Gabriel Byrne, Albert Finney, Marcia Gay Harden, John Turturro, Jon Polito and J. E. Freeman star in a new film by Joel and Ethan Coen. Set in 1929 in an unnamed Eastern city, "Miller's Crossing" is the compelling story of the friendship between Leo, the local political boss, and Tom, the man behind the man. Their friendship is severed when Leo and Tom fall in love with the same woman. Tom joins ranks with Johnny Caspar, Leo's foremost enemy and rival for political power, and a bloody gang war erupts.
Circle Films Presents A Ted and Jim Pedas/Ben Barenholtz/Bill Durkin Production, directed by Joel Coen, produced by Ethan Coen and written by Joel Coen & Ethan Coen. The executive producer is Ben Barenholtz, the co-producer is Mark Silverman, and the line producer is Graham Place.
Joel and Ethan Coen bring their distinctive touch to a new kind of film in "Miller's Crossing," a gangster drama in the Hammett tradition which will surprise and delight fans of the horrific "Blood Simple" and the manic "Raising Arizona." To make "Miller's Crossing," the brothers have assembled a team of old and new collaborators and a first-rate ensemble cast.
The Irish-born actor Gabriel Byrne, who plays Tom, began his acting career with Dublin's Abbey Theatre. He made his film debut in John Boorman's "Excalibur" and has continued to work in theatre while acting in films. American audiences have seen him in "Hannah K.," "Defense of the Realm," "Gothic" (as Lord Byron), "Julia, Julia," "A Soldier's Tale" and "Siesta."
Leo is played by Albert Finney. One of the great English actors of his generation, Finney was first seen by American theatre audiences in the title role of John Osborne's "Luther" and by American film audiences in Karel Reisz's "Saturday Night and Sunday Morning." Since then he has been regularly acclaimed for his performances in such films as "Tom Jones," "Night Must Fall," "Two for the Road," "Charlie Bubbles," "Murder on the Orient Express," "Shoot the Moon," "Annie," "The Dresser" (for which he received his fourth Academy Award nomination), "Under the Volcano" and "Orphans."
Marcia Gay Harden, who plays Verna, is making her film debut in "Miller's Crossing." Like previous Coen brothers discoveries Frances McDormand and Holly Hunter, she comes from the New York theatre, where she has appeared in plays by Brecht, Chekhov, Shakespeare, Harold Pinter and Sam Shepard.
Jon Polito plays Johnny Caspar. A busy star of the New York stage, Polito won the OBIE award for five different performances in one season, 1979-80. His distinguished theatre credits include "Gemini," "American Buffalo," "Curse of the Aching Heart" (with Faye Dunaway) and the 1984 revival of "Death of a Salesman" (with Dustin Hoffman), which subsequently became a special for CBS. He has played shady characters before, on television, as a series regular on "Crime Story" and "The Gangster Chronicles," and can currently be seen as a crooked government agent in "The Freshman."
Bernie is played by John Turturro, who made a memorable impression as the racist son of the pizza parlor owner played by Danny Aiello in Spike Lee's "Do the Right Thing." His other films include "Five Corners," "The Sicilian," "The Color of Money," "To Live and Die in L.A.," "Desperately Seeking Susan" and "Mo' Better Blues." Well-known to New York theatre-goers, Turturro won an OBIE for his performance in John Patrick Shanley's "Danny and the Deep Blue Sea." He currently stars with John Goodman in the Coen brothers' next film, "Barton Fink."
J. E. Freeman, who plays The Dane, has been in the feature films "Wild at Heart," "The Couch Trip," "Ruthless People" (as the serial killer) and "Hard Travellin'," in which he played the lead. He has done a lot of regional theatre and is a familiar face to television viewers from his appearances on such series as "The Hill Street Blues," "Remington Steele," "Partners in Crime," "Highway to Heaven," "Ohara," "McGyver" and "Hunter."
"Miller's Crossing" reunites the Coen brothers with the indispensable Barry Sonnenfeld, who shot their two previous features and subsequently made an important contribution to "Big," Penny Marshall's second feature, and Danny DeVito's first, "Throw Momma from the Train." Carter Burwell again does the score, and like all Coen brothers films, this one is a presentation of the Washington-based Circle Films. Costume designer Richard Hornung ("Less Than Zero") and editor Michael Miller ("D.O.A.") worked with the brothers previously on "Raising Arizona." The main newcomer to the technical team is production designer Dennis Gassner, a graduate of the school of Dean Tavoularis and Francis Ford Coppola who helped create the fairytale worlds of "Earth Girls are Easy" and "Field of Dreams."
After a film noir and a madcap comedy, the Coen brothers were again, according to Ethan, making "a conscious effort not to repeat ourselves" when they undertook the writing of "Miller's Crossing." They started from a genre they wanted to do, the gangster film, and an image: "Big guys in overcoats in the woods -- the incongruity of urban gangsters in a forest setting."
"We weren't thinking so much of gangster pictures," adds Joel, "just novels." And while their first film had been inspired by the plot-driven pulp fiction of James M. Cain, for this one they turned to Dashiell Hammett: "He took the genre," Joel explains, "and used it to tell a story that was interesting about people and other things besides just the plot. In Hammett, the plot is like a big jigsaw puzzle that can be seen in the background. It may make some internal sense, but the momentum of the characters is more important."
They ended up writing what the brothers call a "dirty town movie" similar in some ways to Hammett's Red Harvest, but with (in Marcia Harden's words) "the Coen twist." The central character is Tom, who moves between the warring factions and keeps his own counsel. "He's the quintessential Hammett guy," says Joel. "You're not let in on how much he knows and what exactly he's up to. He tests the other characters to see what they want and uses that to his advantage."
Adds Ethan: "He's got principles and interest, and I don't think he's a pure man."
The other central character, as in any Coen brothers script, is the language spoken by all the characters -- a mixture of expressions found in books (Hammett again), overheard in conversations, or simply invented. "The language is really beautiful," says Gabriel Byrne. "It's a joy to listen to -- like going to a really great play."
Albert Finney summed up the admiration expressed by the actors for the script: "it seemed like a comic strip, in a sense, when I first read it," he recalls. "The casualness of the violence amused me a great deal. But it's extremely rich stuff. There's an awful lot of craftsmanship in there, and thinking through and chipping away at a piece of marble for some time to get this essence."
Everyone who worked on the film was also full of praise for the meticulous preparation which guaranteed a tranquil set and enabled the filmmakers to do a complex period film on a relatively small budget. At the same time, actors and technicians alike were pleased to learn that within the limits set by a script that rarely changed and a carefully workedout visual plan, the Coens' method, like Tom's, is one of controlled improvisation, continually open to creative surprises.
A notable example of this was Gabriel Byrne's Irish accent. Tom wasn't written as first-generation Irish, but Byrne says, "When I read the script out loud to myself, I said 'My God, this could have been written by somebody from Dublin!"' When he met the Coens, he proposed playing the character with an accent.
"We were skeptical," recalls Joel, "but we said, 'Fine, go ahead, try it.' He did it and we liked the way it sounded." And when Albert Finney was cast two days before the start of shooting due to the sad loss of Trey Wilson, who was to have played Leo, Tom's mentor also acquired an Irish accent.
There were other surprises, like the casting of Jon Polito, in his thirties, to play Caspar. The hot-headed Italian gangster had been written as a man in his fifties, but Polito insisted and got the part. Not all suggestions were accepted: Marcia Harden had researched a period look for Verna that proved too severe after camera tests, but she was allowed to try it. And the Coens continually encouraged their actors to try different things in performance by filming several takes and often printing as many as five.
"Filmmaking can become an ordeal," says Albert Finney, "What's great about these guys is that they'll throw new things in on the fourth or sixth take. Then while they're editing they will play with form the same way that they played with words in preparing the script."
For John Turturro, the Coens' tightly-scripted, visually pre-planned approach proved surprisingly comfortable. "I'm used to doing my own blocking," he explains. "But what's great with them is: You're in a film. It's so different from just being recorded. Everything has a reason. Once or twice I threw in a new thing by accident, and they liked it. I think I've surprised them a few times."
The pre-planning for "Miller's Crossing" began with four single-spaced pages of location descriptions written by the Coens to communicate to their early collaborators the precise look, feel and camera needs of each location in the film. (The most laconic was the description of Verna's place: "Modest one-bedroom apartment, large living room. Verna doesn't care where she lives, and neither do we.")
Armed with these notes, the Coens and line producer Graham Place visited three different cities before settling on New Orleans, where economic factors and a preservation movement dating from the Thirties had left many buildings from the Twenties intact. Working with production designer Dennis Gassner and location manager Amy Ness, and aided by local assistant location manager Jimmy Otis, they started finding or building the locations that would be combined on film to create the imaginary Prohibition-era city in which the story takes place.
New Orleans cooperated. For the scenes in Leo's club, which displays the tasteful oldworld style of its affluent proprietor, the members of the city's staid International House opened their doors for the first time to a film crew. During the days when the downstairs dining-room was needed for filming, the members took their lunch in a smaller upstairs room, where little cards on the table informed them that they were being inconvenienced "to facilitate filming in New Orleans."
The merchants on Magazine Street in the less affluent downtown area, which boasts several blocks that still look like the Twenties, imposed severer restrictions. To avoid interrupting commerce, angles were carefully calculated and scheduled to permit a "walk-and-talk" scene to be shot in one day. With the help of sprinklers, Picayune Street (named after the city's leading newspaper) became the location for a rainy nighttime "walk-and-talk" with Tom and Verna. Fireworks erupted on Church Street, which became the scene of a shoot-out between police and the denizens of Leo's social club, The Sons of Erin. And a tiny Dickensian alley locked away behind an ancient gate became Rug's Alley, where a hood named Rug Daniels loses his life (and his toupee) early in the film.
The hardest location to find was Caspar's Great Room, a gigantic panelled room ("they don't call it the Great Room for nothing") where Tom confronts the up-and-coming gangster Johnny Caspar, whose club is still a shabby affair ("a down-and-dirty speakeasy, gaming place, clip joint") because the proprietor has put all his money into his home. Due to its shifting soil, New Orleans is not a city where things were built big - the typical New Orleans house is a lot of small connecting parlors - but the filmmakers found their Great Room in Gallier Hall, the former City Hall named for the architect who brought the Greek Revival style to New Orleans. Its large English-style rooms are now rented out for wedding receptions and other functions requiring lots of space, and two of them, considerably rebuilt, served as Caspar's Great Room and the Mayor's Office in the film. The exterior and foyer of Caspar's house were filmed at the exclusive Louise S. McGehee School, another New Orleans institution which had never played host to a film crew.
Leo's home, which is the scene of a nighttime attack by a pair of hit-men, was put together out of four separate locations, including Northline, a street in the Old Metairie section of town where the filmmakers blew up a car, and two constructed sets. (The making of this complex sequence, which took several weeks to shoot, is described in the March issue of Premiere.)
All the sets that had to be built were housed in a huge garage on Annunciation Street owned by the Toye Brothers, a local real estate firm. Here, for example, the filmmakers built Tom's apartment, with its semi-circular living room which had to be, the filmmakers told Gassner, "like the inside of Tom's head."
The scenes in Miller's Crossing, the majestic forest where destinies cross and where the Coens brought to life their seminal image of thugs in the woods, were filmed on a treefarm ninety minutes from the city, with the overcast skies the company had planned on when they scheduled their stay in New Orleans for late winter and early spring.
Storyboards for every scene by the Coens' illustrator J. Todd Anderson aided in communicating with all departments, but in particular with their peerless collaborator, cinematographer Barry Sonnenfeld, who shot "Blood Simple" and "Raising Arizona" -- a comedy whose bright colors and deep-focus compositions (with lots of sharp background detail) were very different from the dark, shallow-focus look the three friends arrived at for "Miller's Crossing."
"'Raising Arizona' was low and wacky and the camera was a character," says Sonnenfeld. 'The problem with the wide lenses we used on that film is that since everything is in focus, you're not telling the audience where to look. With longer lenses, you can really focus the audience's attention, and since this is such a word-driven movie, you want to bring the audience's attention much more to the characters.
"Also, we wanted this movie to look handsome, and handsome movies mean dark movies, so we worked with the production designer and made everything very dark. The colors of the sets and costumes were muted, and there were lots of dark greens and browns - actually sort of woods colors." The "handsome" look extended to the crucial scenes actually set in the woods, which were shot with a different film stock than the urban scenes. "All the Miller's Crossing scenes we shot in Fuji," reports Sonnenfeld, "because Fuji greens are much more muted than Kodak."
Production designer Dennis Gassner, who was trained in the electronic pre-visualization methods devised by Francis Coppola at Zoetrope Studios, had his own modest way of "story-boarding" the film's look: Swatches of colored paper pinned up over his desk formed a flow-chart showing the dominant colors in each scene of the film. As a result, says Joel, "The colors in 'Miller's Crossing' are more controlled than anything we've done."
But Gassner also brought his own surprises to the production. "When I met the Coens," he recalls, I told them I had one central thing to say to them as a theme for the movie: columns. And Ethan said, 'Yeah, right, that's what we need.' Because first of all, you have trees in a forest, and architectural columns show strength -- it's a manly movie." Suddenly Jimmy Otis, still scouting locations in New Orleans, started getting phone calls: "The boys phoned me from New York," he recalls, "saying, 'Go back and look at such-and-such again' -- locations they had rejected. And everything I went back to that they had rejected before had immense columns."
Adding to the film's distinctive look was the well-researched creativity of costume designer Richard Hornung, who had previously dressed the world in Hawaiian shirts for "Raising Arizona." "My theory with the Coens always is that the costume is approved if they laugh," he says. The "thug uniform" created by Hornung for "Miller's Crossing" was true to the period, featuring "a nipped-in waist, very hour-glass, with soft shoulders, as opposed to later when you get the bigger, harder shoulder. We decided that if we were really going to do this period with some sort of conviction we would have the soft shoulder on them, and not make the typical gangsters we think of with huge shoulders and V-shaped suits."
Hats were given a lot of thought, and so were the other accessories. Hornung observes: "The characters in this movie don't open up, don't reveal themselves at any point, so the Coens wanted brims very broad and down over people's eyes, often shadowing them. People are very covered up in this. They have gloves, they're covered from head to toe, and often they have big coats, which is not really the period."
The selection of Gabriel Byrne's hat in particular was a long process. "The hat really becomes a big symbol in the film," notes unit manager Ron Neter. "Every time Tom gets knocked down, the hat falls off, and people are always handing it back to him." Five identical hats were made for Byrne to wear during the filming, but another "generic" one was used for the opening shot of the credits: a hat blowing away from the camera across a field, which was filmed at high speed using a special lightweight hat that could be controlled with a fishing line. This shot, the last to be filmed, "was one of the first images we wrote," according to Ethan. "The idea of the hat blowing away in the woods, without really knowing how it was supposed to fit in." Unlike the other early image of thugs in the woods, this one was left unexplained and floating free of any plot connection, except for a dream Tom describes at one point to Verna.
With the shooting wrapped, there were more surprises to come, particularly from composer Carter Burwell. "Danny Boy" had been the Coens' first choice for the accompaniment to the attack on Leo's house, and the growing Irish presence in the film eventually affected Burwell's score as well. "When we were finishing the movie we started listening to a lot of Irish music," says Ethan. "Gabriel gave us a whole list of stuff. The tone and feeling of the music seemed really appropriate to the movie -- the melancholy feeling that it has."
"Because it's emotional and overwrought," adds Joel, "it worked as a counterpoint to other aspects of the movie. Our thinking sort of evolved on that and turned 180 degrees around as we started listening to different things. It seemed to add a dimension to the movie, and at the same time it's underlining something that's there already, which we liked."Copyright Twentieth Century Fox
|Deleted Scenes||Tommy Gun Scene: Shot by Shot|
|Washington Post review / poster||Trivia|
|Production Notes||Full Script|