TECH SUPPORT INTERVIEW: The crafts of ‘A Serious Man’

Posted by · 1:26 pm · January 14th, 2010

Aaron Wolff in A Serious ManThe Coen brothers’ latest film “A Serious Man” opens with a quote from French Rabbi Shlomo Yitzhaki (better known as Rashi):  “Accept with simplicity everything that happens to you.”

It’s obviously quite applicable to the themes of fatalism and inevitability strewn throughout the film.  But that word, “simple,” also comes up over and over again when discussing below-the-line elements with the directors’ collaborators.

Jess Gonchor is the newest craftsman to join the Coens’ party, having first jumped on board with 2007’s “No Country for Old Men.” When the sibling directors got a look at “Capote” two years earlier, they were quite taken by the stark, understated look of the production design and wanted to meet with Gonchor about potentially designing their Cormac McCarthy adaptation.

“I guess I just talked about it intelligently enough,” Gonchor remembers, with an air of humility.  “We were on the same page never having met each other.  And also, I come from making movies that are low budget if any budget.  You can do anything with money.”

For “A Serious Man,” the challenge was considerable.  A post-war look at life in a Midwest Jewish community (to be quite, well, simplistic about matters), the film needed a fresh, clean look that was difficult to find in the neighborhoods outside of Minneapolis (where the Coens were raised).

“Basically I wanted to tell the story of suburbia and the suburban Jew,” Gonchor says.  “It was the beginning of the suburbs in the Midwest.  So I wanted everything to look as new and as fresh as possible, everything from the inside of the temple to the neighborhood.  I wanted to get across a sense of a new beginning and a new world.”

Gonchor and his crew scouted the region for a neighborhood that could be used for the production’s purposes.  But 40 years after the events of the film, most areas were overgrown and hardly reflected the brand new lawns with little saplings and such that was an artistic must.

There was an area outside of Bloomington, Minnesota where a tornado had blown through five years prior (ironic, that) and, unfortunately for the neighborhood, knocked down 50% of its towering trees.  But it was a foot in the door for Gonchor.

“The houses weren’t exactly what we needed,” he says, “but we could re-side the houses.  We could put chimneys on them.  We could put the antennas on them.  We could paint them, make the lawns brand new, close down the two-car garages to one-car garages — because nobody had two cars in those days — and the same thing with the driveways.”

Michael Stuhlbarg in A Serious ManThe result was a wide open, crisp, clean canvas on which the Coens could tell their story.

Gonchor worked the closest with cinematographer Roger Deakins on the shoot, a long-time Coen collaborator who is as responsible for the singular look of their films perhaps as much as the directors themselves.

Deakins comes from documentaries and still photography, a combination the lenser says has afforded him both a sense of economy and — you guessed it — simplicity in his work.

“The worlds they’re trying to create are so different that each has a different kind of atmosphere to it,” Deakins says.  “This film seems quite simple because there’s not a huge amount of camera movement, for instance.  It’s basically still.  But that’s not always the easiest thing to do anyway.”

Indeed, Deakins notes that still photography, to him, is about simplifying things to the essence of what you’re trying to say in the image, without clutter.  It is as challenging as the most complex of photography schemes.

That having been said, everything about a Coen film is calculated by the time the crew actually gets on the set to do the day’s work.  They don’t script anything particular as it pertains to camera, “but you just feel the world that they’re trying to connect,” Deakins says.  “I don’t know, maybe I’ve just always connected with them in terms of being able to read their scripts in a sort of visual way, ever since ‘Barton Fink.’  You can read the script to ‘Fargo’ and it reads much more sort of naturalistic and observational than ‘Barton Fink’ or ‘Hudsucker.’ This one read quite naturalistically.”

Speaking of “Fargo,” costumer Mary Zophres’s career collaboration with the Coens stretches back to that 1996 film.  On “A Serious Man,” she says she was most inspired (as was Gonchor) by the work of the Jewish Historical Society of the upper Midwest.  She had already, in fact, done some intensive study and research for the late-1960s time period for Steven Spielberg’s aborted project “The Trial of the Chicago 7” and felt she had a leg up from the start.

“I learned something really specific that I wasn’t really conscious of before,” she says of her research on Spielberg’s film.  “There was a huge change in clothing between 1968 and 1969.  Bell bottoms and hippie culture didn’t really hit the Midwest until after the publicity when people started coming from different parts of the country to protest, and that’s how fashion was spreading.  So in 1967, where our script takes place, in the Midwest, in a small town, it was actually very back-dated.”

(from left) Amy Landecker and Michael Stuhlbarg in A Serious ManSimilarly, Gonchor says it was important to capture the 1967 of the Midwest, not necessarily the 1967 of San Francisco or of Woodstock.  He went to the house the Coens grew up in outside of Minneapolis in St. Louis Park, Minnesota, as well as the temple they were Bar Mitzvahed in.

The only exception to this understated look was Mrs. Samsky’s house, neighbor to the Gopniks in the film.

“That whole thing was like a dream with me,” Gonchor says.  “Why not go over the top with crazy interior and all that stuff?  For me, that had to be done.”

However, despite a concentration on back-dating, both Gonchor and Zophres note the importance of richness in the film’s color palette.  “It felt right for the topic,” Zophres says.

Most of the costumes were rented — roughly 50-60% — while a certain portion was purchased from vintage clothing stores.  The variety gave Zophres a chance to set certain characters apart from the rest of the cast, such as Sy Abelman (played by actor Fred Melamed in the film).

“In my mind, Sy is probably the one in his community who might have gone on a cruise or something,” Zophres says.  “He sees himself as more continental.  He has a slightly jazzier ensemble, and that’s what we wanted to imply.  He likens himself to be sort of a man about town, as opposed to Larry, who’s probably been dressing the same way since he got out of college.”

With the film designed and completed, it was on to the inevitable step in a Coen filmmaking process: composer Carter Burwell’s contribution.  Burwell is the most senior element of a Coen crew, dating back to square one with “Blood Simple” 26 years ago.

“Sometimes they really know exactly what they want,” Burwell says of the Coens’ score preferences.  “An example of that would be ‘O Brother, Where Art Thou?,’ where they wrote songs into the films.  There are other times where they have no idea.  ‘Fargo’ was one of those and ‘A Serious Man’ was one of those.”

Usually at the script stage, Burwell says the only known element is whether the music will be “big” or “small.”  But the script for “A Serious Man” didn’t tell him much of anything about what the score would be, he says.

“There were specific references you could draw from the milieu,” he says.  “But it really felt completely wrong to do that.  Without saying what the film is about, it’s definitely not about what you see going on.  It’s not a film about action or plot or story, I don’t think.”

The resulting composition is a collect of foreboding and nearly sinister melodies played on an array of instruments from strings to piano.

“The air of death is in the air,” Burwell says of the film.  “The way I view the film is that it’s about a man who’s suspended between life and death.  He’s basically Schrödinger’s cat.  I was trying to keep a bit of that air throughout the film, no matter what was going on.  So whether things are good or bad for him, the music kind of stays the same and has this relentless, unwinding element, which I have to admit I’ve used in other Coen brothers films.  But it’s something in the stories they like to tell and it seemed right here.”

Perhaps that’s the story of the Coens’ career in features at the end of the day: finding the complex in the, well…simplistic.

→ 25 Comments Tags: , , , , , | Filed in: Interviews · Tech Support

25 responses so far

  • 1 1-14-2010 at 1:34 pm

    cineJAB said...

    This was easily one of the five most disappointing movies of the year for me, and I really doubt it will get recognized for anything other than it’s screenplay, which couldn’t possibly be considered strong enough to carry it to a Best Picture nomination.

  • 2 1-14-2010 at 1:38 pm

    Yogsam said...

    F*ck you, overrated THE HURT LOCKER!!!
    This movie WAS the best film of 2009!
    i totally love it!! an amazing experience, is wicked, is fun, it has every aspects that make a Coens movie great (the Cinematography,characters,storytelling)
    Hands down the best film of 2009, followed by Up in the Air and Avatar
    At least that’s what i think, and im happy to see some love on the web for this masterpiece IGNORED by many critics…just sad

  • 3 1-14-2010 at 1:46 pm

    bill said...

    i tend to not be a huge fan of the coens, but this movie knocked it out of the park, though it may be a little ahead of its time, if no country hadnt just sweeped the oscars i think this would have had a better chance, true grit should be great

  • 4 1-14-2010 at 1:52 pm

    aspect ratio said...

    I didn’t realize Gonchor was such a recent addition, I thought he’d made more films with them. Now that I look back, they’ve actually worked with quite a few different production designers, though curiously almost always with the same set decorator (Nancy Haigh), particularly in the last decade.

    It should be interesting to see if Gonchor will become a permanent part of the team like Deakins, Zophres and Burwell. He certainly has show he’s got the chops with the past three Coen films which all were very different from each other.

  • 5 1-14-2010 at 1:55 pm

    JJ said...

    I, too, am not a Coens fan, but this is the first movie I really enjoyed by them.

  • 6 1-14-2010 at 2:03 pm

    Dan said...

    I too loved it, it’s at the top of my 2009 list. Thanks for this article, Kris, I never tire of reading about this one. I just wish more critics shared your appreciation of it.

  • 7 1-14-2010 at 2:38 pm

    average joe said...

    Along with Public Enemies, easily the best film of the year.

    Does the Academy even know that Carter Burwell exists? Unbelievable that he has no nominations. His Fargo score is iconic.

  • 8 1-14-2010 at 2:53 pm

    Robert Hamer said...

    If A Serious Man is lucky it may end up with an Art Direction nomination. Every other tech seems like a stretch.

    @ average joe: In retrospect, it seems unbelievable that Burwell didn’t take the Best Original Score Oscar for Fargo, but it’s actually quite explainable. You see, from 1995 to 1998, the category was split up into Comedy and Dramatic sections. The resulting confusion by Academy members as to whether Fargo was a comedy or a drama led split votes, and thus, the snub. As to why his exquisite work on Miller’s Crossing was ignored, well…uh, hey, look over there! *runs*

  • 9 1-14-2010 at 2:59 pm

    average joe said...

    Robert, thanks for the explanation, kind of makes sense now.
    Well, as long as he keeps working with great filmmakers like the Coens and Spike Jonze, he’s bound to get a nomination. They can’t ignore him forever, can they?

  • 10 1-14-2010 at 3:02 pm

    average joe said...

    Sorry to go semi off-topic and waste another post (wish there was a way to edit posts), but just to add to the Carter Burwell love: his unrelenting score for Before The Devil Knows You’re Dead was amazing as well.

  • 11 1-14-2010 at 3:39 pm

    voland said...

    Great, great movie. It’s just frightening, how good the Coens are.

  • 12 1-14-2010 at 3:54 pm

    Zac said...

    Thanks to finals, I wasn’t able to catch this at my local art house theater. Any chance you can send me your screener, Kris, if you got one? ;)

    I can’t wait to check this out on DVD.

  • 13 1-14-2010 at 3:58 pm

    Ali E. said...

    A Serious Man is a fantastic film! And it deserves to be nominated for Best Cinematography, Film Editing, Original Score, Art Direction, Costume Design, Sound Mixing and Sound Editing (and of course Picture, Director, Actor, Supporting Actor and Original Screenplay). I want to emphasize the brilliant use of sound in this film (as in many of their films) which seems to be mostly underrated. It’s way better and creative than Transformers to me!

  • 14 1-14-2010 at 4:09 pm

    Kristopher Tapley said...


    Don’t know about THAT, but it is certainly effective and unique.

  • 15 1-14-2010 at 8:14 pm

    Annie Mouse said...

    I liked this Coen brothers film. The sound was good, but won’t be noticed because it was too subtle and not a big studio film. I think the Coen’s should get the 5th director spot too. But “The Hurt Locker” is still the best picture of the year! So Yogsam (above), watch your crude mouth!

  • 16 1-14-2010 at 10:54 pm

    Adam said...

    I detested A Serious Man.

    Awful movies for pretencious film snobs.

  • 17 1-14-2010 at 11:06 pm

    Andrew2 said...

    Would love to see a post on the crafts of Bright Star, but I wont hold my breath!!

  • 18 1-14-2010 at 11:15 pm

    Guy Lodge said...

    Andrew2: You might want to keep holding it.

  • 19 1-14-2010 at 11:21 pm

    Guy Lodge said...

    By the way, people who bandy about terms like “pretencious [sic] film snobs” are amusingly unaware of the inverse snobbery they themselves are perpetrating.

  • 20 1-14-2010 at 11:46 pm

    Chad Hartigan said...

    Plus, I’m a pretentious film snob and I hated this movie.

  • 21 1-15-2010 at 12:48 am

    Adam said...

    Andrew2 you are insane.

    You have posted nearly 30 times about Bright Star on Goldderby and now mention it in a thread about A Serious Man?

    No one cares about B Star all that much. Get over it.

  • 22 1-15-2010 at 1:28 am

    Ali E. said...

    don’t get me wrong, I’m not predicting A Serious Man to get any sound nominations at the Oscars. I just think it should. :)
    and I don’t see anything snobbish or pretentious in the film. I really don’t get the ones who do.

  • 23 1-15-2010 at 7:47 am

    Chase K. said...

    “A Serious Man” just spoke to me like no other film this year (although “Where the Wild Things Are” was a close second in regards to classifying a 2009 film as the most personal).

    Its riffs on destiny, faith, fatalism, etc. are things that I’ve since applied to my daily life ever since watching it for the first time. Not in any deep way, mind you, but it’s a film that I keep drawing from day-to-day – I can’t wait to see it for a third time.

    Although the Coen Brothers’ unwavering misanthropy just appeals to me.