Here’s a story: M. Emmet Walsh is milking his drawl. He’s playing the good ol’ boy private eye from Texas, wearing a dirty yellow suit and a cream-colored cowboy hat. Joel Coen, a shaggy-haired 28-year-old, yells, “Cut!” and gives Walsh a specific acting direction—again. But Walsh won’t do it. And won’t do it. And won’t do it. So Coen, very patiently, says, “Mike, just humor me.” Walsh, the sole veteran actor in the group, says, “Joel, I am doing this whole picture just to humor you.”
No doubt he’s glad he did. The movie, Blood Simple, which was shot entirely in and around Austin, received national acclaim upon its release in 1984, winning the Grand Jury Prize at the Sundance Film Festival and awards for best director and best male lead (that would be Walsh) at the Independent Spirit Awards. The first film by brothers Joel and Ethan Coen (Joel was the director, Ethan the producer), it led to a string of successes that includes Raising Arizona, Miller’s Crossing, Barton Fink, and Fargo. Yet sixteen years after its release, Blood Simple remains a landmark title in the world of independent film. Now that a director’s cut is making its way to theaters in Austin, Houston, Dallas, San Antonio, and other Texas cities, audiences have another chance to see nothing less than a neo-noir film classic—a classic film, period.
To understand the importance of the movie in the world of independent filmmaking—and its importance to Austin—you have to go back to the set in the winter of 1982, with unknown actors, an inexperienced crew, and a filmmaking community that was near comatose. Go back to this 1982 clip from the Austin American-Statesman: “The female lead will be unfamiliar to readers here. She is Fran McDoormand [sic], fresh out of the Yale drama school.” Or this one from 1985: “In the dozen years that Texas has enjoyed being an important film production center, Austin has had the unpleasant distinction of being the place to go to make a sorry picture.” Indeed, lousy films were the norm: consider Outlaw Blues, Roadie, and Honeysuckle Rose. Even the 1974 hit The Texas Chainsaw Massacre—which had a huge local impact—could be cast off as a slasher flick by directors scouting for locations.
So what did Blood Simple do for Austin? “The film revitalized the Third Coast mentality when it was at a downward ebb,” says Tom Schatz, the chair of UT’s Radio-Television-Film department and a former professor of Joel’s. “It was one of the first important films to come out of Austin, and it helped reignite the sense that something can get made in this community.” Many people point to the nineties—and to names like Richard Linklater and Robert Rodriguez—and say that’s when