Since their debut feature, 1984’s cult classic Blood Simple, the Coen brothers have become some of the movie industry’s favorite sons. In writing, producing and directing films like Raising Arizona, Miller’s Crossing, Fargo, The Big Lebowski and O Brother, Where Art Thou?, Minneapolis-born siblings Joel and Ethan Coen have garnered a rabidly loyal fanbase and one big hunk of Oscar gold (for writing Fargo). After an arguable downturn (The Ladykillers, Intolerable Cruelty), the Coens have found monumental inspiration in the work of Pulitzer Prize-winning author Cormac McCarthy, whose arid Western crime novel No Country For Old Men provides the basis for their newest film.
The film is a faithful translation of McCarthy’s book but still bears the unmistakable stamp of the Coens, a mixture of brutal violence, black humor, bone-dry dialogue and quirky characters that has been their stock-in-trade since the Blood Simple days.
Two weeks ago, I had the good fortune of sitting down with the Coens and their newest cast to chat about the film. No Country For Old Men was shot right here in New Mexico. And with plenty of fresh Oscar buzz floating around for the film, it may become the highest-profile showcase for our state’s burgeoning film industry.
Asked what led them to choose New Mexico, the Coens are quick to answer. “Oh, the rebate,” says Joel, referring to our state’s (as yet) unbeatable 25 percent rebate on all money spent by filmmakers within the state. It’s the carrot that lures a great many filmmakers here. Ethan immediately concurs. “The economic incentives. As you know, this story takes place in West Texas. We shot for two weeks around Marfa, where you really see landscape, because New Mexico offers spectacular scenery, but not that kind. We shot in New Mexico, really as everybody is now, for economic reasons. And while it isn’t West Texas, there were things we shot here that we couldn’t have shot in, you know, Flemington, New Jersey.”
One of the film’s stars, Tommy Lee Jones, had just finished shooting In The Valley of Elah in Albuquerque when the call to return to New Mexico came up. That’s nothing compared to Josh Brolin, who stars as Llewelyn Moss, a small-town welder caught between Tommy Lee Jones’ Texas sheriff and a freaky hitman played by Spanish star Javier Bardem. No Country is Brolin’s third shoot in New Mexico after In The Valley of Elah and the 2005 miniseries Into the West.
“The state is great,” says Brolin. “I’ve always been a guy who’s worked in Arizona most of the time and a little bit in Texas, but New Mexico’s fantastic. Santa Fe I’ve worked in. Las Vegas. In The Valley of Elah I did in Albuquerque. I’m not crazy about Albuquerque. It’s rough. Rough.”
Though Brolin is a fan of our state’s desert climate--minus the urban areas--he also knows it all boils down to the money. “You guys have your tax breaks, so therefore a lot of people are showing up. It’s like what Canada used to be. I’m happy for you guys, just economically. I’m sure it’s a great thing for your state. It’s a great place to work, honestly. So’s Arizona. So’s West Texas. I personally have an affinity for those areas: waterless, hot, dirt, grit.”
A chance to return to New Mexico aside, Brolin was tempted by both the film’s source material and the chance to work with the Coens for the first time. “Sam Shepard turned me on to the book when I was doing Grindhouse, two months before I heard about the movie. I was out drinking with Sam at one point and he said, ‘Man, I just read this Cormac McCarthy book. It’s phenomenal. You have to read it.’ I went and got it the next day, and I read it and just loved it for this great, weighty, literary piece of art.”
Brolin was so desperate to land a part in the film version, he talked pals Quentin Tarantino and Robert Rodriguez into shooting his audition tape, a high-tech affair lensed on a million-dollar digital camera. “That was a really cool-looking audition tape,” recalls Brolin. “But I didn’t get the part. I was turned down. They watched the tape and their response was, ‘Wow, who lit it?’” After some pressure from his determined agent, Brolin landed a face-to-face meeting with the Coens. He was offered the role immediately afterward.
“The problem, once we cast Javier and Tommy for their parts, is it’s a movie about three men, each of whom has equal weight,” points out Joel. “So you’ve got a problem. You’ve got to find somebody who can coexist in the movie, can be equal in the movie with those two guys. We saw everybody and were not happy with anyone until we met Josh.” The result is a fantastic effort on Brolin’s part, surely the strongest of his career.
Choosing Bardem and Jones, both highly lauded actors, were easier decisions, apparently. “Look, you get the chance to cast Javier Bardem in a movie, even if it’s a stretch--which I don’t think it was in this part--you do it!” says Joel. As for Tommy Lee, “He was on a short list of the few people who could do this part from an age point of view. He’s one of the great American actors of a certain age who can convincingly be from that area, because he is.” Hearing this assessment, Ethan interjects an amusing aside to his brother’s comments: “He’d love to hear that: We asked him to do it because he’s so fuckin’ old. In fact, he got up my ass about it one day. ‘Tommy, it’s the title part!’ ‘I’m only 59 years old!’”
In person, the Coen brothers are pretty much exactly what you’d expect: smart, funny and slightly insular. The actors they work with are happy to sing their praises, but most interviewers are scared of them. Joel is the more verbose of the duo, but both seem to spend a great deal of time living in their own heads. Answering questions, they are brief, to the point. Occasionally, they drift off into an in-joke-filled conversation with one another. But, Brolin points out, “They’re not little freaks who walk around and do some funny, really kooky Coen thing. We’d all like to believe that Planet Coen thing. But they’re really sweet, really collaborative. They pay attention. I’ve worked with a lot of directors who only half listen to you.”
Scottish actress Kelly Macdonald, who plays Brolin’s loyal wife in the film, concurs. “It’s not like they’re this two-headed science-fiction monster. They’re two different people. It just works.”
“This was a dream come true for me,” adds Bardem, who labored long and hard to lose his Spanish accent for the film, his first in English. “The first moment I saw Blood Simple, I was hit by it. For me it’s an honor. And now even more so, because I know the people, I met them. They are amazing and so nice and respectful and funny and careful and creative. Fuck, they are great.”
Though No Country For Old Men ranks as one of the Coen’s darkest, most serious films, there’s still plenty of humor on display. Even Bardem’s character, whom the actor describes as “a machine, a guy who’s totally numb to the feelings of others and even to his own,” has his share of funny moments. “There is some comedy there,” admits Bardem. “But I didn’t want to pay attention to that, because I knew if there is comedy it would be up to the Coens to put it together.” Plus, says the actor, “being funny in a foreign language is not easy.”
Of course, the Coen sense of humor is notoriously morbid, both on screen and off. Brolin got into a motorcycle accident just two days after being cast by the Coens and broke his collarbone in two. “Ethan said to me after he talked to my doctor, ‘What shoulder is it?’ I said, ‘It’s my right shoulder.’ He said, “Moss gets shot in the right shoulder, we’ll be fine.’” Later on, one particularly painful stunt sequence called for the injured Brolin to plunge repeatedly into the Rio Grande with an untrained pit bull chasing after him. “At one point, I was sitting in the water and the trainer looks to the crew and says, ‘If the dog runs after you on the beach, do not move!’ I was like, what the fuck, he’s running after me every take,” says Brolin with a laugh. “They thought that was funny.”