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Strikes and Gutters: Part Four

A Year with the Coen Brothers

(Parts One, Two and Three)

IV

When we returned to work, anticipation for the start of the shoot was building up as quickly as the crew was expanding. My nerves were shot, as I woke up one morning and decided to quit smoking. I figured this would be the place to do it, but it didn’t stop me from wanting to shoot someone anyhow. Construction of the Dude’s apartment was near completion on one of the sound stages; locations, wardrobe, storyboards, props, set design were all in full motion. Roger Deakins, the DP, who had worked with the Coens since Barton Fink, returned from Morocco, where he’d been shooting the Dalai Lama movie for Scorsese. He joined Joel and Ethan, line producer John Cameron, first AD Jeff Raffner and location man Bob Graff on all the major scouts. The technical crew would then go in and further work out the logistics of each location. Tricia was going to be the script supervisor, so I knew the paperwork we received in the cutting room would be gorgeous. The plan was for me to sync the dailies and prepare the material for cutting, which would take place back east. The production had been negotiating a deal with the local union, and it was likely that they would allow me to do the job without becoming a member.

The awards season was swinging along too and Fargo was receiving a lot of attention. Schoolcraft and I spent much of our time with the publicity people at Grammercy, who were beginning to really push the movie. We also answered plenty of interview requests and public speaking requests with the customary corporate line, “They’d love to but they’re smack dab in the middle of pre-production for their next picture.” Around the production office there was a buzz about what might happen when Oscar time came round, a gleam in the eye of all those easily seduced by the glamour and glitz. But the boys couldn’t have cared less. Joel was much more interested in whether Frances was winning awards, and Ethan, the consummate man-behind the-curtain, wanted everything to be over as quickly and painlessly as possible.



For me, everything was still clicking. In late January, ten days before production began, I got a package from home. It was mid-morning in California, sunny and 70. It was a box from Espositos, my favourite local pork sausage store on Court Street, in Brooklyn. Compliments of my brother. And what sorely missed treats they were! My appetite started to soar: prosciutto, smoked mozzarella, a block of Parmigiano-Reggiano, sopprasata, calamata olives, roasted peppers. I could barely conceal my glee-all that authentic, savoury goodness in one package. I started jumping around with visions of that night’s meal when I got a call from my homeboy Ray. He was going to be in town for the weekend. Everything was looking just wunnerful.

I was so amped that I skipped out early for lunch and joined a group of the guys from construction to shoot some hoops. They had started pick up games a few weeks earlier and I was grateful for the outlet. This Mexican kid, Phil, had a lollipop three-point shot that was fairly accurate; the rest of the dudes were just bodies, out there giving it beaucoup hustle, blowing off midday steam. Then there was the nemesis. He was a bit older than me, dirty blond hair, and work boots. A real dipshit Los Angelino cracker with a pretty good game and an avid dislike for anything that had to do with New York. Since I was a walking advertisement for my hometown, always rocking my Yankee cap, often wearing a John Starks or a Pat Ewing jersey, he didn’t like me even a little bit. I got nothing but dirty looks from this guy for weeks and that only peppered up my game.

Not to say that I was any kind of Basketball Jones, but I played an East Coast style of ball, aggressive, challenging, vocal. If you aren’t that good, at least have some chutzpah. This guy didn’t like me before we started playing, so my game really got under his skin, especially when I wound up taking advantage of the lesser players and ended up on the winning side. On this particular day, I was on fire. My team won the first two games and every horseshit shot I tossed up found its way through the net. (They even had nets in California!) My nemesis was livid. We decided to play on last game. He was itching to beat me just once, and his squad built up a quick 9- 3 lead in a game to 11. It was just before noon and we were getting winded under that sun, but I found a last bit of energy and started hogging the shots and soon it was 9 -7.

The game was getting very physical and the dipshit and I were banging bodies. The last thing he wanted was to blow this lead and have to live with my NYC cockiness another day. The two of us were under the basket when someone missed a shot. We both went up for the ball. Our faces were right next to each other. Then we came down. I heard a pop and felt my right side give. I had turned my right foot on one of his workboots. And that was that.

The game ended. The guys stood around me with that helpless sense of not-knowing what to do, waiting for the injured party to indicate how serious this all may be. I knew I couldn’t walk on it, so I threw my arms around two of the guys and we made our way back.

As we approached the studio, Sree and his brother and sister came running and hollering about when was I going to visit them for lunch. Then screaming, what happened, what happened? I told them to make way and that I would see them later. “He ain’t comin’ to play today,” someone chimed in. I was set down just outside the first soundstage on the back of a truck in the hot sun. My comrades left and someone was supposedly rounding up some help.

Turns out that the bastard was broken; fractured in two places. The only thing the medics wanted from me was to know what movie I was working on. They brought a specialist in who put my leg in a soft cast and told me to keep it elevated before they gave it a proper cast on Monday morning. I would be on crutches for six to eight weeks. Maybe this was a test to keep my mind distracted from not smoking. I was desperate for a rationalization.

When I finally get back to the studio, the place was bare (the entire crew having been holed up in a production meeting for hours). As it started to get dark and people began trickling out of the meeting, bleary-eyed I waited for Joel and Ethan. All anyone was interested in was what kind of painkillers I was prescribed. When I said Viccadin, they all had a mouth-watering look in their eyes. It was a small consolation.

I saw Joel first and he put his arm around me and started laughing with sympathy when I told him the diagnosis. A few minutes later, Ethan came around. He approached slowly and whatever he wanted to say was held back. He winced and scrunched his face and then slowly he said, “Did it…Did it smart?”

Tricia drove me home to Santa Monica in her VW Bug. We got ten blocks away then turned back because of something she forgot. She apologized profusely, but had to pick up her dress for the Golden Globes. I rolled with it. As if I had a choice. We actually had an enlightening conversation on the dilemma women have to confront concerning their figures in LA. I’m about faint. I popped the first in a long line of the Viccadins and bumped and bounced in the backseat with my Italian victuals on my lap. Ready for that wunnerful weekend.

Me and My Crew: the Goon Squad is in the House

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"This ain't football. We do this every day."
--Earl Weaver