A Year with the Coen Brothers
I split from New York on 15 November. I was scared and excited, but one thing was certain: New York was grey and cold and gearing up for more of the “same. I felt like I was beating out old mother nature as the plane landed at LAX.
LA was balmy and moist. My old college friend and new roommate Greg G. picked me up. He had brought along another friend from college, Tall Paul, who was the kind of guy who liked to smoke a lot of reefer then drive very fast. I stuffed my ass in the back of Greg’s 1970 Ford Mustang convertible; Paul drove and we sped off to Santa Monica. I took in the ride with that cool sense of bewilderment I get during my first moments in any new place.
The wind rushed over me and the radio was playing hip-hop that would never get play-time in New York. (Tha Alkaholiks, on mainstream radio?!!) I was dumbstruck. I stared up into the powder-blue night sky and felt my stomach resettle to sea level. Up above the telephone wires were these hilarious things that looked like something out of a Krazy Kat comic. They were forty feet tall, and skinny, with a big bushel-looking thing atop. I stuck my face into the wind, felt it pushing on me and laughed privately, ’cause I’d never seen palm trees before.
The intensity of the space out there didn’t get any less overwhelming. I was lost in a pastel-coated Long Island in the desert. Everything was strips of low buildings and nothing but sky, sky, sky. It was downright lonesome. There was nothing so striking as pulling up to a traffic light, looking right and then left, and noticing how lost to the world your fellow motorists were. It was lonely as hell in all this space; the locals appeared completely comfortable but all I felt was isolation.
People at work asked me how I was adjusting and the only logical response was, ‘I think it’s fucking fucked.’ ‘Don’t stress it, man,’ one seasoned vet assured me with a shifty grin.’ After sixty days in this town, you’ll be one of us.’ I was overwhelmed by the light too. Los Angelinos were always apologizing about the smog, but that smoggy, warm-toned haze was the light I knew from Diebenkorn’s pictures. It was beautiful. The odd pastel colours of the houses seemed completely ridiculous at first. But slowly those too began to make perfect sense during the magic hour that is dusk.
I began thinking about “The Long Goodbye” again and the way Altman captured the bleached-out daylight, then added warm yellows and oranges to the night scenes. His California was sensual and mysterious. And I was beginning to see how that worked. One night before Thanksgiving I was over at Joel’s house in Santa Monica, and I told him how I thought “The Long Goodbye” was such an evocative depiction of the area. He smiled and said, ‘Curry’s brand catfood.’ ‘Yeah,’ he continued, ‘That’s our favorite Altman movie.’ I told him how when I first read Lebowski, I kept thinking about Gould.
‘Well, this is kind of our Long Goodbye,’ he confided in me.
I was burning to know how they were going to make California look. Since I had arrived, I’d been painting little landscapes with acrylics and gouache and was otherwise consumed with ‘looking’ each day. I’d have to wait until months later for the dailies to come back to have my question answered.
View from Greg G’s apartment, Santa Monica. Gouache on paper.
The mechanisms of pre-production worked their cycles. New departments came on slowly but surely. Locations and casting were the heavies to start with, but eventually, the production designer, Rick Heinrichs, the costume designer, Mary Zopheres, and art director, John Dexter would become more important for the boys. I’m happy to report that the fellas remained as self-reliant as ever-no Hollywood ego trips. I made amiable-like with all the new folks. I was in charge of arranging appointments for the boys, and in turn found that many of their cohorts were willing to show me what they were all about (Rick and John were particularly welcoming).
Round about this time, I was introduced to Alan J. Schoolcraft, a recruit sent over from Working Title. Shit, I thought, Just when I was carving out my niche, just when I had them on the five yard line, they bring in some competition.
I took one look at the Schoolcraft and thought there just wouldn’t be room enough for tWo. He was a hulking slab of a lad with a fuzzy blond head and devilishly raised eyebrows over his shinny Irish eyes. The guy was pushing thirty and had been out in La-La land for a few years. He originated from Connecticut and he had the looks of a guy right off the boat. We spent our first day together replacing the missing drawers to his desk and attempting to locate a workable chair. I was no help. Or at least as little help as I could manage. My first hint of misjudgement came when I saw that Schoolcraft at least knew how to stay shutup through the long afternoon hours waiting for urgent phone calls. He was an eager film guy who was just barely concealing his excitement at landing such a prime gig.
As time went on, I lowered my defences. I came to look forward to our days together, smoking cigarettes, working as the one-two punch for the boys. The side-effects of my Hollywood ambitions aside, I grew to regard Schoolcraft (now known as my pal Schooly D.), as my partner. Side by side we cut a strikingly svelte look: I felt like the mouse who removed a thorn from the lion’s paw. Fargo was now becoming a serious sideshow as awards season started to hit, and we were spending most of our time dealing with its success (and the boys’ unwillingness to play party to any of the hype). Things were moving along.
One afternoon during this time, I stopped into a mom and pop Indian joint located across the street from the production office. I wasn’t there more than a moment before I was addressed by a boy not more than four feet tall. His folks ran the place and while he wasn’t exactly the maitre-d, he saw fit quiz anyone who came in to eat. He wasted no time in working me over-found out who I was, what I did, could he listen to my Walkman?, could he touch my necklace?
The boy’s name was Sree, short for Sree Batchu Harry Laxmie Naraniea, and he rolled his ‘r’s like no one I’ve ever heard before; it was such a beautiful sound that I forced him into conversation in order to make him exercise this rare talent. He had big brown eyes that cast your reflection like a midnight lake; they had the hardened look of someone who had seen too much of life’s cruel realities. There was a strong sense of longing in them, but never innocence.
The kid was so damn charming that he kept me going back every-day for a few months. He was my shorty, and we’d hang out without fail each day. His brother and sister, aged nine and seven respectively, were around for a time during their Christmas vacation, and I would have the three of them talking at me, climbing on me at the same time. Sree, only four, could handle the two of them; he was fearless and lawless and he adored me. He had mad moxie and that suited me fine; I could use all the coolness that I could surround myself with amidst all the bubble heads of Hollywood.
To read Part One, click here.