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The Minnesota Years
He [Ethan] always knew what he wanted and insisted on it. He would never eat any green vegetables, so we made a deal with him. 'We'll start eating vegetables next year.' He'd say, 'OK,' and when next year rolled around, we didn't get any compliance.
In the increasingly commercialised world of American Independent film-making, it appears ever more important for the American auteur to corner a geographical niche. Be it Kevin Smith's New Jersey, Hal Hartley's Long Island or Barry Levinson's Baltimore, locale is as much a character as its fictional inhabitants. Such directors — almost limpet-like in their attachment to their environment — only flourish in their comfort zone, which permits growth and refinement of their world view. Moreover, staking a cinematic claim on your home turf differentiates you from the next Sundance hopeful. Aside from allowing us to ponder just how dependent such artists are on their creative milieu, this cinematic device for self-expression can pigeon-hole a director as much as filming a genre picture.
This is no criticism, more a cautionary note from one who fears limitations go hand-in-hand with such restrictive definitions. After all, if such a reliance on territory affords interesting work, so be it. The Coens, in line with the adept nature with which they tackle a variety of genre, have willingly avoided this pitfall. Using their birthplace of Minnesota only once (in Fargo), their filmshave found homes in a number of American States. Never arbitrarily chosen, their locations speak on behalf of the characters; ironically, people who, more often than not, are inextricably linked to their homeland. The barren nature of the eponymous State in Raising Arizona, for example, reflects Ed's infertility; the heat of Texas in Blood Simple is symbolic of the moral inferno that the characters find themselves in. In saying that, a snowbound, suburban upbringing has left its mark on the Coen brothers. For example, the fascination with regional dialects — particularly clear in the three aforementioned so-called 'Hayseed' films — has grown out of living among such types. But, it must be said, the Coens' unnerving accuracy for writing appropriate colloquial dialogue stems more from their sponge-like observational skills than their loyalty to their world. What follows is a brief account of this world in its initial years, leading up to when Joel would begin work for new-found friend Sam Raimi on Evil Dead. More an overview than an exhaustive biographical account, its aim is to indicate just what effect their upbringing has had on their work.
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Born in 1954 and 1957 respectively, Joel and Ethan grew up in St Louis Park, Minnesota, a Jewish Minneapolis suburb that the Coens would later offer their lawn-mowing services to, in order that they might fund their early film-making efforts. Cineastes from an early age, Joel and Ethan — who have an older sister, Debbie, now a doctor in Israel — were fed a familiar diet of pop culture by their parents, Edward and Rena. Their father, an economics professor at the University of Minnesota, and their mother, an art history lecturer at St Cloud State University, permitted an eclectic array of stimuli to enter the Coen household. Doris Day would jostle with Preston Sturges and Aristotle for the boys' attention, although Joel recalls his family hardly encouraging high-minded pursuits. "My mother once wrote an article 'How To Take Children to an Art Museum', but I don't recall her ever taking us." Such a catholic range of influences (O Brother, Where Art Thou? is a Homeric Blues movie, for example) left an indelible impression on their film-making
Raised on wooden epics shown on the Mel Jass' Matinee Movie slot, they would watch what Ethan called "muscle movies", such as Hercules Unchained. "It was to compensate for the fact that our lives were incredibly mundane," said Joel. "We grew up in a typically middle class family in the United States' equivalent of Siberia. All that cold weather drives you inside to watch movies. I kid with my father that he's living in the closed city of Gorky's. Bob Dylan got out of there at an early age and you can see why."
The pair began to make films when Joel was just eight. Orchestrating the mowing scheme with neighbour Ron Neter, the boys collected enough money to buy a Vivitar camera and stock As documented by friend William Preston Robertson, the pair began early forays into film-making by placing the camera in front of the TV set, filming Raymond Burr jungle movies. They acquired an early penchant for reworking classic films, a trait that would stay with them. The brothers tackled Otto Preminger's political melodrama Advise and Consent as well as Cornel Wilde's bloodthirsty jungle adventure The Naked Prey. This was re-titled Zeimers in Zambezi, which saw their friend Mark Zimmering (aka Zeimers) play the Wilde role. Ethan, with spear and Buddy Holly glasses, played the native. "We had all the neighbourhood kids chasing each other through the bushes," he recalls, lamenting the fact that he didn't get to play Wilde. Ed ... a Dog a reworking of Lassie Come Home, saw him wear his sister's tutu to play mother to Zeimer, who finds a dog and asks to keep it, much to his parents' dismay. Called the "pinnacle of the Coen's Super 8 years" by Robertson, The Banana Film was "shot in Godardian hand-held cinema verité", originally to be viewed while Frank Zappa's Hot Rats album played along. They also wrote Coast to Coast in this time, a screenplay that saw the Red Chinese clone Einstein 28 times
But instead of developing an unhealthy attachment to the apron strings, the Coens wanted to move further afield. "I wanted to get as far away as possible as fast as possible," said Joel. An average student in high school, he went to Simon's Rock, a private college in the Berkshires of Massachusetts, before plumping to study film at New York University "because it had a late application deadline — I missed all the others". There he stayed for four years in what was an academic career he considered undistinguished: "I was a cipher there; I sat in the back of the room with an insane grin on my face."
Subsidised at college by his parents, Joel directed his thesis film, Soundings, there. The plot — which sees a woman making love to her deaf boyfriend while verbally fantasising about his buddy next door — bore the twisted hallmarks of later collaborations with Ethan. On graduating, he "chased a woman" to the University of Texas graduate film school. He lasted only one semester, before quitting to return to New York to take on the role of a production assistant (PA) He was hired by future cinematographer Barry Sonnenfeld, who he had first met at during his time as NYU. Sonnenfeld, who later called him "the world's worst PA", was himself a fledgling Director of Photography (DoP), with a number of corporate movies under his belt for the likes of The Wall Street Journal, Sony, Avon and Pepsi Cola Marketing. As Sonnenfeld recalled, "Joel received three parking tickets, arrived late on set and set fire to the smoke machine." Without Ethan, his 'second head', it would seem that Joel, by this time, lanky, dark-haired and pony-tailed, was lost. Known for their highly disciplined approach to the process of film-making, it would seem that Joel needs Ethan like Ethan needs Joel.
Sonnenfeld was born in New York City in 1953. Like the Coens, his parents were Jewish raising him an only child in the lower-middle class district of Washington Heights. After graduating from New York University with a degree in political science, he took a job as a darkroom lab technician in Manhattan, developing slides for medical journals. There he learnt the basics of photography, but found the job unfulfilling. Returning to NYU to enrol in the Graduate Institute of Film and Television, he shot the award-winning feature A Better Place. Completing his course in 1978, his first professional assignment was the Oscar-nominated 1982 water pollution documentary In Our Water. Not unlike Paul Verhoeven, Sonnenfeld reportedly began his career directing porn films, once shooting nine feature-length pornos in one nine-day marathon. On a less lurid note, he shot for CBS' 60 Minutes, plus commercials for MTV and Polaroid.
He remembers his first meeting with Joel: "We met the first time at a party. For some reason there were a lot of rich people there. Joel and I attracted each other, and we talked about Wim Wenders' The American Friend (1977), which had just come out in the cinema the week before. We both loved the film; the visual style, the camera work, from Robby Müller, in a way everything. I bought a 16mm camera, after I finished at film school. At the time, I thought that if I owned a camera, I could call myself a cameraman. Then I met Joel, and he convinced me to do the trailer to Blood Simple. He wanted to pay me $25 a day for four days. Joel and Ethan Coen had written the script to Blood Simple, but the money was missing to shoot the film. We wanted to get the money together with the help of the trailer. In the four days, and with a few days preparation, I taught Ethan what a Gaffer had to do. We practically worked for nothing and became friends. We shot the trailer without performers. We held the camera on the bullet-holes, and put a little music and sound-effects on afterwards. I helped them to get the film on its feet. We showed the trailer to lawyers and investors. We got $750,000 together to shoot Blood Simple. That helped to work as a cameraman. I'm glad I met Joel. If I hadn't, I might have gone into politics as a Presidential candidate. Who knows?"
Aside from his trio of Coen films, Sonnenfeld practised his craft for several A-List directors, namely Rob Reiner (When Harry Met Sally, Misery), Danny DeVito (Throw Momma From The Train) and Penny Marshall (Big). Finally awarded a directorial gig in 1991, Sonnenfeld brought popular Sixties TV series The Addams Family to the big screen with considerable success — despite fainting on the first day of the shoot. With its scuttling camera and high-speed point-of-view (POV) shots (arrows, golf balls, even Thing), Sonnenfeld was clearly influenced by his collaboration on Raising Arizona with the Coens.
"I'd always felt that as a cinematographer I was really a fellow film-maker," he said. "I felt most directors didn't realise the camera is their friend, and that it can be used to tell a story emotionally. It wasn't just a recording device and I knew that was what I could bring to a film. I knew I could direct. I wanted to direct for all the wrong reasons. I felt if I became a successful director, I could work less frequently and spend more time with my wife and children. I'm basically a lazy person — a great starter but not much of a finisher. I don't feel I have a burning desire to make an important statement. I'm not an Oliver Stone."
With the sequel Addams Family Values, plus his two weak-kneed comic collaborations with Will Smith (Men in Black and Wild Wild West), Sonnenfeld has indeed shown a knack for slick but empty fare. With only his laid-back adaptation of Elmore Leonard's Get Shorty drawing critical favour, Sonnenfeld's work classes him alongside the likes of Richard Donner and Robert Zemeckis; a Hollywood magician with nothing up his sleeve.
Back in St Louis all those years ago, Ethan was left to experiment with solo efforts, supposedly at one stage conceiving a film named Froggy Went a Courtin which would see an artful montage of squashed toads, cut to the sound of the eponymous song. But he soon left for Simon's Rock, then to Princeton, where he majored in philosophy "for fun". He called the decision to take the course "a fairly good indication that I didn't have any ambitions of any kind." After neglecting to notify the college that he planned to return after a term off, Ethan attempted to cut through the red tape with a phoney doctor's note (from a surgeon at "Our Lady of the Eye, Ear, Nose and Throat"), claiming that he had lost an arm in a hunting accident in his brother-in-law's living room. Not surprisingly, the school requested he see a psychiatrist. By 1980, Ethan moved into an apartment in New York, around the corner from his brother. "We didn't have too much to do with each other as kids. We kind of rediscovered each other after college," said Joel, who by this point had already been through an amicable ("no ugliness and no money," as he termed it) divorce.
The pair became reacquainted with each other. Ethan took various jobs, including temping as a statistical typist at Macy's to pay the rent. "It was a long road that had no end," he noted, an experience that found its way into The Hudsucker Proxy, with its representation of office-bound drones. The boys began to write scripts together, at nights and weekends. One — a black comedy called Suburbicon — sold, encouraging further efforts. As Ethan said, "We started writing as a lark for some of the producers Joel was working with. Then we started getting paid — and what we were being paid made it only slightly less a lark." Joel was now safely ensconced in the editing room, and it was here that he made his first important contact: Sam Raimi. Before meeting the debut director who would cut Evil Dead with Joel, he took a job as assistant editor (having been sacked from cutting a film called Nightmare), working for editor Edna Ruth Paul, on Frank LaLoggia's religious horror Fear No Evil.
The story of a shy high-school student who turns out to be an incarnation of Lucifer, it starred Stefan Arngrim (best known for appearing on the TV show Land of the Giants) as the Satanic Andrew. Known also as Mark of the Beast — and boasting the tagline "the Road to Hell is paved with his victims" — the film, which sees Andrew battle with two archangels, owes much to the tradition of The Omen and Carrie. That said, it afforded Joel his first meeting with Sam Raimi, who pulled up outside the edit suite in the Spring of 1980 with the uncut, raw footage of Evil Dead. "This guy came up to the car with long scraggly hair down to his chest, looking undernourished. I thought he was trying to rip us off. That was my first meeting with Joel." Eventually to work as assistant editor with Raimi on the film for four months, it was the start of a professional and personal relationship that would shape much of he and his brother's work.
Born in Royal Oak, Michigan, in 1959, Sam Raimi began his film-making career in earnest at high school, with friends Bruce Campbell and Scott Spiegel. Shooting Super 8 slices of comic-horror, the gang went on to Michigan State University, where he, his friends and his brother Ivan, were joined by Robert Tapert (now Raimi's partner at Renaissance Pictures). There, Raimi — armed with a prospectus and a 30-minute Super 8 version of what would become Evil Dead — raised $500,000 from Detroit investors. Shot on 16mm, and blown up to 35mm, it went out without a certificate in the States, was confiscated in England and banned in Germany for eight years. But the plot was blueprint horror, turning the film into an instant cult favourite. Five college kids (led by Campbell) stay in a backwoods cabin, where they unwittingly resurrect and become inhabited by the dead. Gore-filled and crude, perhaps, but the film is breathtaking in places. Raimi patented the 'shaky cam', which saw a camera mounted on a plank, allowing two crew members to charge at the object to be shot with the makeshift dolly between them. Aside from Joel cutting certain sequences, Ethan also provided the voiceover for the professor, among other things.
The brothers' subsequently financed and shot Blood Simple, spending time in LA to try to find a distributor without much success. They were, of course, busy hatching plots to while away their time. Adolf "Terry" Hitler was a rewrite of history that saw the dictator's parents emigrate to America at the turn of the century to head out West. Young Adolf grows up to be a big Hollywood agent named Terry, running the Adolf Hitler Agency (AHA), who wears baggy suits and reads People magazine. At this time, between 1984 and 1985, they were sharing a house with Raimi in the Silverlake district of Los Angeles. It was a creative hive, that saw the trio share with Joel's future wife Frances McDormand (whom he met on the set of Blood Simple), as well Holly Hunter and Kathy Bates. Next door was Lisa Henson, Raimi's girlfriend for several years, and later to be president of production at Columbia Pictures. Said Raimi's father, Leonard. "I went out to LA one time. I didn't know who they were. I thought they were a bunch of moochers. They didn't have a cent, so I took them out to eat. They licked their plates clean."
It was during this time that Raimi penned The Evil Dead II: Dead by Dawn ("the Three Stooges Meets The Texas Chainsaw Massacre," as he called it), as well as teaming up with the Coens to write The Hudsucker Proxy (originally to be filmed in black and white). The brothers also wrote Crimewave for Raimi to direct, disastrously so, in 1985, and their own sophomore effort Raising Arizona. "Writing with them was like watching a badminton game," said Raimi. "Joel would mention a line of dialogue, and Ethan would finish the sentence. The Joel would say the punch line, and Ethan would type it up."
The trio remain friends to this day. Raimi even made an appearance in Miller's Crossing, as the snickering guard outside the club that is pumped full of lead. "I was a bullet stop, riddled with slugs," he said. "When a guy comes out with his hands up, surrendering, I shoot him!" He is also to be seen in The Hudsucker Proxy, as one of the brainstormers in the Hula-Hoop montage that he had a hand in directing. He and Joel even took cameos in John Landis' Chevy Chase and Dan Ackroyd vehicle Spies Like Us (1985). Landis had originally asked Joel and Ethan, the latter unable at the time to comply.
Raimi went on to complete the Evil Dead trilogy, with Medieval Dead: Army of Darkness, after directing Darkman in 1990, which co-starred Liam Neeson and Frances McDormand, and took over $30 million in the US. The Coens themselves, after the fourth draft of the screenplay was written between Raimi and brother Ivan, even had some input, contributing the 'fingers' idea, as Raimi phrased it. A fairytale comic book story, it follows a scientist (Neeson), deformed after his lab is blown up by mobsters. With the help of extreme physical strength, gained after doctors remove his neurons, plus a synthetic skin he was working on, the reborn Darkman seeks revenge on those who crossed him.
McDormand later dismissed her performance in Raimi's film as a mistake. "I kick myself over that one — I should have had more fun with it, like Jamie Lee Curtis had gone for it in True Lies, and embraced the damsel-in-distress thing. I was playing a character who has a Masters in real estate law — but in the end, I was still handcuffed to a building waiting to be rescued. I really should have gotten into that."
More recently, Raimi has continued to move away from the horror genre: The Quick and the Dead (1995), although replete with Raimi's trademark visuals, was a gun-slinging Western featuring Sharon Stone, Gene Hackman and Leonardo DiCaprio; For the Love of the Game (1999), emerged as a tepid baseball movie for Kevin Costner (the actor's third swing of the bat after Bull Durham and Field of Dreams); The Gift (2000), featuring Keanu Reeves and Cate Blanchett, promises to be a supernatural thriller, returning more to familiar turf.
That Raimi has stylistically influenced the Coens and vice versa is apparent. Raimi's ground-level high-velocity tracking shots and his hyperactive POV camerawork is duplicated in early Coen films. Notably the sequence in Raising Arizona that takes the viewer up a ladder to an upstairs window. Raimi's influence has spread further than this, of course. Flying plates and arrows in War of the Roses and Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves owe their debt to the director's early innovations. Weaned on MAD magazine and horror comics, Raimi's own teenage interests found their way into his — and the Coens — early work. Loony Tunes-style violence, and a penchant for framing their scenes as comic book panels can be seen in the likes of Raising Arizona, The Hudsucker Proxy and Crimewave in particular. Thematically, too, both sets of film-makers have a habit of punishing the innocent (as well as the guilty). It is only in working methods where the Coens and Raimi separate. While the Coens storyboard everything (another comic book hangover), Raimi's preparation is much more haphazard, his scripts are much more like unfinished sketches.
In an interesting exchange of influences, Raimi, in between The Quick and the Dead and For the Love of the Game, directed A Simple Plan in 1999. A film that the likes of John Boorman and John Dahl had already toyed with, it featured Bill Pullman and Billy Bob Thornton as two Midwestern brothers who stumble on a plane wreck, only to find $4 million in cash on board. Raimi consulted with the Coens on shooting in the Minnesota weather. "They just laughed," he reported, but the film itself drew heavily from Fargo, the Coens own 1995 snowbound effort. A story about simple-minded folk who never give consideration to the consequences of their actions, A Simple Plan is, thematically, a companion piece to Fargo. Eschewing the comic-book violence seen in the Evil Dead trilogy, Raimi's surprising (and appropriate) use of a static camera, with its glistening white landscapes punctuated by the colour red, emulated Roger Deakins' cinematography on the Coens' movie.
It is then perhaps fitting that we end with Mark Horowitz's comparison of the brothers and their friend. Raimi has been called "the Coens doppelgänger ... the film-maker the Coens would be if there was only one of them, not two, and if they were unburdened by self-consciousness, not trapped in the hall of mirrors that is the life of the mind".
Excerpted from THE COEN BROTHERS by James Mottram. Copyright © 2000 by James Mottram. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Copyright © 1996 David Quinlan. All rights reserved.
|The Minnesota Years||11|
|The Hudsucker Proxy||93|
|The Big Lebowski||132|
|O Brother, Where Art Thou?||152|
|The Screenplays and Other Writings||170|