Sleeping and Severed Toes: Ethan Coen & Joel Coen on the Art of Screenwriting
The secrets of the Coen brothers' creative process and how they pursue their inimitable cinematic craft are subjects of intense interest and speculation for legions of movie lovers. And yet, accurate information in this field has not always been easy to find or verify. As such, the 1998 book The Making of The Big Lebowski by Tricia Cooke and William Preston Robertson (published in the US by W.W. Norton and in the UK by Faber and Faber) offers an invaluable trove of insights into the Way of the Coens. In this extract from the book, Joel and Ethan are quizzed by Robertson on their approach to the various problems of screenwriting, and how they divide their labour.
'What is the writing process like for you guys?' I ask Joel.
'Well, you know,' he shrugs. 'We sleep a lot.'
'Yeah, we waste a lot of time. You know — you've seen us. We just kind of stare at the ceiling.' He hyperventilates through his nostrils. 'Actually, though, you know what's really funny, just between you and me and not for the book?'
'What?' I say.
'Trish and Fran [Ethan's and Joel's spouses, respectively], they're both always saying, 'I know you guys just go to the office and take naps.'' Joel's laughter implodes asthmatically. 'It's true — it's actually really true. We deny it, but it's true.' His laughter fades. 'But I wouldn't want that in the book.'
'Yeah,' I nod.
'There's a lot of …you know …these things take a long time to ripen because — '
'There's a lot of cogitation?' I interject.
'Well, and a lot of procrastination. If it was all cogitation, it would go a lot faster,' Joel says.
'Cogitation is not as dynamic a process as people make it out to be,' I offer.
'I wouldn't know,' Joel declines.
'Do you guys create outlines?' I ask Ethan.
'No,' Ethan says. 'It's all sort of really vaporous ideas and then we just start writing at the beginning. And that's how we crystallize the ideas — not by doing an outline, but by starting to actually write the scenes in order.'
'Does one of you sit at the computer while the other paces?' I ask.
'Yeah,' Ethan says. 'We take turns. Although I usually type because I type faster.'
'Do you ever take advantage of being at the keyboard and start to write something that you haven't been discussing, then have Joel look at it and see your take on it?'
'Yeah,' Ethan says. 'And sometimes the reverse. But it's not like one person will write an entire scene and present it to the other person. You might present one little idea or the beginnings of an idea.'
'So neither of you writes on his own, then shows it to the other later,' I say.
'Right. The other person is always there.'
'Do you write your scripts in order, or will you write out of sequence?' I ask.
'In script order,' Ethan says. 'Sometimes, although not in the case of The Big Lebowski, we'll have an idea of something that might happen further down the line. But that's as close to outlining as we get. For instance, in Barton Fink, we knew we wanted to have Judy Davis's character, Audrey, turning up dead in bed with Barton. And we sort of steered the script into that idea. But, again, it was really vaporous until we got there.'
'So when you know what's going to happen, you don't write that scene?'
'No. We don't actually write anything until it's in the script itself.' Ethan reflects for a moment. 'You know, at a certain point, especially in a movie like The Big Lebowski, you've got to think ahead. At a certain point, we had to sit down and say, 'All right. it's gotta be somebody's fucking toe.' And that was before we actually got to the scene that discloses it, but
'You had written in a severed toe, with no idea who it belonged to,' I muse.
'So is screenwriting something of a found process for you?' I ask.
'Yes. I mean, that's just an example, but that's the rule. We get the idea first — 'Oh, it would be good if a severed toe shows up here — ''
' — But you don't logic it out in terms of some motivational need for the plot or character,' I say.
'You just come up with a bizarre image.'
'Right. We want to goose it with a toe. And then you're left with the problem of whose toe it is.'
'You're sort of deliberately setting up hurdles for yourself. Is that part of it, do you think?' I say.
'Well, yeah… I mean, that's a way to work, painting yourself into a corner and then having to perform whatever contortions to get yourself out,' Ethan says.
'The ultimate example is The Hudsucker Proxy,' he continues, 'in which we began the script with the idea of Tim Robbins's character jumping off a building. But then you're at the end of the script and you have to figure out how to save him. That stumped us for a while. And we had to resort to the ridiculous extreme of, you know, stopping time. That's the worse case. That's sort of the limiting case.'
'Do you write thinking about camera angles and camera setups?' I ask Ethan.
'To varying degrees,' he says. 'Sometimes not at all. I mean, sometimes scenes are just conceived as 'This character says that and then this character says that.' While other scenes are like, you know, this one, obviously-the one we're about to shoot,' he says, referring to the pointedly camera-conscious tumbleweed-climbing-over-the-scrubby-nocturnal-hill-into-the-L.A.-vista scene.
Which leads me to that most pointedly camera-conscious of scripted Coen scenes: the dream sequence, which is perhaps the most consistently recurring Coen cinematic storytelling device.
The Big Lebowski script has two dream sequences, and they're two of the most elaborate and ambitiously designed dream sequences yet in a Coen brothers movie. 'So what's the fascination you guys have with dreams?' I ask.
Ethan shrugs. 'It's just the cheap, gimmicky, obvious way to depict the character's inner life,' he says.
'Uh-huh,' I nod.
'But it's also very fun to do. Again, it's dovetailing things,' he says, harking back to their technique of juxtaposing interesting but disparate elements. 'You know, the character's a pothead. He's flying. The rug tying the room together The whole flying carpet, Thief of Baghdad thing.'
Ethan lifts his hand, drops it limply.