No Country for Old Men: Joel and Ethan Coen

Cannes Film Fest 2007–At once a modern legend and a literary maverick, Cormac McCarthy was already renowned for his extraordinary stories set against the changing American West when he published No Country For Old Men in 2003. McCarthys complex characters and symbolic themes were writ so large in No Country For Old Men it was clear that it would take filmmakers with their own equally distinctive skills for rich, wry and resonant storytelling to transform the power of what was on the page into striking images and crisp dialogue.

Its hard to imagine a better match for the dusky wit and stark humanity of McCarthys characters than Joel and Ethan Coen who burst onto the American cinema scene with the influential comic noir classic BLOOD SIMPLE and have gone on to forge some of the most inventive motion picture tales of our times including RAISING ARIZONA, MILLERS CROSSING, BARTON FINK, the Oscar-winning FARGO, THE MAN WHO WASNT THERE and O BROTHER WHERE ART THOU With this film, the Coens marry McCarthys voice complex, nuanced, layered and often humorous with their own unique vision: the result is incredibly compelling and action-packed cinema.

The Coens first became aware of McCarthys novel through producer Scott Rudin. He brought it to us thinking we might have an affinity for it, remembers Ethan, and we did like the book. We also thought we could do something with it.

Its as close as well ever come to doing an action movie, adds Joel. Its a chase story — with Chigurh chasing Moss and the Sheriff bringing up the tail. Its a lot of physical activity to achieve a purpose. Its interesting in a genre way; but it was also interesting to us because it subverts the genre expectations.

The Coens now set about adapting the story into a taut cinematic structure, emphasizing the darkly humorous and humanly revealing interplay between Llewelyn Moss, who discovers millions of a dollars in the wreckage of drug deal gone wrong, and the two antithetical men who are tracking him: the chilling psychopath Chigurh, on the one extreme, and the towns profoundly decent Sheriff Bell, on the other. The result was a film that would take the Coens forward into new territory.

There is a good deal of humor in the book, although you wouldnt call it a humorous novel, exactly, says Joel. Its certainly very dark and that was our defining characteristic. The book is also quite violent, quite bloody. So the movie is probably the most violent weve ever made. In that respect it reflects the novel, I hope, fairly accurately.

At the heart of NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN are its characters men and women who inhabit a rapidly changing West a place where lawlessness has led to a brave new world of international drug running and where the old rules no longer seem to apply. Against this backdrop, Sheriff Bell becomes a main lynchpin of the story — a stoic, philosophical law man with a dry-as-bone sense of humor and a rock-solid moral foundation who is bedeviled by the advent of the drug trades new breed of criminal and the violence it has brought to the land that he loves. Astonished by his new reality, Sheriff Bell represents an acute, heartbroken yearning for the more honorable way things used to be.

The movie is, no surprise given the title of the book, in part about Sheriff Bells perspective on time going by, on aging and on things changing, says Joel Coen. I assume thats part of why the book is set in 1980, and not strictly speaking present day, adds Ethan. It takes place just when the cross-border drug trade was getting very brutal, and that provides an opportunity for reflection by the Sheriff.

Casting

In considering who might play this riveting, yet reflective, character, the Coens found that Tommy Lee Jones quickly came to mind. There are just very, very few people who can carry a role like this one, muses Joel. Sheriff Bell is the soul of the movie and also, in a fundamental way, the region is so much a part of Sheriff Bell, so we needed someone who understood it. He continues: Its a role that also requires a kind of subtlety that only a really, really great actor can bring to it. Again, the list of these is pretty short, so when you put those two criteria together, you come up with Tommy Lee Jones. Being a Texan, the region is a part of his core.

The Coens found that casting the Llewelyn Moss character somewhat more challenging than casting Sheriff Bell. Moss, a Vietnam veteran, is a decent-hearted Texas good ol boy who would likely never have crossed the law until he comes across a great deal of drug money that appears to belong to a group of dead men. Moss is sort of a regular person who's caught up in extraordinary circumstances and has one unreflective moment where he decides to appropriate a bunch of money that isn't his, explains Ethan Coen. He then spends the rest of the movie trying to avoid the consequences. So he's very much the action center of the movie.

Adds Joel, In this story, you have a good guy and a bad guy, and Moss is the in-between guy. But that in-between quality proved harder to nail than anyone expected. We thought it'd be really easy to find Moss, laughs Ethan, because, in our minds, we thought, well, we just need a good clean kid. And it turns out it's not easy to embody that without either being dull, or being, again, not of the region.

At last, the Coens found an actor who was able to bring a dynamic presence, rife with a distinctly Western touch, to the role: Josh Brolin, who has emerged as a breakthrough screen actor. Josh grew up on a ranch so he had a feeling for where Moss comes from, explains Ethan. He was just a natural in the role.

Providing the third side of films taut moral triangle is Anton Chigurh, the chilling, offbeat who leaves no witnesses behind. The uniquely dark character would call for an actor capable of going to extremes of intensity. Chigurhs actually described in the book as someone without a sense of humor, says Joel. But beyond that, his backgrounds quite sketchy. Hes relentless but theres also something mysterious about him. You dont quite know where hes come from.

He continues: We needed an actor who would be able to flesh out Chigurh in a substantial way, but also without giving away too much, and keeping that sense of mystery hence, Javier Bardem. Bardem has quickly risen as one of international cinemas greatest talents, garnering an Oscar nomination for his role as Cuban poet Reinaldo Arenas in BEFORE NIGHT FALLS and winning the Best Actor Award at the Venice Film Festival as the remarkable bed-ridden hero of THE SEA INSIDE. With Chigurh, Bardem faced one of his most exciting challenges yet embodying a mythic villain whose soul appears to let in no light.

Alongside this trio of men are two equally compelling women. In the role of Mosss wife Carla Jean is Scottish actress Kelly Macdonald, who garnered an Emmy Award and a Golden Globe nomination with her powerful performance in HBOs The Girl in The Caf, and surprised the filmmakers with her audition. Just as we were saying you can't really act the region, we cast Kelly Macdonald, who happens to be a Scottish actress from Glasgow, laughs Joel. I just didn't believe she could play a gal from West Texas — but she convinced us otherwise in the audition.

The other central relationship in the story is that of Sheriff Bell and his wife Loretta, a character who is instrumental in helping to define Bell. Playing Loretta is Academy Award and Golden Globe nominee Tess Harper, who herself hails from Arkansas. The Coens had been fans of her work since TENDER MERCIES, and note her ability to convey a lot in a very short space of time.

Mythical and Real Setting

NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN unfolds against one of Americas most visceral and mythologized landscapes: the hardscrabble, desolate Texas-Mexico borderlands, where the two countries are divided only by the banks of the Rio Grande. To authentically capture this sun-ravaged, blood-soaked locale that straddles two countries, the production journeyed to the dry plains of West Texas and the deserts of New Mexico, where the Coens collaborated once again with five-time Oscar nominee Roger Deakins as cinematographer.

The setting is actually part of the reason that we wanted to do this film, Ethan Coen notes. We'd done our first movie (BLOOD SIMPLE) in Texas, although that was in Austin, but we'd also traveled through West Texas, and were attracted to it even before we read the book. He continues: The setting is so integral to the book, to the story — its about where it takes place as much as anything else. It is a very beautiful landscape, but in a bleak rather than picturesque way. It's not an easy place to live in, and that's important to what the story is about — the human confrontation with this harsh environment.

Joel concurs, Its a place with a history of violence and of being inhospitable in a way. As with all of Cormac McCarthys novels, the location is a character itself — and it can't be separated from the story.

The shoot began in Marfa, Texas, a notoriously rugged area about three and a half hours from El Paso. Best known as the spot where the 1950s epic GIANT was filmed, Marfa–population 2030– boasts as its main attraction the Hotel Paisano where James Dean, Elizabeth Taylor, Rock Hudson and Dennis Hopper set up headquarters during filming.

Here, rising young production designer Jess Gonchor whose work to date has included the high-fashion comedy THE DEVIL WEARS PRADA and the more intimate period drama CAPOTE, began collaborating with the Coens, searching for just the right locations for the films most dramatic scenes. For Gonchor, the key was understatement. Says Gonchor: The Coens did such a tremendous job with the script, that I didnt want to upstage anything I just wanted to add to the storytelling with the scenery that I designed.

One of Gonchors biggest challenges was creating Elliss cabin where Sheriff Bell comes to his Uncle, a former Deputy Sheriff himself, for advice when he finds himself at the brink of despair. Recalls Gonchor, We prefabricated the whole structure in Santa Fe where Joel and Ethan could see the progress, painted it, aged it, dressed it and then trucked the entire cabin out to Texas.

Despite the long distances between locations, the unpredictable weather, poisonous desert creatures and scorching temperatures, the authentic locations proved invaluable offering up the haunting, lonely atmosphere that makes the borderlands of Texas at once so fierce and so poetic.

Following their work in Texas, the company moved on to New Mexico, where they also shot in Las Vegas, NM, an historic town seventy miles from Santa Fe, where the timeless, Western-style streets and iconic downtown plaza were able to double for several small Texas towns. It was also the site of another of Gonchors pre-fab marvels, the U.S.-Mexico border crossing which leads from Eagle Pass, TX to a small Mexican town.

The simulated border crossing was erected on the University Blvd freeway overpass in Las Vegas, and necessitated closing down the bridge and freeway exit for a week while the 50,000-pound steel structure was hauled in and put into place. Las Vegas residents took it in stride but tourists and out-of-towners driving through were mystified as to why the US Mexico border checkpoint had moved this far north or if New Mexico was really a part of Mexico after all.