My First Movie: Twenty Celebrated Directors Talk about Their First Film

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Stephen Lowenstein
Penguin Books, 2002 - Performing Arts - 496 pages
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In these vivid and revealing interviews, a diverse collection of filmmakers talk in extraordinary detail and with amazing candor about making their first films. Each chapter focuses on a director's celebrated debut and tells the inside story of the film's creation. Along the way, every aspect of the movie industry is explored-from writing the script and raising the money to casting the actors and assembling the crew, from shooting and editing to selling the movie and screening it. These interviews are not only memoirs of particular movies; each one is also an emotional journey in which the director relives the pain and elation, the comedy and tragedy, of making a first feature film.

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About the author (2002)

Chapter 1

Joel and Ethan Coen:

Blood Simple

Were you always passionate about movies? Did you see lots of movies when
you were kids?

JC: We always went to a lot of movies. But when we were kids it was
watching movies on TV. I guess our earliest film education came from a guy
called Mel Jazz who had a movie programme on during the days. He was an
eclectic programmer. So we were exposed to a lot of strange things-through
the eclectic programming genius of Mel Jazz. Ethan once kidded that he had
just about the whole of the Joe Levine catalogue because he''d have 812 one
day, you know, Fellini, The Nights of Cabiria or something. And the next
day he''d have Sons of Hercules. So it was a mixture of European art films
and badly dubbed Italian muscle movies, essentially. I mean it was very
strong in that area. He also liked a lot of the golden age of late fifties,
early sixties studio comedy product. Doris Day, Rock Hudson movies. I''ll
Take Sweden, you know. Bob Hope stuff.

EC: Later, bad Bob Hope.

JC: A little later on there was a film society at the University of
Minnesota that showed the kind of stuff that you wouldn''t normally be
exposed to: Godard, and the Marx brothers-who were both kind of hip at the
time.

EC: I guess that doesn''t exist any more. But for a period people would show
black and white 16 mm prints on some crappy projector in a basement in the
university building somewhere. I guess video ended that.

When you saw movies did you think, ''I want to do that''? I mean, you started
making films when you were kids, didn''t you?

EC: Yeah. Super-8 things. But it didn''t rise to the level of serious
ambition. It was another way of goofing off. I don''t know when it got sort
of serious for me. Certainly later than Joel, since he went to film school
and I didn''t. For me it was more an opportunity that presented itself
through Joel''s work than any long-harboured ambition I''d had.

JC: But these things are sometimes just pursuing what might be a casual
interest in the path of least resistance. Even the decision to go to film
school. Something that strikes you at that moment as being a bit more
interesting than something else. It''s not as if you really know what you''re
going to do with it. Or if you''re going to do anything with it.

EC: Yeah. There are other people you read about like Scorsese for whom it
seemed like a religion from an early age. It certainly wasn''t that with
either of us.

Could you have imagined going off in a completely different direction?

EC: I never seriously thought about any career so I couldn''t honestly say.
But, yeah, I suppose it could have happened.

Can you say a little about your experience of NYU film school?

JC: I think film schools are quite different now from when I went. First of
all, a lot of people on the undergraduate programme weren''t really that
interested in movies. A lot of kids who had to go to college thought, this
might be fun. I''ll go to film school. You know, taking the path of least
resistance. And it started that way for me. But it ended up being a fairly
interesting place to be. If you took advantage of the school''s resources,
which were extremely limited but were at least something, you could go out
and make little movies and sort of screw around with it without essentially
having to pay for it beyond the tuition. I also met people there who we
ended up working with later.

What kind of films did you make there?

JC: It was just an extension of what we were doing with Super-8 cameras
when we were little kids. Just kind of screwing around. It was all pretty
crude. But even that stuff is kind of an interesting thing to have done.
When you think about people who are making a first movie, it''s a little bit
different having had to look through the camera and frame a shot or imagine
how it''s going to get cut together, than it is if you''re coming to it from
a completely different discipline like a writer, who''s never even made a
Super-8 movie and is having to figure it out intellectually. So I think it
does have some value even if what you''re doing is a very crude exercise.

What happened once you got out of NYU?

JC: I started working as an assistant editor on low-budget splatter movies.
Ethan and I were both living in New York at that point and we started
writing together. We would get these writing jobs from producers who had
these low-budget movies and sometimes wanted stuff written or rewritten. We
got some writing jobs together that way at that point and that led to us
writing something to do ourselves-which was Blood Simple.

How did the idea of writing Blood Simple come about?

JC: We wrote a little thing for Frank LaLoggia, one of the directors I was
working for as an assistant editor; we wrote a screenplay with Sam Raimi.
So we just sat down and thought what kind of movie could we make that was
sort of producible on a really small budget like these horror movies, but
that isn''t necessarily a horror film.

EC: The inspiration was these movies that Joel had been working on which
had been done mostly by young people like us who didn''t have any
credentials or credibility in the mainstream movie industry. But they''d
gone out and raised money underground for their little exploitation movies,
got the movies made and subsequently wandered into the place where Joel was
working to have them cut. It was that evidence that it could be done that
led us to try it ourselves: notably Sam''s movie, The Evil Dead, because Sam
was the most forthcoming in sharing all his experience with us.

You said you chose the particular kind of story because it was manageable
at a certain budget. Was it also because you loved noir movies?

JC: On the one hand, we were both interested in and had read a lot of pulp
fiction like Cain and Hammett-and Cain especially when you think about
movies that involve murder triangles. On the other hand, as Ethan said, the
sort of financial model for the film was also, to a certain extent, a
creative influence on it. So it was kind of a mix of those two things.

EC: Also, there were a couple of notorious Texas domestic murder stories
that had just happened in the early eighties. I''m sure that figured.

Did you write from beginning to end, or did you write particular scenes
down as they came to you?

JC: We start at the beginning and work through to the end. On Blood Simple
that was definitely the case. It was just a scene by scene accretion,
wasn''t it?

EC: Right. We don''t outline and we don''t really know where we''re going. We
might have some vague feeling that we''re going to arrive at some point in
the future but it''s the vaguest sort of feeling till we actually write
ourselves to that point.

But Blood Simple''s plot is so intricate, so exquisitely crafted. Is it
really just an organic process by which you arrive at such a complex
structure?

JC: Yeah. Sometimes writing yourself into a corner means that there is no
way out and you just have to bag the whole thing. But sometimes writing
yourself into a corner means that you have to think of a way out of the
corner. If you read the whole thing, you might think ''Oh this is very
intricately plotted out.'' But just because, by putting yourself into a box
you figured a way out of the box, doesn''t mean it was all premeditated.
Blood Simple started something else that we''ve done pretty much on every
subsequent movie, which was that we''ve always written parts for specific
actors. And as we''ve made more and more movies and got to know more and
more actors, they''re frequently people we know personally from one place or
another or that we''ve worked with in the past. In Blood Simple, we wrote
the part that Emmet Walsh played for Emmet just because we knew his work.
The other parts were written without knowing who would play them.

What''s the starting point for a story like Blood Simple? Is it a situation,
a kind of equation: a man wants his wife killed and gets killed himself? Or
a character: a slippery private eye like the character played by M Emmet
Walsh? Or is the dichotomy between plot and character a false one?

JC: It is, inasmuch as who does what to whom has to be consistent to some
sort of idea of who the characters are, even if they''re rather crude. But
in this one the balance probably tips more towards the story than the
characters. I guess this one was conceived more as a thriller. I remember
that it was an early idea in Blood Simple that someone would fake the
murder, and then do another murder that made more sense. That was there as
an equation, as you say, at some point fairly early in the writing-earlier
than the point that we got to that scene. Our initial thinking about it was
probably more about plot than about the people in it. But maybe it''s just
something you just assume after the facts, since the characters in it now
seem pretty crude.

What were you doing while you were writing B

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