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Strikes and Gutters: A Year with the Coen Brothers

Posted By Alex Belth On November 23, 2004 @ 11:16 pm In Bronx Banter | Comments Disabled

Fun and Games with Joel and Ethan

Way back in the olden days, I used to work in the movie business. Okay, it wasn’t so long ago, it just seems like it was. One of the best experiences I had was the year I spent working for the Coen brothers on “The Big Lebowski.” I even had the opportunity to write about it. I thought, this being the off-season and all, you might be willing to indulge me a lil’ bit. So I’m gunna reprint the article that originally appeared in British film book called Projections 8 (1997) [1]. I’ve added some bits here and there, including a proper ending. Since it is a long piece I thought the best way to run it is as a serial. I don’t have any set schedule in mind, but I hope to post at least one installment per week. Anyhow, hope you enjoy the diversion. If not, just skip it and there’ll be more baseball to follow. Em and I are headed up to her folks’ place in Vermont first thing in the a.m. Hope everyone has a safe and happy holidaze.

Strikes and Gutters: Part One

Self Portrait, gouache on cardboard (December, 1996)

In the late summer of 1996 I found myself interviewing for a personal assistant job with Joel and Ethan Coen. The summer had been a rough one. I had worked on an independent feature, gaining in experience what I was losing in sleep and peace of mind. My editor on this picture had given me her blessings to pursue more lucrative apprentice jobs if they were to come up. I was doing my best to make them come up. I was fortified with one big name on my resume (prior to the low-budget job, I had worked for Woody Allen on his musical “Everyone Says I Love You” [2]); however, I was consistently getting passed over. I was still apparently too green to take a chance on. Of the three major studio jobs I was in contention for, none of ‘em panned out.

Each rejection earned me a tribal mark of endurance that, at the very least, would give me some grievance material to share with my fellow workers (most of them seemed to have amassed too many such rejections to be fit, healthy people). But if I was adding a bit of weathering to my professional demeanor–slowly learning not to hang on phone calls with such eagerness, careful to not let monetary fantasies run wild–I was also embracing a sense of bitterness and resigned industry gloominess. There it was. The dust of the old falling into my relatively young lap. I was letting it all get to me. My personal life offered little stability. About this time I was told that I would have to move from my apartment on Union Street in Brooklyn. I was fond of the place but wasn’t too surprised when it went sour on me. I was beginning to get the feeling that I was swimming against the current of the steamy New York summer.

This is where things were at when I got a call from Margaret Hayes, who ran the Coen Brothers’ business affairs. She had a personal assistant job available. She had heard good things about me. (It was Ethan’s wife, Tricia, who had encouraged me to send over a resume.) The Coens’ were about to start a new movie. Was I interested? I took a moment to think about it. It sounded so good that it inspired nothing but suspicion in me. But what the hell. Shit, yeah, I was interested.

Early afternoon, late in August. I was sitting on a couch in what once was Joel Coen’s first New York apartment but which now housed their production company, Mike Zoss. I was waiting for the boys to get off a conference call, and began to feel a blanket of calm settle over me. I wasn’t a Coen Brothers groupie and that helped restrict my nerves to the ordinary ‘please hire me’ type. But there was something about the very environment I found myself in that calmed me. A salty, brackish breeze was filtering through the living-room windows off the Hudson. I closed my eyes and listened to the shrieks and chatter of kids playing through the autumn afternoon in Riverside Park. I had spent my early childhood only a few buildings north of this spot. I opened my eyes and looked around the apartment. It was decorated with chatchkas and photos from earlier Coen Brothers movies. It was a comfortable and casual place. It was the old neighborhood. I couldn’t have been more at home.

When Joel and Ethan got off the phone and rolled into the living room to talk, the feeling got better. I kept them entertained with talk of how Woody’s place ran; hit them with an imitation of Woody talking about the old 1970s Knicks. Joel sat across from me, and Ethan stood, chewing on a swizzle stick.

We spoke at length about the neighborhood and commiserated about the gentrification it had suffered over the past fifteen years. Within twenty minutes I was offered a position with the firm. They told me that they were going to California to make the movie over the winter, and if I could find a place to stay, dig up the scratch for a vehicle, I was more than welcome to join ‘em. The plan was for me to take over managing their business affairs as Margaret wouldn’t be able to make the trip. And hell, they suggested, when production began I could take on another job. Most likely synching up the dailies. That was assistant editor stuff. I joined up.

When we got around to money, I told them I would need a bit more in salary than their offer. Ethan gagged, and I remembered that he was the producer-brother. Joel looked to him, and they agreed on something silently. Joel looked back to me and said, “OK, we’ll get back to you.” I left amused. I was proud that I had no qualms about asking for a comparable salary to what I was already making in the cutting room. I was well aware of the opportunities this job was offering, even if dough wasn’t among them; seeing California for the first time and working on a project from before pre-production through the editing process topped the list. The potential was juicy enough to get me more than somewhat excitable.

The thing I hadn’t expected was how easygoing the Coens seemed to be. I had trouble thinking they these weren’t friends of the family. I thought they were going to be a pair of highfalutin’ nerds. But what a regular pair of Jewish boys–inside-joke-havin’, movie-dialogue-quotin’, I-can’t-believe-we’re-getting-paid-for-this-shit-gigglin’ fat bastards.

I waited two days, then came home to find a message from Margaret on the answering machine. She was laughing, and spoke in a dry and laconic pattern, her voice occasionally cracking; it was a delivery and style of speak that Joel, Ethan and many of their close friends shared. “Welp, I guess they like ya enough to give ya what ya want.” She seemed very amused that my demand for a couple more bucks had been met. So was I.

Working as a personal assistant for the boys could be best described, in the parlance of the times, as low maintenance. My job quickly shifted from editing-room suck-boy to kicked-back personal assistant. I was riding the bubble-headed gravy train: there was plenty of free time to catch up on old correspondences; a steady source of second-hand movie-passes; the occasional celebrity call-in. Because the office was also Joel’s old crib there was a full kitchen, complete with a diner-style booth. I started to cook lunch for the boys and they eagerly encouraged it by avidly devouring whatever I prepared–appetites that would make a mother blush. No talking, plenty eating, followed by the simple remark, “That’s some good shit, man.” I aimed to make nothing but good shit.

Both Joel and Ethan were courteous, pensive and self-involved; they were direct and straightforward as to my official duties. They treated me like an adult, which was a new experience at my level in the pecking order. People in their position were supposed to treat people in my position like a child (or worse). But there I was, with the two of the hottest filmmakers in America, and all I had to do was Xerox the occasional script, take messages when the phone rang and feed ‘em good shit for lunch. The only real pampering I had to do was to distinguish Ethan’s Starbucks coffee from Joel’s regular, any-store-will-do cup of Joe. I liked Joel even more on principle for his boycott, and was more than happy to make the extra trip. Yeah, it was apparent from the start that this was something good.

I came into work and did my thing. I stayed out of their hair. We shot the shit when the moments and the moods were willing. I was on my way to needing a good pinch. When I finished reading “The Big Lebowski”, the movie I was hired on for, I was smiling. The lead character of the Dude, which Jeff Bridges had agreed to play, had the same laconic resignation and amiable ability to roll with the punches as Elliott Gould’s Philip Marlowe from Altman’s “The Long Goodbye.” [3]

As is important for any hard-luck bum, both characters were content with who they were. They were not going to go through a life crisis just because bad stuff was happening to them. In effect, they weren’t trying to be understood. They were good characters because of their sheer obliviousness to the outside world, their solid belief in friendship or even their dedication to laziness. I had seen Altman’s movie a few years before, and it was the first time I became intrigued with California. I thought Bridges was ideal for the part of the Dude. And, with John Goodman all set to play his right-hand man and bowling partner, the script came alive like a dress rehearsal. I could already imagine what it was all going to look, sound and feel like. The writing was precise and the script was visually detailed; two dream sequences that would require blue screens and digital technology were nevertheless written-out with visual coherence; specific songs were mentioned in scenes and it was clear that they were as significant to the story as the dialogue. It amazed me to see that even in the script, I was already getting the sense of the full movie. The excitement and joy that the boys got out of movie-making was pretty evident.

The autumn went by quickly. As the leaves turned and the chilliness returned, I was absorbed by the possibilities of the upcoming trip to California. My bosses wouldn’t budge on helping me with a rental car, but I had an old college friend who was willing to give me a place to rest my puppies at night. Things would be tight, but hell, there was more to the trip than money.

Joel and Ethan kept on assuring me that I was going to enjoy Hollywood. Frances, Joel’s wife, was warning me not to enjoy it, too much. “You might like it and never leave,” she forewarned one day. I laughed and told her that it wasn’t likely.

Funny, but I was looking forward to LA in a real schoolboy kind of way. I grew up around Upper West Siders, who by right held the city of Los Angeles in contempt. According to them, there was nothing to like about it. They told me, if I thought the East Side was bad, Jesus wait until you get to LA.

But I wanted to see LA for reasons that had nothing to do with what these people were talking about. I wasn’t going for the big movie connection scene. What had really set afire under my ass were the paintings of Richard Diebenkorn [4]. Diebenkorn [5] was a Californian painter who settled in Santa Monica in the late 196os. While there, he produced the Ocean Park [6] series of landscape abstractions [7]. What was so striking about his pictures was the light. Seeing them in New York, alongside the local heavies like De Kooning and Kline, I knew there was something going on, something sensual [8] and open out there in all that Californian sunshine.

Article printed from Bronx Banter: http://www.bronxbanterblog.com

URL to article: http://www.bronxbanterblog.com/2004/11/23/strikes-and-gutters-a-year-with-the-coen-brothers/

URLs in this post:

[1] Projections 8 (1997): http://www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/tg/detail/-/0571193552/102-9316292-6645742?v=glance&vi=contents

[2] “Everyone Says I Love You”: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0116242/

[3] Altman’s “The Long Goodbye.”: http://www.filmmonthly.com/Noir/Articles/LongGoodbye/LongGoodbye.html

[4] Richard Diebenkorn: http://www.artcyclopedia.com/artists/diebenkorn_richard.html

[5] Diebenkorn: http://www.artchive.com/artchive/D/diebenkorn/cityscape_i.jpg.html

[6] Ocean Park: http://www.thecityreview.com/dieben.htm

[7] landscape abstractions: http://www.allposters.com/gallery.asp?aid=1205661015&c=&search=Richard+Diebenkorn

[8] sensual: http://www.postershop.com/Diebenkorn-Richard/Diebenkorn-Richard-Girl-with-Plant-2321-2630557.html

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