How we made Blood Simple

None of us had been on a film set before. Person had to help me find the cameras on-off switch

Barry Sonnenfeld, cinematographer

I fulfilled 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 16 mm 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 create the money. We would take a 16 mm projector and depict 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 performers and other people who worked on the film. A multimillionaire discoverer 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 style to invest your fund, but everyone made their $15,000 back many times over.

The script was very taut and very doable, genuinely written for the budget. Joel had spent a year in graduate cinema school in Austin, Texas, so it was mostly written around existing places like Lake Austin. We expended weeks in their apartment at 280 Riverside Drive in Upper Manhattan, designing the shootings.

It’s always good to have a few cool transitions; it builds the movie seem more expensive than it is. We described one shot in which Frances McDormand transitioned from discovering the assassination 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- aimed up designing a special rig. The camera and Fran were both mounted on it; one moment you watch 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 one across the floor of the same set. Tom later utilized it for some sex 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 switching was on a 35 mm camera. Joel and Ethan thought they were going to have to build peanut butter sandwiches for the crew; they didn’t realise we had a caterer. I’m a very nervous guy with a nervous belly, and the joke was that I threw up 18 hours in 42 days. But we had been so well-organised, there wasn’t much standing around scratching our heads.

When we first proved the movie to our investors, they virtually 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 frightens marketing people, as I discovered when I stimulated 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 transgressing new ground for independent cinema; we were just trying to make a commercial movie. Joel and Ethan and I lately 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 days the price, and it would be 8% better.

M Emmet Walsh, actor

I’ve done more than 100 feature films. Every period, you try and figure something individual that works for the character. If you’re playing a scoundrel, 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 everything 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.

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‘ If you’re playing a villain, you don’t play scoundrel’ … M Emmet Walsh as Visser

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 assuring everything. I was down in Dallas, Texas, doing a movie with Meryl Streep, and my agent called with a script written by some kids for a low-budget movie. It was a[ 40 s 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 back 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 genuinely worked with performers, 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 appearing 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 stimulated myself sick working on it for a while. When I told him I couldn’t do it, he said they’d devised a machine for the job. But when we shot the scene, in a little roadhouse outside Dallas, it couldn’t make enough moisture to hold the ring together. Ultimately a little prop daughter said:” Gimme that cigar! I grew up smoking in the barn with my four brothers .” And she starts blowing beautiful smoking rings. I said:” Wow, “thats what” low-budget movies are all about .” A bit later, she was sitting out on the steps, puking her intestines out.

I didn’t hear from them for months after that. They didn’t have enough fund to fly me in to New York for the opening of the movie. I saw it three or four days later when it opened in LA, and I was, like: Wow! Abruptly my price ran 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; the latter are ahead of where things were, and where they should’ve been.

* Blood Simple: Director’s Cut is on DVD and Blu-ray.

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