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Code of Coens: How to succeed in filmmaking

Six habits two highly effective filmmakers have employed in their career that's lead them straight to this year's Oscar.
/ Source: contributor

From their audacious 1984 debut “Blood Simple” onward, filmmaker brothers Joel and Ethan Coen have built a remarkably consistent and unmistakably personal body of work.

Their latest, a hard-edged adaptation of Cormac McCarthy’s novel “No Country For Old Men,” is one of the frontrunners at this year’s Oscars, tied with “There Will Be Blood” with eight nominations, including best picture.

While it clearly ranks alongside “Fargo” and “The Big Lebowski” as the brothers’ best work, “No Country” has an unusual place among their movies, in some ways perfectly typical of their style and in others an unexpected reinvention of it. Here’s a quick look at some of the characteristic hallmarks of the Coen brothers’ success.

Know what you excel at and don’t be afraid to specialize in itThe Coens make essentially two kinds of movies: Wacky dark comedies about well-meaning idiots with a penchant for larceny, and brooding crime thrillers inspired by the classic authors of the noir genre. They established that pattern early on: “Blood Simple” drew its noir themes of jealousy, murder and revenge from the stories of James M. Cain. Their follow-up, 1987’s baby-kidnapping comedy “Raising Arizona,” at the time seemed like a 180-degree turn into wacky and cheerfully ironic territory.

Looking back, it’s now clear that every film since then lives somewhere between the signposts defined by those two films. There is some crossover between the two modes — “Fargo” is a near-perfect synthesis of both — but generally they alternate between the two styles from film to film, and have not significantly stepped outside their self-defined boundaries. Some might call that a lack of range, but nobody complains that Van Gogh painted too many sunflowers.

Find good people to work with, and work to their strengths
The Coens often write their scripts with specific actors in mind. For instance, they had to wait to film the upcoming “Burn After Reading” until George Clooney, John Malkovich, Brad Pitt and Frances McDormand were all available at the same time. Their loose-knit stable of actors has been a hallmark of their films, with memorable repeat performances by John Goodman, John Turturro, Steve Buscemi and Stephen Root, and sometimes a bit of in-jokey humor: Holly Hunter moves from an infertility in “Raising Arizona” to a mother of seven in “O Brother, Where Art Thou?”; Billy Bob Thornton plays the taciturn title role in “The Man Who Wasn’t There,” then an irrepressible motormouth in “Intolerable Cruelty.”

And on the other side of the camera, the same people tend to show up in the credits over and over — perhaps most significantly cinematographer Roger Deakins, who’s been with the duo on every film since 1991’s “Barton Fink,” and Carter Burwell, who’s scored every Coen movie.

Know your rootsThough their sense of humor is the product of the irony-heavy 1980s, the Coens’ favorite era of moviemaking is clearly a generation earlier, with the film noirs and screwball comedies of the 1930s and 1940s, not to mention the classic crime novelists of that age. Dashiell Hammett’s “The Glass Key” and “Red Harvest” were sources for the Coens’ “Miller’s Crossing, “The Big Lebowski” lovingly parodizes Raymond Chandler, and Cain inspired not only “Blood Simple” but “The Man Who Wasn’t There.” (There’s even a minor character in “Miller’s Crossing” that’s a dead ringer for Hammett, a likely homage to Hammett’s own real-life roots as a detective in the underworld).

Less directly, you can find echoes of the darkly comic tales of Jim Thompson and Charles Willeford in the Coen comedies; they’d do wonders with something like Thompson’s “The Killer Inside Me.” Not to say they always have a golden touch at reviving older styles: “The Hudsucker Proxy” and “Intolerable Cruelty” aimed to breathe new life into 1940s-style screwball romantic comedies and satires in the Preston Sturges mode, but flopped both critically and at the box office.

Establish a sense of placeThe Coens have been called “regional filmmakers,” which isn’t strictly true since their settings have ranged from New York to the southwestern desert to Los Angeles and beyond. But it’s certainly true in the sense that no matter where their films take place, it would be hard to imagine them taking place anywhere else. In their hands, landscape almost becomes a character in itself. This is maybe most obvious in “Fargo,” where the comically exaggerated Minnesota accent and the stark cold white of a Minnesota winter are an essential part of the film’s flavor. And the harsh, scorchingly hot brushland we see at the beginning of “No Country For Old Men” paints an exacting picture of the movie’s title phrase.

Don’t be afraid to change your methods“No Country For Old Men” fits neatly into the Coens’ serious crime stories, but it also takes a couple of significant steps away from their standard recipe. They’ve expertly used music to enhance their previous movies — especially in “O Brother, Where Art Thou,” where the lavish soundtrack of 1930s folk and blues was a catalyst for a huge popular revival of the styles. But “No Country” has very little music in it at all, with only 16 minutes of music in a film more than two hours long, and that includes the end titles.

Instead, it derives a lot of its power from long stretches of silence or ambient sound. The Coens also broke with tradition by bringing in a cast that had, for the most part, never worked with the Coens before. (The only returning actor was Stephen Root, who’d previously been in “The Ladykillers” and “O Brother”). It’s hard to argue with either decision, particularly the casting of Tommy Lee Jones as a small-town Texas sheriff and Javier Bardem as a monomaniacal killer with a cattle gun.

Get the final cut“Runnin’ things… it ain’t all gravy!” grouses beleaguered mobster Johnny Caspar in “Miller’s Crossing” after he discovers just how hard it is to be top dog. It’s an especially ironic line for the Coens, who have directed, written and produced all their own movies since the beginning of their careers. The Coens are sticklers for their specific vision — while they give their actors room to improvise when it’s called for, they’ve also been known to insist that the dialogue in their scripts be followed to the comma.

With other directors that might be ego, but the Coens know what they excel in (see point No. 1), and their ear for language is remarkable. And under the pseudonym “Roderick Jaynes,” they’ve also had final say in the editing room — in some ways, that’s the most important role in moviemaking, because the editor controls how the previous elements are actually put together. Even when one of their movies misfires, like “Hudsucker,” at least it misfires in their particular style; and control of their stories is ultimately why the Coen brothers have had so many more successes than failures.

Christopher Bahn is a freelancer writer in Minneapolis.