day in July 2005 I was idly surfing the net when I happened, quite
accidentally, upon the below article. It is written incredibly
well by a guy called Alex Belth. He worked briefly in the movie
industry and served as assistant editor on our beloved, The
Big Lebowski. The article he has kindly given me the permission
to reprint here, is about his experiences during the twelve months
in which he worked quite closely with Joel and Ethan Coen.
runs a baseball site called Bronx
Banter, where he and like minded fellows discuss the sport
and also where he posted the article to alleviate some of the
off-season boredom. Anyway, it's time for me to "shut the
fuck up"- over to you Alex...
and Gutters: A Year with the Coen Brothers
back in the olden days, I used to work in the movie business.
Okay, it wasn’t so long ago, it just seems like it was.
One of the best experiences I had was the year I spent working
for the Coen brothers on “The
Big Lebowski.” I even had the opportunity to write about
it. I thought, this being the off-season and all, you might be
willing to indulge me a lil’ bit. So I’m gunna reprint
the article that originally appeared in British film book called
Projections 8 (1997). I’ve added some bits here and there,
including a proper ending...
the late summer of 1996 I found myself interviewing for a personal
assistant job with Joel and Ethan Coen. The summer had been a
rough one. I had worked on an independent feature, gaining in
experience what I was losing in sleep and peace of mind. My editor
on this picture had given me her blessings to pursue more lucrative
apprentice jobs if they were to come up. I was doing my best to
make them come up. I was fortified with one big name on my resume
(prior to the low-budget job, I had worked for Woody
Allen on his musical “Everyone
Says I Love You”); however, I was consistently getting
passed over. I was still apparently too green to take a chance
on. Of the three major studio jobs I was in contention for, none
of 'em panned out.
rejection earned me a tribal mark of endurance that, at the very
least, would give me some grievance material to share with my
fellow workers (most of them seemed to have amassed too many such
rejections to be fit, healthy people). But if I was adding a bit
of weathering to my professional demeanor, slowly learning not
to hang on phone calls with such eagerness, careful to not let
monetary fantasies run wild, I was also embracing a sense of bitterness
and resigned industry gloominess. There it was. The dust of the
old falling into my relatively young lap. I was letting it all
get to me. My personal life offered little stability. About this
time I was told that I would have to move from my apartment on
Union Street in Brooklyn. I was fond of the place but wasn’t
too surprised when it went sour on me. I was beginning to get
the feeling that I was swimming against the current of the steamy
New York summer.
is where things were at when I got a call from Margaret Hayes,
who ran the Coen Brothers’ business affairs. She had a personal
assistant job available. She had heard good things about me. (It
was Ethan’s wife, Tricia, who
had encouraged me to send over a resume.) The Coens’ were
about to start a new movie. Was I interested? I took a moment
to think about it. It sounded so good that it inspired nothing
but suspicion in me. But what the hell. Shit, yeah, I was interested.
afternoon, late in August. I was sitting on a couch in what once
was Joel Coen’s first New York apartment but which now housed
their production company, Mike Zoss. I was waiting for the boys
to get off a conference call, and began to feel a blanket of calm
settle over me. I wasn’t a Coen Brothers groupie and that
helped restrict my nerves to the ordinary 'please hire me’
type. But there was something about the very environment I found
myself in that calmed me. A salty, brackish breeze was filtering
through the living-room windows off the Hudson. I closed my eyes
and listened to the shrieks and chatter of kids playing through
the autumn afternoon in Riverside Park. I had spent my early childhood
only a few buildings north of this spot. I opened my eyes and
looked around the apartment. It was decorated with chatchkas and
photos from earlier Coen Brothers movies. It was a comfortable
and casual place. It was the old neighborhood. I couldn’t
have been more at home.
Joel and Ethan got off the phone and rolled into the living room
to talk, the feeling got better. I kept them entertained with
talk of how Woody’s place ran; hit them with an imitation
of Woody talking about the old 1970s Knicks. Joel sat across from
me, and Ethan stood, chewing on a swizzle stick.
spoke at length about the neighborhood and commiserated about
the gentrification it had suffered over the past fifteen years.
Within twenty minutes I was offered a position with the firm.
They told me that they were going to California to make the movie
over the winter, and if I could find a place to stay, dig up the
scratch for a vehicle, I was more than welcome to join 'em. The
plan was for me to take over managing their business affairs as
Margaret wouldn’t be able to make the trip. And hell, they
suggested, when production began I could take on another job.
Most likely synching up the dailies. That was assistant editor
stuff. I joined up.
we got around to money, I told them I would need a bit more in
salary than their offer. Ethan gagged, and I remembered that he
was the producer-brother. Joel looked to him, and they agreed
on something silently. Joel looked back to me and said, “OK,
we’ll get back to you.” I left amused. I was proud
that I had no qualms about asking for a comparable salary to what
I was already making in the cutting room. I was well aware of
the opportunities this job was offering, even if dough wasn’t
among them; seeing California for the first time and working on
a project from before pre-production through the editing process
topped the list. Thepotential was juicy enough to get me more
than somewhat excitable.
thing I hadn’t expected was how easygoing the Coens seemed
to be. I had trouble thinking they these weren’t friends
of the family. I thought they were going to be a pair of highfalutin’
nerds. But what a regular pair of Jewish boys, inside-joke-havin’,
waited two days, then came home to find a message from Margaret
on the answering machine. She was laughing, and spoke in a dry
and laconic pattern, her voice occasionally cracking; it was a
delivery and style of speak that Joel, Ethan and many of their
close friends shared. “Welp, I guess they like ya enough
to give ya what ya want.” She seemed very amused that my
demand for a couple more bucks had been met. So was I.
as a personal assistant for the boys could be best described,
in the parlance of the times, as low maintenance. My job quickly
shifted from editing-room suck-boy to kicked-back personal assistant.
I was riding the bubble-headed gravy train: there was plenty of
free time to catch up on old correspondences; a steady source
of second-hand movie-passes; the occasional celebrity call-in.
Because the office was also Joel’s old crib there was a
full kitchen, complete with a diner-style booth. I started to
cook lunch for the boys and they eagerly encouraged it by avidly
devouring whatever I preparedâ€”appetites that
would make a mother blush. No talking, plenty eating, followed
by the simple remark, “That’s some good shit, man.”
I aimed to make nothing but good shit.
Joel and Ethan were courteous, pensive and self-involved; they
were direct and straightforward as to my official duties. They
treated me like an adult, which was a new experience at my level
in the pecking order. People in their position were supposed to
treat people in my position like a child (or worse). But there
I was, with the two of the hottest filmmakers in America, and
all I had to do was Xerox the occasional script, take messages
when the phone rang and feed â€˜em good shit for
lunch. The only real pampering I had to do was to distinguish
Ethan’s Starbucks coffee from Joel’s regular, any-store-will-do
cup of Joe. I liked Joel even more on principle for his boycott,
and was more than happy to make the extra trip.Yeah, it was apparent
from the start that this was something good.
came into work and did my thing. I stayed out of their hair. We
shot the shit when the moments and the moods were willing. I was
on my way to needing a good pinch. When I finished reading “The
Big Lebowski”, the movieI was hired on for, I was smiling.
The lead character of the Dude, which Jeff
Bridges had agreed to play, had the same laconic resignation
and amiable ability to roll with the punches as Elliott Gould’s
Philip Marlowe from Altman’s
is important for any hard-luck bum, both characters were content
with who they were. They were not going to go through a life crisis
just because bad stuff was happening to them. In effect, they
weren’t trying to be understood. They were good characters
because of their sheer obliviousness to the outside world, their
solid belief in friendship or even their dedication to laziness.
I had seen Altman’s movie a few years before, and it was
the first time I became intrigued with California. I thought Bridges
was ideal for the part of the Dude. And, with John Goodman all
set to play his right-hand man and bowling partner, the script
came alive like a dress rehearsal. I could already imagine what
it was all going to look, sound and feel like. The writing was
precise and the script was visually detailed; two dream sequences
that would require blue screens and digital technology were nevertheless
written-out with visual coherence; specific songs were mentioned
in scenes and it was clear that they were as significant to the
story as the dialogue. It amazed me to see that even in the script,
I was already getting the sense of the full movie. The excitement
and joy that the boys got out of movie-making was pretty evident.
autumn went by quickly. As the leaves turned and the chilliness
returned, I was absorbed by the possibilities of the upcoming
trip to California. My bosses wouldn’t budge on helping
me with a rental car, but I had an old college friend who was
willing to give me a place to rest my puppies at night. Things
would be tight, but hell, there was more to the trip than money.
and Ethan kept on assuring me that I was going to enjoy Hollywood.
Joel’s wife, was warning me not to enjoy it, too much. “You
might like it and never leave,” she forewarned one day.
I laughed and told her that it wasn’t likely.
but I was looking forward to LA in a real schoolboy kind of way.
I grew up around Upper West Siders, who by right held the city
of Los Angeles in contempt. According to them, there was nothing
to like about it. They told me, if I thought the East Side was
bad, Jesus wait until you get to LA.
I wanted to see LA for reasons that had nothing to do with what
these people were talking about. I wasn’t going for the
big movie connection scene. What had really set afire under my
ass were the paintings of Richard Diebenkorn. Diebenkorn was a
Californian painter who settled in Santa Monica in the late 1960's.
While there, he produced the Ocean Park series of landscape abstractions.
What was so striking about his pictures was the light. Seeing
them in New York, alongside the local heavies like De Kooning
and Kline, I knew there was something going on, something sensual
and open out there in all that Californian sunshine.
split from New York on 15 November. I was scared and excited,
but one thing was certain: New York was grey and cold and gearing
up for more of the “same. I felt like I was beating out
old mother nature as the plane landed at LAX.
was balmy and moist. My old college friend and new roommate Greg
G. picked me up. He had brought along another friend from college,
Paul Ahuja, who was the kind of guy who liked to smoke a lot of
reefer then drive very fast. I stuffed my ass in the back of Greg’s
1970 Ford Mustang convertible; Paul drove and we sped off to Santa
Monica. I took in the ride with that cool sense of bewilderment
I get during my first moments in any new place.
wind rushed over me and the radio was playing hip-hop that would
never get play-time in New York. (Tha Alkaholiks, on mainstream
radio?!!) I was dumbstruck. I stared up into the powder-blue night
sky and felt my stomach resettle to sea level. Up above the telephone
wires were these hilarious things that looked like something out
of a Krazy Kat comic. They were forty feet tall, and skinny, with
a big bushel-looking thing atop. I stuck my face into the wind,
felt it pushing on me and laughed privately, 'cause I’d
never seen palm trees before.
intensity of the space out there didn’t get any less overwhelming.
I was lost in a pastel-coated Long Island in the desert. Everything
was strips of low buildings and nothing but sky, sky, sky. It
was downright lonesome. There was nothing so striking as pulling
up to a traffic light, looking right and then left, and noticing
how lost to the world your fellow motorists were. It was lonely
as hell in all this space; the locals appeared completely comfortable
but all I felt was isolation.
at work asked me how I was adjusting and the only logical response
was, 'I think it’s fucking fucked.’ 'Don’t stress
it, man,’ one seasoned vet assured me with a shifty grin.’
After sixty days in this town, you’ll be one of us.’
I was overwhelmed by the light too. Los Angelinos were always
apologizing about the smog, but that smoggy, warm-toned haze was
the light I knew from Diebenkorn’s pictures. It was beautiful.
The odd pastel colours of the houses seemed completely ridiculous
at first. But slowly those too began to make perfect sense during
the magic hour that is dusk.
began thinking about “The Long Goodbye” again and
the way Altman captured the bleached-out daylight, then added
warm yellows and oranges to the night scenes. His California was
sensual and mysterious. And I was beginning to see how that worked.
One night before Thanksgiving I was over at Joel’s house
in Santa Monica, and I told him how I thought “The Long
Goodbye” was such an evocative depiction of the area. He
smiled and said, 'Curry’s brand catfood.’ 'Yeah,’
he continued, 'That’s our favorite Altman movie.’
I told him how when I first read Lebowski, I kept thinking about
this is kind of our Long Goodbye,’ he confided in me.
was burning to know how they were going to make California look.
Since I had arrived, I’d been painting little landscapes
with acrylics and gouache and was otherwise consumed with 'looking’
each day. I’d have to wait until months later for the dailies
to come back to have my question answered.
mechanisms of pre-production worked their cycles. New departments
came on slowly but surely. Locations and casting were the heavies
to start with, but eventually, the production designer, Rick
Heinrichs, the costume designer, Mary
Zopheres, and art director, John
Dexter would become more important for the boys. I’m
happy to report that the fellas remained as self-reliant as ever-no
Hollywood ego trips. I made amiable-like with all the new folks.
I was in charge of arranging appointments for the boys, and in
turn found that many of their cohorts were willing to show me
what they were all about (Rick and John were particularly welcoming).
about this time, I was introduced to Alan
J. Schoolcraft, a recruit sent over from Working Title. Shit,
I thought, Just when I was carving out my niche, just when I had
them on the five yard line, they bring in some competition.
took one look at the Schoolcraft and thought there just wouldn’t
be room enough for tWo. He was a hulking slab of a lad with a
fuzzy blond head and devilishly raised eyebrows over his shinny
Irish eyes. The guy was pushing thirty and had been out in La
La land for a few years. He originated from Connecticut and he
had the looks of a guy right off the boat. We spent our first
day together replacing the missing drawers to his desk and attempting
to locate a workable chair. I was no help. Or at least as little
help as I could manage. My first hint of misjudgement came when
I saw that Schoolcraft at least knew how to stay shutup through
the long afternoon hours waiting for urgent phone calls. He was
an eager film guy who was just barely concealing his excitement
at landing such a prime gig.
time went on, I lowered my defences. I came to look forward to
our days together, smoking cigarettes, working as the one two
punch for the boys. The side-effects of my Hollywood ambitions
aside, I grew to regard Schoolcraft (now known as my pal Schooly
D.), as my partner. Side by side we cut a strikingly svelte look:
I felt like the mouse who removed a thorn from the lion’s
paw. Fargo was now becoming a serious
sideshow as awards season started to hit, and we were spending
most of our time dealing with its success (and the boys’
unwillingness to play party to any of the hype). Things were moving
afternoon during this time, I stopped into a mom and pop Indian
joint located across the street from the production office. I
wasn’t there more than a moment before I was addressed by
a boy not more than four feet tall. His folks ran the place and
while he wasn’t exactly the maitre-d, he saw fit quiz anyone
who came in to eat. He wasted no time in working me over-found
out who I was, what I did, could he listen to my Walkman?, could
he touch my necklace?
boy’s name was Sree, short for Sree Batchu Harry Laxmie
Naraniea, and he rolled his r’s like no one I’ve ever
heard before; it was such a beautiful sound that I forced him
into conversation in order to make him exercise this rare talent.
He had big brown eyes that cast your reflection like a midnight
lake; they had the hardened look of someone who had seen too much
of life’s cruel realities. There was a strong sense of longing
in them, but never innocence.
kid was so damn charming that he kept me going back every-day
for a few months. He was my shorty, and we’d hang out without
fail each day. His brother and sister, aged nine and seven respectively,
were around for a time during their Christmas vacation, and I
would have the three of them talking at me, climbing on me at
the same time. Sree, only four, could handle the two of them;
he was fearless and lawless and he adored me. He had mad moxie
and that suited me fine; I could use all the coolness that I could
surround myself with amidst all the bubble heads of Hollywood.
was raining more than usual in LA. I couldn’t believe how
the already poor-driving public frenzied at the slightest shower.
It never really poured, it was more like a steady spritz that
could go on for hours, sometimes days. The six o’clock news
broadcast bulletins as if a typhoon had hit. Since the boys planned
a lot of location shooting, the potential for having to reschedule
off the cuff became a very real possibility. “That’d
be just our luck, Eth,” Joel said one raining afternoon
in mid-December, “We spend a whole winter in Minnesota and
it doesn’t snow. We come here and it fucking rains.”
He looked out on to the West Hollywood skyline, which was pea-soup
grey, as droplets of rain hit the pane of the big office window.
was on this afternoon that I got to sit in with the boys as they
read with Jeff Bridges and John
Goodman for the first time. Goodman had a break in his TV
schedule and for three days the four of them met in Joel and Eth’s
office and read through the scenes between Walter and the Dude.
I was asked to sit in and read Steve Buscemi’s part, Donny-the
third stooge, as it were. It was the first meeting between Bridges
and Goodman and they seemed as different as their respective characters.
Goodman was blunt and responsive. The familiarity he and the boys
shared was immediately apparent. Without much direction from the
boys, it was clear that when he’d heard what he needed,
he then performed right into it. This was when the boys would
start to hyperventilate, laugh like they were choking. They loved
to see their creations come to life, and Goodman was the guy to
processed information a bit differently. He was a natural questioner
and took his time going over the specific line readings, like,
“When the Dude says ‘huh’ here, now, why is
he saying that?” He seemed to be a real searcher for the
truth in what he was going to be saying and doing. The four of
these guys would read through the script, then talk it over.
were all so human about the process. The actors felt their way
with the same awkwardness, flatness that I had heard in college
rehearsals. But what separated these guys was the rate at which
they got over that and really started to develop a rapport with
their characters. The foundation of Walter and the Dude's relationship
lay in the rhythm of their back and forth.
you hear it for the first time, it actually seems to me that the
Dudeand Walter aren't so different in sensibility," Bridges
tried, leaning back in his chair.
chewing on a toothpick, paced back and forth. "One of them
always has to be angry."
on the couch, sat up. He was looser and more demonstrative than
I'd ever seen him. Even sultry. The boys were enjoying the energy
of the performers and it rubbed off on their demeanours.
like the relationship," Joel explained, "like the relationship
you have with your mother. Like, the Dude can't help it, but Walter
pushes his buttons; it's that relationship you have with someone,
where they can drive you fucking nuts. It's definitely a ying-yang
thing. It's trading off: when one is calm, the other is popping."
paused for a moment and the four of them hung in their own thoughts.
Then Joel continued: "In away, the movie is about how these
two interact... In a way, it's a portrait of a dysfunctional marriage."
finished, "It's like a George and Gracie thing." Joel
and Ethan weretaking turns, cueing one another with that unconscious
fluidity that can exist between brothers.
talks as if he's used to people listening to him, even though
he's full of shit," said Ethan.
all his bullshit, he's right." Joel added, "Walter's
like a completely genuine person even when he's wrong. In that
sense, none of it is bullshit."
take the hill." Ethan finished, again.
listened and then freestyled some chatter in character. The boys
hyperventilated with laughter again.
gave it a bit more, then called it a day. I left the experience
with a new appreciation for the working processes of actors, and
with the sense that they appreciate a good script and a confident
and clear-thinking duo like Joel and Ethan. Professional and fun.
I was also privately tickled that I read Buscemi's role, if only
because I had Goodman yelling shut the fuck up at me. The energy
that brought the boys out of themselveswas that same little kid
energy again. They were well prepared, loved actors and loved
watching what they'd prepared come to life. Joel's sultriness
had been striking to me. I didn't expect it. I was talking with
Frances, still back in New York, after that first rehearsal and
said, "Lady, I know why you married the guy."
the holiday vacation I packed up and took a tour of the countryside
up to San Francisco, where I spent a rainy, displaced Christmas
in the Latino section of town called the Mission. The highlight
of my stay was seeing Nick Park's "Creature Comforts"
and "The Wrong Trousers" for the first time, at the
Castro movie theater. The drive on Highway I was not a disappointment;
it is all it's cracked up to be. The land was stunning. Hills
were rolling, valleys were dipping in a scale that I was totally
unaccustomed to. Santa Barbara-just God's country if there ever
was a place. Most of the people I ran across, however, seemed
utterly spoiled by the beauty of it all-never seen such a high
concentration of tight-assed wine-and-cheese-eating snobs--of
all races and creeds--in my life.
met up with Ethan and Tricia for Italian food one night in the
Mission. They had taken a trip together, without Buster their
baby boy, and were all lovable and hugable. I talked to Ethan
about The Long Goodbye. Ethan is a Chandler fan, and really loves
Hammett. "Curry Brand Catfood. Yeah, that's the best movie
Altman ever made."