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March 02, 1987 - Image 23

Resource type:
The Michigan Daily, 1987-03-02
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Japolis worshipping Hollywood
movies and even making their own
versions of films they'd seen on tele-
vision (their two most successful re-
makes were Advise and Consent and
The Naked Prey). In the mid-'70s, Joel
enrolled at NYU Film School ("be-
cause none of the others would accept
my late application"), while the more
introspective Ethan studied philosophy
at Princeton. In college they wrote a
couple of scripts together which were
unsuccessful, and after graduation Joel
worked as an assistant editor on indus-
trials, shorts and documentaries before
signing on as an editing assistant for
Sam Raimi on The Evil Dead.
Raimi recalls meeting Joel "when
he was 24 and I was 20. He was very
quiet, and assistants aren't supposed to
talk to directors so it took a while to
form a friendship. His brother Ethan
would come by. He was a nebbish type
of guy who had the stigma of working
as a statistical accountant at Macy's. I
began reading their scripts, which were
really great. I think Joel decided that,
'If this 20-year-old punk can make pic-
tures and I'm a whole lot smarter than
he is, I can, too.' "
The Coens learned a lot from Raimi,
including "their grab-the-camera-and-
run-like-hell philosophy of shoestring
shooting," according to critic David
Chute. They also learned about the stu-
dios as a result of Raimi's unfortunate
experience filming The XYZ Murders,
which he co-wrote with the brothers.
"That turned them off Hollywood,"
says Jim Jacks, Raising Arizona's ex-
ecutive producer. "They saw Sam try-
ing to do nice things and please every-
one [at Embassy Pictures], while the
movie went down the tubes."
Rather than follow Raimi to Holly-
wood, the Coens were inspired to fol-
low his Evil Dead example by raising
their own money for their first feature.
After the film was finished (and the stu-
dios passed on it), the brothers searched
for an independent distributor who
would handle Blood Simple with care.
They endured a lot of "weird meet-
ings," says Joel, "with distributors who
wanted us to cut sexy nude footage into
the movie and stuff like that. We asked
one guy about their accounting and he
said, 'As far as that is concerned, every-
thing is aboveboard and perfectly legiti-
mate. We don't have time to screw you.'
To which Sam Raimi said, 'If you go
with this guy, a year later after he's
robbed you blind, he'll say, "I found the
time".' "
Finally, right before the film's pre-
miere at the New York Film Festival in
October, 1984, Ben Barenholtz offered
the Coens a distribution deal. The
home-moviemaking children of Holly-
wood had finally become legitimate
14 Ampersand's Entertainment Guide

filmmaker without the benefit of

release of their first film, the
Coens-and their resident film-
making unit of NYU alumni (led
by the superb cinematographer Barry
Sonnenfeld)-began production on
their second. "We wanted this one to
taste different," says Joel. "Blood Sim-
ple was slowly paced. This one starts
off with a bang. It's bright and open, as
opposed to dark and claustrophobic. In
Blood Simple the characters were un-
sympathetic across the board. Here
they're not."
Casting was crucial. "We hired peo-
ple who we thought were going to be
likable," says Joel. "And non-threaten-
ing as far as the baby was concerned."
Even the mean and dimwitted Snopes
Brothers, the escaped cons, were made
sympathetic. John Goodman and Bill
Forsythe happened to audition together
for the roles, and a fortuitous moment
occurred. "Bill looked like he was
studying to be John," Joel recalls. "And
they both had these faces-they looked
like grown-up babies. We just decided
on the spot to continue the baby
But the most important active part in
Raising Arizona went to T.J. Kuhn as
Nathan Jr. To find him, a New York
baby wrangler organized a huge audi-
tion with 150 infants: the ones who
didn't cry when their mothers left the
room became finalists. Fast crawlers
had an edge over the competition. (One
toddler learned to walk and was fired.)
The Coens fell for T.J. on the set, and
the entire crew became the child's sur-
rogate family, cooing with abandon.
Through all the mayhem, T.J. was
Fortunately, so were Joel and Ethan.
For one thing, no one was looking over
their shoulders. "It's not a question of
fear of Hollywood or not liking Holly-
wood," saysJoel. "It'sjust a question of
keeping the aggravation factor down
and making the movie. You want to pro-
tect what you get on the screen. And the
best way to protect it is to make sure
that there aren't too many people who
can do it real damage. That way, if you
screw up, it's your mistake."
We follow the assistant director Debo-
rah, who wears a walkie-talkie on her
hip. She moves toward the middle of the
stage, where a beat-up blue Chevy, lit
up on the insidefloats afew feet off the
ground, its underbelly resting on a Lazy
Susan rig. A 35mm camera is strapped
tight onto the side of the car Inside, TfJ.
Kuhn sits securely in a car seat, while
Nicolas Cage, on the passenger side,

4nd driver Holly Hunter bo fuss over
him. Outside the car window, a woman
in her thirties with a red pail on her
head jumps up and down, waving yel-
low pom-poms at TJ., while a sound
man adjusts microphones in the actors'
clothing. At one end of the stage oppo-
site the car is a row of little lights. Debo-
rah confers with the director of photog-
raphy, Barry, and the director, Joel,
while Ethan looks through the camera
lens. The huddle breaks up. The broth-
ers sit down in two directors' chairs, put
on headphones and look expectantly
into a video monitor
Several stagehands bounce the car,
while some others wave lights back and
forth to simulate oncoming cars. Inside,
Nick and Holly argue in thick Southern
What kind of home life is this for a
toddler? You're supposed to set an ex-
Nathan Jr. accepts me for what I am
and you had better, too. I'm o.k., you're
o.k. That there is what itis.
As Holly turns the wheel, hard, the car
swings with her and the lights reflecting
on the car change. Joel and Ethan,
watching the monitors, chuckle. Barry
comes over
I have a small problem.
Is that little streak of light going
through the car at the right point?
The shot is reset. Joel leans into the car
to confer with the actors. Ethan paces.
Joel paces near him in the opposite di-
rection. He pulls out a cigarette. Ethan,
standing with his back to Joel, pulls out
a lighter and looks at it quizzically. He
turns to his brother
(observing this twin-like private pre-
In the end the only person Joel has to
please is Ethan. And vice versa. *
Anne Thompson writes a weekly syn-
dicated column on the movie industry,
"Risky Business."

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