At the start of 2007, the Coen Brothers were not in a good place in their careers. Even after the major success of “O Brother Where Art Thou” and the critical acclaim of “The Man Who Wasn’t There,” they weren’t able to get their Brad Pitt-starring adaptation of James Dickey‘s WWII novel “To the White Sea” financed, and two commercially-aimed star-laden pictures, “Intolerable Cruelty” and “The Ladykillers,” had disappointed financially and seen them pick up the worst reviews of their careers.
But that was all about to change, because at the Cannes Film Festival that year, the Coens premiered their adaptation of Cormac McCarthy‘s brutal neo-Western “No Country For Old Men,” the tale of an ordinary man (Josh Brolin) who comes across the spoils of a drug deal gone bad, only to be hunted by a remorseless killer (Javier Bardem), while a local sheriff (Tommy Lee Jones) follows the trail of blood and destruction left behind them. It was tremendously well received, became their most financially successful film up to that point, and won Best Picture, Best Director, Best Screenplay and Best Supporting Actor, for Bardem, at the Academy Awards. The film hit theaters five years ago today, on November 9th 2007, and to mark the occasion, we’ve picked out five things you might not know about “No Country For Old Men.” Read on below.
1. Mark Strong was lined up to play Anton Chigurh when it looked like Javier Bardem might not be able to do it.
It’s almost impossible to imagine the film without Javier Bardem‘s Oscar-winning, bowl-cutted performance as the mysterious and psychopathic cattle gun-wielding murderer Anton Chigurh. And Bardem was the Coens’ first choice for the part, despite the Spanish actor telling them he hated violence, couldn’t drive, wasn’t comfortable speaking English and had never fired a gun. And for a time, it seemed that Bardem’s schedule wasn’t going to work out, and the Coens turned to another oft-villainous actor who had impressed in auditions, “Sherlock Holmes” and “Kick-Ass” star Mark Strong. The actor (then best known for a small role in Stephen Gaghan‘s “Syriana“) told Total Film: “I was phoned one weekend and told, ‘Listen Javier’s dates don’t work,’ so for a few days I was thinking, ‘Wow, I‘m actually going to work with the Coen brothers.’ ” It’s unclear what Bardem’s potential conflict was, although “Goya’s Ghosts” and “Love In the Time of Cholera” both filmed around the same period. But as it turns out, it didn’t matter, and Bardem was able to do it. Let’s hope that the Coens are able to work the ever-excellent Strong into something else down the line.
2. The late Heath Ledger was offered the lead role of Llewellyn Moss.
One of the many tragic things about the passing of Heath Ledger was the thought of all the directors that the actor never got to work with that could have resulted in amazing work. Ledger did extremely well in his short 28 years — Ang Lee, Christopher Nolan, Todd Haynes, Terry Gilliam — and he was becoming an increasingly hot ticket at the time of his death, and his performance in “The Dark Knight” would surely have made him all the more so. What’s even more tragic is how close he came to working with other filmmakers. Ledger dropped out of Terrence Malick‘s “The Tree of Life” shortly before he passed, and the actor was also reportedly the Coen’s first choice to play the lead role of Llewelyn Moss in “No Country For Old Men.” Ultimately, the actor’s daughter Matilda had been born recently, and Ledger opted to take some time off instead. He wasn’t the only actor considered: character actor favorite Garret Dillahunt auditioned five times for the part before Josh Brolin was picked instead. Dillahunt was, however, given the smaller role of Deputy Wendell instead.
3. Robert Rodriguez & Quentin Tarantino directed Josh Brolin’s screen test.
Given the number of stars that the Coens usually attract, the choice of Josh Brolin to lead the film was a somewhat surprising one. Brolin chased the part hard, though, and ended up enlisting some A-list talent to put him on tape while he was shooting “Planet Terror.” “Robert Rodriguez and Quentin Tarantino filmed my first audition on a $1 million Genesis camera during lunch during ‘Grindhouse,’ ” the actor said, “and so that was a really cool looking audition.” But it didn’t quite have the desired effect. “It was turned down. They watched it and their response was, ‘Who lit it?’ I was much bigger and I had a goatee, but it had nothing to do with the physicality. They just didn’t see it. It’s not what they were looking for at that moment. It wasn’t resonating and I have a brilliant agent who just became a persistent pest and just said, ‘Meet him, meet him, meet him, meet him.’ Not, ‘He’s perfect for the part.’ Not, ‘You’re making a mistake.’ Just, ‘Meet him.’ ” Eventually the Coens relented, met with Brolin, and the actor got the part. Still, he nearly blew it again, coming off his motorbike on the way back from a wardrobe fitting and breaking his collarbone. Fortunately, Llewelyn get shot in the shoulder early on, so the Coen gave him the thumbs up.
4. Paul Thomas Anderson ruined a whole day of shooting on the film.
For much of the shoot, the Coens picked out the isolated area of Marfa, Texas as their location, where films including “Giant” and “The Andromeda Strain” had previously lensed. By coincidence, there was another filmmaker using the region at the same time — Paul Thomas Anderson, who was shooting another neo-Western, “There Will Be Blood.” It seems like for the most part, the two projects — which later became awards rivals — were able to co-exist happily. But there was one clash. When Anderson’s crew tested the pyrotechnics for the oil derrick fire, the amount of smoke produced was such that the Coens, who happened to be shooting wide shots in the direction of the “There Will Be Blood,” had to suspend production for the day. Still, the Coens got their payback on Oscar night…
5. Composer Carter Burwell used Buddhist singing bowls for the score.
Once again, Joel and Ethan Coen were reunited with Carter Burwell, their regular composer who’d worked on every one of their films except, “O Brother Where Art Thou,” since “Blood Simple.” But despite the film being a thriller, the decision was to pare the music right down. As sound editor Skip Lievsay told the New York Times, “Suspense thrillers in Hollywood are traditionally done almost entirely with music,” he said. “The idea here was to remove the safety net that lets the audience feel like they know what’s going to happen. I think it makes the movie much more suspenseful. You’re not guided by the score and so you lose that comfort zone.” Ethan Coen had suggested minimal music, and Burwell agreed, saying “My first suggestion was that if there’s music, it should somehow emanate from the landscape.” They tried using abstract sounds like violin harmonics and percussion, but Burwell found that even those “destroyed the tension that came from the quiet.” Ultimately, Burwell used singing bowls, bells used in Buddhist meditation, as his primary instrument, tuning them to different frequencies — including, for one indoor scene, a tone intended to mirror the hum of a refrigerator. Ultimately, only 16 minutes of score are in the film, mostly over the credits.