Young Blood

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

Imagine being given a do-over, a free pass to correct yesterday's mistakes and missteps. Perhaps you'd choose a different job, a different lover, a different life; perhaps you'd reinvent yourself altogether, since you have in your possession the gift of hindsight. You know where you went wrong last time; tomorrow, that magical new yesterday, you will do it right. Or maybe not. Maybe you'd pass, let slide the chance to repair the past. After all, there's a fine line between fixing up and fucking up.

If you need proof, look no further than George Lucas, who, in his efforts to revamp history, managed to turn a grand, sloppy masterpiece into a garish, gluttonous mess. Lucas tinkered with 1977's Star Wars until the fragile toy fell apart in his manic hands; he turned up the special effects and toned down the violence until the so-called Special Edition, released in 1997, became an exercise in cynical revisionism, never more so than when Greedo shoots at Han Solo first. The visionary became a coward kneeling before the new technology, burying fairy tale beneath spectacle until the luster became blinding and, yes, boring. Lucas proved it was indeed possible to rewrite the past, but in doing so, he suffered the consequences. He proved it was indeed possible to ruin a glorious memory.

Perhaps that is why Joel and Ethan Coen, when given their own chance to revisit history, chose to tread lightly. The Blood Simple that opens in theaters this week bears such a remarkable similarity to its younger self, released in 1984, one can hardly tell the two apart; they are, more or less, identical twins. Time has treated the brothers' debut, made long before Miller's Crossing or The Hudsucker Proxy or Fargo or The Big Lebowski, quite well, as it arrives in 2000 wearing very few wrinkles. Actually, the low-budget thriller about adultery and revenge in Austin looks a little better, the result of minor plastic surgery: Five minutes of dead flesh have been snipped away, and a mono mix now plays in stereo.

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.

The latter, says film preservationist Mortimer Young during the movie's newly added introduction, is the result of Blood Simple's being rerecorded in something called Ultra Ultra Sound--"a Lucas process," adds the old man behind a serious smirk. Young also goes on at great length about how the movie has been digitally swabbed, cleansed of its imperfections. Such touch-ups were necessary, Young says, because Blood Simple is a landmark film: It was, he insists, released to "universal critical acclaim, shattered box-office records, and ushered in the era of independent cinema."

Listen hard enough, and you can hear Joel and Ethan Coen laughing from behind the cameras, because there is no Mortimer Young (he is played by character actor George Ives), nor is there a sound process called Ultra Ultra Sound. The brothers--whose sense of humor borders on the "juvenile," as Joel's wife Francis McDormand recently told one journalist--are simply goofing on filmmakers' obsessions with retooling their pasts, which is easily done in the age of the digital do-over. The intro is, quite simply, a very funny joke at the beginning of a very funny movie about the seedy doings of a bar owner (Dan Hedaya), his unhappy wife (McDormand), her dim lover (John Getz), and the private detective (M. Emmet Walsh) who gets tangled in his own double-cross.

"I've only seen one director's cut re-issue: Ridley Scott's Blade Runner, which was actually quite interesting," says Ethan, credited as Blood Simple's co-writer and producer, though he's as much the movie's director as Joel. "Scott took out the voice-over, which was really interesting, because it worked well with it. Now, there's no happy ending, but that's a function of having taken out the voice-over, which promised a happy ending. But he did add one shot: He added a shot of a unicorn..." Ethan, on the line with brother Joel during the interview, begins to laugh and can't stop.

"Oh my God!" says Joel, aghast at Ethan's revelation. "What, he recycled it from Legend?"

"Yeah, but it was kinda good," Ethan says, sincerely. "It was kinda demented, but in a kind of authentic way. I really liked it."

"These guys seem to forget they didn't include these scenes in the original versions for a reason," Joel says, and you can hear him shaking his head in disgust. (Sometimes, while talking to the Coens, you get the sense you came into the middle of a conversation they've been having for decades. The best an outsider can hope for is to get in a question and stay out of the way.)

Aside from the handful of trimmed sequences and the new sound mix, there's really no reason for Blood Simple to arrive in theaters this summer. There is no anniversary, and the alterations are relatively minor; this is no Vertigo or Lawrence of Arabia, no major restoration given to a deteriorating print of an erstwhile masterpiece. Indeed, the digital swabbing given to the Coens' first film was necessitated by an impending home-video release: The DVD will be released at the end of the year, and since the brothers were unhappy with the initial sound mix, they decided to go in and fix as much of the movie as they could. Theirs was a pragmatic decision, not an artistic one--at least, not initially.

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.

"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."

"When they were going to do the DVD for this, they wanted a commentary track, and we suggested just putting in a laugh track," Ethan says, probably telling the truth. "They wouldn't go for it. I mean, what could be more boring, really? It's like pulling the pants down on your own movie. Maybe other people have interesting things to say about their movies, but not us."

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