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Six essential filmmaking tips from the Coen brothers

“Like any kind of writing, there are good days and frustrating days. But even frustrating days can be rewarding sometimes.” – Ethan Coen

The most famous filmmaking duo ever to grace the directorial chair(s), the Coen brothers are true masters of cinema, responsible for classics including The Big LebowskiFargo and No Country for Old Men. Their rise to prominence began when Joel Coen started out as an assistant editor on Fear No Evil as well as the horror classic, The Evil Dead, directed by Sam Raimi.

Joel and Ethan would then go on to direct their very first film, the crime drama Blood Simple starring Frances McDormand, before rising to prominence quickly with Raising Arizona and Miller’s Crossing straight after. With decades of combined film experience under their belts, there are few filmmakers better to take advice from than the Coen brothers, having started their profession from the humble beginnings of a simple Super-8 camera.

So, let’s look into six filmmaking tips from the iconic duo that every budding director should know…

Six filmmaking tips from the Coen brothers:

Small budget, low risk 

Independent filmmaking is ubiquitous with low budgets and technical restraints, though the Coen brothers saw this as an advantage to their work, particularly after working with Sam Raimi on his frugal horror debut. 

Asked about the potential lack of appeal for investors for their 1996 film FargoEthan Coen replied, “Yeah, but then again, we knew the movie’s cost would be so cheap, that it’d be hard to lose. So we thought that, okay, maybe it wouldn’t be a huge, big commercial hit, but for $6 million…,” said Ethan. “Who cares?”.

The financial restraints of the technical aspects mean you have to focus more on the dialogue, plot and characters, ultimately making you a better filmmaker in the long run. 

The Coen brothers on the set of O Brother, Where Art Thou? (Credit: Alamy)

The first cut will look bad 

The editing stage is a brutal one and one that involves the acceptance that, at first, your film will appear terrible. As Joel Coen states, “I can almost set my watch by how I’m going to feel at different stages of the process. It’s always identical, whether the movie ends up working or not”. 

It’s a long process of constant fiddling, with the director explaining, “I think when you watch the dailies, the film that you shoot every day, you’re very excited by it and very optimistic about how it’s going to work. And when you see it the first time you put the film together, the roughest cut, is when you want to go home and open up your veins and get in a warm tub and just go away”.

It might sound bleak, but Joel ends his speech on a positive note, highlighting, “And then it gradually, maybe, works its way back, somewhere toward that spot you were at before”.

The Coen brothers on set, 1994. (Credit: Alamy)

Don’t be afraid to be yourself

Filmmaking, like any art form, is a personal journey, so it, therefore, requires total honey and creative licence in order for it to be the best project possible. Don’t be afraid of the opinions of others; embrace your individuality and believe in your own opinion of taste. As Joel Coen says, “Taste has never been something we’ve worried about”.

Ethan agrees, commenting: “We’re not big on taste,” he said, before adding: “If you don’t pander to undue sensitivities then it ends up usually not being much of a problem. In The Big Lebowski, we dumped the crippled guy out of the wheelchair, and no one seemed to mind that”.

Concluding: “Everyone was saying, You’re going to get a huge amount of mail from disabled people about this. But it’s all in the context of the story, and done by the John Goodman character who’s clearly an idiot.”

(Credit: Alamy)

Treat your cast and crew like family

Your cast and crew are the lifeblood of your film; without them, no matter how hard you try on your own, your film cannot be made. Therefore, it is imperative that you keep strong set morale. 

The list of collaborators who have worked with the Coen brothers is endless, but there’s a reason they keep coming back, because the two filmmakers are such a creative joy to work with. Create a partnership with those who can sharpen your talents, and you could be creating a team with the potential to last for decades. Collaboration is everything, so keep your filmmaking family close. 

Coen Brothers with Roger Deakins. (Credit: Alamy)

The edit is the most important part 

The final assembly of your film can be a brutal process, fuelled by late nights and lukewarm coffee, but it is arguably the most important part of filmmaking. The Coen Brothers are unique in that they edit each and every one of their films themselves, and whilst this gives them total creative control, this is also a luxury and not a necessity of a directors process. Just look at the collaboration of Martin Scorsese and his longtime editor Thelma Schoonmaker to see that both of these ways of working can result in success.

Trust your editors and respect their craft as architects of a broken puzzle; it is, after all, their job to piece together the several hundred takes of your feature film. Editing includes the crucial colour correction stage, by the way. 

(Credit: Alamy)

Keep it simple

The Coen Brothers are incredible filmmakers, but they are also not entirely complicated, with their successful methods recurrently revolving around a strong story and compelling characters. 

Be original and utilise your specific talent; you don’t have to innovate to the extent of David Lynch (but you can if you want). If the Coen Brothers have taught us anything, it’s that often it’s the folly of humanity that serve up the most interesting stories. They don’t reinvent cinema, but they do make it cool, funny and gleefully enjoyable. 

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