In the winter of 1997 I was in L.A. on a job. I invited a woman to see a Buster Keaton movie at a place called Old Town Music Hall. She stood me up, but I went anyway and had one of the greatest nights of my life. I recently visited L.A. and went back to see another Buster movie at the Music Hall. Good to know such a place exists, you know?
[Photo Credit: Ambitus Orchestra]
When I was 25 I got a job with the Coen brothers. I’d worked on 3 movies as an apprentice film editor and got a gig with them as a personal assistant when they made The Big Lebowski. I was with them for a year, from before pre-production through post-production (when they edited the movie, I transitioned from personal assistant to one of the assistant film editors). It was a memorable time, one that I’ve recounted often throughout the years when people tell me how much they love the movie. Now, I’ve got a long behind-the-scenes story, The Dudes Abide: The Coen Brothers and the Making of The Big Lebowski, over at Kindle Singles.
Here’s a little taste.
Joel and Ethan Coen were waiting for John Goodman to finish taking a leak. It was just after lunch on Dec. 10, 1996, and Joel, who’d turned 42 a few weeks earlier, was looking out a large window at the Hollywood Hills. It was raining again.
“That’d be just our luck, Eth,” Joel said. “Spend a whole winter in Minnesota and it doesn’t snow, then we come here and it fucking rains.”
Joel, older by three years, stood with his hands in his sweatshirt pockets. His black hair tied in a ponytail, small round glasses across his nose, he could have passed for the Ramones’ long-lost brother—the one who went to graduate school.
“The fucking rainy season,” he said.
On this rainy afternoon in L.A., Goodman and Jeff Bridges were meeting for the first time to read through a new Coen brothers screenplay called The Big Lebowski. Bridges was still stuck in traffic when Goodman returned from the can. He sat on the edge of the couch, legs open, his belly hanging so low it looked like he was sitting on the floor, and started quoting lines fromFargo. Goodman, a friend of the Coens since he worked with them on their second movie,Raising Arizona, laughed about the scene where William Macy tried to escape out of a motel window, only to be dragged back inside by the cops.
“Macy in his underwear,” Goodman said, giggling.
“That’s our answer to everything,” Ethan said. “You need a dramatic fall, put a character in his undies.”
Joel told Goodman about re-recording dialogue for the profanity-free television version ofFargo. They rewrote the line, “I’m fucking hungry now” to “I’m full of hungry now.”
“Why didn’t we write it like that originally?” said Joel. “It’s funnier.”
Goodman said, “Who else is coming on this show?” (In Los Angeles, movie people call a movie a “show.”)
There was Steve Buscemi as Donny, Julianne Moore as Maude, Jon Polito as Da Fino.
Joel said, “Our friend Luis, who was an assistant film editor on Hudsucker, will be playing the enraged Mexican.”
“Yeah, you’ll like Luis,” Ethan said in a creaky voice. “He makes a big statement.”
“Turturro is coming in to play the pederast,” Joel said. “He said he’d do his best F. Murray Abraham.”
Much of the cast was in place save for Bunny and Brandt and, critically, the Big Lebowski. You know, the other Jeffrey Lebowski, the tycoon whose Pasadena mansion is both miles and worlds away from the Dude’s rundown bungalow. With just over a month left before filming began, the Boys—as Joel and Ethan were known by colleagues and friends—weren’t close to casting the title role.
The trouble was that most of the actors they wanted were dead. Raymond Burr? Dead. Fred Gwynne? Dead. Anthony Perkins, Marty Balsam, Chuck Connors? All dead. Brian Keith was ill (he died less than a year later). Jason Robards was said to be having health problems.
The original Lebowski list was dubbed “Mussburger lists”—referring to Paul Newman’s character from The Hudsucker Proxy. It included Tommy Lee Jones (too young), Robert Duvall (not interested, didn’t get it), Anthony Hopkins (not interested, wouldn’t play an American), Gene Hackman (not interested, wanted a vacation), and Jack Nicholson (not interested, only wanted to play Moses).
Another Lebowski wish list followed, a wild collection of names that included Norman Mailer, Jerry Falwell, Gore Vidal, William F. Buckley, Jonathan Winters, and General Norman Schwarzkopf. Also, venerable actors like Fred Ward, Carroll O’Connor, Hoyt Axton, Ned Beatty, Peter Boyle, Richard Mulligan, Michael Caine, Jackie Cooper, Bruce Dern, and Paul Dooley. Ernest Borgnine was included, as were Larry Hagman, James Coburn, Andy Griffith, and Lloyd Bridges.
The choices narrowed—Rod Steiger, George C. Scott, Charles Durning, Pat Hingle. Then, the impossible dream: Brando. It was a good dream, too, though unlikely. Brando had certainly grown into the role but he was eccentric, expensive, and didn’t much like to work. Still, the idea amused the Boys no end, and for weeks they quoted the Big Lebowski’s lines in a Brando accent: “Condolences, the bums lost,” Joel said with his jaw pushed out to look like Brando inThe Godfather.
“Strong men also cry,” Ethan replied.
But their favorite was, “By God, sir, I will not abide another toe.”
The Dudes Abide is available now. You don’t need to own a Kindle to read it. So long as you have a device that is connected to the Internet, you can download the Kindle App—to your phone or computer—and then purchase the story.
I recently told a friend of my interest in telling stories with pictures and he recommended Cartooning, by Ivan Brunetti. This slim volume is a written version of a class Brunetti teaches on the cartoon format (he doesn’t care for the terms graphic novel and I don’t blame him). It is broken down into a 15-week course. There is no point in cheating or cutting corners. Brunetti insists that the reader, or student, follow each assignment. If they do, they’ll arrive at a place where they’ve acquired some fundamentals.
Dig this, from Brunetti’s introduction:
Most Italian dishes are made up of a few simple but robust ingredients, the integrity of which should never be compromised. It is a straightforward, earthy, spontaneous, unpretentious, improvisatory, and adaptable cuisine, where flavor is paramount: not novelty, not fashion, not cleverness, and not prettiness. If it tastes good, it will perforce also look good (note that the inverse is also true). It is a cuisine entirely based on a relative few, but solid and time-tested, principles. The techniques are not complicated, just hard; mastering them really takes only time, care, and practice. Originality, as Marcella Hazan instructs, is not something to strain for: “It ought never to be a goal, but it can be a consequence of your intuitions.” One plans a meal around what is available and what is most fresh, usually a vegetable, allowing this ingredient to suggest each course.
…Once you know the basic principles, what you are “going for,” you can add your own personal touch. The most important thing is the potential misstep at the beginning that can ruin the entire dish: don’t burn the garlic. If you do, it will not matter what fancy or expensive ingredient you add to try to cover it up; it will still taste bad. Thus, what I hope, in essence, is that by the end of the book you will learn not to “burn the garlic” and to create art based on sound principles.
[Picture by Will Eisner]
For the last six months, my magazines, once a beloved and essential part of my media diet, have been piling up, patiently waiting for some mindshare, only to be replaced by yet another pile that will go unread. I used to think that people who could not keep up with The New Yorker were shallow individuals with suspect priorities. Now I think of them as just another desperate fellow traveler, bobbing in a sea of information none of us will see to the bottom of. We remain adrift.
As Alexis Madrigal wrote in The Atlantic, “it is easier to read ‘Ulysses’ than it is to read the Internet. Because at least ‘Ulysses’ has an end, an edge. Ulysses can be finished. The Internet is never finished.”
Some days, when I board the bus or train to the city, I’ll stash a print copy of The Journal in my bag with a magazine or two, in high hopes of reading them. And after I settle in, I will check my email on my phone. The relevant message usually comes in faster than I can get rid of it. Sometimes when people ask what I do for a living, I am tempted to say that I write emails.
…Still, there was some trouble in paradise on the Ethan Allen Express. More than a few people around me were cursing the indifferent Wi-Fi as they desperately tried to remain tethered to the grid. Behind me, a passenger made serial phone calls in a mind-erasing loud voice. “I’m on the train!” he would always begin.
It struck me that part of the reason we always stay jacked in is that we want everyone — at the other end of the phone, on Facebook and Twitter, on the web, on email — to know that we are part of the now. If we look away, we worry we will disappear.
We are all on that train, the one that left print behind, the one where we are constantly in real time, where we know a little about everything and nothing about anything, really. And there is no quiet car.
[Picture by Bags]