For as accomplished as Joel and Ethan Coen’s debut film Blood Simple comes across to any viewer, like any director, they can’t help but recognize their flaws. That’s not to say their newly restored first film, now available on The Criterion Collection, doesn’t look and sound gorgeous — every bead of sweat dripping down M. Emmet Walsh’s face and every gun blow feels like you’re right there in the sweltering Texas landscape — but there’s an undeniable charm in their recounting of the making of the film.
With it being the first time most of the major talent involved was doing their specific job, it was a learning experience through and through, which makes the special features on new release all the more informative and entertaining. The most substantial feature on the disc is a 70-minute discussion with the directors and cinematographer Barry Sonnenfeld as they take a chronological tour through the film, featuring Telestrator video illustrations, discussing their technical mistakes, but also admitting that much of it lead to a boldness virtually non-existent in the genre at that time.
We’ve rounded up the highlights from the special features below, with much more available on the release.
The Coens pitched Blood Simple as more of a horror/exploitation to investors.
Inspired by their close friend Sam Raimi and how he pulled together the financing for The Evil Dead by going around to business owners in Detroit, they initially pitched the film more as a horror/exploitation movie — traces of which can certainly be seen in the final film — due to being able to make it more cheaply. They also created a sales pitch trailer (which can be seen below) featuring Bruce Campbell, since it was far more difficult to sell an investor just on a script. While collecting $550,000 — including from a urologist, who delivered script notes splattered with blood — as they continued to develop the movie it leaned more towards “hard-boiled fiction,” rather than a typical horror film, partly inspired by high-profile, non-fiction Texas murder stories at the time.
Frances McDormand got the part through her roommate Holly Hunter, who auditioned.
“We were going to a lot of theater in New York, trying to find people who were interesting and might be able to play the parts in the movie,” Joel says. “One of the things that we went and saw was “Crimes of the Heart,” a Beth Henley play that Holly was doing, and we thought Holly was really interesting.” Even though she came into test for the role, the actress was committed to doing another play at the time, but she told her then-roommate, Frances McDormand, to audition, and the rest is history. In fact, one of the reasons she got the part is because she pushed back her audition so she could see her then-boyfriend act in a soap opera. Because “she didn’t seem like she needed it,” it made for the right fit, and that lack of neediness she’s carried through her entire career. The Coens also partly attribute McDormand’s character acting surprised throughout the film because she’s so shocked she got the part, one of her first film credit out of drama school.
Blood Simple is the most colorful film they’ve done, according to the cinematographer.
“I think this is the most colorful film we ever did, either together or separately,” Sonnenfeld says, as he looks at the neon lighting in the bar, which initially came out like “a bad porn” before he printed down the footage. “Most of the production design budget went to neon,” Joel adds. While much of the rest of the Coens’ oeuvre has a distinct overall feel specific to the film, Blood Simple is a bit more scrappy. ”Every movie that we’ve done subsequently there has been a sort of a general palette that sort of begun with the production designer. This one was not done that way,” the director says.
The beauty of unmotivated cinematography.
A considerable amount of the extended discussion on the disc has to do with the “unmotivated” decisions on a technical side, as it pertains both with the lighting and the camera moves. “We were doing everything we did on purpose and we had a plan and we wanted it look very much like the way it looked, and in fact we all got a lot of credit from critics and stuff because it looked not like a handheld, first-time, by-the-seat-of-their-pants movie. It was very anally thought out,” Sonnenfeld says. “What we weren’t doing was going into it thinking, ‘It will look like what it looks like. Who cares? It’s more about the staging, etc.’ We were all interested in the photographic look of the movie and each scene in particular. That was very important to us,” Joel adds.
The trio get a kick out of pointing out various places in which light sources seemingly show up out of random, from a non-existent lamp lighting McDormand’s face to the finale featuring light pouring through the bullet holes from different angles. “The short side of a face is always the side you want to light on,” the cinematographer says. “You always want to light for beauty and not for accuracy.”
Joel also recounts a story after meeting the cinematographer behind Days of Heaven and a number of French New Wave masterpieces: “After the movie was done, I had met in some context Néstor Almendros, who was talking about the scene at the end where the light comes through the bullet holes. He said, ‘Of course you know that light doesn’t behave that way,’ but he loved the scene. He said, ‘I would never do that. I would never get away with that.’ As Ethan was saying, there was some kind of idiotic charm to it that he really liked. So, yeah, we probably would have done it differently, but it probably would have been something else, and not as interesting.”
The Coens were inspired by Stanley Kubrick, The Conformist, and Wim Wenders.
As an extension of their discussion of unmotivated cinematography, they discuss those that most influenced them at the time. From Stanley Kubrick “having no rules” about lighting when it came to Dr. Strangelove to the way the venetian blinds moved in Bernardo Bertolucci and Vittorio Storaro’s The Conformist, they also drew on inspiration from Wim Wenders and Robby Müller in The American Friend. “We were just blown away by the look of that movie,” Sonnenfeld says. “There’s some beautiful and evocative, but unmotivated camera moves in American Friend, which also I remember [influenced us],” Joel adds. “They’re beautiful and they always felt appropriate to what was going on in the scene, even if you didn’t quite know why.”
He goes on to say, “We were definitely not in the camp where every camera move has to be motivated. We weren’t in that strict kind of Puritan mode of the camera only moves if the character is moving or to emphasis something. Sometimes it can move just because it moves because it’s a beautiful time to move the camera or the shot will be beautiful.” “That’s a Storraro and Bertolluci thing also. Also a big Scorsese thing, obviously,” Ethan attributes.
Martin Scorsese was on their fantasy cast list.
Speaking of Scorsese, they discussed a dream wish for their cast, which featured the director. “We talked about fantasy-wise, hiring Scorsese to play the Dan Hedaya role,” Sonnenfeld says, ”but we were nervous that whenever we decided to put the camera somewhere, Scorsese would be like shaking his head no. Scorsese was another big influence in terms of you look at Mean Streets and what the camera does in that movie that has nothing to do with what the characters are doing.”
The Coens have used extensive storyboards from the start.
While they often don’t see the light of day, it’s no secret that the Coens rely heavily on storyboards to help prepare for the shoot — something they started from the very beginning of their career. “Our storyboards were so elaborate. There was one that was a floor plan that showed where the cameras and the actors were for each single shot. Another corner was a normal storyboard and on the bottom was an area for comments like car, lighting effect, or rain,” Sonnefeld says about the film they shot in 42 days.
“Some directors want to throw everything up in the air and see where it lands and they can make great stuff out of that. It’s really how they work fundamentally and get great results. We’re kind of the other end of the spectrum, where we’re more comfortable if we have a plan even if we strike a distance from that plane if we’re shooting, given circumstances,” Joel adds.
Endless rewatches of Mad Max: The Road Warrior proved useful.
While they’ve never made a full-on action film, one of the staples in the genre was a major inspiration for the directing duo. Referencing the way they shot the handful of driving sequences in the film, Ethan says, “You know that low-angle sort of bumper stuff was very much inspired by the second Max Max movie, The Road Warrior, which we saw right before shooting the movie.” Sonnenfeld adds, “I think we had a Laserdisc of it and watched it over and over again and noticed a lot of stuff, like the truck was barely moving, but the camera moved so fast and we learned a lot from watching that movie over and over again in slow-motion.”
Blood Simple’s key grip inspired Burn After Reading.
In creating a contraption to be used to in the scene in which Frances McDormand goes from staring at the fish in the office to her head hitting her pillow, little did the Coens know it would relate to one of their features over two decades later. Their key grip Tom Prophet came with a lot of experience — “It would be like getting Leonardo DiCaprio to suddenly be in your first movie. He was the Leonardo of grips,” says Sonnefeld — and told them he saw a $300 dollar sex machine in Hustler magazine, but he thought he could make it for his wife for just a few bucks. So, with this knowledge, the directors figured Prophet could also create something to use for McDormand to fall back on while the camera follows her. “A couple of decades later we got more use out of it. It’s basically where George Clooney’s character in Burn After Reading came from,” Ethan says. “He’s a home hobbyist who makes sex machines in his basement.”
The Coens attribute much of their success to luck.
Even while nitpicking their debut, reflecting on the overall journey of making it, “as an experience making the movie, it was great,” Ethan says. “I’m sure Joel would agree, [it was] by far the most fun, because it was all new. It was stimulating when it’s new.” His brother concludes, “Luck plays such a huge role in every aspect of making movies, from whether or not you’re lucky enough for the right person to see it or write the right thing about it in the end to whether or not you get fucked by the weather on something you only have four hours to shoot. It’s both part of what makes making movies very exciting and also part of what makes it hairy. Generally speaking, we’ve been very lucky.”
Blood Simple is now available on The Criterion Collection.