Barry Sonnenfeld: ‘We Simply Declared Ourselves Filmmakers’
On Making Blood Simple with the Coen Brothers
Joel and Ethan Coen and I had never been on a film set before our first day on Blood Simple. I had never been a cameraman on a feature, nor worked in the camera department of a real movie in any capacity. Joel had never directed anything outside of student films and home movies, and Ethan had never produced. We simply declared ourselves filmmakers.
The canon of Joel and Ethan’s youthful Super 8 work included Lumberjacks of the North, Henry Kissinger: Man on the Go, Advise and Consent (a Super 8 Reinterpretation), and Ziemers in Zambezi, which was their Super 8 remake of The Naked Prey.
None of their previous work really prepared them for the road ahead.
We spent three months in Austin in pre-production, then filmed Blood Simple in a couple of months, alternating five- and six-day workweeks.
The catchphrase “For a Day or a Lifetime” has appeared in various Coen Brothers and Barry Sonnenfeld films. The stationery at the Hotel Earl in Barton Fink and the side of the camper in RV both exclaim, “For a Day or a Lifetime.” It was the slogan of the Telegraph Hill Apartments, located just off Interstate 35 a few miles outside of Austin, where we lived for twenty weeks—more than a day, less than a lifetime.
Each day of pre-production began at Denny’s, where the boys and I ordered the Grand Slam Scrambled: two scrambled eggs, two sausage links, two pancakes, and two strips of well done bacon. Denny’s had a community bulletin board at the front of the shop. We were intrigued by a photo of a missing person by the name of Clinkscales.
This teenager was also on a carton of milk, which for a while had missing kids’ photos on them.
After breakfast, the three of us spent a few hours with an architect, a storyboard artist, and a local production assistant—a Slav named Andreas Laven. He seemed smart enough, so we made him our script supervisor. He had long blond hair and a face that screamed, “I am a professional killer working for the KGB. I hate you and don’t get your stupid ironic jokes. I also don’t like working for Jews.”
We would sit around the architect’s living room, designing shots for the movie. The process was as overproduced and control-freaked as the rest of the film. Joel, Ethan, and I had already shot listed all the camera angles at 280 Riverside Drive in New York the previous months. Now we were refining those shots based on our actual Austin locations.
Andreas, the never-before-employed-as-a-script-supervisor script supervisor, would write notes; the architect would draw a floor plan, a bird’s-eye view showing where the camera was located and where the actors stood.
The storyboard artist would draw an illustration of what the camera was supposed to see. In bedroom scenes, he would draw Abby, the character played by Frances McDormand, naked, a blanket half covering her cleavage. This wasn’t something we had requested, so we always hid the storyboards from Fran.
Below the floor plan and illustration, the bottom third of each sheet of the page was for lighting, camera, or editing notes.
The boys and I came up with nicknames for a variety of shots: Someone’s point of view of a place that didn’t have a person in frame was called a “Clinkscales,” based on the missing Austin kid.
An insert, which is a close-up of something—a doorknob, a piece of paper, the back of a boot, a bullet—was always called the “Larry Kasdan Panty Insert,” based on a specific shot in Kasdan’s film Body Heat.
In the film, William Hurt throws a chair through Kathleen Turner’s front glass door, enters her home, and pins her to the floor, and as the two breathe heavily, Hurt yoga positions her up and pulls off her panties. Larry then cuts to an insert of a section of carpet next to the lovers, slightly high angle, where we see Kathleen Turner’s panties enter frame and drop to the rug. The Coens and I loved the shot.
We did, however, feel the angle was too steep. It would have been more filmic if the camera was right on the ground so that the panties broke frame from above, dropping directly in front of the camera’s lens in extreme foreground. Larry had placed the camera high, looking down. The visual problem was that as the panties fall toward the carpet, the lingerie gets smaller, since the panties are now farther away from the lens, creating a less dynamic “money shot.”
Years later Larry and I became good friends.
When I felt our friendship was on solid ground, I brought up the “Larry Kasdan Panty Insert,” suggesting the camera should have been sitting on the carpet. To my surprise, Larry agreed. In fact, he told me he wanted the camera exactly where Joel, Ethan, and I thought it should have been, but Richard Kline, ASC, didn’t want to spend the extra time to light it from what was clearly a better angle. The rest of a typical pre-production day on Blood Simple was spent location scouting, which was always dreary. Endless hours in a car, getting out and asking someone where the bathroom was, then looking at a location for Ray’s or Abby’s home, which might have a great exterior on a great street but the rooms were too small, the ceiling too low, or the neighborhood too loud. We’d then schlep back in the car to the next location. This tedious process went on for many weeks and is, to this day, my least favorite part of filmmaking.
Thanks to a Los Angeles astrologer, the Coens and I were extremely lucky. Although we were very well organized, we were total novices. The night before our first day of filming I had the assistant cameraman bring the Arriflex BL3 to my apartment to show me where the on/off switch was.
For me, the single most important crew member was the key grip. Grips are the guys that build things. They also lay track for and move the camera. Our grip would have to figure out how to execute all the outrageous, self-conscious shots Joel and Eth and I had designed. Without a great key grip, Blood Simple would have been less of a movie.
That’s where the astrologer enters our picture. Tom Prophet was one of the best grips in Los Angeles. Unfortunately for Tom, his wife’s astrologer told her that Los Angeles was about to have a major earthquake. Mrs. Prophet insisted they leave town pronto. Tom had shot a movie in Austin, remembered loving the city, moved there, and opened a not successful sheet rock business that he shut down to join our show.
One of the most self-conscious shots was in a scene in which Fran McDormand’s character finds herself in the back room of Julian Marty’s (her estranged husband) bar. She looks around the room as we cut to various Larry Kasdan Panty Inserts, such as dead fish on a desk or a battered safe dial, while at the same time dazzling the audience with a Clinkscales of the empty back room of the bar, where the rear door’s glass window has been broken.
Tom built a special rig that would allow Fran and the camera—both mounted on a mini scaffolding of pipes, couples, and elbows—to maintain the same distance and angle to each other as they descended through space. The rig would pivot ninety degrees to rotate the background, while the relationship between the camera and Fran remained a constant. At the beginning of the shot the back of the bar is her background. As both camera and Fran pivot, it feels like she and the audience are falling through space, our collective stomachs going queasy. The end of the shot has her head landing on a pillow. We then pull back in a different location—her loft, as the audience wonders if any of what she saw was real or a dream. The moment becomes more surreal when Abby sees her husband sitting across the room, since the audience knows Marty is dead.
When we asked Tom how he designed this one-off specialty rig, he proudly told us he had seen blueprints for a similar sex device in Hustler and was hoping we’d let him keep the rig at the end of the show.
At some point one of our cameras, the new Arriflex IIIc, started recording a double image of every frame—the second overlaid image a ghostly version of the original. The lab couldn’t figure out the problem, and we surely didn’t know what was causing the issue, so Arriflex sent Euie, their most Germanest technician, to Austin to suss out the situation. We showed him several angles of the double exposed footage of Marty, played by Dan Hedaya, being shot by his rival.
His prognosis was instantaneous:
“Yes. I see the problem,” Euie pronounced.
“Yes. Yes. To me, it is not realistic. You show the one man aiming the gun at this angle, almost at his head, yet in the next shot, the other man is killed in the heart area, down here. This is not to me realistic.”
Joel scowled in my direction.
“No. Euie. We mean. The camera. What is causing every frame to be double exposed?”
“Of this I have no idea. It is a mistake, no?”
“Well, yeah. It’s like a really big mistake.”
“I suggest you use a different camera.”
Until my mid-30s, my stress indicator was vomiting. Although I’m still a sympathetic vomiter—if I see, smell, or hear it, I’m there—my anxiety barometer over the last thirty-five years has evolved from vomiting to debilitating sciatica.
The first day filming Blood Simple—the first day I had ever been on a movie set—we were shooting a scene at a strip club. Joel, Ethan, and I pulled off the road on the way to work so I could throw up. We got through the day on schedule.Throughout the three films I did with the brothers, “giving someone a cake” is code for firing them.
The next morning we filmed the opening credits scene. Abby (Fran McDormand) and Ray (John Getz) are driving Ray’s car in the rain at night. The camera was in the back seat looking out toward the rain pelted windshield, with Ray and Abby silhouetted in the foreground—it didn’t matter what car we used since we never saw its exterior. We wanted the two actors close together in the frame and used a small Fiat.
The exterior of Ray’s car was an Oldsmobile, although over the year of post-production, when we needed a car for an insert, we also used a Volvo and a Buick. Each auto was a different color. No one has ever noticed.
The Fiat was parked in a garage whose walls were covered in a black fabric called duvetyne. The prop person, whom we would fire after two days of filming, was sitting on the roof of the car with a Hudson sprayer and a spray wand, sprinkling the windshield, simulating rain. A grip with a two-by-four rocked the underside of the car to imply movement. I had a series of small lights on a dolly draped in black to match the dark garage. They would dim up in brightness as the lights would dolly past the lens, simulating a passing car.
The aforementioned prop woman was a disaster and had to go. She was full of silent schmucks and was incompetent. It was due to her firing that the Coens and I created the concept of giving a crew person a cake when being let go—our version of “swimming with the fishes” but less violent. Throughout the three films I did with the brothers, and then as a director, “giving someone a cake” is code for firing them.
Another bright idea from Blood Simple I continue to embrace is to start filming on a Thursday or Friday. There is always a crew member you immediately realize has no place on your show. By not starting on a Monday, you’re not stuck with the slug for too long. A day or two, tops—then the cake. You’ve got the weekend to find a new person and bring them up to speed.
After wrap on the second day I drove the Coens to our production office, where there was a 35mm projector set up to watch the strip club dailies from the first day of filming. The boys and I were about to see the first footage shot by any of us in our professional careers. The projector rolled, and there was an image. The angles looked great and the acting was fine. I stopped the screening, left the room, and threw up. All the pent-up tension—was I good enough to be a cinematographer on a feature film?—exploded from the depth of my stomach.
Unfortunately, the film lab had printed the footage too bright, making it look like bad porn, which, I admit, was my oeuvre.
My camera notes to DuArt, the film lab in New York, had been “MAKE LOOK NICE.” Once I changed it to “MAKE LOOK DARK,” the dailies started to look great. Still, I threw up every third day.
On almost all feature films a specialist—the camera operator—is hired to physically operate the camera. The Coens couldn’t afford an additional crew member, so on the three films we did together it fell to me to badly operate as well as be the cinematographer.
Unfortunately for Joel and Ethan, when we started to work together the cost of a video feed from the camera to a television monitor was too expensive, so I was the only person who witnessed the photography in real time through the camera’s viewfinder.
By the way, video playback was invented by Jerry Lewis.
Joel and Ethan relied on my bad operating, not knowing what I was filming until the next night at dailies. One entire scene was shot in Maurice the bartender’s bedroom with Debbie Reinisch, my ex-girlfriend and our first assistant director, sitting against the back wall—walkie-talkie attached to her hip, headphones over her head—fast asleep. In every take. The scene couldn’t be used, though Joel and Ethan thought about leaving it in the movie and giving Debbie credit as Maurice’s girlfriend.
I am easily distracted, assuming whatever is going on nearby is surely more interesting than what I’m doing. To avoid distractions while operating the camera I had a large piece of black cloth that I put over my head. Joel, Ethan, and I would often call for my “schmatta”—Yiddish for piece of cloth—when we were ready to film. Tom Prophet assumed “schmatta” was East Coast film lingo he had just never been privy to.
Tom’s “Would you like me to put on your schmatta, sir?” always made me smile.
I was wearing my schmatta, filming a close-up of Fran, when the camera tilted down Fran’s body, from her face toward her feet. Since the storyboard called for the camera to remain on Fran’s face, Joel and Ethan thought I was calling an audible but were confused by how I thought they could use the shot. The tilt was not actually my idea, either. I had fallen asleep. It was based on this shot that Joel tried to convince me my memoir should be titled Asleep at the Eyepiece: The Barry Sonnenfeld Story.
Excerpted from Call Your Mother by Barry Sonnenfeld. Copyright © 2020 by Barry Sonnenfeld. Reprinted with permission of Hachette Books.