By Jack Egan
Brothers and directors Ethan and Joel Coen are at the top of their game in their most recent film, No Country for Old Men.
The taut tale harks back to earlier Coen successes, such as Blood Simple, Fargo and MillerÃƒÂ¯Ã‚Â¿Ã‚Â½s Crossing. It matches them in cinematic craftsmanship, delivered by a talented production team of Coen film veterans led by director of photography Roger Deakins, ASC, who has done nine consecutive films with them.
Other crew keys who have all worked on past Coen films include costume designer Mary Zophres, sound designer Skip Lievsay and composer Carter Burwell. A new addition to the team is production designer Jess Gonchor, hailed for his work on Capote and The Devil Wears Prada.
The Coen brothers do their own editing under the tongue-in-cheek sobriquet Roderick Jaynes. According to the production notes, he is ÃƒÂ¯Ã‚Â¿Ã‚Â½widely admired in the film industry for his impeccable grooming and is the worldÃƒÂ¯Ã‚Â¿Ã‚Â½s foremost collector of Margaret Thatcher nudes, many of them drawn from real life.ÃƒÂ¯Ã‚Â¿Ã‚Â½
Set in west Texas in the early 1980s, the screenplay by the Coens is adapted from a novel of the same name by Pulitzer-prize winner Cormac McCarthy. No Country tells the story of an at-loose Army vet, Llewelyn Moss, played by Josh Brolin, who stumbles upon a suitcase with $2 million in cash at the site of a drug deal gone violently awry. He takes the money only to find himself relentlessly pursued by the assassin Chigurh, memorably played by Javier Bardem, a one-of-a-kind screen villain with a pageboy hairdo and a penchant for blowing people away when heÃƒÂ¯Ã‚Â¿Ã‚Â½s not toying with their lives by flipping a coin.
The Coens talked to Below the Line about the making of No Country, a Miramax and Paramount Vantage release. Though they donÃƒÂ¯Ã‚Â¿Ã‚Â½t look the same (Ethan is taller and has longer hair than Joel) they tend to finish each otherÃƒÂ¯Ã‚Â¿Ã‚Â½s sentences and often answer questions jointly, so they are identified as one in the following interview.
Below the Line: I understand you storyboard your movies shot by shot?
Joel and Ethan Coen: WeÃƒÂ¯Ã‚Â¿Ã‚Â½ve always done that.
BTL: What role does your DP, Roger Deakins, play in that process?
Coens: We usually do an initial version of the storyboards. Then we go through and do a second version with the storyboard artist and Roger sits in on that. So weÃƒÂ¯Ã‚Â¿Ã‚Â½re all in effect doing a second draft with Roger. We talk through how he might cover each scene. This is just the start of a long discussion we have with Roger about how the movie should look. ThatÃƒÂ¯Ã‚Â¿Ã‚Â½s how it usually works.
BTL: Because your storyboard and the shots are set up in advance, I assume youÃƒÂ¯Ã‚Â¿Ã‚Â½re quite economical. How many takes do you generally do?
Coens: We are pretty economical. WeÃƒÂ¯Ã‚Â¿Ã‚Â½re not Clint Eastwood doing one or two takes. But weÃƒÂ¯Ã‚Â¿Ã‚Â½re the next step above that. WeÃƒÂ¯Ã‚Â¿Ã‚Â½re more on the Clint Eastwood side than the Stanley Kubrick side.
BTL: What has made for such a long working relationship?
Coens: Roger is special. You have cinematographers who can shoot with beautiful interior lighting. And you have cinematographers who shoot beautiful exteriors ÃƒÂ¯Ã‚Â¿Ã‚Â½ if they have the right weather and atmospheric conditions. Few do what Roger does. He can do scenes with beautifully controlled interior lighting and heÃƒÂ¯Ã‚Â¿Ã‚Â½s also able to go out and do the exteriors to make something look right, which is very hard. Another difficult thing that Roger does well is scenes within cars. They look naturalistic and interesting and controlled and appropriate to the environment. All of that is really, really tough.
You often have a problem when youÃƒÂ¯Ã‚Â¿Ã‚Â½re shooting a lot of nighttime exteriors. You want to see whatÃƒÂ¯Ã‚Â¿Ã‚Â½s going on; but you donÃƒÂ¯Ã‚Â¿Ã‚Â½t want it to appear ÃƒÂ¯Ã‚Â¿Ã‚Â½lit.ÃƒÂ¯Ã‚Â¿Ã‚Â½ Like the scene where JoshÃƒÂ¯Ã‚Â¿Ã‚Â½s character, Llewellyn, returns during the night to where he found the suitcase with the money, and the others involved in the deal also come back suddenly. So Roger did the scene from really a great distance away. He meanwhile had to satisfy some very specific requirements. Take the car thatÃƒÂ¯Ã‚Â¿Ã‚Â½s on the ridge, with the dawn coming up in that direction. All of that was lit, and had to be controlled under really difficult circumstances during the shooting. He makes it look so easy, but itÃƒÂ¯Ã‚Â¿Ã‚Â½s not.
BTL: Could you talk about the end of that particular scene where Josh BrolinÃƒÂ¯Ã‚Â¿Ã‚Â½s character is trying to escape by jumping in the river, and the ferocious dog follows him in and continues to chase him?
Coens: We shot that scene over many, many days ÃƒÂ¯Ã‚Â¿Ã‚Â½ both at dawn and dusk ÃƒÂ¯Ã‚Â¿Ã‚Â½ so it looked like the dawn was breaking. We talked at length to Roger about it. We knew it would be a pain in the ass to shoot, but thatÃƒÂ¯Ã‚Â¿Ã‚Â½s the way we wanted to do it.
BTL: How was it working with the dog?
Coens: The animal turned out to be one of the most cooperative elements in that sequence, which says a lot. The dog was pretty good, but also a bit frightening because it was a real dog, not a movie dog.
BTL: This was the first film youÃƒÂ¯Ã‚Â¿Ã‚Â½ve made with production designer Jess Gonchor. I liked the interior of the old gas station where the coin flip scene takes place.
Coens: That was a derelict gas station we used. It has a great isolated-by-the-side-of-the-highway-and-forgotten-by-time feeling The skeleton was there but JessÃƒÂ¯Ã‚Â¿Ã‚Â½s work just made it totally right. There were also two big trees in front that had to have every leaf stripped from them to get the right barren feel.
One of the best things Jess did was the international bridge between the United States and Mexico. It was completely created by Jess on a freeway overpass in Las Vegas, N.M. That bridge is not picture postcard-perfect, itÃƒÂ¯Ã‚Â¿Ã‚Â½s not beautiful, itÃƒÂ¯Ã‚Â¿Ã‚Â½s not going to draw attention to itself, but itÃƒÂ¯Ã‚Â¿Ã‚Â½s incredibly authentic.
BTL: The movie is set in the 1980s which seems so long ago. His work did a lot to capture that bygone appearance.
Coens: We were, in a sense, doing a period movie and itÃƒÂ¯Ã‚Â¿Ã‚Â½s all very appropriate and convincing. But Jess doesnÃƒÂ¯Ã‚Â¿Ã‚Â½t hit you over the head with it. Like his work on Capote, this is extraordinary stuff he has done without the resources of a big budget.
BTL: Mary Zophres again was your costume designer.
Coens: The costumes perfectly complemented JessÃƒÂ¯Ã‚Â¿Ã‚Â½s production design, and there were so many subtle details in the clothes for all the characters, even the minor ones. WeÃƒÂ¯Ã‚Â¿Ã‚Â½ve used her for six or seven movies and wouldnÃƒÂ¯Ã‚Â¿Ã‚Â½t make a movie without her.
BTL: ChigurhÃƒÂ¯Ã‚Â¿Ã‚Â½s hairdo was so much a part of his weird, malevolent character. At first I thought it was a wig on Javier but then I learned it was his own hair, done by an Academy Award-winning hair stylist who had worked on several previous films for you.
Coens: No, It definitely wasnÃƒÂ¯Ã‚Â¿Ã‚Â½t a wig. It was styled by Paul Leblanc, who got an Oscar for Amadeus. He came out of retirement to do this for us. Javier at times would have preferred if it was a wig. He kept complaining about the hair. But it was perfect
BTL: How much were visual effects used in the blood-soaked shooting scenes? And much did you do it the traditional way, in camera?
Coens: Most of it was done in camera. Christien Tinsley is the makeup artist. We were looking a for a good blood
guy, and he had done Mel GibsonÃƒÂ¯Ã‚Â¿Ã‚Â½s The Passion of the Christ, so we knew he knew his stuff. The blowaway scenes, including the guy in the truck that gets shot point blank, the bullet extraction scene that Javier performs on himself, and the briefer one where Josh digs the buckshot from his shoulderÃƒÂ¯Ã‚Â¿Ã‚Â½those were nearly all ChristienÃƒÂ¯Ã‚Â¿Ã‚Â½s work.
BTL: Though the editor is identified as Roderick Jaynes, itÃƒÂ¯Ã‚Â¿Ã‚Â½s really the two of you who do the editing. How does such a joint editing process work?
Coens: Well, we each cut on our separate computers. First we review all the footage for a scene. And then each of us does a rough assembly, and we send it over to each otherÃƒÂ¯Ã‚Â¿Ã‚Â½s computers. ItÃƒÂ¯Ã‚Â¿Ã‚Â½s a strange and feedbacky kind of thing.
BTL: Do you have any division of responsibility while youÃƒÂ¯Ã‚Â¿Ã‚Â½re making a film?
Coens: Editing is the only area where there is even that small, almost insignificant, division in terms of the process.
BTL: Though there was a musical score, many of the scenes had only sound, which made a strong impact.
Coens: Skip Lievsay is extrarordinary. The sound design he did works like an added personality in the movie. WeÃƒÂ¯Ã‚Â¿Ã‚Â½ve worked with him on every movie since Blood Simple. Skip is the big creative force that comes in at the end. Skip also does all the re-recording and the dubs at the end of the movie.
Though thereÃƒÂ¯Ã‚Â¿Ã‚Â½s less music than in our other films, we have to mention the contributions of our composer Carter Burwell, who has done the music on all our films since Blood Simple. He and Skip work very closely complementing sound and music. TheyÃƒÂ¯Ã‚Â¿Ã‚Â½ve worked long enough with the two of us, they donÃƒÂ¯Ã‚Â¿Ã‚Â½t even tell us what theyÃƒÂ¯Ã‚Â¿Ã‚Â½re doing ÃƒÂ¯Ã‚Â¿Ã‚Â½ itÃƒÂ¯Ã‚Â¿Ã‚Â½s kind of like, ÃƒÂ¯Ã‚Â¿Ã‚Â½we know what you want.ÃƒÂ¯Ã‚Â¿Ã‚Â½
Written by Jack Egan