The Coen brothers are among America’s most acclaimed filmmakers, but to the general public they’re best known for one of their lighter movies: The Big Lebowski, their shaggy dog stoner amateur detective movie, which imagines what a Raymond Chandler mystery would be like if the hero was a White Russian-loving pothead. One of the reasons it’s endured is because of the lead turn by Jeff Bridges. But based on a recent interview (as caught by IndieWire) it took some doing to get Bridges in that chill mindset.
Joel and Ethan Coen made a rare podcast appearance on Team Deakins, and no wonder: The show is hosted by their frequent cinematographer, the legendary Roger Deakins, who’s won Oscars for Blade Runner 2049 and 1917. Deakins has lensed 12 of their movies, starting with Barton Fink and including Fargo, No Country for Old Men, True Grit, and, of course, Lebowski. They wound up discussing, among other things, one of their big on-set no-nos, and how they broke it for Bridges after he seemed “miserable.”
The rule? Allowing actors to look at playback footage of things they just shot. Deakins agreed with them that doing “slows it down,” dragging shooting to a halt so an actor can study what they just did, and maybe try again when they don’t have to. But while they ban playback from their sets, Bridges was the exception.
“We started the first two weeks and there was no playback capacity on the set,” Joel recalled:
“Jeff Bridges was very upset with that because he wanted to look at playback. I was very weary about it. We had never worked with Jeff before and I didn’t want to do it because I was afraid Jeff was going to come over after every take and look at playback. Finally, he was so miserable at the end of the second week that we ended up getting playback. The interesting thing to me was that Jeff, who grew up making movies and is a screen actor, he used it very well. Every now and then he would come over and look at the playback and he was great. He would say, ‘Ok I get what the problem is’ and he was useful. He is an exception.”
The Coens also responded to one of the big assumptions about their extremely precise films: that the brothers are perfectionists. Not so, said Joel:
“We just are not perfectionists. It is true I’ve never understood the Stanley Kubrick thing of doing 90 takes of an insert of someone opening a door knob…From the outset, we have a strong idea about what we need editorially and what we don’t need. You have to have instinct for ‘how much am I going to shoot so that at the end of the day I will have what I need to make this scene work?’ You have to have instinct for when you can move on.”
You can listen to the full, nearly 90-minute episode over here.