. “Nobody knows anybody,” he tells Verma, obliquely also referring to himself. “Not that well.”
“When I read that script, I was just like anybody I think who read it, just really impressed by how visual and literate and how complex those relationships in the story actually were,” Gabriel Byrne recalled. “When you unravel what that movie is about, it’s even more audacious that someone could base a storyline on that single conversation between Steve Buscemi’s character and mine at the bottom of the staircase. All the twists and turns, the betrayals… There were certainly Machiavellian traits in the character and as much as the film is about gangsters, it’s also a film about big business and about the nature of morality. I think when the film came out it was really underrated. There’s laugh-out-loud moments in that movie, whereas on paper, it didn’t necessarily read that way. When Albert Finney turns around says ‘They took his hair, Tommy. They took his hair!’ And of course, we’d just seen the kid run off with the guy’s rug in the earlier scene. I asked the Coens what their inspiration was to write the film, and I forget whether it was Joel or Ethan who said to me: ‘You always see gangsters in the street, but you never see them in a forest.’ I just thought that was so brilliant. Plus, there’s so much amazing imagery: the hat floating by the camera through the forest, which is one of the most original images in film history.”
The Coens were persuaded by Byrne to let him play Tom with his natural accent, which works for the story—he’s an outsider, an observer and a mover through muddied loyalties (Leo’s an Irish American mobster, Casper’s Italian American, Bernie and Verna are Jewish—amongst the other slang, period epithets fly thick and fast). He won’t allow Leo to pay off his mounting gambling debts to Lazarre. His loyalty can’t be bought, partly because of his self-disgust at cheating on him with his girl. More “ethics” or simply a man who thinks if he plays the long game all will right itself in the end? “He’s the quintessential Hammett guy,” says Joel. “You’re not let in on how much he knows and what exactly he’s up to. He tests the other characters to see what they want and uses that to his advantage.”
Tom’s convinced a losing streak has to end at some point of its own accord. David Thomson reflects that “There are some who find Miller’s Crossing too clever by half, but I think that misses how far the Gabriel Byrne character recognizes the curse of intelligence that hangs over him and the duty it imposes—of always being driven to nose out the cons of others, while hoping that his own subterfuges are going unnoticed. It’s kill or be killed (although Tom’s a long time reluctant to get his hands dirty) and the air of life is smartness. Take it or leave it.”
All of the main characters are betting on chance, and the shifting tectonic power plates of mobster rule echo societal power-grab politics and backroom deals. At one point, Tom enters Leo’s office to find him powwowing with the Mayor and Police Chief, a scene mirrored later when Tom finds the same pair sitting with Caspar, recently installed as town boss. The heightened Depression-era setting makes it clear why everyone is most interested in self-preservation. It’s why Verna gravitates towards Leo as a way of protecting her brother, Bernie, and why Tom is eager to cast off Bernie because he correctly notes Casper’s tired of always “gettin’ the high hat,” and wants more. Tom keeps things close to his chest, or under his hat, so no-one ever quite knows what he’s thinking. While Tom is playing both sides off each other, he questions the parlous state of his own soul, or heart. But if he can just keep his hat on his head, he’s one step ahead. “Look into your heart!” the manipulative weasel Bernie begs of him for his life at two different points in the story. Depending on what has transpired in the overarching rumpus, he gets a different (and final, on the second occasion!) answer from Tom each time.
Byrne also recommended “Limerick’s Lamentation,” to the Coens, the traditional Irish song from which Burwell built his score. “Gabriel gave us a whole list of stuff,” Joel said. “The tone and feeling of the music seemed really appropriate to the movie—the melancholy feeling that it has.” It also works as a counterpoint to the humorous undertone of the rat-a-tat lingo and wisecracks that sidle up to you just as someone gets an almighty whack to the face (or “one in the brain”). Even the Dane has murderous, mordant humor—“It ain’t elves,” he cracks, when there’s some dispute over who’s responsible for the fixes.
The film, for all its convolutions, hinges on three love triangles—Leo, Tom and Verna; Tom, Verna and Bernie (it’s implied the siblings sleep together); and between Mink (Steve Buscemi, who appears in one scene only, given the role because he could speak the shifty lines faster than anyone else), the Dane and Bernie. After he’s been cast out by Leo, Tom sows seeds of mistrust in Casper to the Dane’s disgust that Mink (“The Dane’s boy”) is in league with Bernie to rip him off. It’s part of his masterplan to save the thick-headed Leo from himself, and his stubborn pride. Casper too is torn by his own self-imposed rules. The Dane knows in his black heart that Tom is fixing to double-cross, but Casper is conflicted. “Ya double-cross once, where does it all end?” he muses. “An interesting ethical dilemma.”
Barry Sonnenfeld’s camera work is classical and stately in style, the better to not distract from the complex rhythms of the dialogue. “Never Pan. It is boring. I never let the Coen brothers pan,” was one of his rules. Miller’s Crossing is set in an unspecified American city circa 1929, and the Coens specifically chose New Orleans for its untouched Jazz age architecture. From the production notes: “The pre-planning for Miller’s Crossing began with four single-spaced pages of location descriptions written by the Coens to communicate to their early collaborators the precise look, feel and camera needs of each location in the film. (The most laconic was the description of Verna’s place: ‘Modest one-bedroom apartment, large living room. Verna doesn’t care where she lives, and neither do we.’)” “The 1.85:1 aspect ratio frame is filled with evocative lighting, moody contrast, and natural colors that draw from a tobacco palette of earth tones (The Directors Series). Being a film with Irish protagonists, the color green is extremely prominent throughout (appearing in the opening titles, wall sconces, desk lamps, etc.).” The Coens referenced several films throughout Miller’s Crossing. The opening scene with Johnny Caspar and Leo evokes the beginning of The Godfather, as another smaller man pleads for intervention from the powerful boss behind the shadowed desk. The climactic forest scene references Bernardo Bertolucci’s The Conformist, and the final funeral of Bernie, as a disgusted Verna takes the car and leaves Leo in the lurch, reflects the ending of The Third Man.
Leo’s home, which is the scene of a spectacularly composed nighttime attack by a pair of hitmen, was put together out of four separate locations, including Northline, a street in the Old Metairie section of town where the filmmakers blew up a car, and two constructed sets. The screenplay sets the scene: “Leo—stretched out on his bed, wearing a robe over his pajamas, smoking a cigar, listening—but only to the phonograph. Its sound covers any other noise in the house.” This sequence was broken down in Premiere magazine. “As the sequence begins, we see Leo’s just-slain bodyguard, his cigarette setting his newspaper on fire. Leo doesn’t hear the approaching gunmen over the strains of ‘Danny Boy’… But the sight of smoke (through the cracks of the floor) alerts him. Leo dives under the bed, and the gunmen are shown from his point of view. (This was shot on a stage built 3 feet off the ground, so Finney’s character would be even with the camera lens). “We put squibs on Leo’s mattress,” says Joel. “Feathers were shot from an air gun. This shot we did twice.” Leo escapes to another room, jumps from a window to the ground, and pumps bullets into the back of a gunman. “The guy from behind is Jerry Hewitt, the stunt coordinator,” says Joel. “To hold the gun while it’s firing, with squibs going up your back, is hard.” “It was a lot of fun blowing the toes off,” says Joel. Adds Ethan: “What sells the hit is the dance—shown in a 22-cut sequence.”
This scene was always going to be cut and perfectly timed to the song. The screenplay states, “Faintly, from another room in the house, we can hear a phonograph playing John McCormack singing ‘Danny Boy’.” To emulate the incomparable McCormack the Coens recruited Frank Patterson, known as ‘Ireland’s Golden Tenor’. They directed Patterson’s performance to be precisely timed with the events on screen, even if the rapid progress of the flames and Leo’s bottomless drum of bullets stretches credibility. From IMDb: “In the scene where Leo uses the Thompson sub-machine gun he should have had to reload at least 6 times. Assuming the gun is a 1928 model the rate of fire is 700 rounds per minute and has a 100 round can of ammunition. The gangster walks into the bedroom and fires for 5 seconds for a total of 58 shots fired, Leo takes his gun and fires at the window for 20 seconds for 233 shots fired, then Leo fires at the car for about 20 more seconds for another 233 shots fired. That is a total of 524 shots fired from one Thompson with no reload.”
“Albert was really cool,” says Ethan. “He had to back up, hit his mark, and aim as the cartridges would eject.” According to Ethan, Finney became a neighborhood favorite. “After each take, they would applaud Albert, and Albert did a real elaborate curtsy in his robe and PJ’s.”
Finney was actually a last-minute replacement for the actor originally envisioned for Leo, American Trey Wilson, who’d appeared in Raising Arizona. Shortly before filming began, however, Wilson dropped dead at age 40 from a cerebral hemorrhage, and Finney found himself packing a bag for New Orleans. Mike Scott elaborates further on the night they raided Old Metairie:
Harden at the time remembered Finney as a leader of the production’s ‘party contingent’ while in New Orleans. She would know: she, too, was part of that after-hours crew. “The first thing he bought was a guide to restaurants, and he was always saying, ‘Look, darling, here’s another one we should try,’” Harden told The Times-Picayune at the film’s premiere. He dined at Brigtsen’s. He was a frequent patron of The Bistro, where Chef Susan Spicer worked at the time. He, Byrne and other members of the cast reportedly took in a performance of Spud McConnell’s one-man show “Kingfish” at the Toulouse Cabaret Theater. And nearly every Sunday, which was his day off from filming, found Finney at the Fair Grounds, where he happily indulged in one of his off-camera passions: horse racing.
(“Here I am, the son of a bookmaker, trying to pick a winner, and there she is picking a $36 winner in her first try,” Finney playfully groused on one such Sunday after one of his guests got lucky at the track.) He had so much fun in town that even after his scenes were completed, he stuck around to contribute a cameo to Miller’s Crossing—donning a dress to play a female attendant in a women’s washroom.
With such a great script and polished production, no wonder he stuck around. To paraphrase Terry McGill to Byrne’s Tom, “The Coens are still artists with a typewriter.”
Tim Pelan was born in 1968, the year of ‘2001: A Space Odyssey’ (possibly his favorite film), ‘Planet of the Apes,’ ‘The Night of the Living Dead’ and ‘Barbarella.’ That also made him the perfect age for when ‘Star Wars’ came out. Some would say this explains a lot. Read more »
After a film noir and a madcap comedy, the Coen brothers were again, according to Ethan, making ‘a conscious effort not to repeat ourselves’ when they undertook the writing of ‘Miller’s Crossing.’ They started from a genre they wanted to do, the gangster film, and an image: ‘Big guys in overcoats in the woods—the incongruity of urban gangsters in a forest setting.’ ‘We weren’t thinking so much of gangster pictures,’ adds Joel, ‘just novels.’ And while their first film had been inspired by the plot-driven pulp fiction of James M. Cain, for this one they turned to Dashiell Hammett: ‘He took the genre,’ Joel explains, ‘and used it to tell a story that was interesting about people and other things besides just the plot. In Hammett, the plot is like a big jigsaw puzzle that can be seen in the background. It may make some internal sense, but the momentum of the characters is more important.’ —Miller’s Crossing production notes
Screenwriter must-read: Joel and Ethan Coen’s screenplay for Miller’s Crossing [PDF]. (NOTE: For educational and research purposes only). The DVD/Blu-ray of the film is available at Amazon and other online retailers. Absolutely our highest recommendation.
A Hat Blown by the Wind, From Positif, February 1991.
One of your actors, questioned about your collaboration on the set, explained that: “In reality, Joel is the director—and Ethan too!”
JOEL COEN: That’s true, we codirect. The division of labor suggested by the credits is pretty arbitrary.
Are there sometimes conflicts between you two during shooting about the best method of directing?
ETHAN COEN: No, we write the scene together, we imagine it the same way. Everything happens in the most straightforward way.
Do you make any changes during shooting to the script, and do you let the actors themselves improvise or provide changes?
JOEL: In Miller’s Crossing the actors didn’t change one 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 shooting we rewrote the whole second part of the script.
Do you think that situation of two directors can sometimes unsettle the actors?
JOEL: I don’t think so. Like Ethan said, we’re generally agreed on the type of interpretation we want. We didn’t have any surprises on the set because we had a lot of rehearsals beforehand. When we auditioned the main actors, they read not just one scene or two but the whole script.
Albert Finney is a last-minute choice…
JOEL: The part had been written for Trey Wilson, who died just before the beginning of shooting. We had to delay it for ten days. It just happened that Finney 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: What’s strange is that 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.
Who had the idea of making Finney and Gabriel Byrne speak with a strong Irish accent?
JOEL: The characters are of Irish extraction, but their parts weren’t planned to be spoken with an accent. 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 sceptical at the start, but his reading convinced us. So Finney took on the accent too.
The film is out at the same time as other gangster movies.
JOEL: It’s a coincidence. It’s very different from the others, in any case from Scorsese’s Goodfellas, the only one I’ve seen. I love it but the story and the style are completely different, like day and night.
ETHAN: When they describe all those movies as gangster movies, it suggests a wider community that doesn’t really exist. It’s the type of situation journalists like to exploit, because they always try to identify fashions, trends. It makes good copy but doesn’t mean a lot. Anyway, Miller’s Crossing is really closer to film noir than to the gangster movie.
The film unfolds in New Orleans, a city one doesn’t usually associate with the genre. What dictated your choice?
JOEL: We had to shoot in winter, and we didn’t want snow for the exterior shots, so we had to choose a Southern city. New Orleans happens not to be very industrially developed and many districts have only slightly changed since the twenties.
ETHAN: We took care not to show the picturesque or tourist aspects of the city. We didn’t want the audience to recognize New Orleans. In the story the city’s an anonymous one, the typical “corrupted town” of Hammett novels.
In your interviews you always give the impression that you avoid the issue when asked about the symbolism of the images, the motivation of the characters, the social implications of the film, etc.
ETHAN: Apparently, nobody wants to be satisfied with the movie, as if they absolutely need explanations beyond the images, the story itself. That always surprises me. But if you don’t comply, journalists get the impression that you’re hiding something from them.
In his New York Times review Vincent Canby complains that Gabriel Byrne is often hard to understand and also complains about the obscurities of the film: some characters are only names in the dialogue and what happens to them is not clear. Are you sensitive to that kind of criticism?
JOEL: Not really. It doesn’t really concern me if the audience sometimes loses the thread of the plot. It’s not that important to understand who killed the Rug Daniels character, for instance. It’s far more important to feel the relationships between the characters. The question of intelligibility concerns me more, but, until now, I haven’t received any bad reactions concerning that.
The relationships between characters are rather obscure: Leo and Tom, for instance. It’s a friendship that degenerates into rivalry.
JOEL: Because of Verna’s character. It’s the heterosexual triangle of the movie.
You spoke in your press conference about a homosexual triangle—Bernie, Mink, Dane—balancing the other one. The homosexuality of those three characters is scarcely evident (except perhaps for Bernie) and their relationships even less. How important is that triangle?
JOEL: It’s difficult to say what made us think of it. It’s not very important, it’s a pretty minor point but it’s somehow satisfying to us, a kind of symmetry or counterpoint maybe. It introduces a certain variety, and the process seems legitimate to us insofar as we don’t do violence to the story or the characters.
Tom, the hero, cheats, lies, and manipulates throughout the entire film. Does he nevertheless have ethics?
JOEL: Yes, I think there’s a certain purity in his intentions, but it manifests itself in a very twisted way. He has principles that are in conflict with themselves.
ETHAN: It’s everybody’s problem, in fact. 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.
What got you started, a theme, the idea of a character, or an element of the plot?
JOEL: Certainly not a theme. In reality the starting point of the script was an image, or a series of images, the desire to make a movie whose characters would be dressed in a certain way—the hats, the long coatsand would be placed in certain settings that were unusual for the genre: the countryside, the forest…
The hat is more than an accessory in the film, it’s a recurrent theme as soon as the credits start, with that hat blown by the wind in the forest. What is the significance?
JOEL: Everybody asks us questions about that hat, and there isn’t any answer really. It’s not a symbol, it doesn’t have any particular meaning…
ETHAN: The hat doesn’t “represent” anything, it’s just a hat blown by the wind.
JOEL: 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.
In a sense, Tom himself puts us on our guard against interpretation when he recounts his dream: he specifies that the hat doesn’t change into something else, it stays a hat.
ETHAN: Sure, you can take it like that. Verna wants to give a meaning to Tom’s dream, and it’s gratuitous. Tom remains objective.
How long did you take to write the script?
JOEL: Much longer than for the two previous movies. All in all, eight months more or less, but we stopped to write the script of the next one, which took two months.
Would you contemplate shooting somebody else’s script?
ETHAN: No, I don’t think so, we’ve grown so used to working like this since the beginning. 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.
You’ve changed designers for Miller’s Crossing.
JOEL: We like to work with the same collaborators, but Jane Musky, the designer of our first two movies, wasn’t available. David Gassner, who worked with Coppola, helped us a great deal in the choice of colors. The colors are more controlled than in the previous movies.
ETHAN: David had the idea for the building columns, to have the architecture reflecting the trees in the forest … He was our designer again for the movie we just shot, Barton Fink.
What is Gabriel Byrne’s musical contribution?
JOEL: He suggested a certain number of traditional Irish songs. We’d already decided to use “Danny Boy,” but the other song, on which Carter Burwell based the main theme, is an old ballad suggested by Gabriel.
What relationship do you have with Circle Films?
ETHAN: As you know, it’s the independent distribution company which distributed Blood Simple and which later produced Raising Arizona. Fox contributed to Raising Arizona‘s budget and were the distributors, as they are for Miller’s Crossing and the next one, Barton Fink, but our relationship with Circle remains the same. Ben Barenholtz as a distributor has always been interested in independent cinema, American and foreign, he’s always taken risks. We’re on the same wavelength.
Gabriel Byrne on Miller’s Crossing.
When I read that script, I was just like anybody I think who read it, just really impressed by how visual and literate and how complex those relationships in the story actually were. When you unravel what that movie is about, it’s even more audacious that someone could base a storyline on that single conversation between Steve Buscemi’s character and mine at the bottom of the staircase. All the twists and turns, the betrayals… There were certainly Machiavellian traits in the character and as much as the film is about gangsters, it’s also a film about big business and about the nature of morality. I think when the film came out it was really underrated. There’s laugh out loud moments in that movie, whereas on paper, it didn’t necessarily read that way. When Albert Finney turns around says ‘They took his hair, Tommy. They took his hair!’ (laughs) And of course, we’d just seen the kid run off with the guy’s rug in the earlier scene. I asked the Coens what their inspiration was to write the film, and I forget whether it was Joel or Ethan who said to me: ‘You always see gangsters in the street, but you never see them in a forest.’ I just thought that was so brilliant. Plus, there’s so much amazing imagery: the hat floating by the camera through the forest, which is one of the most original images in film history.
John Turturro on Miller’s Crossing.
The big “look into your heart” scene in the woods. How many takes was that?
I don’t remember how many takes. I just know it was 13 degrees, that’s all. It was really cold. You know, it was a long time ago. It was a hard scene. Sometimes you think about movies, and you say, “Well, I want to try to do something that’s not exactly in a movie.” If you’ve ever been in a very dangerous situation, you know that people will do all kinds of things to keep themselves alive. It was very well-written, but you want to imagine what it’s really like to be in that kind of situation. It depends on what you’re willing to do, and in real life you would do a lot of different things. I tried to capture a little bit of that. I had a couple close encounters throughout my life before that, and you store that stuff in the back of your mind. It’s how you do it, but it’s what they choose and how they put it together too. But that was my goal when I did that, was to do something that was almost a little difficult to watch, because people aren’t trying to be heroic at those moments.
When you first came across that scene in the screenplay, was it obvious to you that it would be so central and important to the movie? They even used it for the poster.
I guess maybe, but not completely. I kind of knew it was important, and they kept telling me it was. But you don’t want to put too much pressure on yourself, because then it’s like going to bed with somebody the first time or something. You’re like, “Oh God, I got to be great.” [Laughs.] You just don’t want to put too much pressure on yourself. I just thought about it in the context of the story, that’s it. Because you can overthink something, too. It all felt really good when they did it, but it was hard to do. —John Turturro
“I only did the first three movies with them. Ethan and Joel directed together and were on set together for every shot. Ethan did not speak to the actors though. I always knew when I lined up a shot who to choose to look through the camera to get the shot I actually wanted. Ethan always liked wider shots and Joel always chose the tighter shots.” Before shooting each movie the Coen brothers and Sonnenfeld had a ritual. They would watch Dr. Strangelove and The Conformist. I thought he was kidding, “No… we watched both movies… We didn’t learn anything from the movies we just really liked them and felt like we were doing research and taking the process seriously.” Sonnenfeld admits that is not quite true, “When we shot Blood Simple the lighting in the movie The Conformist influenced us. The screen in the woods in Miller’s Crossing with Gabriel Byrne was homage to The Conformist.” —Barry Sonnenfeld: How I do what I do
As my first orchestral score, ‘Miller’s Crossing’ required learning many new skills. One, of course, was how to write orchestral music. I had no training in this, and studied orchestral scores while Joel and Ethan were shooting the film, including Max Steiner for the classic Hollywood sound of the 1930s. And I was introduced to Sonny Kompanek, an orchestrator, who effectively became my orchestration teacher. Another skill was how to hire an orchestra. Asking around, we were introduced to the legendary Emile Charlap, the man who contracted essentially all the orchestral recording dates in New York City. Another was how to record an orchestra. We were introduced to Mike Farrow, who had recently transitioned from being a commercial pilot to an music recording mixer. We ended up working together for another 30 years. And lastly—what is a music editor? They have a multi-faceted job that’s hard to define in a single sentence. In 1990 they typically took notes of the spotting sessions, provided timing notes to the composer, made sure the recordings were in accord with those notes, and then placed and edited the music mixes into the film. I was introduced to Todd Kasow, and as with Mike Farrow we continued to work together for decades. —Carter Burwell
The strangest part was that Joel and Ethan came to me and said they wanted an orchestral score—they knew perfectly well that I had no experience writing orchestral music or any experience in classical music at all. So it was amazing—it still is amazing—to me that they wanted me to do it. Maybe it was out of loyalty, I don’t know. My wife thinks it’s because they don’t like meeting new people! So while they were shooting I was studying orchestral music, just trying to get some grounding in orchestration. I remember watching a rough edit and without any music to it the film is really cold and brutal. Gabriel Byrne is constantly getting beaten up and hit in the head, and you can’t always figure out why he’s doing what he’s doing. So I suggested trying to do something warmer with the music, to suggest that Gabriel Byrne’s character actually has some love for Albert Finney’s character and that any betrayal is motivated by love. They didn’t seem to like that idea. So I asked if they wanted something with a little more mystery, that was harder or colder and then they just said, ‘How about neutral?’ As a composer you are usually one of the last people hired; Joel and Ethan had lived with the film for years at this point, so to have someone come in and say, ‘I’ve got a new idea that’s probably going to change the film in some fundamental way,’… it’s hard as a filmmaker to be open to suggestions like that. That said, when I actually played them my idea they got it immediately, but I’ve now appreciated since then that it’s difficult for filmmakers to bring their film to a composer and keep an open mind about what they might do. —Carter Burwell on writing the soundtrack to the Coen brothers’ career
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.
The Directors Series’ half-hour video that dives into three of the Coens’ most appreciated works, Miller’s Crossing, Barton Fink, and The Hudsucker Proxy. Written, edited and narrated by Cameron Beyl.
The Film Society of Lincoln Center held an hour-long discussion between Joel and Ethan Coen and fellow filmmaker Noah Baumbach. Some of the topics covered include how the Coens open their movies, their use of voice-over, how they use misdirection, and how their films compare to Baumbach’s. The interview is also worth watching because the Coens rarely speak about the films and instead prefer to let them stand on their own. People continue to speculate on the symbolism of the hat in Miller’s Crossing.
Here are several photos taken behind-the-scenes during production of the Coen brothers’ Miller’s Crossing. Photographed by Patti Perret © Circle Films, Twentieth Century Fox. Intended for editorial use only. All material for educational and noncommercial purposes only.
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