The Coen brothers exist in the rarefied realm where visionary brilliance shakes hands with widespread beloved acclaim, placing them firmly amidst cinema’s greatest ever auteurs, and to lend an opinion, my personal favourites. All that being said, having watched this investment trailer for their debut picture, Blood Simple, I wouldn’t have been coughing up my own money off the back of it. There’s just not a lot of substance here, and the style seems to be a sort of hammy Blue Velvet aesthetic (even though it predates David Lynch’s effort by two years), but that’s just like, my opinion, man.
Fortunately, the investors saw potential in the oddball duo, and the eventual resulting film is a five bags of popcorn classic that helped pioneer the Texan neo-noir genre. And while Blood Simple might not have seen the brothers exhibiting their true sui generis stylings, it’s still a great film that hinted at the truly original potential of the pair behind it when it was released back in 1984.
The film, which was also the first major project for cinematographer Barry Sonnenfeld—who later became a hugely respected director in his own right—has a name that was inspired by Dashiell Hammett’s 1929 novel Red Harvest. Along with the Lynchian feel, this pulp noir origin is also in full display on the trailer with taglines like: “In Texas, you get what you pay for.”
As directors, they have always been disciples of the Alfred Hitchcock mantra ‘if it happens anywhere it matters not’, so even the simple statement of “In Texas” is a glimpse into their creative mindset. In time, Ethan Coen would stretch that message regarding time and place a little further and referred to the sort of movies they make as having a sense of “Natural History.” It’s not only a time and place they want to capture but also “the creatures that survived there.”
Another of the key features in Blood Simple that would soon become a constant, is the presence of Frances McDormand who recalled receiving the storyboards when the movie was eventually inaugurated into the Criterion Collection. “Even if I never see them [storyboards], to know that a director is thinking about how it’s going to be edited, that’s what I learned from Joel and Ethan,” actress McDormand explains. “Then I know what I’m serving. I do not believe that it’s an actor’s medium nor a director’s medium, I believe it’s an editor’s medium, so as an actor if I’m serving the final edit of a film, which is what I believe storyboards prepare you for, then I know the person knows what they’re doing.”
McDormand continues: “If someone comes to me and says, ‘This director is really great with actors,’ I don’t care. Because I know how to do my job, I don’t want them to help me do my job. Do they know how to edit the film? Okay, great, I’d love to work with them.”
Notably in the trailer, Bruce Campbell takes on the role that eventually went to Dan Hedaya. Campbell’s appearance comes from the Coen brothers friendship with Evil Dead director Sam Raimi who actually encouraged them to make a proof of concept trailer in the first place, and he lent the efforts of his star actor to help them out.
Joel Coen would later explain: “Sam taught us that if you call on the phone and ask people to invest in a movie, they’ll tell you to go hell. But if you tell them ‘I have a piece of film to show you,’ then some of them would let you come into their living room and set up your little projector and show it to them.”
In the end, the trailer, which was shot over President’s Day weekend so that they could hire a camera for one day and use it for three, raised the required $550,000 and they’ve never looked back since.