Young Blood

Joel and Ethan Coen pull down the pants on their first film

When they began working on the DVD (which will be released around the same time as Miller's Crossing, the only other Coen Brothers film not available on the format), they discovered the existing prints were in terrible shape. Because the $1.5 million movie had been made without a studio's assistance--Blood Simple was made with money the Coens raised in Minnesota--it hadn't been properly preserved. They were forced to track down the original camera negative in order to strike a brand-new print, just as they had to find the original sound mix, which was housed at a completely different warehouse. In a short time, their little project had become a massive mission.

"We were a little alarmed that if we ever wanted to make a decent print of just the movie as it existed originally that we wouldn't be able to," Joel says.

Once they had all the elements in hand, they decided to overhaul the film, if only slightly; they wanted to cut out "the boring parts." But that was no simple task: They realized they had no outtakes or trimmed footage to incorporate into the movie to cover the new edits. It didn't take long for the Coens to realize that once they began hacking away at the foundation, the whole house threatened to crumble.

O, brothers, where art thou? Joel, left, and Ethan Coen got the chance to fix their past and ended up losing five minutes.
O, brothers, where art thou? Joel, left, and Ethan Coen got the chance to fix their past and ended up losing five minutes.

"I have to say, that experience was fascinating and a lot of fun," Joel says. "We went in with the ambition of improving the pace, but in doing so you change one thing, and it has implications on the continuity of other things down the road. We were forced to solve those problems without being able to go to outtakes or trims, and that was really an interesting thing. You have to keep looking for solutions in the footage you actually have."

"It's weird," Ethan adds. "It's like the puzzle of editing brought to some weird, ultimate degree. Trying to make a cut or trying to make a scene work, you try it with different takes, and you can kind of exhaust all the possibilities and not have solved the problem, and you're sort of left with trying to figure out how to make it work with what you have, which feels insufficient."

The brothers had long avoided watching Blood Simple; they take no pleasure in going back and looking at old baby pictures, so they never screen their previous films just for grins. Indeed, they've already begun work on one film (about a barber in Northern California, starring McDormand and Billy Bob Thornton) even before their latest (O Brother, Where Art Thou?, an Odyssey-tinged road movie starring George Clooney and John Turturro) opens in October.

When they went back to watch Blood Simple 16 years later, the brothers felt only that twinge of nostalgia. They were a little embarrassed by how crude the editing was (the brothers cut the movie, as always, under the name Roderick Jaynes) and how obvious the camera tricks felt (including the infamous shot of a camera floating over a passed-out drunk sitting at a bar). But most of all, they recalled with fondness the making of the movie: It was Joel's first film job away from Sam Raimi (Joel was assistant editor on 1982's Evil Dead), Ethan's first as writer, and only the second film on which cinematographer Barry Sonnenfeld worked, long before he became director of such films as Get Shorty and Men in Black. Nobody ever forgets The First Time.

"I'll tell ya, but for some strange reason, I remember--and I don't know if Joel feels likewise--but I remember it much more vividly not from having reviewed it in the interim, which I haven't, but from the experience of working on it," Ethan says. "My memories are much more vivid of making that movie than of subsequent ones, because the first time you do it, it's all very new and somehow more striking and stimulating in some way. It gets imprinted more strongly, I guess. I can't say anything about the actual film was surprising, even though we had been away from it for so long."

"To tell you the truth, we are surprised by some of the visual elements of the movie, but we've been made aware of them by people pointing them out to us, so it wasn't going back and looking at the movie and thinking, 'Oh, look at what we did,'" Joel says. "It's all true--we did something in Blood Simple that popped up in Fargo or whatever--but they've all been pointed out to us or occurred to us. I remember when we were shooting that scene out on the road in Fargo where Steve Buscemi is clearing the body off the road, and Ethan and I sort of looked at each other and thought, 'Jesus, haven't we shot this scene before?'"

None of these insights or revelations will be available on the DVD; what you see in theaters this week is what you will see in your home in a few months. The two have never contributed director's commentaries to the digital versions of their films, and they never will.

"We're asked to do them a lot," says Joel, "and it's not something that interests us very much."

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