A Serious Man Production Notes

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The Coen Brothers

Over a career of more than twenty years, the Coen brothers have made 14 films, garnered 23 Academy Award nominations and won 2 Oscars. Their latest, A Serious Man, was nominated for two Academy Awards, a BAFTA, and a Golden Globe and was placed atop numerous critics' lists.

Receive with simplicity everything that happens to you.

When the truth is found to be lies and all the joy within you dies… -- Jefferson Airplane

WRITE WHAT…YOU KNOW?

A Serious Man is, according to executive producer Robert Graf, “a story told from the perspective of the place that Joel & Ethan Coen knew when they were growing up.”

Ethan Coen comments, “The picture takes place in 1967 among a Jewish community in an unnamed Midwestern suburb; Joel and I are from the Midwest and so it’s reminiscent of our childhoods. The milieu, the whole setting is important to us and was a big part of what got us going on this story. Where you grew up is part of your identity. That doesn’t go away, even if you’ve been away for a long time.”

Joel Coen notes, “The landscape of a place informs a story a great deal, although the genesis of the project dates back many years; we considered making a short movie about a bar mitzvah boy who goes to see an ancient rabbi. The rabbi character would be loosely based on a rabbi we knew when we were kids.”

Ethan remembers, “This rabbi we knew was a sage, a Yoda. He said nothing, but he had a lot of charisma.”

As the script developed, Joel notes that “that element stayed in it, but the feature we now have is quite different and deals with other things as well.

“Although Larry Gopnik is a made-up character, he is based on people who were familiar to us growing up because he’s an academic and both our parents were academics. Through them we met lots of people who were professors at universities. Also, Larry is a middle-aged Jewish father in a community not unlike the one we grew up in, where there were lots of them.”

“Everybody in the Gopnik family has an agenda,” says Ethan. “The son, Danny, wants to get pot and LP records. His sister, Sarah, wants to get a nose job. The wife and mother, Judith, wants to run off with another man, Sy Ableman, whom she sees as ‘a serious man,’ unlike her husband.”

Joel notes, “Larry is the head of the family, and he just wants to keep things going. At the beginning of the story, he’s happy with the way things are, with the status quo. But misfortunes befall him – and he can’t believe that the apple cart is being upset.”

The screenplay was initially equally about Larry and his son Danny, but the emphasis shifted as the script developed. Ethan admits, “The fun of the story for us was inventing new ways to torture Larry.  His life just progressively gets worse.

“Two key experiences for Danny remain at the climax of the movie, yet Larry’s fate became more of what the story was about – maybe because there are more ways to beleaguer an adult.”

Though the majority of A Serious Man is set in the suburban Midwest of 1967, the movie opens with a prologue set a century earlier – in a Polish shtetl (small Jewish village), where an unsettling folk tale plays out completely in Yiddish.

Ethan explains, ““We thought a little self-contained story would be an appropriate introduction for this movie. Since we didn’t know any suitable Yiddish folk tales, we made one up.”

Joel adds, “It doesn’t have any relationship to what follows, but it helped us get started thinking about the movie.”

Actor Fred Melamed confides, “I asked Joel about the screenwriting process. It turns out that he and Ethan write scenes as they wish to see them, as if they were in a movie theater.”

CASTING CALLS

In casting A Serious Man, Joel Coen reports that “we wanted a lead actor who would be essentially unknown to the audience. Now, Michael Stuhlbarg isn’t unknown if you’re a theatergoer in New York, but to movie audiences he’s relatively unknown.  From his theater work, we knew how good he was.”

The Tony Award-nominated actor was originally called in to read for a part in the film’s prologue, scripted entirely in Yiddish. To prepare, Stuhlbarg “studied with a Yiddish tutor and had a wonderful time working on it. At the audition, Joel and Ethan Coen laughed a lot and I was really pleased.  But they ended up going with an actor who spoke Yiddish fluently.”

The Coens were impressed enough to bring Stuhlbarg back to read for both Larry and Uncle Arthur. “I was excited because there was so much material to work with,” remembers Stuhlbarg. “Time passed, and then a call came; they said they wanted me in the movie, but weren’t sure which part I should play. Finally, while at a theater retreat in Vermont, Joel called and said, ‘I’ll put you out of your misery; you’re playing Larry.’”

Stuhlbarg enthuses, “I fell in love with this script when I first read it, taking the whole story in, marveling at its twists and turns, and thoroughly enjoying the artistry with which it was constructed.

“Being on the set almost every day was a blessing and a terrific education in how the Coen Brothers work, and how and why it all flows so beautifully. I felt I was able to shape the character over a long period of time.”

Of his character, the actor comments, “Larry goes about his life in a very normal way, having developed his routines. He’s quite content to continue his life the way it’s going. He enjoys his mathematics and his physics, loves his family, and probably takes a lot of what’s around him for granted. He’s not aware that he’s doing that until it all starts to slip away and he discovers that life isn’t what he expected it to be, which throws him into a crisis of faith and takes him out of his bubble.

“He hopes that, through his community’s spiritual leaders’ wisdom, he will learn why these things are happening to him. Then other wrenches get thrown at him. His brother, Arthur, is having his own crisis, which is another weight on Larry’s shoulders, though one he bears well because of the great bond between them.”

Furthering their approach to work with actors new to movie audiences, the Coens cast the roles of Larry’s wife and children with local actors from Minneapolis, where they would be filming the movie. Joel points out, “As we did when we made Fargo, a lot of roles in A Serious Man are played by local actors.”

Beyond various speaking parts, extras and background players were also recruited, as Rachel Tenner, one of the film’s two casting directors (the other being the Coens’ frequent collaborator Ellen Chenoweth), logged considerable time in Minneapolis and St. Paul visiting Jewish youth centers, retirement communities, and synagogues. Robert Graf remarks, “Rachel was trying to dig a little deeper, to go beyond just those actors represented by agents, because we felt we had to go a little off the beaten path – especially on some of the more specific parts, for which we held open calls.”

Only by discovering fresh faces that would resonate with the Coens and on-screen could the production convey what Ethan calls “the whole incongruity of Jews in the Midwest. We wanted to cast real Jews as opposed to the Hollywood ethnic type. They are Jews on the plains – that’s we wanted to get across. It is a subculture, and a feeling, that is different from Jewish communities in New York or Los Angeles.”

Joel notes, “We wanted to involve the real-life community as much as possible in the movie. The local religious leaders that we went to all had a good perspective and a sense of humor about the story.”

Ethan reports, “Occasionally people would ask, ‘You’re not making fun of the Jews, are you?’ We are not, but some will take anything that isn’t flattering as an indication that we think the whole community or ethnicity is flawed.”

Joel states, “People can get a little uptight when you’re being specific with a subject matter. From our point of view, A Serious Man is a very affectionate look at the community and is a movie that will show aspects of Judaism which are not usually seen.”

Location manager Tyson Bidner remarks, “The Jewish community in Minneapolis really got behind the project; people enthusiastically came out to the casting calls and to be a part of it. We found amazing faces and amazing actors.”

Bidner himself answered the call to step in front of the camera for a bit part as the Torah holder in the bar mitzvah sequence. Ethan says, “We chose Tyson because he just looked like he’d fit into the shul [synagogue and its congregation] there.”

Bidner reveals, “I was happy to oblige, and it worked out, because I had been a Torah lifter before. It’s a nerve-wracking job because in the Jewish religion, if a Torah should fall during a ceremony and you witness it, you’re obliged to fast for 30 days.

“So there was the pressure of not only performing – we had a real cantor and synagogue and community officials there – and lifting but also the very real obligation of making sure that the Torah was secure – and the one we used happened to be one of the heavier ones I’ve come across!”

Actress Sari Lennick had relocated to Minneapolis from the East Coast a couple of years ago.  One day, she ran into her agent – who, she says, “had kind of forgotten about me.” But a week later, Lennick found herself auditioning for Tenner, although the actress saw landing the role of Judith Gopnik as “a long shot.” But she did well enough to land a face-to-face audition with the Coens. Lennick marvels, “They were incredibly gracious and they laughed at all my jokes, which made them my two favorite people on the planet.” Not long after, the Coens offered her the part.

Lennick says, “Joel and Ethan wrote an extraordinary screenplay. During filming, I would go back and read it, and not just the scenes that I got to be a part of.

“She’s a parent who has food on the table promptly every evening. But her relationship with Sy offers Judith something that she’s not getting with her husband Larry. To Judith, Sy is ‘a serious man,’ engaged and very engaging – while she feels that Larry is not serious about the right things; physics, mostly.”

Lennick feels that she was able to take her character to heart because “I’ve never had directors – even in the tiniest theater production – who trusted me so much as an actor. Joel and Ethan consulted with me on everything, including my hairdo. Although they conceived, wrote, and directed the story, once we started working, they handed Judith over to me. I believe they felt that I knew her better than they did.”

Also from the local talent pool, teenagers Aaron Wolff and Jessica McManus were chosen to play Danny and Sarah. McManus’ grandmother saw a news item in The Minneapolis [- St. Paul, Minnesota] Star Tribune announcing the open auditions in May 2008 for the roles of the Gopnik kids, and encouraged her granddaughter to try out. “I didn’t even have a résumé, so I never imagined I would even get the first callback,” says McManus. “When I got the part, I was so happy I cried. Being on the set was nothing like I expected, but everyone made it so easy to adapt.

“Sarah wants what she wants, her way, and now. That’s admirable – to a certain degree. Playing her, it was fun to yell at people and not get any backlash, but I did have to tone down the way I spoke – the slang I use – because the film is set in 1967.”

Wolff decided to try out for the role at the open auditions even though his family was about to relocate to another state. “We knew we’d suffer the consequences, but it was worth it,” admits the young actor. “I read the script and pictured things, but then when I’d go on the set it would be 10 times better. It was a great experience.”

Having just recently been through his own real-life bar mitzvah ceremony, Wolff experienced déjà vu in filming Danny’s. “Those were probably the most fun scenes for me,” he recalls. “The toughest thing I had to do was on the first day of shooting – a smoking scene. What a turn-off!

“Joel and Ethan are so personable but usually they won’t say anything before we rehearse and block a scene. Then, if they want something different or specific, they’ll say so.”

A more familiar face to audiences, Richard Kind, takes on a more dramatic role than usual in A Serious Man. The Coens had remembered him from an audition for their previous film, Burn After Reading, and Kind was called in to read for one of the rabbi roles in the new movie. Later, while doing a play in Fort Worth, Kind got the call that the Coens wanted him to read for the part of Uncle Arthur. He remembers, “I had to do it on tape, from Fort Worth. I never get parts from auditioning on tape, but I did this time!”

The actor remarks, “Arthur is not on-screen for a long time. It wasn’t until rehearsals, when everybody was saying to me, ‘Oh, Uncle Arthur’s a terrific part,’ that I fully realized it. When I started studying what I wanted to bring to him and listening to what the Coens were telling me about how they saw him, it became very clear to me. Still, much of what goes on with Arthur can only be filled in by the imagination, and I tried to present him that way – leaving it up to the audience, as Joel and Ethan do.”

Stuhlbarg reveals that “Richard and I did speak about what we thought their history might be; that Arthur is older than Larry and was always more intelligent but also more socially inept. As time went by, Larry became more self-possessed and assertive, and Arthur started to atrophy.”

Unemployed, possibly brilliant, and homeless, Uncle Arthur is physically afflicted by a sebaceous cyst on the back of his neck. Kind sees it as “this little monster, as if the ugliness of the world has attached itself to the back of his neck. He’s always draining it with this evacuator, yet it just keeps regenerating.”

To play Sy Ableman, Larry Gopnik’s rival for his wife’s affections, the Coens tapped actor Fred Melamed. “Sy is the sex guy in our movie; every film needs one,” notes Joel.

“Yet he’s not your usual movie homewrecker,” qualifies Ethan.

Melamed was up for the task, quipping that he was happy “to move a pompous, overweight, pushy guy who speaks in rabbinical tones back to the center of American sexuality, where he belongs!”

Nearly two decades earlier, Melamed had auditioned for the Coens for a pivotal role in Barton Fink. That role went to Michael Lerner, who subsequently received an Academy Award nomination for his performance, “and deservedly so,” says Melamed. “But they remembered me, and got in touch with me first, which was very exciting. The script put me in mind of their best films, which get in between your conscious and subconscious, and rattle around in there and affect you.”

Melamed elaborates, “In A Serious Man, Judith falls for this man who is significantly older and not movie-star handsome. She sees him as a bigger deal than Larry, who she doesn’t think is enough of a macher, as they say in Yiddish – an achiever, an important person. Larry doesn’t have a following where he teaches, whereas Sy does. Ethan told me that Sy is ‘smoothly free of self-doubt,’ and that they knew someone like that growing up. Sy is one of those people who, throughout history, have done the most outrageous things and really earnestly believed that they were doing what was best for everybody; because they don’t have the doubt mechanism in place like normal people do, they destroy people. But Sy is gentle about it…”

On the set, Melamed was reunited with his former Yale School of Drama classmate Katherine Borowitz, who also appears in the film; and with lifelong friend Adam Arkin, who plays a divorce lawyer and who – like Melamed – was acting in his first movie for the Coens. Melamed recalls, “Adam and I were talking one day, and he described it, rightly; ‘Being on this movie make you feel good about being an actor, because it’s so unlike the way most people work.’”

Melamed explains, “Some directors don’t like the actual shooting of the film, because they have to give up control. That’s not at all true of Joel and Ethan. They love every aspect of filmmaking – writing it, making it, post[-production]ing it, the whole thing.

“Perhaps because they have conceived a story from the beginning, they are unthreatened by other people’s ideas or other people’s takes on things – even from a jobbing actor like me. You feel that you’re in the heart of telling the story with them.”

BETTER HOMES AND MORE

“1967 in the Midwest was a great period,” reflects production designer Jess Gonchor. “New designs styles were developing.

“We did a lot of research, and we looked for practical locations to alter and then film in. Walking in and just shooting? That’s never happened on any movie I’ve been on…”

Indeed, a key challenge in recreating a Midwestern suburb of the 1960s was to find a neighborhood that had remained largely unchanged over the past 40-plus years. Robert Graf elaborates, “There are a lot of neighborhoods in the Twin Cities area that are very well-preserved from the standpoint of the architecture, but most of them are 50 years old now and very overgrown, with big trees.

“What we really wanted was the feeling of a neighborhood when it was still new.  If you look at archival photos, most of these suburbs were built on cornfields and prairies.”

Tyson Bidner and Gonchor’s staff searched within and just outside Minneapolis/St. Paul for areas that had undergone heavy storm damage or blight that destroyed some of the more mature growth. Graf reports that “we finally happened on a neighborhood that had suffered some storm damage about 8 years ago which left it remarkably open, particularly in the front yards.”

Bidner adds, “They had had to replant trees, so that helped it look like a new suburban neighborhood in the 1960s, where trees would have been planted with new homes.

“We received the full cooperation and support of twelve different homes and families in this one neighborhood – four on one street, the four across from them, and four which shared some of the others’ back yards.”

Gonchor reveals, “It’s a great neighborhood as it is, but for several houses we did clear out vegetation and put in new driveways – or, rather, narrow them down from the current two-car ones to the period’s one-car ones. We also had to re-sod lawns.”

Also located was a Hebrew school which, says Bidner, “we could use for 3-4 different settings – and that’s always helpful on a low-budget movie – including the on-screen Hebrew school. Their school cafeteria became our school’s classroom…”

“…and we could never have gotten a classroom this big otherwise unless we’d built it,” adds Gonchor. “The script called for wide shots with 20-24 students at desks, so we got lucky.”

As with other locations, the filmmakers needed a local synagogue that had a newly constructed look. Most of the temples in and around Minneapolis had a decidedly classic architectural style, so the Coens suggested the very synagogue they attended while growing up in the region.

However, in the intervening years, it had been turned into a church; transforming it again would have taken up too much time and labor.

Bidner finally located the right shul ­– B’nai Emet, formerly B’nai Abraham and itself not far from where the Coens grew up. He notes, “We worked our shooting schedule around the High Holy Days in September and October, and it was perfect.”

B’Nai Emet is the location for one of the more uniquely filmed sequences in A Serious Man. In close collaboration with their longtime director of photography, eight-time Academy Award nominee Roger Deakins, operating his own camera the Coens particularly enjoyed devising the look for the bar mitzvah sequence. Some particulars of the sequence necessitated overall approval from the temple elders, who granted permission after reading the script.

Ethan Coen says, “It was great to shoot, because Roger had these swing and tilt lenses that skew the focal plane. They give this weird, soft effect to everything in the frame except for one almost arbitrary plane. He had used them a lot on The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford. With us, he used them for two sequences in the movie, the bar mitzvah one and the one where Larry goes next door to visit the sexy, mysterious Mrs. Samksy [played by Amy Landecker].”

Other Twin Cities locations included Interstate Park on the St. Croix River, where the Coens had gone canoeing while growing up; and Lake Rebecca in Independence, Minnesota, a picturesque lake with (as seen on-screen) a small beach area. Bidner states that the production was “able to find everything – and every location – we needed in the Twin Cities.”

Throughout filming, the production was conscious of the environment; cast and crew were given metal canteens which were refilled from a water source, thereby eliminating plastic water bottles. Additionally, many of the utensils used were made of cornstarch, which could later be composted. “We recycled the sets and the food service,” reveals Bidner. “Everyone was aware of the importance of finding ways to make things a little bit better.”

The careful preparation and working methods of longtime collaborators also go a long way towards making things that much better. Joel Coen remarks, “We have the huge advantage of being able to work with the best people in the movie business – it makes our movies what they are – which is especially helpful when you’re working on a little budget with a tiny amount of resources.”

Ethan confirms, “When you’re making a movie about a Jewish Midwestern community in 1967 and Fred Melamed is the sex guy, they don’t give you a lot of money.”

Budgets notwithstanding, Joel marvels at how “our set decorator, Nancy Haigh, always shocks us in terms of what she’s able to unearth for whatever universe we’ve chosen to create. She supplies all those small details that make the sets look authentic.

Ethan adds, “She’s a Gentile, and here she was accumulating all this Judaica and Hebraica that was familiar from our childhood; Nancy outdid herself, accumulating more than audiences will see in the movie.”

Similarly, special effects coordinator Larz Anderson and his team fashioned a human brain out of clay and silicon rubber – as a prop in the 1950s black-and-white movie that Danny is watching on television.

Gonchor offers, “Joel and Ethan write things out so specifically and storyboard everything; that makes my job easier; I know what I have to zero in on. But they’ll let me create until it maybe goes too far, and then they’ll reel it in.

“I have a lot of block construction in A Serious Man; there’s the prologue, with the couple, and then right after that there’s Danny’s classroom. Larry’s office has a bit of that, and then the Jolly Roger motel definitely does. These are concrete worlds that the characters are often looking to get out of. One reason this script was so good is because it comes from something – and some place – real, and it’s reality pushed a bit…”

AUTO FOCUS

Any feature film set in the past is looking for visual shorthand of “the kind of detail that immediately conveys the period,” notes Joel Coen.

Vintage automobiles invariably signal that, and A Serious Man was no exception – especially since one pivotal sequence entails cross-cutting between two automobiles, each in transit. Still, as Joel explains, “It was important not to populate the movie with cars that looked too new, the kind of cars you find from collectors who keep them shiny and perfect and don’t look like they would have looked at the time. It was a constant struggle to get cars that were period but not in quite as perfect condition, or at least ones where the owners would let you knock them down a bit.”

Weeks before the start of production, picture car coordinator Mike Arnold (who had previously worked for the Coens on Fargo over a decade earlier) began scouring local antique car shows in search of the right vehicles for the characters to drive and to pepper the backgrounds of exterior scenes. Arnold comments, “They told me the background cars were up to me; they were mainly interested in picking the main cars. The only thing they said was ‘no reds, no whites and no big fins.’ They also didn’t want anything from before 1960, because it looked too ‘period.’”

The car that the filmmakers settled on for Larry Gopnik was a Dodge Coronet, a midsized car that Chrysler introduced in the ‘50s and then again in the mid-‘60s. Arnold says, “The car really fits Larry’s personality; it’s just a plain 1966 every-day looking car. It’s nothing fancy and he’s not a fancy guy.” Sy Ableman, on the other hand, is behind the wheel of a Coupe de Ville.

For Mrs. Samsky’s car, Arnold managed to get an exception to the Coens’ mandate. He notes, “I felt she needed a Mustang.  I picked out a gold one first, but then I sent Joel and Ethan Coen a photo of a red one anyway – and they loved it, as did Jess Gonchor. She’s a spicy character, so she had to have something spicy. So we got a little red in our car palette after all.”

Gonchor’s favorite vehicle in the film was “the yellow school bus – I always wanted to do a movie with one – on which I was able to put writing in Hebrew, because it’s for Danny’s school. It was a double mitzvah for me.”

The biggest adjustment that the actors had to make in driving the vintage cars was to the absence of many of the innovations that have become standard since the 1960s, such as power steering.  Arnold laughs, “When they got in one of these cars, they’d turn the ignition and turn and turn and turn. But nothing happened because there’s no electronic transmission. You have to punch the gas.”

The several dozen cars that needed to be parked outside the synagogue for the bar mitzvah sequence were rounded up by enlisting the help of local TV and radio stations to invite participants. But an added incentive was needed to ensure participation. Joel reveals, “The owners of these cars tended to be very proprietary about their vehicles, so we thought it was best to get them to be extras in the movie – and let them drive their own cars.”

UP/TUCK

For Sari Lennick, it was the girdle and other foundation garments; for Aaron Wolff, the high-waisted pants did the trick. When making a movie set in the past, actors rely upon components of their costumes to impact and enhance their portrayal so that they truly feel in-character.

It’s all in day’s work for the Coens’ longtime costume designer Mary Zophres and her department. She notes, “Every scene and tableau in A Serious Man had a personality to it.

“The Jewish Cultural Foundation of the Upper Midwest has a photo archive that they were kind enough to share with me, as well as with the art department; we in turn shared it with the hair and make-up crews. I was inspired by the Foundation’s archive as much as I was by the script.”

Zophres discovered that the Minneapolis area in 1967 was not yet keeping pace with more fashion-forward-looking parts of the country. “If the film had taken place in 1969, it would have had a completely different look,” she asserts. “But in 1967, in this suburb of a smallish city, things were more conservative; it was still not yet ‘the swinging ‘60s.’ Danny Gopnik may be listening to Jefferson Airplane, but he’s not dressing like Jefferson Airplane; his father would have grabbed him by the ear, and it’s his mother who still buys his clothes.”

Many of the film’s characters are obliged to adhere to a specific formal dress code, from the university faculty and students to the younger Hebrew students. With that in mind, Zophres discussed the film’s clothes’ color palette early on with the Coens and with Jess Gonchor and

Roger Deakins. The Gopniks’ story transpires in May, which would seem to call for pastel colors, yet Zophres felt otherwise; “I showed Joel and Ethan Coen a page from a Sears Roebuck catalog called ‘Deep Autumnal,’ and that’s more or less the color palette we decided on. This movie has quite a bit of blue, and some color combinations – like turquoise with olive green, which is a very ‘60s mix. I only used certain colors, but I used them intensely. The women were all costumed in the darker ends of our palette – black, chocolate brown, or deep deep green.”

The main cast and the extras frequently needed instructions on how to dress in what was oddly unfamiliar clothing. For instance, notes Zophres, “In the 1960s there was very little break in a pair of men’s pants. To a lot of the actors who were used to wearing contemporary pants, I had to say ‘Pull up your pants!’ It became my mantra for the extras.

“[Assistant costume designer] Jenny Eagan and I also went around saying ‘Tuck in your shirt,’ because back then people took care in how they dressed. When you went to the grocery store, you put on clothes, not sneakers or a track suit. Those weren’t everyday clothes yet. It was still a time when people made the effort to prepare and present themselves to their neighbors.”

Zophres clarifies, “Every extra who was dressed for the movie was dressed by either Jenny or myself. We had to be happy with the way everybody looked, so that any of them could be called for any scene or shot and ready to go. People would come in from casting, and I would get inspired just from seeing their faces. We had some great faces on A Serious Man.”

Women’s clothes were the most specifically fit and tailored. Zophres reveals, “All of the women in the movie wore the appropriate undergarments. Blouses had darts in them then, so if you didn’t wear the right bra, the shirt didn’t fit the right way.”

Judith Gopnik’s look was fashioned after the Jewish Cultural Foundation photographs, requiring a head-to-toe transformation of Sari Lennick. Zophres remembers, “We broke it to Sari slowly; she would get to keep her hair length, but we were going to dye it brown to match the other Gopniks’. Her hair was cut and styled to match a specific photo that we had found from 1967.

“Then we put on the clothes. Low shoes. Skirts at the most unflattering length ever, right in the middle of the calf. Plaid blouses. It was quite a ‘before and after’ transformation, but Sari was totally into it.”

Photos of physics departments’ professors in 1960s Minnesota college yearbooks pointed the way towards the ensemble for Professor Larry Gopnik. Short-sleeved dress shirts were key, not only because the month is May but also “because they had a nerd appeal,” states Zophres.

The short-sleeved dress shirts were combined with conservative suits and ties, sport coats and trousers, and outfitted with a pocket protector. Zophres offers, “It might be a cliché, but on Michael Stuhlbarg it looked so real. His pants were also a bit short and he was able to wear the ideal period shoes, some of which had never been worn before. Michael put on the clothes and he just became the character!”

In the era before contact lenses became more prevalent, eyeglasses were more commonplace, and “these were so important to the character of Larry in particular. From the first reading of the script, I was sure he should have them. But between him and a number of other characters wearing glasses, it was an added challenge for Roger Deakins,” admits Zophres. “So each set of glasses was made with two different sets of lenses – one set clear, one anti-reflective-coated – that could be alternated depending on the lighting needs.”

The unhappy Uncle Arthur remains in his pajamas a great deal of the time, and Richard Kind further suggested that his character’s clothing be a bit too big. Zophres agreed, so that “nothing fits him quite right – the sleeves are too long, for instance – and that adds to his depression. You give someone a costume with shoulders that come down low, and his shoulders will themselves slope.”

It was for Sy Ableman that Zophres was able to go all-out. She notes, “Sy is the cosmopolitan one of the community. In the script, it says that he wears his shirts outside of his clothes and they tent out over his stomach. We wound up making all of his shirts; the first one he wears in the movie was from a Tahitian-styled fabric I originally bought for Leonardo DiCaprio on Catch Me If You Can. I had ended up not using it and still had it in my garage. Sy’s the kind of guy who you can imagine as having been on vacation, maybe on some cruises to places the Gopniks would not have had to money to go to.

“We did not have the money to make this on the budget that most period films would be, so we prepared exactly what we needed to prepare. I loved doing it all.”

THIS IS SERIOUS

Richard Kind states, “A Serious Man is, I believe, how Joel and Ethan Coen view the world and ‘the human condition.’ It’s also a good yarn about one very sad SOB.”

Fred Melamed muses, “In A Serious Man, bad things happen, good things happen, and a lot of it goes unexplained. Larry wants to know what he’s done wrong; he wants to see that he’s done something morally wrong so that he can straighten things out and not be that way, and not have these horrible things befall him. But, in fact, he hasn’t really done much wrong at all. He’s just gone through life.”

Michael Stuhlbarg cites the quotation that appears on-screen at the start of the film; “‘Receive with simplicity everything that happens to you.’ That’s a great mantra to keep in mind in terms of how we live our lives.”

Mary Zophres sees the film as “a comedy of angst. There’s drama and sorrow, yet it’s told with a great sense of humor. So, to me, it’s like life, and it’s hilarious.”