A Year with the Coen Brothers
I wasn’t prepared for how overwhelming the return to New York would be. I had gotten accustomed to the wide open spaces, and the freedom it gave my mind to wander. Immediately, New York was an assault on that sense of liberty. The greys (from the sidewalks and streets) and browns (from the brick buildings) were binding. It was still cold, and it would take my eyes some time to adjust to the beauties that can be found in the harsh angles and imposing structures of the city. It was great to be walking the streets again, especially since I wasn’t in the slightest way weighed down by the winter malaise; I floated through pedestrian traffic with a permanent smile, feeling both at home and broadened. I had a perspective now that distanced me from the eye-for-an-eye squabbles I could see festering in others; I didn’t take any of it seriously.
And though this grace period would eventually expire, I felt like the experience of being away for so long had given me a confidence, a sense of myself, that would have been impossible to achieve had I never left. I had much catching up to do with family and friends, and for the first few weeks it was like a homecoming. Inertia did set in, however, and I found myself in a position of re-evaluating relationships, and just how I planned to live my life. The lightness of living out of a bag for five months was a great training ground for the serious work I now had to attend to at home, where the gravity of old patterns soon returned. But I continued to draw and paint and that helped the transition plenty.
NYC model, charcoal on paper
Before the troops returned there was good news out of the west. In recognition of his valiant and noble service in the field, Joel and Ethan had offered Schoolcraft a fulltime position with the firm in New York. Holding the fabric together during an Oscar race is no little accomplishment. Schoolcraft, who had been wetting himself for weeks at the prospect of having no work, was thrilled and delighted. He called me fully damp one night, cooing like a schoolgirl after her first session of heavy petting, and he asked if I could put him up for a couple of days while he looked for a place to live.
I was happy to oblige and found his optimism touching (of course he wound up a month at my place). We were four deep in an apartment ideally suited for two, and yet the gang was genuinely sorry to see Schoolcraft go. That’s what a force the kid is; I can’t blame the Coen Brothers for wanting to hire him. He’d walk through fire to save a kitten, let alone two of the most respected film-makers in America today. The Coen Brothers are the only high-profile celebrities who can boast, “Our personal assistant can whup the stuffins outta your latch-key suck-boy anyday.”
I set up the cutting room on the sixth floor of the Brill Building in midtown Manhattan. It was a landmark building because of its importance in the music business dating from the Tin Pan Alley heyday through the Carol King 196os. Now, it had become an eleven-story anomaly, surrounded by huge skyscrapers, some less than ten years old. Inside, the building is split between two companies: Lorne Michael’s Broadway Video and Sound One. The only remnant of the music business was St Nicholas on the sixth floor. It’s an old-style office, with a long window of glass on the front door, with St Nicholas in painted lettering, and it was run by Benny (Time stands still for no one) Ross, who has been around since before the good old George M. Cohan days.
When I first worked for Sound One, in the summer of 1988, I was seventeen. My cousin Deborah, who was an ADR editor, hooked me up with a messenger’s job with the company that owned half of the Brill Building. It was the largest post-production house on the East Coast, and not only did it have transfer rooms and mixing studios, but it had editing suites as well. Benny Ross used to take all the new messengers down to his office and load them up with scores of horrible promotional records. His claim to fame was that his St Nicholas Music had published ‘Rudolph the Red-nose Reindeer’.
Benny was always a mensch. His wife passed away three or four years ago, and yet he’s always saying, hushing his voice, “You know, my wife recently passed.” He also is fond of telling the story about when he met Frank Sinatra in 1960. ..or was it 1958? Benny still wears the standard Sunshine Boys uniform: floppy fishing hat; wide collared shirt, about thirty-five years old; slacks hitched up half-way between his breasts and his waist, suspenders holding them up; a clear foot between the cuff of the pants and his ankles; dress shoes.
He’s up on the eighth floor of Sound One each morning like clockwork for his coffee, carrying his poundcake. Everyone knows and likes Benny. If you wander into him, it’s a sin not to take a few minutes out with him. He holds his hand out, gives you the gravelly, direct from Forest Hills greeting, “Hiihowareya?” He says it as one word, but lets it come out slow and syrupy. He’s got one of the sturdiest handshakes in the business. It breaks the mould: it’s firm, yet friendly. He is honest in telling you that he is a sad man and that he misses his wife greatly. But he shows up to work each day, with a resigned imperturbability and a fetching glide in those clunky shoes.
I safely transported the boys’ equipment from uptown and set up shop in the same rooms they cut the Hudsucker Proxy in. In one room, Joel and Ethan would work with Tricia, cutting the picture, and I’d be in the other room with an apprentice. Most of the editing world has graduated to the non-linear format of computer editing systems, but the guys have continued to work the old-fashioned way: they use a moviola and a Kern flatbed to cut. Actually, the three big shots I’ve worked for–Ken Burns, Woody Allen and now the Coens’–all used the antiquated technique of cutting on film. Tricia was actively lobbying for their graduation to an Avid system, which may be inevitable. But there is a defense for the guys’ system: if it ain’t broke. .. When they all made it back to New York and started cutting, there was a joy with which they took in the idiosyncrasies of the ancient machinery that approached adoration.
They went through the picture chronologically, first screening a complete scene and taking notes on which takes they preferred. Then after I broke down the picture and sound track into Moviola rolls (which simply means that the two pieces of film, held together with a rubber band, are wound into a roll on a flange), Ethan would pick the selected take and mark the head and tail of the shot, and then hand it to his right, where Joel was sitting in his Captain Kirk orthopaedic chair before the battleship Kern.. Joel would then cut the film into pieces. Hanging from the ceiling above Ethan’s station by a series of linking rubber bands was his grease pencil, the infamous ‘Jumpin’ Greaser’.
Joel’s pencil remained stationary in a groove just under the control panel on the Kern. It was known as ‘Senior Greaser’. Although ‘Senior Greaser’ had the senority and respect of Willis Reed, ‘Jumpy’ sold all the tickets, much like Julus Erving or Earvin Johnson. (I didn’t want to be left out, so I named mine, ‘Lil’ Weezer Greaser’, as well as knighting our apprentice Karyn’s pencil ‘Ms. Weezy Greazy’.)
These were the salad days. In no time the boys were back to their usual routines, back in their homes. Regularity being the key to a man’s happiness, both of the guys were relaxed and happy. As they went through the picture, chose the performances they liked, they started quoting lines. On some days they were chatty, and others pensive and introverted; no matter which, they maintained a workmanlike approach to the process, and kept liberal bankers’ hours. Some scenes would cut together seemlessly. Others took days and were finished with dissatisfaction.
The editing process seemed a lot like painting. Any time you want to change one section, you have to consider the effect on the whole; so where Bridges might have done a beautiful little turn in the close-up, if it didn’t match the wide shot, it had no meaning. Ultimately you are at the mercy of your materials; in film, what you’ve shot is what you’ve got. Most often I would hear them laughing over the rattle of the Moviola engine, like eager kids; their own best audience. I think the reason the boys like working on film is because it is labour-intensive, and time-consumming. The downtime you are granted while physically assembling the material gives you time to ruminate and think out exactly what you want to achieve with the scene. The Avid gives you instant access to all the material and when you want to rewind a scene five minutes, one click of the mouse takes you instantly back to the first shot. On a Kern, you have to wait as it’s rewinding. During these moments of boredom, you can see the picture moving backwards, and I believe it makes you more familiar with the pacing of the whole thing. This is intangible and for the most part, subconscious, but I think it’s accurate.
My only problem in adjusting to their behavior in the cutting room was a nasty habit of getting myself fired. Shit, in the first eight days of July, I got canned four times. Actually, the first time they canned me was not when I injured my foot but in late December, when I mistakenly put through a phone call that distinctly should not have been.
During July, a typical incident ran like this. I had already been fired once earlier in the day for failing to send a package overnight, when Joel calls me into the room. They were trying out a jump cut in a medium shot of Bridges. They had cut maybe two feet off Bridges. I walked in tentatively. They played it back and the jump cut was mistimed, as they lost a line of dialogue. They asked what I thought.
So I said, “Bridges started talking and nothing came out.” Joel smiled approvingly. “That’s right,” to Tricia and Ethan, “that’s exactly what he did. It’s called a ‘jump-cutí. For failing to identify it. .. You’re fired.”
“Can’t I just be grounded for once?”
“No, there’d be no fun in that,” says Ethan, and I left the room slumping.
I walk over to Karyn at her bench, still unbelieving. “It’s a good thing I got nine lives on this job, these guys are tearing the ass right outta me.”
“Alex,” she smiled, “I think it’s a sign of affection, man.”