As we mentioned yesterday, this weekend is the opening of Film Society of Lincoln Center‘s beautiful new facility, the Elinor Bunin Munroe Film Center, and opening night featured a candid conversation between the Joel and Ethan Coen and Noah Baumbach (note: the Coens revealed they are working on a new “music-based” film project). The event, called “Opening Shots,” saw all three filmmakers and mutual admirers examining the similarities and differences between the openings of their films. Clips were shown from Baumbach’s three most recent efforts “The Squid & The Whale,” “Margot At The Wedding,” and “Greenberg,” while the Coen’s filmography ran deeper going back to “Blood Simple” but skewing mostly towards their more recent work “The Big Lebowski,” “No Country For Old Men,” “Burn After Reading,” and “A Serious Man.”
The conversation wasn’t strictly limited to beginnings though — the Coens mentioned they only decided on those clips because it would be easier than having to go through their films to pick out specific scenes — but did provide a great jumping off point for discussions, ranging from the differences in how their films interpret LA, to asking themselves on one film, “What would Tony Scott do?”
1. After showing the opening scenes from their debut, 1984’s “Blood Simple” and 2007’s Best Picture winner “No Country For Old Men,” the wry duo realized the two films’ openings had some distinct similarities.
“One of the things you realize after making movies for 25 years is the horrifying realization of how much you repeat yourself,” Joel admitted self-deprecatingly.”
Ethan added, “It’s not the first time that 20 years later we thought it would be a really good idea to start a movie with a character you don’t know anything about and haven’t seen talk tediously at length at things that have nothing to do with this story. Although Cormac [McCarthy]’s writing is better than ours.”
2. The filmmakers were both mutual admirers of each others work, with the Coens suggesting that their forthcoming film was more like one of Baumbach’s than their own. They also had Baumbach in mind when making one of their other recent efforts.
“When we were making a “A Serious Man,” once we were calling it “The Squid & The Whale 2,” Joel said, while Baumbach noted that at one point there were discussions that he would, “do commentary on it, as if it was a sequel.”
3. The Stranger’s (Sam Elliott’s) narration in “The Big Lebowski” was inspired by Carol Reed’s film “The Third Man” (1949), where the narrator is not someone you meet in the actual film (or at least not often).
“[‘Lebowski’] was a case where we were specifically thinking about “The Third Man” where you have the narrator, you don’t know who the hell he is, who actually never makes an appearance in the movie. In our movie he’s sort of a floater,” Joel said.
“You think you’re going to meet him but you don’t,” Ethan said. “It must be the ne plus ultra of something to have a narrator who loses his train of thought.”
Sam Elliott showed up on set for a few weeks of rehearsal, but he had no clue why he was there. “He kept saying, ‘I don’t know why I’m here. I’m happy to be here, don’t get me wrong. But I have no idea what I’m doing in this movie,’ ” Joel said, laughing.
4. Though narration is often thought of as a crutch for filmmakers, used to tell the audience exactly what a character is thinking rather than showing it through actions, the Coens have employed it frequently but almost never conventionally.
In “Blood Simple” the voice-over doesn’t orient the audience much like spoon-feeding lazy voice-over does because we haven’t been introduced to the characters on screen. Similarly, in “No Country For Old Men,” the voice-over and action onscreen don’t match and no one has yet been introduced. And finally in “The Big Lebowski,” the narrator is a completely incidental character whose intro is mostly misdirection for what’s to come.
“It’s a gimmick to a certain extent, it’s a crutch to a certain extent,” Joel said. “It’s true when you’re doing a literary adaptation there’s this huge temptation to try to draw in verbatim something that you take from the book. It’s also a formal thing that can also be very resonant and you can fall in love with it a little too much. One of the leading practicioners of it, of course, is Terry Malick. [His] last movie [“The Tree Of Life“] is pretty much no dialogue, all voiceover. He’s kinda distilled it into something. He has a very idiosyncratic feel, his voice-overs do. You always know the language and the way he uses it and all of that. There are different ways of using it, it can be very straightforward and it can be something else, it can have a different flavor.”
“In our case, in a couple of cases, it’s a hallmark of hard-boiled fiction,” Ethan said of the stylistic voice-over convention and the fact that “The Big Lebowski” borrows heavily from the basic story elements of Raymond Chandler‘s “The Big Sleep.” “It’s really a big part of the convention of those movies and also the novels the [noirs] were based on that are usually told in first person. The guy who is narrating is such a big part of the convention. We also did a movie called “The Man Who Wasn’t There” that also started with a voice-over and it’s also kind of a film noir. So it’s also by virtue of the genre too.”
5. “Burn After Reading” is the Coen’s Sidney Lumet/Tony Scott movie and first film in nearly two decades without longtime cinematographer Roger Deakins.
“The director of photography was [Emmanuel] “Chivo” Lubezski [and he] was so excited we were doing a Sidney Lumet movie, he loved the wide angle lenses, it’s totally Sidney Lumet. Chivo was like a pig in shit,” Ethan laughed. Baumbach noted the opening was like a Tony Scott film and the brothers agreed, noting that all their movies are referential to some genre.
“We discussed Tony Scott a lot,” Ethan said. “[It’s one of his films] except the people are knuckleheads…Constantly on the set with Chivo we would say ‘What would Tony do?’
Joel said adding cliches was a way to defy expectations. “We thought, ‘Well, we’ll never do a movie that starts starts with a little clacking teletype letters coming up that say CIA Headquarters, Langley Virginia,’ but then we thought ‘Well, why not?’ Beyond that, the desire is to really take it on and do it, but it’s also a subversion.”
6. And finally, when asked about their favorite film openings of all time they managed to all agree on one film.
“Everybody’s favorite is “Once Upon A Time In The West,” right?” Ethan asked, to emphatic agreement.
“It’s a what? Twenty, thirty minute title sequence? It’s really a great piece of filmmaking,” Joel said. “An L.A. movie I think we both looked at is [Robert Altman‘s] ‘The Long Goodbye,’ ” Baumbach saiid. “It has that great opening with Elliott Gould and the cat. Going out to get the cat food and trying to trick the cat into eating the other cat food before he goes out. And he had a clicker the whole time which was the way to get the cat to do stuff. That’s a good one.”
“There was an obscure one, with Stacy Keach called “Doc” about Doc Holiday, all we’ve seen is the opening, which is really good. I don’t know why we haven’t seen the rest of the movie,” Ethan laughed.
And that’s just a small taste of the entire evening which was often self-deprecating, and always amusing and insightful. As is usually the case, filmmakers seem to open up to each other much more than your average moderator, which made this an extremely entertaining and informative Q&A. With this new center open we hope Film Society of Lincoln Center will have the opportunity to program a lot more of these types of events. We’ll certainly be stopping by a few more times this weekend, as they have events planned with Oliver Stone, Mike Nichols, Jason Reitman and Kevin Smith among others. Check out the full schedule here.
Update: the full conversation is now online.