By Sven Mikulec
That is no country for old men. The young
In one another’s arms, birds in the trees
—Those dying generations—at their song,
The salmon-falls, the mackerel-crowded seas,
Fish, flesh, or fowl, commend all summer long
Whatever is begotten, born, and dies.
Caught in that sensual music all neglect
Monuments of unageing intellect.
William Butler Yeats, Sailing to Byzantium
One of the most distinguished American authors of the last hundred years, Cormac McCarthy sensed the times had changed. Perhaps not so much, or not at all, in the general sense: people have always had the tendency to look back at the past through a rather pink lens. “When I was growing up,” my grandma would start one of her standard lamentations on the unusualness and perversity of today’s youth, “it wasn’t normal for a young man to spend the night playing poker while his girlfriend is left all by herself.” Even though there were definitely plenty of people playing poker, shooting pool or doing stuff without their better halves a hundred years ago, it was a perfectly reasonable and true statement in my grandmother’s mind, as she felt that some kind of a shift that she wasn’t a part of occurred and the world she was familiar with was now different, changed, evolved without her presence or approval. Like so many old people, she felt ignored and discarded, her knowledge and wisdom disregarded. In Yeats’ words, as I was “caught in that sensual music” I neglected the “monument of unageing intellect.” The evil that McCarthy wrote about in his popular novel called No Country for Old Men—that of a ruthless, charismatic, mostly silent and unbelievably creepy killer who roams the desolate landscape of southern United States and chooses the direction of the blood trail he leaves behind simply by flipping a coin—is actually a universal story that didn’t have to be set in the 1980s: the same characters roamed the barren valleys and hilltops a thousand years ago. Their weapons might not have been so peculiar, their haircuts might not have been as silly, but the ruthlessness, brutality and disregard for human life is hardly a 20th-century invention.
Published in 2005, McCarthy’s novel is a greatly written story of an old sheriff trying to cope with the senseless evil he witnesses, and both the author and his audiences probably couldn’t have hoped for a better film adaptation that what the Coen brothers delivered two years later. When producer Scott Rudin bought the film rights and contacted Ethan and Joel Coen, they were just attempting to shoot an adaptation of James Dickey’s novel To the White Sea. Attracted to McCarthy’s book’s unusual approach and the affinity for playing around genre conventions, they soon joined the project. “There’s something about it—there were echoes in No Country for Old Men that were quite interesting for us,” said Joel Coen, explaining their reasoning behind choosing McCarthy’s novel for their first full adaptation. “Why not start with Cormac? Why not start with the best?” The brothers created a very faithful adaptation, translating McCarthy’s descriptions into breathtaking images, compressing the story and fitting it to screen, without inserting additional material. There is a palpable connection between the author’s narrative and the Coen brothers’ visual storytelling, and the fact the filmmakers limited dialogue and allowed the characters to present themselves to the viewers through their actions, moves, mannerisms and through strong actors capable of carrying out not the easiest of tasks, proved to be artistically the right decision. A co-production between Paramount and Miramax, the film was shot in 2006 in Texas and New Mexico, premiering in Cannes in 2007 and entering regular cinemas in November. Nominated for eight Academy Awards and winning half (best director, picture, supporting actor and adapted screenplay), No Country for Old Men was both a critical and commercial success, and rightfully earned its place on a huge majority of top ten lists of 2007.
The film also gave cinema lovers and top-lists enthusiasts one of the most unforgettable “villains” of all time in the body and dark soul of the highly efficient and unsentimental Chigurh, played brilliantly by Javier Bardem. Walking around with his funny hair, black eyes, undetermined exotic accent and that damned captive bolt pistol he introduced to the popular culture, Bardem’s Chigurh is the embodiment of senseless chaos and sinister forces. It is him and his actions that the good-natured, righteous local sheriff Ed Tom Bell cannot grasp: in Tommy Lee Jones’ weary eyes and resigned disposition lies the counterbalance to Chigurh’s complete disregard for laws and decency. Josh Brolin’s Llewelyn Moss, the largely decent welder whose moment of unreasonable and dim-witted greed pushes the story forward (and his life in chaos) is your everyday Joe who enters a race he cannot possibly win. The unrelenting game of cats and mice is what comprises the bulk of No Country for Old Men, as the sheriff fruitlessly tries to find both the killer and the hunted thief, while Chigurh and Moss square off in motels, hotel rooms, on the street, in several different states. But the three of them never share a scene together, with the tired sheriff always trying to catch up and always being a step behind and thus helplessly failing to make a difference. There is no ultimate showdown. There is no moment of satisfaction, no crowd-pleasing sequence of good finally trumping evil, not a trace of poetic justice. Why would there be? Poetic justice belongs to literature. No Country for Old Men is life, and the chaos and pure chance that constitute it in most cases.
When we’re talking about No Country for Old Men, we’re discussing sheer technical mastery: every shot storyboarded and executed to perfection, every subtle use of sound in an otherwise almost music-free movie carefully chosen and utilized to maximum effect, not a single sentence uttered by the characters fruitless or condescending. With their longtime collaborator Roger Deakins behind the cameras and old partner Carter Burwell here to deliver a subtle and discrete score, the Coen brothers were in complete control of the picture, especially considering they even edited it themselves under their Roderick Jaynes pseudonym. Their favorite sound designer Skip Lievsay handled the sound: just remember the slight screech of the light bulb seconds before the highly anticipated hotel room shootout scene, or the terrifying piercing sound of Chigurh’s weapon. Perfection and complete control over every aspect of creation.
Cormac McCarthy was supposedly satisfied with what the brothers did with his novel. We cannot speak in his name, nor in the name of audiences everywhere, but for us, No Country for Old Men remains definitely one of the best films of this century. Brilliant ingredients do not necessarily lead to a perfect meal, but in this case, it seems everything fell into its intended place. Formed upon a quality literary basis, highly violent, seducingly atmospheric, with beautiful visuals, great acting, a well-written script and several scenes that we couldn’t forget even if we wanted to—the painfully intense dialogue, for instance, between Chigurh and the naïve, simple-minded gas station owner baffled by what kind of an unexpected guests is standing before him—No Country for Old Men is a clear modern-day masterpiece of style, story and intellectual cinematic entertainment.
Screenwriter must-read: Joel Coen & Ethan Coen’s screenplay for No Country for Old Men [PDF1, PDF2]. (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.
“I was sheriff of this county when I was twenty-five years old. Hard to believe. My grandfather was a lawman; father too. Me and him was sheriffs at the same time; him up in Plano and me out here. I think he’s pretty proud of that. I know I was. Some of the old time sheriffs never even wore a gun. A lotta folks find that hard to believe. Jim Scarborough’d never carried one; that’s the younger Jim. Gaston Boykins wouldn’t wear one up in Comanche County. I always liked to hear about the oldtimers. Never missed a chance to do so. You can’t help but compare yourself against the oldtimers. Can’t help but wonder how they would have operated these times. There was this boy I sent to the ‘lectric chair at Huntsville Hill here a while back. My arrest and my testimony. He killt a fourteen-year-old girl. Papers said it was a crime of passion but he told me there wasn’t any passion to it. Told me that he’d been planning to kill somebody for about as long as he could remember. Said that if they turned him out he’d do it again. Said he knew he was going to hell. ‘Be there in about fifteen minutes.’ I don’t know what to make of that. I sure don’t. The crime you see now, it’s hard to even take its measure. It’s not that I’m afraid of it. I always knew you had to be willing to die to even do this job. But, I don’t want to push my chips forward and go out and meet something I don’t understand. A man would have to put his soul at hazard. He’d have to say, ‘O.K., I’ll be part of this world.’” —Sheriff Ed Tom Bell
Listen to the Coen Brothers break down how they adapted the crime thriller novel, No Country for Old Men by Cormac McCarthy, for the big screen.
Lessons from the Screenplay: No Country for Old Men—Don’t Underestimate the Audience.
Joel and Ethan Coen, Josh Brolin, and Javier Bardem discuss the making of No Country for Old Men.
ROGER DEAKINS CBE, ASC, BSC
Just a cameraman: an interview with Roger Deakins by Lynnea Chapman King.
Did you read the Cormac McCarthy novel prior to production? How did your reading of the text affect your perspective of the film?
I read the book before it was published. Joel told me they were adapting it and would, maybe, direct the film. I like Cormac McCarthy’s writing, and I was very keen to shoot anything that was based on his work and especially so with Joel and Ethan attached. I don’t know how that “changed my perspective” at all. The script is close to the book. The book certainly gave me ideas about the visuals, but when you are shooting a film it is the director who is most influential in the way you see something. It is first and foremost the director’s interpretation of a story you are helping bring to life.
To which of your previous projects, with Joel and Ethan Coen or otherwise, would you compare No Country?
They are all so different. No Country is a cautionary tale and in that way similar to Fargo, although that is the only real similarity. We were to do To the White Sea, based on the James Dickey novel, at one time, and that was closer, in many ways, than any film I have worked on with the brothers.
To many viewers, No Country seems to be a logical project for the Coens, very much in keeping with their previous films. To others, No Country is a complete departure, as it lacks the “quirky” elements present in many of their films. Do you see this film as a departure from their oeuvre or as a natural continuation?
Who would not want to make a film from such an interesting piece of writing? Who cares if it was a so called departure from their other films—their oeuvre, whatever that is. Who decides what their oeuvre is, by the way, marketers and advertising executives?
The Coens often make very stylized films that fit loosely into specific genres—mistaken identity caper, noir, gangster films—but No Country for Old Men is more challenging to classify, as viewers have characterized it alternately as a thriller, a crime drama, film noir, a Western… Is this challenge a result of a strategy as you filmed—a deliberate challenging of generic conventions?
I don’t see the problem. Marketers and advertising executives might want to characterize a film as one thing or another but I don’t see what that has to do with the film itself. A film is a film! In this case one that was based on a very well-regarded novel, which I’m sure those same people couldn’t categorize either. Sure, it was a blend of ideas about the Old West, the rise of violence in society, border drug dealing, and the search for any meaning to it all. That is the world Cormac was writing about.
In reference to the Western elements of the film, how would you characterize its cinematic heritage—were there particular Westerns that influenced your camera work as you approached the project?
I love many of the films of Sam Peckinpah. For myself, the script of No Country brought to mind Guns in the Afternoon, Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia, and Pat Garret and Billy the Kid. I love those films but I wouldn’t say they influenced my cinematography in any conscious way. I never thought of any other film or image whilst I was shooting No Country. There is never time to contemplate such things whilst in production. I don’t think films are made in such a cerebral way. Certainly not the films I have worked on. I just get on and shoot the script.
The landscape of No Country seems to be a character itself. Was this a conscious goal as you filmed, or do you think that this presence is inherent in the New Mexico and Texas locations themselves?
The setting or at least a visual interpretation it, whether it be a coal mine, a motel room, or a desert, is important to any film. The landscape that acts as a backdrop for No Country was no exception. Its presence is referred to by the characters who seemed very much a part of it and whose actions are in some way dictated by it. It is a recurrent image throughout the film but the environment that No Country is set in is about more than just the landscape. Probably, the bulk of the story takes place in motels, hotels, gas stations, and on the street, all of which were very evocatively described in the book. Joel and Ethan both had very clear ideas of the kind of environment they wanted for the film, and so we spent many days scouting that part of Texas described in the book, and locations, mainly in New Mexico, that were more realistic financially for us to use for the shoot. The landscape was very important to them and the look of the film was very consciously created by their choice of locations. We eventually shot for about six days out of Marfa in Texas so that we could establish a more distant horizon than that available to us from where we were based in Santa Fe.
The Coen brothers’ approach to storyboarding is well documented; were there any significant spontaneous moments you would like to share, instances in which the filming departed from the storyboards?
The storyboards are continually developed as we prep a film and usually incorporate what the locations have to offer by the time we get to shooting. There were some spontaneous changes to the storyboards based on the light and so on, but not many. Quite often we shoot fewer shots than are boarded as we see how one shot can work for more than might have been intended. We played a scene between the two sheriffs in a different shot to the ones boarded. It was raining that night and, partly to save time and because I liked the idea of the two profiles in silhouette, we shot the scene in the one angle against the rear wall of the coffee shop. I think that if and when something changes it is, most often, to connect or simplify the coverage.
The motel-room scene with Ed Tom and Chigurh invites multiple viewings and much speculation as to the literal, physical presence of Chigurh behind the door when Bell walks into the room. Would you care to comment as to your reading of this scene? Is the viewer to see Chigurh as the “ghost” Ed Tom references, or is there a more practical answer to this mystery?
I think the book is as elusive as the film on this point, but Chigurh is evil and, perhaps, the devil. Whether he’s something or someone who we ourselves have created or just a reflection of our own fears, we don’t know.
You stated in a 1995 interview that “if you could show people what life is like for their neighbors, it could only help change things for the better… That is what great filmmaking is—an exploration of ourselves.” Seeing ourselves in Bell or Moss is certainly possible for many viewers, but I wonder if you see Chigurh as an opportunity to explore ourselves as well?
I’m not sure that quote is strictly accurate. Of course film has the power to help break down prejudice and inform people. Certainly, I still believe that, and I believe most truly great films do explore the way we are as “human” beings in some way. Sadly, these films don’t seem to make money any more. To me, Chigurh represents the dark side of our nature, our basest fears and a loss of human decency. He is as much a part of the world we are creating as Moss. We live as individuals and by our own individual codes. Even Chigurh lives by a code. It’s one that most of us would be repelled by but it is a code nonetheless, and without a “God,” it is as justifiable as any other. Ed Tom has been waiting for God to come into his life to make sense of it all but he seems to realize that the concept of God and “goodness” is just a human creation, as is the devil, personified by Chigurh.
The entire quotation read: “If a film creates a world that you can go into as though it’s an entity to itself, you have succeeded. A successful film should create a feeling of place and time, and a sense of how the people in the story live their lives. I always thought that if you could show people what life is like for their neighbors, it could only help change things for the better. I still believe that. That is what great filmmaking is—an exploration of ourselves” (InCamera Magazine, Winter 1995). How would you characterize Chigurh’s code? Is his code his sense of fate or destiny or something else entirely?
The quote in the fuller version I would still agree with, but I wouldn’t say that Chigurh qualifies as one of the neighbors! Ed Tom might be our neighbor whilst Chigurh is really more of a symbolic figure. Chigurh might see the rest of humanity as being bound to their fate, but I’m not so sure he sees himself that way, even if the story implies that he is. Evil personified and bound by fate! What is a code anyway? A belief in God? The Law? Humanity? The toss of a coin? Who is to say which is more valid? That depends on the individuals beliefs in the first place. Can morality exist without religion? Dawkins says yes. Ed Tom is a moral character but he is beginning to have doubts. In losing his faith in the existence of God he is also losing faith in there being any guiding principal. Chigurh has a strong belief and a code he lives by, which to him is just as valid as one tied to the idea of morality, God, or goodness and that is chance—the toss of a coin.
You have commented on the voyeuristic nature of documentaries and the moral dilemmas which accompany that kind of filmmaking; does No Country strike you at all as voyeuristic, perhaps because of the rather graphic violence therein?
The two are in no way connected. As a documentary filmmaker you are often an intruder in other people’s lives and sometimes their misery. You take your trophies, in the form of your filmed images, and then you return to your own, and often more comfortable, life. There is an awkward moral dilemma attached to the work that needs to be considered. No Country certainly contains scenes of some very realistically staged fictional violence, but I wouldn’t say it was in any way gratuitous or voyeuristic. Without this violent depiction of evil there would not be the emotional “pay off” at the end of the film when Ed Tom bemoans the fact that God has not entered his life.
You’ve cited cinematographers such as Conrad Hall as influences on your work; do you also have literary influences? Are there current directors or cinematographers that you find influential to you?
Influences? I don’t know. I loved Conrad Hall’s work and I loved him as a person. Did he influence me? Probably, but in what way I don’t know. He inspired me for sure because of who he was as a person. Directors? Writers? I love the work of Cormac, of course. I tend to read history and science books more than fiction, but I have read most of the novels of Bradbury, Philip K. Dick, J. G. Ballard, Malamud, Kafka, Camus, Melville, Coetze, Richard Morgan, Marquez, Le Carré, Naipaul, William Boyd, Russell Banks, Patrick White, Walter Tevis, Theroux, Conrad, Joyce, Mailer, Koestler, Matthieson, Ian McEwan, and so on. Have they influenced me? No more or less than anything else my senses come up against. I don’t see how you can make a direct connection. I watch other films. Do I copy them? No! Do I think about any of them when I am working? Almost never! It’s chicken and egg. I love reading those writer’s work because of who I am, but I am who I am because I read those writer’s books, see the photographs of Bresson, Salgado, Mayne, McCullen, Riboud, Lartigue, Ray-Jones, Kudelka, and so on; the paintings of Munch; the films of Huston, Peckinpah, and Melville; the landscape of Devon, the Southern Ocean, Africa, people and cities, and so on; had a father who… And then there is genetics!
Projects on which you have worked seem to bear your signature, in terms of visual language, even before the credits appear on the screen. How would you characterize this “signature”? Can you describe your own techniques or style of cinematography that contribute to the look of your films?
If I have a signature, as you say, the word for it would be simplicity. I like to help tell a story without distracting the audience and without any superfluous camera “style.” There is always a temptation to create dramatic visuals because there is so much technology out there today to help you do just that. But why? If you have a good script you may just be distracting the audience instead of drawing them in to the film.
How would you characterize No Country within the context of your larger body of work?
That is a question for Joel and Ethan—and good luck with it!!! I’m just a cameraman.
Deakins’s style is indeed distinct, and even in films he shoots with different directors, his fingerprints are evident: the warmth of light in an internal nighttime shot in The Village is very similar to that of the scene in which Professor G. H. Dorr, played by Tom Hanks, reads aloud Poe’s “To Helen”; the camera movement in an external shot of Jessie James, walking through tall, golden grass in The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford is immediately identifiable as the work of the same cinematographer who shot the prison yard scenes in The Shawshank Redemption. In speaking about the Coens’ storyboarding, Deakins notes his contributions to shooting the film, input that arguably impacts the viewer’s interpretation of the narrative, “connect[ing] or simplify[ing] the coverage,” offering his vision for a setup, lighting the shot—decisions that help to create a film that is clearly a part of the Roger Deakins oeuvre. Perhaps his role as “just a cameraman” speaks more to his humility than to his ability, both of which are considerable.
Cinematographer Roger Deakins talks with NPR’s Melissa Block about one of his favorite scenes from the movie No Country for Old Men. See the full story on npr.org.
“You read the script, if you’re attracted by the script, then whomever it is you need to know that you’re going to connect with the person you’re working with. You need to view the material in a similar way. With the Coen Brothers it’s interesting because there is very little shot that isn’t used. We don’t shoot very much in terms of raw footage at all. Very few extras set-ups. It’s so well worked out. They’re so precise in knowing what they want. Their scripts are so visual, the way they are written. So much comes from that. How do you say where the cinematography ends and the production design takes over? And how can you go wrong if you’re shooting a close-up of Tommy Lee Jones? You know what I mean? It’s a wonderfully powerful image. The dialogue he’s speaking and the performance he gave, you don’t really have to do much, you know.” —Roger Deakins
Roger Deakins in Cinematographer Style: “Lenses are really important to me,” after which we get an in-depth discussion on working with the Coen Brothers and how to shoot with the audience in mind. A great conversationalist, how can one not listen to this man speak about film?
Roger Deakins discusses his collaborations with the Coen brothers and other films he’s worked on.
Team Deakins podcast is an ongoing conversation between acclaimed cinematographer Roger Deakins and James Deakins, his collaborator, about cinematography, the film business and whatever other questions are submitted.
Here’s the episode you’ve all been waiting for! Team Deakins sits down with long time collaborator, director Joel Coen. A great conversation that covers aspects of their experiences together as well as the importance of collaboration and letting go of defensiveness. Of course we talk about storyboards and their place in the process as well as the power of editing. We talk about the importance of casting and the way he works with actors. As well as the fact that not having a large budget can be a blessing. Joel is an incredible filmmaker and it’s amazing to hear him speak on the craft of making films. Be sure not to miss this one!
Team Deakins sits down with long time friend, actor Josh Brolin. We learned so much from him—how going into law is similar to being an actor (who knew?) and how acting is like golf (learned something new!). He also tells us how his interest in human behavior drew him to acting and he shares the very funny story of his audition for No Country for Old Men. He speaks of his experiences working with the Coen Brothers. He also goes into how he relates with the camera crew, his prep for films and how he uses instagram as a platform for his prose. And that’s only a part of what we talked about! Don’t miss it!
Team Deakins has the tables turned on them! Cinematographer Greig Fraser and actor Josh Brolin ask the questions in this episode. We covered a lot about the movie and looked in detail at seven scenes in the movie. The conversation also went in some unplanned areas—we learned, among other things, how Greig hates the script slug line “evening”, what it was like working with Kelly McDonald, how important trust is when working on a film, and what the experience of shooting No Country for Old Men was like for Josh. Happy accidents, our favorite scene in the film, and the relationship between actor and DP were also talked about. And much, much more! There is a companion PDF for this episode that lists the clips we discussed and when they appear in the film. Don’t miss this special episode—there’s a lot in it.
Below is a lighting plan from No Country for Old Men.
“Ohio artist J. Todd Anderson took his talent for drawing to Hollywood and, as a storyboard artist, became part of the award-winning Coen Brothers movie-making team, creating the storyboards for such movies as Raising Arizona and No Country for Old Men. J. Todd Anderson modestly describes himself as ‘a guy who draws for the movies,’ but because the movies include almost all of the Coen Brothers’ renowned films—including No Country for Old Men, which won the 2008 Academy Award for Best Picture—his job as storyboard artist is considerably more prestigious than that. ‘It’s a real practical application of drawing skills,’ he goes on to say, explaining that although most of today’s movies use storyboards only for important scenes, Ethan and Joel Coen like to storyboard everything, which means that Anderson creates as many as 1,000 drawings for one movie.” —Beyond Drawing Basics: Drawing Storyboards for the Coen Brothers Movies
Take a 6-minute speed course storyboarding with Coen Brothers’ storyboard artist J. Todd Anderson.
The making of No Country for Old Men.
“A piece featuring additional cast and crew interview snippets and behind-the-scenes footage. Directed & produced by Josh Brolin. We find comments from Joel and Ethan Coen, Jones, Bardem, Graf, Brolin, Macdonald, production supervisor Karen Getchell, associate producer Dave Diliberto and actor Woody Harrelson. It’s actually a funny tongue-in-cheek mockumentary. From the film’s collector’s edition Blu-ray bonus features.”
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.
An excellent video essay that illustrates how two of Coen brothers’ films parallel and diverge from each other in the portrayals of their law(wo)men.
Deakins: Shadows In The Valley—a wonderful tribute to Roger Deakins’ stellar work by Plot Point Productions.
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. 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. 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!
A documentary about the Coen Brothers, with contributions from many of their collaborators, including Holly Hunter, John Turturro, Jeff Bridges, William H Macy, Barry Sonnenfeld, Peter Stormare. From 10th September 2000.
Here are several photos taken behind-the-scenes during production of Joel Coen & Ethan Coen’s No Country for Old Men. Photographed by Richard Foreman Jr. © Paramount Vantage, Miramax, Scott Rudin Productions, Mike Zoss Productions. Cormac McCarthy and Joel Coen & Ethan Coen photographed by Eric Ogden. Intended for editorial use only. All material for educational and noncommercial purposes only.
We’re running out of money and patience with being underfunded. If you find Cinephilia & Beyond useful and inspiring, please consider making a small donation. Your generosity preserves film knowledge for future generations. To donate, please visit our donation page, or donate directly below:
Get Cinephilia & Beyond in your inbox by signing in