Coen Bros. Made a Filmmaking Exception After ‘Big Lebowski’ Set Made Jeff Bridges ‘Miserable’

Joel Coen reveals on Roger Deakins’ podcast the rare occasion where playback was allowed on one of his sets.

The “Team Deakins” podcast released a long-hoped-for episode this week as Joel Coen joined Roger Deakins for a nearly 90 minute discussion about their collaboration. Deakins has worked with the Coen Brothers more than any other filmmakers over his career, shooting 12 of their movies starting with “Barton Fink” and earning Oscar nominations for his work on “Fargo,” “O Brother, Where Art Thou?,” “The Man Who Wasn’t There,” “No Country for Old Men,” and “True Grit.” Deakins told Joel during the podcast conversation that the Coen Brothers remain the most confident directors he’s ever worked with when it comes to the amount of footage shot.

“You never shot much film,” Deakins said. “Your film-to-cut ratio is so low relative to any other director I’ve worked with. ‘Fargo’ was 150,000 feet of film, which is ridiculous. Sometimes after the first take you’d nod to Ethan and I’d be like, ‘Another take, please!’ I’d have to plead for a second take. There’s some sort of assurance. You kind of know more than any other director I’ve worked with … you have a confidence in early takes.”

Joel Coen responded, “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.”

Deakins was by the Coen Brothers’ side when they made the switch from shooting on film to shooting on digital, a move both parties have loved but one that can come with an annoyance. As Coen explained, “One of the things actors are becoming more used to, and I can’t even control it on set, is saying ‘let me go again, let me go again’ on the same slate. It’s one of the more irritating things about the difference in movie sets now than it used to be. It’s harder for me to control that aspect of it because it’s always like ‘one more, one more.’”

Coen and Deakins said that efficiency is one reason they have never liked having playback capabilities on set. Or as Deakins put it, “There’s all this technology to make the process theoretically faster and it sort of slows it down in some way.” The cinematographer recalled how in the past actors have wanted to look at playback footage in the middle of a take or before a scene had been wrapped. Joel Coen agreed and called having playback monitors on set “a time waste or counterproductive.” The Coen Brothers made one exception during the making of “The Big Lebowski.”

“We started the first two weeks and there was no playback capacity on the set,” Joel Coen said. “Jeff Bridges was very upset with that because he wanted to look at playback. I was very wary 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.”

Joel Coen re-started production on “The Tragedy of Macbeth” last month. The director’s Shakespearean adaptation stars Denzel Washington and Frances McDormand. A24 and Scott Rudin are behind the project.

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