Originally titled “The Joel & Ethan Story,” this piece first appeared in the October 1989 issue of Premiere and appears here with the author’s permission.
Joel and Ethan Coen’s new movie, Miller’s Crossing, opens with an oddly poignant shot of a hat blowing through an autumn forest. A little later, Tom, the hero, tells Verna, his mistress, that he dreamed he was walking in the woods when the wind blew off his hat.
She responds cynically: “And you chased it, right? You ran and ran and finally you caught up to it and picked it up, but it wasn’t a hat anymore. It had changed into something else—something wonderful.”
Tom turns away and takes a drag off his cigarette. He’s a hard drinker, it’s dawn, and he’s worn out from the effort of keeping his balance in a slippery world of criminal intrigue—a world of crosses, double crosses, and double double crosses. “No,” he replies wearily. “It stayed a hat. And no, I didn’t chase it. I watched it blow away—nothing more foolish than a man chasing his hat.”
Later still, we learn that this stretch of woods is called Miller’s Crossing, and it is a place where gangsters take people to kill them. In fact, Tom himself takes someone there to kill. Which makes the hat and the forest the pivotal images in the single most impressive movie of the year so far. Chosen to open the 1990 New York Film Festival, Miller’s Crossing is a brilliant mixture of satire and seriousness, style and substance, a bitter love story embedded in a gangster gothic, a film that is at once an homage to films noirs past and an extraordinarily assured leap into the future.
Although their previous film, Raising Arizona, dipped its toes into the warm bath of sentiment, the Coens have always been ironists—cold and distant, puppet masters in the grand tradition of Hitchcock. Not that they’ve given that up for a happy ending and a trip to Disneyland; if anything, Miller’s Crossing is darker than their other films. What they have done is drop their ironic distance. If The Godfather found greatness by taking the then-dismissed gangster genre seriously, Miller’s Crossing is a post-postmodern Godfather that rollicks in the silliness of the genre but still somehow plumbs the depths of emotion. This is a movie teeming with caricatures that keep on revealing real characters underneath. We see a buffoonish gangster, then meet his child; we see a tough guy, then meet his male lover. Even a dead man still has a toupee between him and the bald truth. It’s an unsettling combination of the grotesque and the touching, a tongue-in-cheek tongue kiss.
But ask the Coen brothers why the movie is called Miller’s Crossing and you get deadpan responses, Beckett by way of Hammett by way of Rocky and Bullwinkle.
Ethan: “We couldn’t think of a better title.”
Joel: “It’s okay. A friend of ours came up with it. Or we wouldn’t have had any title.”
Ethan: “Yeah, it’s an okay title. We’d give it like a B, B-minus. It’s… yeah. Sometimes they come, and sometimes they don’t.”
PREMIERE: “So what is it with this hat thing, anyway?”
Joel (laughing): “That’s a really good question— ‘So what is it with this hat thing, anyway?’ ”
PREMIERE: “I’m a highly trained professional.”
Joel: “No, it just sounds really good. Yeah, what is it with the hat thing, anyway? I don’t know. You know, those gangsters, they wore fedoras. You’re no gangster without the hat.”
PREMIERE: “But you could’ve called it Five O’Clock Shadow. You don’t have gangsters without that, either.”
Ethan: “Actually, well, yeah, right. But we didn’t call it The Hat or The Fedora.”
Joel: “Yeah, it’s called Miller’s Crossing.”
There is a striking similarity between the dialogue of the movie and the Coens’ own speech—the terse suggestiveness, the irony, the existential flatness of tone. It’s the sound of cheap detectives making wisecracks into the void. This is the Coen style, onscreen and off, which is why most of the articles written about them have titles like “The Brothers From Another Planet” or “Warped in America.” In person, as onscreen, the Coens never apologize and never explain.
It’s true that they’re a bit different. They seem normal—just look at them and you know they hung out in the English or film or philosophy department of some damn college, and they went to lots of movies, and they read lots of novels. Joel slouches in a corner with his scraggly long hair half covering his face, and Ethan looks attentive but slightly abstracted in his wire rims. They wear blue jeans and T-shirts.
But they have these eccentric habits. They tend to finish each other’s sentences and talk in a private argot of jokes and code words. Although Joel is credited as the director and Ethan as producer, they are so joined at the hip professionally that crew members treat them as interchangeable beings. By Hollywood standards, they are virtually freaks. They live in New York. They rarely go to parties, and when they do, Ethan usually takes a book to read. And they have this weird quirk making aggressively self-conscious movies but playing dumb when it comes time to talk about them. “They’ll never talk to you conceptually,” says cinematographer Barry Sonnenfeld, who has shot all three Coen films—Blood Simple, Raising Arizona, and their latest. “They’ll never say ‘The hat in Miller’s Crossing represents this.’ In fact, if you ask them about it, they’ll say, ‘We wanted to make a movie about men in long coats wearing hats.’”
The Coens are hot commodities in Hollywood, and Miller’s Crossing is apt to make them hotter still. Twentieth Century Fox had to fight off bids from other studios for distribution rights to their next film, Barton Fink. Fox ended up providing almost the entire budget, reportedly $9 million, in exchange for domestic rights alone—and this for a period piece about writer’s block.
From the beginning, the Coens have had final cut, a power many far more experienced directors would kill to get. And they have used their power to make not artsy black-and-white “films” but their own twisted versions of classic Hollywood genres, risky movies without viewer-friendly characters and happy endings.
Hollywood looks at the Coens the way it looks at Woody Allen: their films don’t make much money, but everyone wants to be associated with them. (Raising Arizona made $22 million.) Fox may be concerned because Miller’s Crossing appears dark and uncommercial, but it would be “a black eye for the company to let these guys get away,” says Universal Pictures executive Jim Jacks. Jacks should know, since he’s been trying to lure the Coens to Universal for years. “You want to be in business with the Joel and Ethans, the Spike Lees, and the Phil Kaufmans. These are the people who are going to make the great movies of our time.”
And possibly even the hit movies. One day, Jacks says, “the Coens will write a script that they think is off-center, and between the time when they write it and when it comes out, the center will have moved just enough that they will hit it right in the middle, and they will be appalled.”
The Coens may be kings of their medium-budget mountain, but it took some scrambling to get there. They grew up in the suburbs of Minneapolis, bright but otherwise unremarkable kids. They shared a room, skied a little, and were bored in school. “What they really remind me of is two guys who grew up in bunk beds,” says a longtime friend. “There wasn’t much back then to suggest that anything would happen,” says their father, Edward, an economics professor at the University of Minnesota. It’s true they made three Super-8 films, but the movies were “so primitive, it never occurred to me that this would become something serious.”
The only hint of an artistic future was an elementary-school play that Ethan cowrote. “In one scene, King Arthur was about to leave the castle, and his nurse says to him, ‘Don’t forget to put on your sweater,’” says Edward, who, like his sons, chuckles constantly. “There were laughs like that pretty much all through it.”
The Coen brothers did have one unusual characteristic: they were tenacious. Especially Ethan. “He always knew what he wanted and insisted on it,” his father says. “He would never eat any green vegetables, so we made a deal with him. ‘We’ll start eating vegetables next year.’ He’d say, ‘Okay,’ and when next year rolled around, we didn’t get any compliance.”
The boys left high school early and went to a private Massachusetts school called Simon’s Rock of Bard College. From there, Joel transferred to the New York University film department, and Ethan went to Princeton and studied philosophy. After college, Joel edited horror films and took odd film jobs until Ethan graduated and joined him in New York.
They began writing scripts. One was a murder mystery called Suburbicon. Another was The XYZ Murders, cowritten and directed by Sam Raimi and released under the title Crimewave in 1985. Then there was Blood Simple.
“They were very, very worried when they were making Blood Simple,” their father says. “Everything would turn on that, and they realized it. But when they were raising money, they would walk in and seem very calm.”
When the film was finished, all the studios passed. But it happened that a cash-rich Washington, D.C.-based distributor called Circle Releasing was interested in producing its first film. Circle snapped up Blood Simple, and when it earned a respectable if not spectacular $3 million on the art-house circuit, the studios came running. “There was nothing on paper,” says Jacks, then an executive with Circle. “I half expected them to say, ‘Look, we can make movies for studios now.’”
But the Coens were loyal. In return, Circle gave them final cut and put up $3 million in cash to shoot Raising Arizona. Three weeks into production, Twentieth Century Fox put up another $3 million. The unusual relationship continues to this day. “The primary thing is, we really love the kind of movies they make,” says Circle co-owner Ted Pedas. “We really do.”
The Coens aren’t tight-lipped just with journalists. They don’t like explaining themselves on the set either. “It was really weird that nobody mentioned the hat all the way through the movie,” says Gabriel Byrne, who plays Tom Reagan, the lead role in Miller’s Crossing. “l said to Joel at one point, ‘What is the significance of the hat? Is the hat significant?’ And he said, ‘Mmm hmm.’ And that was it.”
Jon Polito plays a gangster wackily obsessed with ethics. The film begins with his monologue: “If you can’t trust a fix, what can you trust? For a good return, you gotta go bettin’ on chance, and then you’re back with anarchy. Right back inna jungle. On account of the breakdown of ethics.”
“I remember going through it at first, and I got one word wrong,” says Polito. “After it was over, they go, in stereo, ‘You missed that word.’” But the Coens never discussed the meaning of the speech with him. “They really don’t talk about things like that,” Polito says. “They sort of giggled, then they would say, ‘Go further.’”
The Coens tend to approach things physically. Marcia Gay Harden, who plays Verna, mistress to both Tom and his boss, Leo (Albert Finney), reports that they flew her to the film’s location in New Orleans for an unscheduled costume fitting that went on until “the wee hours of the morning,” redesigned her dresses to make them more clingy, had her spend a week on makeup tests, had her eyebrows plucked and her hair cut. “That was important to them,” she says. But they left her on her own conceptually. “We would just use words like ‘smoky, sensuous, sexy,’ and Joel would go, ‘Yeah, yeah, those words.’”
Byrne had a similar experience. “I would say, ‘I’m going to put this glass down and walk out of the room,’ and Joel would say, ‘No, no, Tom would never leave a drink in the bottom of the glass.’ We would get into a discussion of Tom’s maybe being an alcoholic, but nothing too deep. Usually it was ‘Close the door after you,’ that sort of thing.”
They are famous for their meticulous planning. They put virtually all the visual and cutting cues in the script and storyboard every shot. They don’t let actors change a single word. “It would be completely inappropriate to say, ‘I got a great idea: Verna’s really English,’” says Harden.
The Coens also control their budgets, which inspires audible gratitude from their backers. For example, they almost gave up on the memorable shot from above the ceiling fan in Blood Simple because it was taking too long to set up. “They say they’ll do something, they do it, and often for less,” says Pedas.
Between them, the Coens are a self-contained filmmaking unit. “They’re the real creators of the movie,” says John Turturro, who plays Bernie, Verna’s brother, in Miller’s Crossing. “They do everything. They write it, they cast it, they work on the editing, they’re involved with the music. They don’t hire people to go out and do those things,” says Sonnenfeld. “They are so insularly self-confident, it doesn’t matter what anyone else thinks.” They don’t try to create a feel-good atmosphere. “It wasn’t a fun set to be on at all,” recalls Byrne. “People were there to work really hard.”
But within rigid boundaries, they are flexible. It’s significant that these “control freaks” usually write their scripts without an outline or even a glimmer of an ending. “They literally make it up as they go along,” says Jacks. “When they come to a crossroads in the story, they always figure what’s the weirdest way of going.”
The Coens also manage to make their actors feel free—mostly, it seems, by using laughter. They have a remarkable ability to turn strangers into co-conspirators in their private joke. It’s a “deceptive” way of directing, says Polito. “They sort of giggle and make you laugh along with them, until finally you realize you’re going in a way they planned years before. They have a wonderful way of catching you off guard.”
The Coens’ combination of flexibility and control seems to inspire everyone. All their actors use the same word to describe their feelings for the brothers: trust. Turturro says he tried wildly different approaches on every take of the almost embarrassing scene in which his character pleads for his life. The result is a tour de force of acting. “I knew I was taking a risk, but for them I would basically do anything,” he says. “I felt very free.”
Until Miller’s Crossing, none of the Coens’ characters were capable of much thought. If they weren’t actually blood simple, they were hayseed dumb. But the hero of Miller’s Crossing is a guy with a million angles. Tom always seems to be one step ahead of everyone else. That’s his job, in fact; he’s the brains to Leo’s crime boss. The Coens up the ante by pushing him into a situation in which his survival depends on how fast he thinks.
“He’s a character who sort of throws everything up in the air and intentionally creates confusion,” says Joel. “This is an old [Dashiell] Hammett idea—‘If I stir things up, I’ll be able to deal with the consequences, whatever they are. Something will emerge that I can exploit.’”
But the Coens put a twist on the power of positive thinking by making their hero win the world and lose the girl. Is the only thing more foolish than a man chasing his hat a man trying to use the head under the hat?
“You don’t know any smart guys who’ve ever lost girls?” asks Ethan, turning helpful. He points out that Leo listens to his heart. The name is no accident: he’s lionhearted. And Leo also gets the girl—“so maybe,” Joel reluctantly concedes, “there’s a moral there.”
Ethan makes a brief for simple instinct. “I mean, the whole hat thing, the fact that it’s all hats, is good, because even if it doesn’t mean anything, it adds a little thread running through the whole thing that’s the same thread. It feels good.”
“It’s the same with decisions you make while you’re making the movie,” Joel continues, “because you’re always confronted with things like, ‘Should the wallpaper be this color?’ ‘Should the actor be sort of taking it to this level or keeping it at that level?’ And you really have to be fairly intuitive about it. You just have to say, ‘This seems to fit the idea, this seems to be of a piece with what we’re doing, and this doesn’t.’ But you’re not always thinking about it.”
But then complications arise. After all, the one time Tom listens to his heart, when he decides not to kill his ladylove’s brother, it ends up being the biggest mistake he ever made. “It was an irony we kind of liked,” says Ethan, pronouncing the word “EErony” to turn it into a joke. And Leo’s heart upsets the balance of criminal power and brings death and destruction on the city—another “EErony.” And the simplicity of Leo’s man of action is also tied to his love of blood; he’s “an artist with a tommy gun.”
When things get this complicated, you get the itchy feeling you may be watching “art.” It has the ring of truth, even if you can’t figure out what the truth is—or maybe because you can’t. The Coens have taken the leap from the stylish confectionery of Blood Simple and Raising Arizona to what novelist John Gardner called “moral fiction.” Miller’s Crossing ultimately isn’t about film, it’s about humanity.
It’s only appropriate that the Coens resist this compliment emphatically. “It’s not about humanity, it’s about the characters, you know?” says Ethan. “If you wanna say, inasmuch as we resemble the characters, it’s about all of us, then it’s true, but emptily true.”
So what’s profoundly true is the way the specific story works out? What the specific characters do? And nothing more than that?
The Coens answer firmly, in harmony: “Right.”
Maybe the Coens are just the most un-self-conscious self-conscious artists in history. Their evasive and jokey approach to interviews—much like that enigmatic hat—reveals as much as it conceals. For the Coens’ disdain of abstract thinking goes far beyond the traditional artist’s distrust of ideas. It goes, finally, as deep as style itself—which in many ways is what the Coens are all about. Theirs is a style that’s exuberantly attentive to surfaces, to the look of things, to style itself.
Barry Sonnenfeld tells a story about the memorable shot in Blood Simple in which the camera, tracking along a bar and coming to a drunk who has fallen asleep across it, simply bumps up and over the drunk. It is a signature Coen shot, echoed in Raising Arizona when the camera tracks over a car, up a ladder, and in through a window, and in Miller’s Crossing when a camera dollies in on a screaming man’s face.
But that shot was cut from the first edit of Blood Simple. “I asked Joel why, and he said, ‘I don’t know. It just seemed too self-conscious to me,’” Sonnenfeld recalls.
“I looked at him in total disbelief and said, ‘Joel, this whole movie is self-conscious.’”
No wonder, then, that one of the Coen trademarks is the extended wordless sequence, like the 15-minute burial scene in Blood Simple, a moment of pure film, at once a bravura bouquet to the art of movie-making and a chest-beating announcement of the Coen brothers’ considerable powers: Look, Ma, no words! We don’t need ’em; we can make pictures talk! Hell, we can make them sing!
With Miller’s Crossing, the Coens have taken the truths of style a step further and found depths in the surface itself.
Joel: “I mean, the hat thing, what can you say about the hat, it’s like, you know—”
Ethan: “Yeah, it is hard to talk about it, it’s sorta not—it doesn’t sort of—”
Joel: “But that’s the weird thing. It’s not because there’s any, like, hidden mysteries or anything, it’s just because, you know, it’s all there, you know—it’s all there—”