Making it big
After the Oscar success of Fargo, the Coen brothers stay on form with The Big LEbOWSki. Words: Lila Rawlings
When Ethan and Joel Coen won an Oscar for the screenplay of Fargo in I996. they were stunned. Anyone who has seen it or any of their earlier movies - such as Blood Simple and The Hudsucker Proxy — could take a good guess at why. By Hollywood standards, their movies are low-budget, and thus assumed to have limited appeal. And then there’s the subject matter.
In a Coen brothers film. quirky. unworldly characters find themselves thrown into bizarre situations where really weird things just keep on happening. Not the sort of
thing that usually appeals to the great and the good of
Tinsel Town. But these films are exceptionally well crafted. beautifully written and manage to be dark. funny and intelligent all at the same time. In other words. they are difficult for Hollywood to ignore.
‘We were actually wrong about Fargo,’ admits Ethan. ‘It cost $6 million to make and we thought it would be a small movie. We’re not really interested in making big budget movies. Those kind of movies have to have massive commercial appeal and we prefer being free to make what we want.’
If their subject matter seems a little strange for Hollywood tastes. so too is the way they make their movies. At a time when the likes of James Cameron have been elevated to God-like status. it’s unusual to find two filmmakers so happy to share not only the praise. but also the creative process of putting a movie together.
‘Basically. we come up with an idea for a movie and then we sit in a room and talk a scene back and
20 THE UST 3O Apr-l4 May 1998
'We really wanted to do a movie about LA, in the same way that Blood Simple was about Texas and Barton Fini‘t was about Hollywoorl.’ .in Coen
Oh, brother: Joel and Ethan Coen on the set of The Big Lebowski
forth.‘ explains Joel. ‘We don’t split it up. or go off
and write separate bits. It’s the way we’ve been working for fifteen years. lt’s the same with directing in that we really co-direct. The decisions we make are mutual.‘
The idea for their latest film. The Big Lebowski. came from a couple of wacky characters they knew in
Los Angeles and from their love of the books of
Raymond Chandler. the godfather of gritty crime writing. ‘The main character. The Dude. is loosely based
on a guy we know who’s really an old hippie. a bit of
a pot-head who lives in an old beach bungalow.’ says Joel. ‘Plus we really wanted to do a movie about LA. in the same way that Blood Simple was about Texas and Barton Fink was about Hollywood.’
The script was written
Bridges before he made The Fisher King in l99l. and since two of the characters were written specifically for John Turturro and John Goodman. the brothers had to wait until all the cast could commit.
The plot revolves around a case of mistaken identity — Jeff Lebowski aka The Dude (fortysomething slacker) is mistaken for Jeffrey Lebowski (ageing millionaire with trophy wife). It's
more complex and meandering than their films of
late. but the characters are a dream. The best scenes take place in the local bowling alley where The Dude and his two buddies. loud-mouthed Vietnam vet Walter and mild-mannered ex-surfer Donny. get together to do what blokes do.
‘Bowling in the States is kind of like darts here.’ suggests Ethan. ‘lt’s a sport. but the drinking and smoking and talking that you do whilst playing are really important.’
Maybe. but there's no cameo role for Jocky Wilson. is there?
Selected release from Fri 8 May. See review, page 22.
before Fargo and given to Jeff
The column that's Performance- related.
‘OFTEN, THE FAILURES of the world have more interesting |ives,' states documentary filmmaker Kevin McDonald. From the Scot who has made films about such 'failures' as Emeric Pressburger — McDonald's grandfather and Michael Powell’s collaborator — and Eric Campbell — Charlie Chaplin’s sidekick from sunny Dunoon — comes another tragic tale.
Credit for one of British cinema’s most defining moments, 1970's Performance has tended to go to Nicolas Roeg, yet Donald Cammell's name is right there beside Roeg’s. The Ultimate Performance centres around Edinburgh-born Cammell's bizarre suicide in 1996.
'He shot himself in a way so reminiscent of the calculated shooting in Performance, when James Fox shoots Mick Jagger,’ explains McDonald. 'You see the bullet going through the head, a picture of the writer Borges appears and the bullet smashes through it. Cammell's last words were "Can you see the picture of Borges?".’
It gets odder. ‘He lived for about 40 minutes afterwards because he’d studied how to shoot himself in the head and have a, supposedly, ecstatic death. I just thought that was so strange, that this film from 30 years before was some kind of summation of something about him.’
As contributors to McDonald's film recall, Cammell appeared to have a death-wish. 'It wasn't failure that drove him to it,’ insists McDonald. 'Someone else says that he wanted to kill himself when he was on a high and his wife says that he wanted to experience death.’
Intriguing death may also be the subject of McDonald's next work, which rests on new information and conspiracy theories about the slaughter of eleven Israeli athletes at the 1972 Munich Olympics. (Brian Donaldson)
3 Kevin McDonald introduces screenings of The Ultimate Performance at the Glasgow Film Theatre on Mon 4 May and Edinburgh Filmhouse on Tue 5 May.
Rock god: Mick Jagger in Performance