Serious Man, A: Vintage Automobiles for a Period Piece

Joel and Ethan Coen, the masterminds behind hits such as "Fargo," "No Country for Old Men," and "Burn After Reading." Their latest film, "A Serious Man," is being released by Focus Features on October 2, 2009.

Any feature film set in the past is looking for visual shorthand of "the kind of detail that immediately conveys the period," notes Joel Coen.?

Vintage automobiles invariably signal that, and A Serious Man was no exception – especially since one pivotal sequence entails cross-cutting between two automobiles, each in transit. Still, as Joel explains, "It was important not to populate the movie with cars that looked too new, the kind of cars you find from collectors who keep them shiny and perfect and don't look like they would have looked at the time. It was a constant struggle to get cars that were period but not in quite as perfect condition, or at least ones where the owners would let you knock them down a bit."?

Weeks before the start of production, picture car coordinator Mike Arnold (who had previously worked for the Coens on Fargo over a decade earlier) began scouring local antique car shows in search of the right vehicles for the characters to drive and to pepper the backgrounds of exterior scenes. Arnold comments, "They told me the background cars were up to me; they were mainly interested in picking the main cars. The only thing they said was 'no reds, no whites and no big fins.' They also didn't want anything from before 1960, because it looked too 'period.'"

The car that the filmmakers settled on for Larry Gopnik was a Dodge Coronet, a midsized car that Chrysler introduced in the '50s and then again in the mid-'60s. Arnold says, "The car really fits Larry's personality; it's just a plain 1966 every-day looking car. It's nothing fancy and he's not a fancy guy." Sy Ableman, on the other hand, is behind the wheel of a Coupe de Ville.

For Mrs. Samsky's car, Arnold managed to get an exception to the Coens' mandate. He notes, "I felt she needed a Mustang. I picked out a gold one first, but then I sent Joel and Ethan Coen a photo of a red one anyway – and they loved it, as did Jess Gonchor. She's a spicy character, so she had to have something spicy. So we got a little red in our car palette after all."

Gonchor's favorite vehicle in the film was "the yellow school bus – I always wanted to do a movie with one – on which I was able to put writing in Hebrew, because it's for Danny's school. It was a double mitzvah for me."?

?The biggest adjustment that the actors had to make in driving the vintage cars was to the absence of many of the innovations that have become standard since the 1960s, such as power steering. Arnold laughs, "When they got in one of these cars, they'd turn the ignition and turn and turn and turn.

But nothing happened because there's no electronic transmission. You have to punch the gas."

The several dozen cars that needed to be parked outside the synagogue for the bar mitzvah sequence were rounded up by enlisting the help of local TV and radio stations to invite participants. But an added incentive was needed to ensure participation. Joel reveals, "The owners of these cars tended to be very proprietary about their vehicles, so we thought it was best to get them to be extras in the movie – and let them drive their own cars."