A Year with the Coen Brothers
It was raining more than usual in LA. I couldn’t believe how the already poor-driving public frenzied at the slightest shower. It never really poured, it was more like a steady spritz that could go on for hours, sometimes days. The six o’clock news broadcast bulletins as if a typhoon had hit. Since the boys planned a lot of location shooting, the potential for having to reschedule off the cuff became a very real possibility. “That’d be just our luck, Eth,” Joel said one raining afternoon in mid-December, “We spend a whole winter in Minnesota and it doesn’t snow. We come here and it fucking rains.” He looked out on to the West Hollywood skyline, which was pea-soup grey, as droplets of rain hit the pane of the big office window.
It was on this afternoon that I got to sit in with the boys as they read with Jeff Bridges and John Goodman for the first time. Goodman had a break in his TV schedule and for three days the four of them met in Joel and Eth’s office and read through the scenes between Walter and the Dude. I was asked to sit in and read Steve Buscemi’s part, Donny-the third stooge, as it were. It was the first meeting between Bridges and Goodman and they seemed as different as their respective characters. Goodman was blunt and responsive. The familiarity he and the boys shared was immediately apparent. Without much direction from the boys, it was clear that when he’d heard what he needed, he then performed right into it. This was when the boys would start to hyperventilate, laugh like they were choking. They loved to see their creations come to life, and Goodman was the guy to do it.
Bridges processed information a bit differently. He was a natural questioner and took his time going over the specific line readings, like, “When the Dude says ‘huh’ here, now, why is he saying that?” He seemed to be a real searcher for the truth in what he was going to be saying and doing. The four of these guys would read through the script, then talk it over.
Taking it all in (drawing of my friend Adrian). Oil on paper.
They were all so human about the process. The actors felt their way with the same awkwardness, flatness that I had heard in college rehearsals. But what separated these guys was the rate at which they got over that and really started to develop a rapport with their characters. The foundation of Walter and the Dude’s relationship lay in the rhythm of their back and forth.
“When you hear it for the first time, it actually seems to me that the Dude and Walter aren’t so different in sensibility,” Bridges tried, leaning back in his chair.
Ethan, chewing on a toothpick, paced back and forth. “One of them always has to be angry.”
Joel, on the couch, sat up. He was looser and more demonstrative than I’d ever seen him. Even sultry. The boys were enjoying the energy of the performers and it rubbed off on their demeanours.
“It’s like the relationship,” Joel explained, “like the relationship you have with your mother. Like, the Dude can’t help it, but Walter pushes his buttons; it’s that relationship you have with someone, where they can drive you fucking nuts. It’s definitely a ying-yang thing. It’s trading off: when one is calm, the other is popping.”
He paused for a moment and the four of them hung in their own thoughts. Then Joel continued: “In away, the movie is about how these two interact. ..In a way, it’s a portrait of a dysfunctional marriage.”
Ethan finished, “It’s like a George and Gracie thing.” Joel and Ethan were taking turns, cueing one another with that unconscious fluidity that can exist between brothers.
“Walter talks as if he’s used to people listening to him, even though he’s full of shit,” said Ethan.
“For all his bullshit, he’s right.” Joel added, “Walter’s like a completely genuine person even when he’s wrong. In that sense, none of it is bullshit.”
“He’d take the hill.” Ethan finished, again.
Goodman listened and then freestyled some chatter in character. The boys hyperventilated with laughter again.
They gave it a bit more, then called it a day. I left the experience with a new appreciation for the working processes of actors, and with the sense that they appreciate a good script and a confident and clear-thinking duo like Joel and Ethan. Professional and fun. I was also privately tickled that I read Buscemi’s role, if only because I had Goodman yelling shut the fuck up at me. The energy that brought the boys out of themselveswas that same little kid energy again. They were well prepared, loved actors and loved watching what they’d prepared come to life. Joel’s sultriness had been striking to me. I didn’t expect it. I was talking with Frances, still back in New York, after that first rehearsal and said, “Lady, I know why you married the guy.”
During the holiday vacation I packed up and took a tour of the countryside up to San Francisco, where I spent a rainy, displaced Christmas in the Latino section of town called the Mission. The highlight of my stay was seeing Nick Park’s “Creature Comforts” and “The Wrong Trousers” for the first time, at the Castro movie theater. The drive on Highway I was not a disappointment; it is all it’s cracked up to be. The land was stunning. Hills were rolling, valleys were dipping in a scale that I was totally unaccustomed to. Santa Barbara-just God’s country if there ever was a place. Most of the people I ran across, however, seemed utterly spoiled by the beauty of it all-never seen such a high concentration of tight-assed wine-and-cheese-eating snobs–of all races and creeds–in my life.
I met up with Ethan and Tricia for Italian food one night in the Mission. They had taken a trip together, without Buster their baby boy, and were all lovable and hugable. I talked to Ethan about The Long Goodbye. Ethan is a Chandler fan, and really loves Hammett. “Curry Brand Catfood. Yeah, that’s the best movie Altman ever made.”