Serious Man: Shooting in the Midwest

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.

“1967 in the Midwest was a great period,” reflects production designer Jess Gonchor. “New designs styles were developing.?

“We did a lot of research, and we looked for practical locations to alter and then film in. Walking in and just shooting? That’s never happened on any movie I’ve been on…”

Shooting in the Twin Cities

Indeed, a key challenge in recreating a Midwestern suburb of the 1960s was to find a neighborhood that had remained largely unchanged over the past 40-plus years. Robert Graf elaborates, “There are a lot of neighborhoods in the Twin Cities area that are very well-preserved from the standpoint of the architecture, but most of them are 50 years old now and very overgrown, with big trees.?

“What we really wanted was the feeling of a neighborhood when it was still new. If you look at archival photos, most of these suburbs were built on cornfields and prairies.”

Tyson Bidner and Gonchor’s staff searched within and just outside Minneapolis/St. Paul for areas that had undergone heavy storm damage or blight that destroyed some of the more mature growth. Graf reports that “we finally happened on a neighborhood that had suffered some storm damage about 8 years ago which left it remarkably open, particularly in the front yards.”

Bidner adds, “They had had to replant trees, so that helped it look like a new suburban neighborhood in the 1960s, where trees would have been planted with new homes.

“We received the full cooperation and support of twelve different homes and families in this one neighborhood – four on one street, the four across from them, and four which shared some of the others’ back yards.”

?Gonchor reveals, “It’s a great neighborhood as it is, but for several houses we did clear out vegetation and put in new driveways – or, rather, narrow them down from the current two-car ones to the period’s one-car ones. We also had to re-sod lawns.”?

Also located was a Hebrew school which, says Bidner, “we could use for 3-4 different settings – and that’s always helpful on a low-budget movie – including the on-screen Hebrew school. Their school cafeteria became our school’s classroom…”

“…and we could never have gotten a classroom this big otherwise unless we’d built it,” adds Gonchor. “The script called for wide shots with 20-24 students at desks, so we got lucky.”

As with other locations, the filmmakers needed a local synagogue that had a newly constructed look. Most of the temples in and around Minneapolis had a decidedly classic architectural style, so the Coens suggested the very synagogue they attended while growing up in the region.

However, in the intervening years, it had been turned into a church; transforming it again would have taken up too much time and labor.

Finding the Right Shul

Bidner finally located the right shul — B’nai Emet, formerly B’nai Abraham and itself not far from where the Coens grew up. He notes, “We worked our shooting schedule around the High Holy Days in September and October, and it was perfect.”

B’Nai Emet is the location for one of the more uniquely filmed sequences in A Serious Man. In close collaboration with their longtime director of photography, eight-time Academy Award nominee Roger Deakins, operating his own camera the Coens particularly enjoyed devising the look for the bar mitzvah sequence. Some particulars of the sequence necessitated overall approval from the temple elders, who granted permission after reading the script.

Ethan Coen says, “It was great to shoot, because Roger had these swing and tilt lenses that skew the focal plane. They give this weird, soft effect to everything in the frame except for one almost arbitrary plane. He had used them a lot on The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford. With us, he used them for two sequences in the movie, the bar mitzvah one and the one where Larry goes next door to visit the sexy, mysterious Mrs. Samksy [played by Amy Landecker].”

Other Twin Cities locations included Interstate Park on the St. Croix River, where the Coens had gone canoeing while growing up; and Lake Rebecca in Independence, Minnesota, a picturesque lake with (as seen on-screen) a small beach area. Bidner states that the production was “able to find everything – and every location – we needed in the Twin Cities.”

Going Green

Throughout filming, the production was conscious of the environment; cast and crew were given metal canteens which were refilled from a water source, thereby eliminating plastic water bottles. Additionally, many of the utensils used were made of cornstarch, which could later be composted. “We recycled the sets and the food service,” reveals Bidner. “Everyone was aware of the importance of finding ways to make things a little bit better.”

The careful preparation and working methods of longtime collaborators also go a long way towards making things that much better. Joel Coen remarks, “We have the huge advantage of being able to work with the best people in the movie business – it makes our movies what they are – which is especially helpful when you’re working on a little budget with a tiny amount of resources.”

Ethan confirms, “When you’re making a movie about a Jewish Midwestern community in 1967 and Fred Melamed is the sex guy, they don’t give you a lot of money.”