How Frances and Joel 
entered the world’s stage

07/10/2014

Actor Frances McDormand met filmmaker Joel Coen when she auditioned for the lead role in the 1984 film “Blood Simple.” It was his first film with his brother Ethan, in which a cuckolded husband hires a hit man to kill his wife and her lover. Ms. McDormand wasn’t trained for film and she struggled to decipher some cues in the script; she read a few scenes in a windowless room while the brothers chain-smoked. Later, she asked them to reschedule her call-back so she could watch her then-boyfriend in a soap opera gig.

It was the unlikely start of what is now a 30-year marriage. The couple has lived in Bolinas for half that time, and gave a rare joint interview before a packed house on Sunday at The New School at Commonweal. Eric Karpeles moderated the informal conversation, titled “Adventures in Collaboration.” 

The Coen brothers, who write, produce and direct together, have garnered mainstream recognition for their unique signature of violence, humor and carefully scripted language. Still, Mr. Coen does not subscribe to the “auteur” theory of filmmaking, which asserts that the director is the absolute author of a film. “Making movies is an intensely social and collaborative experience,” he said. “You can’t do them yourself… Movies are really the sum total of so many people’s work and ideas and contributions; it does reflect that very social, community nature of making a story.”

(“And you love that part,” Ms. McDormand added.)

His attitude is reflected in the brothers’ tendency to work with the same crews, and certain actors—like Ms. McDormand, Steve Buscemi and John Goodman—appear regularly in their work. That social aspect may also be what drew Mr. Coen, a self-described introvert, to filmmaking in the first place. “There might be some truth in the fact that I do what I do because it draws me into a social situation I might not have been involved in… left to my own devices,” he said.

When Mr. Coen offered Ms. McDormand the role of Abby in “Blood Simple,” it was her second job after graduating from Yale’s theater program. She had no film training whatsoever. Though she auditioned only after realizing that stage acting would not pay off her student debt, the meeting proved serendipitous for both of them. 

“When we met, we were at the beginning. He was 27, I was 24. It was my second job out of drama school and his first film… It was an extraordinary time to start a partnership in so many ways, because all we really had was ambition,” Ms. McDormand said.

(At one point she became worried that she would have to unclothe herself during that film’s shooting, but Mr. Coen reassured her, “We’re not selling this on sex. We’re selling it on violence.”)

Ms. McDormand doesn’t collaborate on scripts, they said. In fact, she noted that her husband doesn’t even tell her if she has a role in an upcoming film of his; she asks her agent instead. But when she works for directors like the Coens, who meticulously storyboard each shot beforehand and also edit their films, she knows they will have a vision of their art that she can more easily inhabit. (Mr. Coen said he learned how to cut and edit during his first job out of film school, when he worked for Edna Ruth Paul, an editor of low-budget splatter movies.)

“For me, that’s the kind of director and filmmaker that is the most satisfying to work with: someone who already understands how it’s going to be edited,” Ms. McDormand said. “So I think it’s an editor’s medium. If I know the director has that vision of how it’s going to be edited, then I know what I’m serving.”

In “Fargo,” for instance—a film entrenched in its Minnesota setting and accents—that compelling vision provided an outlet for her singular performance as the folksy, pregnant police chief Marge Gunderson, who gave the film its surprisingly engaging moral grounding. 

In the book “The Films of Joel and Ethan Coen,” author Carolyn Russell writes, “Frances McDormand’s Marge breaks new ground for the Coens. Initially as bland as the landscapes that define her environment, Marge evolves during ‘Fargo’ to reveal strength of character, kindness of heart, a sense of humor, and an unambiguous moral authority. She is, in other words, the kind of traditional Hollywood protagonist heretofore conspicuously absent in the work of the Coens… McDormand’s Marge may be the single most important reason why ‘Fargo’ has been able to attract a wide audience.”

But Ms. McDormand was, at first, disappointed with the part offered to her, hoping she might get to play a “psycho killer.” “I got the script and it was a pregnant cop. I said, ‘Aw, man,’” she said. (Ms. McDormand said casting directors always seemed to say she wasn’t quite right for lead roles—either “not pretty enough” or “left of center”—which ultimately pushed her to become the character actor she is today.) 

Mr. Coen admitted that he didn’t know exactly how she would play the part. “I don’t think I’ve ever said this, but it’s very true: the first scene with Fran, I didn’t really know what she was going to do. You never really do…[but] when we shot the first take, the first scene [in the car dealership]… I thought, ‘Okay… that’s really interesting.’”

Another driving force behind the success of her roles in the Coens’ movies was a shared sense that they were outside the mainstream. The Coens financed “Blood Simple” mostly from investors in their home state of Minnesota because they couldn’t find support or interest in Hollywood—but that ended up giving them the creative control needed to develop their craft. 

“If someone had offered to finance that movie and said, ‘We get to control this and this and this and this,’ we would have said ‘Great,’ and taken the money and done it,” Mr. Coen said. “But luckily, no one was willing to finance our first movie… Because of that, we enjoyed complete creative control and got used to it… So in a sense, that misfortune and the thing that made it difficult at first was a blessing.”