Okay, I have to get all of this Coen brothers stuff out of my system.
First, I recently stumbled across a Creative Screenwriting podcast interview with the Coen brothers conducted by Jeff Goldsmith. A few interesting things were said. The brothers don’t do outlines, they don’t do research (“We’re not big on that. We’re from the make-it-up school.”), nor do they ever have, with the exception of adaptations and remakes, a clue as to how their stories will end. In fact, one of the brothers said, “If the author doesn’t know, the audience couldn’t possibly know.” Goldsmith also asked them if they ever do character passes through the script to ensure that each character has a unique voice. One of them replied, “Oh no, no. We don’t do that. Whatever that would be. What a strange concept.”
Yup, that’s everything you’d expect from the Coens. But what are newbies to think about such things? Are they to emulate the Coens and avoid research and outlines? No. Well, not yet. Consider the fact that these guys were born in the mid-50’s, they've studied the craft of filmmaking almost all their lives, and now they’re at a level of knowledge and craftsmanship, particularly the genres within which they are working and bending, that they don’t have to rely on the tools many of us turn to for every script we write. And despite the fact that they SAY they don’t do research, they are well-read. It wasn’t until they were halfway through O, Brother Where Art Thou? that they realized they were actually writing Homer’s Odyssey. They DID the research. They just didn’t REALIZE they did it.
With respect to outlines, I recall Neil Simon saying in his autobiography that he avoided outlines like the plague. He wanted to experience each play like the audience and not know how the story will end. Well, he frequently – dare I say, regularly – got himself into third act troubles where he wrote himself into a corner and couldn’t figure out the ending. The Coens likewise fell into the same trap with Miller’s Crossing. They lost themselves in the plot and had to put it aside. They wrote and filmed Barton Fink, returned to Miller’s Crossing with a clear head, and the rest is history. I’m not going to say it’s wrong. Personally, I think it’s better to figure out the story first in an outline and know how your story will end before you start writing the script so that it’s just a matter of figuring out the best way to get to the big ending and ensuring that every plot point and arc is setup properly so that the ending satisfies and the audience will walk out happy.
And consider this – every day, the brothers meet in an office and talk through each and every scene before they write it. The talk through all of the good and bad ideas, settle on something they like, and then put it to paper. They put more thought into each scene than some aspiring writers put into entire scripts.
On a somewhat concurrent note, I’d like to share these links.
Here’s the No Country For Old Men screenplay.
Jim Emerson has a number of great articles about No Country For Old Men that are really worth your time. Consider his One Shot: They Wrote That piece. He talks about a moment in the film that he thought was a “privileged moment,” but it was in fact, a shot that was written in the screenplay. He writes, “But I just wanted to point this out, and that they wanted to be certain it was not just in the film, but even in the screenplay (which in other respects is somewhat different than the film itself). Writers often do that kind of thing, and the credit (or blame) for a shot or sequence will usually be attributed to the director, even if it was right there in the script. But it is the director who bears responsibility for realizing those images, and sequencing them, and presenting them so that they do what they need to do. The Coens, being their own writers, directors, producers and editors, pretty much understand what they're looking for. And they recognize what they've got when a miracle drops in their lap: the birds, and shadows of birds, over the highway in "Blood Simple"; the pelican plopping into the ocean at the end of "Barton Fink").”
I enjoyed Michael Sragow’s article in which he compared No Country For Old Men with Sam Peckinah films. “In the ‘Masculine Principle’ section of his landmark book ‘Peckinpah: The Western Films,’ Paul Seydor linked Mailer and Peckinpah as artists defined by their pursuit of extreme action, their rebellion against official culture and bureaucratized society, and their recognition that the quest for authentic manhood is absolute and never-ending. Their paradoxical linkage of fragility with appetite and strength -- so different from the cheap certainty of macho camp -- drove Peckinpah to create the most dynamic of all visual lexicons and Mailer to master a dazzling variety of rhetoric in both intimate and epic modes. They found their real security only when they fully practiced their art. That's when their genius cast a spell over other artists who would rarely share their styles or biases.”
Matt Zoller Seitz wrote a spectacular piece about this film in his Point Blank article. Matt has a tremendous ability to analyze films, which I really admire. Here’s a taste: “‘What you got ain't nothing new,’ a retired lawman says in No Country For Old Men, counseling a colleague who's so traumatized by a recent mass murder case that he's thinking of quitting his job. That's hard truth, and the fact that the sheriff, Ed Tom Bell (Tommy Lee Jones), is more introspective than some of his colleagues doesn't make it go down any easier. Bell's astonishment at the violence unleashed by his quarry, Anton Chigurh (Javier Bardem) -- an assassin tailing a Vietnam vet (Josh Brolin) who filched a briefcase full of drug money -- is so deep that it spurs Bell to reconsider his life, his job, the nature of morality, the mind of God, the shifting cultural character of the border country he calls home, and the profound ways in which the United States changed between World War II and the Reagan era. Bell is one of many characters forced by Chigurh's rampage to consider his place in the universe: who he really is; what he stands for; whether he believes what he believes and behaves as he does by choice, predisposition or predestination; whether evil exists and whether God, if there is one, cares one way or the other.”
And finally, A.O. Scott wrote a sweeping historical overview of the entire western genre. I thought it was great. “Looking back at those movies today, however, you notice that the rumors of their naïveté were greatly exaggerated. It has become fashionable to locate political and sexual subtexts beneath their plain-spoken surfaces, but the subtexts were there from the start. And so was an ideological framework far more supple and complex than a simple celebration of conquest and domination or of rugged, square-jawed manhood. The archetypal western hero is a complicated figure, and the world he inhabits is a place of flux and contradiction. At the end, the stranger rides off into the wilderness, since the civilization he has helped to save holds no permanent place for him. His departure is also a promise of return, both for the star who plays him — John Wayne, Randolph Scott, Clint Eastwood — and, more profoundly, for the archetype he embodies, an archetype much older than the movies. This solitary, self-sufficient, often morally ambiguous figure — a man of violence with a shadowy background and a haunted look in his eyes — can trace his literary parentage back to Leatherstocking, the peripatetic hero of James Fenimore Cooper’s novels of 18th-century frontier adventure.”
As a bonus, here are some clips from No Country For Old Men.
I just love the dialogue.
So glad I got all of that out of my system. I feel better now.