6 Filmmaking Tips From The Coen Brothers

By  · Published on May 23rd, 2012

There are a lot of stories about colleagues and reporters asking Joel and Ethan Coen questions only to get the same exact answer from both (or to get one finishing the other’s sentence), so it seems at least plausible that they’d both agree on all these tips – no matter which brother they came from.

Joel Coen got his start as an assistant editor on Fear No Evil and The Evil Dead. He and his brother then partnered for their first movie without the word “evil” in the title, Blood Simple., which rightly launched them to prominence where they’d go on to craft Raising Arizona, The Big Lebowski, countless other modern classics and a trophy case for all their awards.

All of this fulfilled a childhood dream of making movies that started with a Super 8 camera and a hobby of remaking what they saw on television. So here’s a bit of free film school (for fans and filmmakers alike) from two young masters who think exactly alike.

If It’s Cheap Enough, Everyone’s a Winner

Not only were those early days in Evil movies educational and a gateway to a mentorship from Sam Raimi, they also held a golden lesson. When asked by an interviewer about Fargo’s potential lack of appeal:

“Yeah, but then again, we knew the movie’s cost would be so cheap, that it’d be hard to lose. So we thought that, okay, maybe it wouldn’t be a huge, big commercial hit, but for $6 million…,” said Ethan. “Who cares?”

The pair have spoken before on wanting to make their financial backers happy on every project, but when your ideas are esoteric and out of the mainstream, it’s also good to keep the risk low.

Plus, the confines of a smaller budget leave the weight to the dialogue, plot and characters. It’s safer for the commerce side, and it’s a positive challenge for the art side.

Your First Cut Will Probably Make You Want To Kill Yourself

“I can almost set my watch by how I’m going to feel at different stages of the process. It’s always identical, whether the movie ends up working or not. I think when you watch the dailies, the film that you shoot every day, you’re very excited by it and very optimistic about how it’s going to work. And when you see it the first time you put the film together, the roughest cut, is when you want to go home and open up your veins and get in a warm tub and just go away. And then it gradually, maybe, works its way back, somewhere toward that spot you were at before,” – Joel.

Just keep repeating: it gets better.

First Impressions Matter

Don’t Be Afraid to Offend

“’Taste,’ says Joel, ‘has never been something we’ve worried about.’

‘We’re not big on taste,’ agrees Ethan, his grin broadening even further. ‘And actually, if you don’t pander to undue sensitivities then it ends up usually not being much of a problem. In The Big Lebowski, we dumped the crippled guy out of the wheelchair, and no one seemed to mind that. Everyone was saying, You’re going to get a huge amount of mail from disabled people about this. But it’s all in the context of the story, and done by the John Goodman character who’s clearly an idiot,’ says Joel, and Ethan cracks up in laughter.”

It’s the laughter at the end that sells it. On the other hand, there was a huge amount of mail sent toward the production office after Tropic Thunder, but even then, does any amount of outrage really change the creative process? Granted, being serious-minded filmmakers helps when you layer on the insulting comedy, but context is king.

Plus, you’ll notice they don’t dump the crippled guy out of the wheelchair in the first scene or anything.

Take Care of Your Filmmaking Family

This list of frequent collaborators proves that the Coen Brothers might be an absurd example, but if you find people you love and love working with, why not keep them close? You might just meet your wife in the process.

Sometimes it means helping to propel an Oscar-winning career that you can collaborate with again, sometimes it means getting support from a trusted source when you need it, and sometimes it means taking a business partner and turning him into the focus of your crazy movie about bowling.

Find people that want to do something on set that you’re not good at/interested in and team up. Create a partnership and a collaboration because talent sharpens talent and you might discover a combination that can last for decades.

Bonus: the above video is worth watching to hear Charlie Rose say, “I think it was Nic Cage who said…” and to hear the Coen’s philosophy on dealing with actors.

Hold Editing in High Regard

Sometimes scripts are called blueprints that the director uses to build the film, but if the metaphor is true, it’s actually the editor that builds the movie from the materials delivered by the director’s team of construction workers. When it’s a movie about construction workers, the metaphor gets even more meta.

The Coens have edited all their films as Roderick Jaynes, showing a clear premium on doing the work themselves. The tip here shouldn’t necessarily be to edit your own work – because there are many iconic filmmakers who don’t – but the overarching rule is to appreciate editors. The audience may not care who is cutting your mess together, but you should.

Also, color correction is mighty important (see: O Brother, Where Art Thou?)

Double also, working with Roger Deakins can never hurt.

What Have We Learned

Be happy with empty pockets, fight off the urge to off yourself in the bathtub, keep your friends close, edit your actors and your movie, and be as off-color as you want (in context).

The Coens are considered wildly original, but their methods seem shockingly simple. At the core, a strong dedication to story. At the core of that core, a bigger dedication to fascinating characters (that happen to be highly specific). They have a skill in finding great talent and utilizing it, which is invaluable in a team sport like movies. They also have a deep, abiding appreciation for a history of movies that they manage to repeat without feeling stale or, you know, repetitive. Their work, as innovative as it is, usually fits into prescribed genre labels.

Joel and Ethan Coen don’t reinvent the wheel. They just make really cool, really funny, really dark versions that spin.

And the last piece of advice to glean? If you have a choice between calling your movie Fargo and calling it Brainerd, never choose Brainerd.

To suggest a director, email me.

6 Filmmaking Tips From Steven Spielberg

6 Filmmaking Tips From Billy Wilder

6 Filmmaking Tips From Stanley Kubrick

6 Filmmaking Tips from David Fincher

6 Filmmaking Tips from Alfred Hitchcock

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Movie stuff at VanityFair, Thrillist, IndieWire, Film School Rejects, and The Broken Projector Podcast@brokenprojector | Writing short stories at Adventitious.