Barry Sonnenfeld, cinematographer
I met Joel Coen at a party in Manhattan in 1982. We got talking about how great the cinematography was in Wim Wenders’ The American Friend. He explained how he and his brother Ethan wanted to shoot a dummy trailer to try and raise $750,000 for a noir script they had written called Blood Simple. I had just graduated from NYU film school and recently bought a used 16mm camera. I said: “I own a camera.” Joel said: “You’re hired.”
I shot the trailer, which featured Bruce Campbell. It took a year to raise the money. We would take a 16mm projector and show the trailer to investment groups full of dentists and people like that. $15,000 got you one percentage point out of 50 available; the other 50 were given as incentives to actors and other people who worked on the film. A multimillionaire inventor friend who came up with the pump used in Windex bottles signed up; my father also got a point. Independent movies are usually a really stupid way to invest your money, but everyone made their $15,000 back many times over.
The script was very taut and very doable, really written for the budget. Joel had spent a year in graduate film school in Austin, Texas, so it was mostly written around existing locations like Lake Austin. We spent weeks in their apartment at 280 Riverside Drive in Upper Manhattan, designing the shots.
It’s always good to have a few cool transitions; it makes the movie seem more expensive than it is. We described one shot in which Frances McDormand transitioned from discovering the murder in the office to thinking about it at home. We had no idea how to pull it off, but our grip Tom Prophet – who knew more than all of us put together – ended up designing a special rig. The camera and Fran were both mounted on it; one moment you see her looking at the office, then we drop the rig 90 degrees and she falls through space on to her bed, which we’d put on the floor of the same set. Tom later used it for some sexual thing with his wife – we didn’t want to know.
None of us had been on a feature film set before. The day before we started, I had to have an assistant cameraman show me where the on-off switch was on a 35mm camera. Joel and Ethan thought they were going to have to make peanut butter sandwiches for the crew; they didn’t realise we had a caterer. I’m a very nervous guy with a nervous stomach, and the joke was that I threw up 18 times in 42 days. But we had been so well-organised, there wasn’t much standing around scratching our heads.
When we first showed the movie to our investors, they almost uniformly hated it. They didn’t understand the tone could be a thriller, a horror movie and a comedy all at once. At the major studios, who rejected it, all the creative people loved it but all the marketing ones hated it. They couldn’t figure out how to sell it. Black comedy scares marketing people, as I discovered when I made Get Shorty. It was not until the New York film festival in January 1985, where critics loved it, that it became a viable movie, and Crown International Pictures, an indie distributor, bought it.
It premiered at the festival alongside Jim Jarmusch’s Stranger Than Paradise. But we didn’t have any sense of breaking new ground for independent cinema; we were just trying to make a commercial movie. Joel and Ethan and I recently worked on a re-release for Criterion. We all felt we could have done a better job: the pacing is too slow, and I could have shot it better. These days, we’d do it for 10 times the price, and it would be 8% better.
M Emmet Walsh, actor
I’ve done more than 100 feature films. Every time, you try and figure something individual that works for the character. If you’re playing a villain, you don’t play villain. My character in Blood Simple, Visser, doesn’t think of himself as particularly bad or evil. He’s on the edge of what’s legal, but he’s having a lot of fun with all that. He’s a simple fella trying to make an extra buck and going a little further than he’d normally go in his business enterprises.
I didn’t know anything about the Coen brothers. But my agent had been passing on things without telling me, which I was a little upset about. So I asked to start seeing everything. I was down in Dallas, Texas, doing a film with Meryl Streep, and my agent called with a script written by some kids for a low-budget movie. It was a [40s character actor] Sydney Greenstreet kind of role, with a panama suit and the hat. I thought it was kinda fun and interesting. They were 100 miles away in Austin, so I went down there early one day before shooting, and they showed me a rough cut of the promo trailer.
Joel had never really worked with actors, so he didn’t really know the acting vocabulary. He might say: “Why don’t you look over there?” And I’d say, “Why is my character looking over there?” And Joel would say, “Just humour me, will you?” They had it storyboarded to death. Joel would set the shot up and then Ethan would come over and look through the camera. Then they would go in a corner and talk. Work it out between themselves. It was kind of a private thing they had.
At one point, I got a call from Joel, saying: “Hey M, can you blow smoke rings?” I wasn’t a smoker, but I made myself sick working on it for a while. When I told him I couldn’t do it, he said they’d invented a machine for the job. But when we shot the scene, in a little roadhouse outside Dallas, it couldn’t produce enough moisture to hold the ring together. Finally a little prop girl said: “Gimme that cigar! I grew up smoking in the barn with my four brothers.” And she starts blowing beautiful smoke rings. I said: “Wow, this is what low-budget movies are all about.” A bit later, she was sitting out on the steps, puking her guts out.
I didn’t hear from them for months after that. They didn’t have enough money to fly me in to New York for the opening of the film. I saw it three or four days later when it opened in LA, and I was, like: Wow! Suddenly my price went up five times. I was the guy everybody wanted. No one can do a movie as good as Blood Simple the first time out. They weren’t lucky; they were ahead of where things were, and where they should’ve been.
• Blood Simple: Director’s Cut is on DVD and Blu-ray.