Interview with Joel and Ethan Coen
(From Positif July-August 1987)
Michel Ciment and Hubert Niogret
Translation by R. Barton Palmer
Your two films belong to genres: one to the detective novel, the other to comedy. Do you prefer working within the conventions of a genre?
JOEL COEN: We were more aware of working within a genre in Blood Simple than in the case of Raising Arizona. Raising Arizona seems more unconventional, a mixture of genres. In Blood Simple, we were aware that the genre, as a point of departure, unconsciously shaped the film we were making.
ETHAN COEN: In the case of Raising Arizona, we did not start off thinking about working with a genre. We intended, in a general way, to make a comedy with two principal characters. Our concentration was on them, rather than on what the film would be in terms of type.
Did you come up with the characters first and then the setting?
JC: In the case of Raising Arizona, yes. The story was a way of talking about the characters. In the case of Blood Simple, we started out with a situation, the general outline of a plot. The characters came from that. And so it was just the opposite.
In regard to Raising Arizona, why a second time in the Southwest? You come from Minnesota ...
EC: Perhaps in part because we are not from the Southwest, which seems somewhat exotic to us, probably nearly as much as it is for you. It's just a place we find attractive. In regard to our second film, that kind of desert country seemed the right setting to us.
JC: Once again, Blood Simple proceeded in a more organized, more conscious fashion. We did not deal with the real Texas, but an artificial version of it, an assemblage of texts and mythologies. The subject is "murderous passion." There have been so many cases of this sort that have occurred in Texas that it has become a part of the public imagination. But what resulted from that was important to us because the film was imagined as a slice of fife, a deliberate fiction that it was normal to set within an exotic locale.
EC: All my association with Minnesota, where we grew up, was rather lifeless. It could have been anywhere except Minnesota.
Folk tales have a certain importance in Raising Arizona, like that of Davy Crockett.
EC: We decided we'd make a connection with the things of the imagination, and also that the film would not be a slice of life.
JC: When we spoke with the director of photography, Bany Sonnenfeld, about the visual design of the film, we discussed that the beginning the film would be like a stoiybook, with pretty vibrant colors. That became part of the visual design.
Were your sources then more literary than cinematic?
EC: A film like Raising Arizona should make you suspect, I suppose, our admiration for Southern writers like William Faulkner and Flannery O'Connor.
JC: Even if we don't share die same interest of the latter for Catholicism! But she has a real knowledge of the regional psychology of die South, which is not to be found with many other writers. In the case of Blood Simple, the influence came instead from the writers of hard-boiled fiction like James Cain.
What you say about Flannery O'Connor is even more striking since a director one thinks of in regard to Raising Arizona is John Huston because of certain sequences in Fat City (1971), and also Wise Blood (1979) which is directly adapted from a novel by Flannery O'Connor.
EC: Right, like the incredible character Stacy Keach plays in Fat City.
JC: But in regard to O'Connor, our characters do not have the same mystical obsession as do hers—ours are worldly.
Looking at Raising Arizona makes you think a good deal about the animation of Chuck Jones as, for example, in the supermarket scene.
EC: This was very much our intention: diose characters who bounce back after colliding, and also the speed of their movements. We tried to give them the energy of the animation in electronic games.
JC: It’s funny that you mentioned Chuck Jones since we did not consciously think about him in regard to this film, while, in contrast, his Roadrunner inspired us in the long scene in Blood Simple where Ray (John Getz) tries to kill Julian Marty (Dan Hedaya), then bury him. There's some Hitchcock in it, but also some Chuck Jones.
What was the point of departure for Raising Arizona? The idea of the quintuplets?
EC: Not really. In essence, after having completed Blood Simple, we wanted to make something completely different. We didn't know what, but we wanted it to be something funny that had a very quick rhythm. We also wanted to use Holly Hunter, who has been a friend of ours for a long time. So it really wasn't the story that was the origin of the project, but Holly Hunter, her personality and, by extension, the character we had conceived for her to play. In contrast, Blood Simple took shape from an idea for a screenplay.
JC: The idea of kidnapping the baby was really secondary. We weren't much interested in the problem of sterility and about the wish to have a baby, but in the idea of a character who has this land of desire and who, at the same time, feels outside the law. This conflict enabled us to develop the story line, which is his aspiration for a stable family life, and at the same time his taste for unusual experiences.
EC: Right, this tension in His character was the driving force of the film for us.
How did the other characters take shape, the two brothers who live together for example?
JC: We very much like male couples such as Laurel and Hardy They're there only to help the story along, that's all. This is very much like an old idea of Dashiell Hammett's: a character from outside intervenes in a situation and then you can observe the reactions he provokes.
EC: At a certain point we said to ourselves: lets bring a couple of uncouth characters into the story and have a look at what effect this will have on the relationship between the main characters.
Was your shooting script very detailed or did you allow yourself a certain freedom during production?
JC: We worked at the screenplay until we were satisfied with it, and during shooting we were overall quite faithful to it. There was little improvisation in the dialogue. What changed a good deal, in contrast, was the visual conception of the film once the actors came in. During rehearsals, we were able to think of other ways of "covering" the scene with the camera. This was especially true of the scenes with dialogue. On the other hand, as far as the action scenes are concerned, they were planned out beforehand, and we followed the storyboarding precisely As it turned out, we didn't need to refer to the stoiyboarding during shooting, but it served a psychological purpose. We knew what the visual conception was for the shots. It was down on paper, and that was reassuring.
EC: Sometimes, you look through the camera and discover that the planned layout doesn't work.
JC: For various reasons. For example, the shooting location can pose problems that could not be anticipated. But even if we wanted to improvise during shooting, we couldn't do it because our budgets were very limited. Blood Simple was produced for $800,000, and Raising Arizona for a bit more than $5 million, which for Hollywood is rather low. In order to make the most of the money, the film had to be meticulously planned out.
Did the actors cause you to change aspects of their characters during shooting?
JC: Absolutely. This was especially true with Nicolas Cage and Holly Hunter. Nick is a comedian with a great deal of imagination. He arrived widi a mountain of ideas we hadn't thought of while writing the screenplay, but his contribution was always limited to the situation that the characters we had imagined find themselves in. The same with Holly. But she surprised us less because we already had her in mind when we wrote her role and because we had known her a long time.
EC: She's a stage actress in New York. She appeared a good deal in plays by Beth Henley. For example, she was in the original Broadway production of Crimes of the Heart, which Bruce Beresford adapted for the screen.
Could you give me some examples of how the actors participated in creating their roles?
JC: For example, we spoke with Nicolas Cage a long time about his moustache and sideburns. We asked if he should keep them for the entire film or, in contrast, get rid of them at some point.
EC: He was also crazy about his Woody Woodpecker haircut. The more difficulties his character got in, the bigger the wave in his hair got. There was a strange connection between die character and his hair.
And his wardrobe?
JC: That, no, that was not in the script, those Hawaiian shirts.
EC: That's a conventional way of dressing for criminals in the Southwest, these kinds of outrageous clothes.
The motorcyclist character coming out of a dream?
JC: We tried to imagine a character who did not correspond specifically to our image of what evil is or of a nightmare come true, but rather to the image of evil that would occur to Hi. Being from the Southwest, he would see him in the form of a Hells Angel.
EC: We tried to connect the characters with the music. Holly sings a lullaby in the film, and we asked the music director to make it a part of the music theme that accompanies the bounty hunter—it combines Richard Wayne with country music!
Where did you find the actor who plays this role, Randall "Tex" Cobb?
JC: He s not really an actor. Hes a former boxing champion. He's appeared in a number of films. In the beginning, he was a kind of Texas street brawler who then tried without much success to make a career out of professional boxing. Hes less a comedian than a force of nature. He's not really someone easy to work with, and I don't think I'd be very eager to work with him on another project. He did a good job with his part in Raising Arizona, but he did cause us some problems.
What kind of language did you intend the characters to speak? Its a kind of stylized slang.
JC: Its a mixture of local dialect and language that we imagined the characters would get from the kind of reading they probably did: the Bible, newspapers. The voice-over narration was one of our initial ideas for the story. The first part we wrote was the ten-minute sequence that precedes the credits.
In regard to the baby, you establish from the outset a mixture ofsentimentalism and ironic distance.
JC: Some people find the end too sentimental. Once again, this does not reflect our own attitude toward life. But, in our view, what he hoped the future would bring was connected to the character's background, and so it fits with his conception of what life is about.
EC: We hide ourselves behind the main character! We weren't the ones who determined how much sentimentality we had to put into this story—it was the characters who guided us.
The two films you have made are very inventive visually. Were there any images that you had in mind before writing the screenplay?
JC: Yes, in some cases anyway. It's a different matter entirely when you write a screenplay for yourself rather than for someone else. In the latter situation, the director generally doesn't want the screenplay to lay out the visual elements for him. When we work for ourselves, however, we allow the visual elements to take the lead in the writing of the screenplay. Sometimes, in contrast, we write the scene and then ask ourselves what might be the best way to convey this information, either to arouse the viewer's emotions or accelerate the rhythm. That's the time we think about the images themselves. But in fact, it's all connected—these are two sides of the same coin. While writing the screenplay, we knew we would be filming with more leeway and on a broader scale than was in the case in Blood Simple, which was more claustrophobic.
EC: I remember a specific image that pleased us as we were writing the film: seeing Holly shouting orders at the prisoners. This might seem like a minor tiling, but this image played an important role in advancing our writing of the film.
JC: For example, the first setup with the lineup and the character stumbling into the frame was described just this way in the screenplay.
How do you two divide up the work?
JC: We work on the writing together, never separately We hole up inside a room and we write the screenplay from beginning to end. In the case of Raising Arizona, we took three and a half months. On the set, it's pretty much the same as with the writing. We are both always there and never stop consulting one another. The credits point to a separation of tasks that is more rigid than is actually the case. For the sake of efficiency and to avoid confusion, I speak to the actors, and I'm the one who usually communicates with the technical crew, but making decisions about the setups is something we do together. As for Ethan, he is the one who takes charge of production matters.
EC: It's the same with the image and sound editing—collaboration in every way.
And the image of the two characters coming out of the mud?
JC: It's a kind of primitive birth! We thought a long time about how to introduce these two brutes who had escaped from prison. And we suddenly had a vision of this scene, and it seemed an appropriate kind of introduction.
It's curious that you mention James Cain as exerting an influence on Blood Simple, but Jim Thompson comes more to mind in this regard.
JC: In fact, at the time, we had not read him. After Blood Simple was released, his novels were republished in paperback in the United States, and he began to be rediscovered.
Viewing Raising Arizona makes you think a bit about Preston Sturges.
EC: We are crazy about his films. We love The Palm Beach Story.
What kind of relationship did you two have as children?
JC: There's three years between us, and that's important when you're a kid. It's only after leaving school that we really began to know one another.
EC: Right, especially while writing together. Joel studied filmmaking in college. Me, I majored in philosophy, God knows why! Afterward Joel worked as an editor.
JC: On horror films! Then we began to write screenplays for other people, and after that we wrote Blood Simple. When we were kids, we made films in Super 8. They were abstract and surrealist. Minnesota, where we were born, seemed like an empty, frozen wasteland. The fields were covered with snow, and it had a very abstract look. We also turned out remakes of films we had seen on television like Cornel Wilde s Naked Prey, and we shot these in the garden. And Advise and Consent too! Now that one had more of an epic dimension to it; it was necessary to build interior sets in the house for it. We saw a lot of films, some from the fifties and the ones that came out in the sixties with Doris Day and Rock Hudson, the worst period for Hollywood.
Where did you study film?
JC: At New York University. Our professors were not well-known directors. They had essentially made a career out of teaching. I was a student there for four years starting in 1972.
EC: I specialized in the history of philosophy. I wrote a thesis on Wittgenstein. I don't see what connection it had afterward with my career as a filmmaker!
You worked as an assistant director?
JC: No, I worked as assistant editor on the film Evil Dead, and I did about a third to a half of the editing work on the film. At that time horror films were all the rage, those with a small budget, produced independently, like Fear No Evil. It was always necessary to put Evil Dead
on the table ...
In Raising Arizona, there are several superb editing effects, particularly with the motorcyclist on the road.
JC: These effects were specified in the shooting script.
You like popular culture, even as you take an ironic attitude to it.
JC: Yeah, sure, that's our view of American popular culture.
EC: We have our opinions about this kind of material and something to say about it. We treat it as a source of humor when we use it.
The characters in Blood Simple are very different from those in Raising Arizona.
JC: In Raising Arizona, the characters were supposed to be sympathetic. We had a lot of fun creating them. Ed elicits a kind of restrained sympathy, which is very interesting; there is something mature about her. What's not easy is when a character is thoroughly evil and yet, at the same time, you make him rather sympathetic.
There's a dark as well as a comic side to your work. You have no interest in realism.
JC: Some people have been offended by the characters in Raising Arizona.
EC: I think it's a pretty savage film.
How did you get the idea for your first film, choosing the film noir genre?
EC: For a long time we've been fans of this kind of story, which is in the tradition of James M. Cain, Dashiell Hammett, Raymond Chandler. It's certainly a genre that is entertaining. And we also picked it for very practical reasons. We knew we weren't going to have a big budget. The financing would not allow it. We could build something on the genre and the appeal it has.
JC: The story gave rise to some special effects, to unusual setups. And we knew we could do a certain number of things on the screen for very little money. It's also a genre that allows you to get by rather modestly in some ways. You can limit the number of characters, put them into a confined set. There's no need to go for large-scale effects or scatter them through the film, and those cost a lot of money So it was a pragmatic decision that determined what film we would make.
Barry Sonnenfeld, the director of photography, shot these two films.
JC: Yes, he's an old friend, from long before this production. We collaborated very closely. Long before shooting, he looked over the locations. We talked about the filming, about how to shoot in certain locations. He got involved at a very early stage, and this, once again, from a practical point of view, helped us work in a very cost efficient fashion. Once you start shooting, you cannot allow yourself to spend money in an unplanned fashion. Everything was talked through beforehand.
In Blood Simple, there were setups with some striking effects, like the pistol that shoots through the wall and then the holes become visible from the light that shines through them.
JC: When you are interested in talking about scenes that started out, in the planning stage, with an image, that one s a good example because in that instance the image dictated the action, which was then elaborated so that this image could be integrated into the narrative at that point.
How was your first film financed? With a lot of shareholders? With independent sources of money?
EC: We had never made a film. We had no credentials. It was difficult to find a producer to trust us and give us the money to make a film. So we approached private investors, a great many of them. For the second film, it was incredibly easier. We went and asked the American distributor for Blood Simple, Circle Films, if they were interested in getting involved in the production. They liked the scenario. They said "yes."
What is your position in regard to production? Do you prefer being independent or working with a "studio"?
EC: Producing independently was the result of circumstances, especially in the case of our first film.
JC: In the case of the second, it was the path of least resistance. We could have looked elsewhere and perhaps found the money from a "studio." Because of Blood Simple, Circle Films became well known, and so we had confidence in them. It was a natural choice to work with them. There was no ideological position behind these choices. As long as we were able to maintain the kind of control that we wanted to have, we could accept financing from a "studio."
EC: Getting money is the problem.
JC: The problem is that there are strings attached. The whole idea about independent production is that it helps you make the film that you want to make, and in the way that you want to make it. But if the studio allows you to do the same thing, that's fine. Some people do that and manage quite well, even with films that don't fit the "Hollywood formula." Certain directors succeed nicely within this system at making the films they have the urge to make.
How long has the shooting schedule been in the case of the two films?
JC: Eight weeks for Blood Simple, ten weeks for Raising Arizona.
Your film was released at the same time as True Stories, which is very different. But there's a deep irony in your film, with its juxtaposition of popular cultural themes and a very modernist visual style. True Stories is more static, while yours is more dynamic.
JC: That's a coincidence. Just as it's a coincidence that John Goodman (the heavier of the two escaped prisoners) appears in both films. We picked him before True Stories started shooting, and he arrived on the set just after leaving the David Byrne production.
What kind of distinction would you make between Texas and Arizona as far as characters and themes are concerned?
JC: Arizona does not bring along with it all the baggage that Texas does for American viewers. Texas is associated with many things, which is not the case with Arizona.
EC: Arizona is like many places in the Midwest and Southwest. The stories are just about the same everywhere there.
JC: Once again, Arizona for us was one of those rare states where we could find this type of landscape. That particular kind of desert exists only in Arizona, to some degree in Mexico as well.
With what American directors of the last twenty years do you feel the most kinship? Not which ones you like the best!
JC: Its harder to answer that than to say which we prefer. It's even easier to say which ones we like.
Who do you like?
Scorsese, Coppola, David Lynch.
Kubrick's dark humor?
EC: Yes. Dr. Strangelove.
JC: I like Walter Hill a lot. He's done some interesting things.
And Bob Altman?
JC: I like some of his films veiy much. He did a terrific job with adapting Chandler in The Long Goodbye.
EC: Yes, its a really good film. But I read somewhere that its one of those he likes the least. I can't understand why.
No, he really likes it a lot.
EC: Really? Okay, then.