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 the film scene hit its stride. They’d be right. But years before Slacker came along, Blood Simple put Austin on the map and gave its film community bragging rights, not to mention a good number of stories that have been told and retold about its filming. Given the plot, the film could have been forgettable: An investigator (Walsh) is hired by a jealous husband (Dan Hedaya) to kill his wife (Frances McDormand)and her lover (John Getz). It was the Coens’ Hitchcock-inspired instincts and attention to detail that elevated the film—like their unusually long tête-à-tête about how to position some rotting fish on the jealous husband’s desk.
For those who worked for peanuts on the low-budget production (it cost only $1.5 million to make), it added real cachet to a résumé. More than half of the crew and practically the entire supporting cast were homegrown. “It was the first time Austin camera people could actually do something,” remembers Shannon Sedwick, who was cast as a stripper and is one of the founders of the Austin comedy troupe Esther’s Follies. “The Coens were important to the forming of the Austin film scene because they let all these people work who could then put it on a résumé. Then locals started getting work on other films that came through. The Coens probably started the film scene.”
That may be a bit of an overstatement, but it does have some truth to it. Joel came to Austin in the late seventies after graduating from film school at New York University. His first wife was taking graduate classes in linguistics at UT, and he eventually registered for graduate film classes. Once there, his drive and talent made an impression on his colleagues. “After Joel and his wife had broken up, he asked to have a cup of coffee with me,” says Loren Bivens, one of Joel’s film professors who became the special effects coordinator for the movie. “He said, ‘What should I do?’ I said, ‘Well, what do you want to do? Do you want to direct?’ He said, ‘Yes.’ And I said to him, ‘Go for it. You’re ready to do this now.'”
Joel assembled a young group that was just starting out. How young? Here’s another story: The mansion of well-known homebuilder Doyle Wilson was used as the jealous husband’s house. The Coens were afraid they’d mess it up, so they asked the cast and crew to wear blue surgical booties. But the more daring members took their shoes off. And their socks off. And then everything came off. So as the bootie-wearers tiptoed and tried not to slip through the hallways, some crew members were throwing caution and clothes to the wind and hopping into the Wilsons’ steam bath downstairs.
Despite its impact on the Austin film scene, Blood Simple is much more than a local film. Key cast and crew members, recruited from New York and other distant locales, had a resounding effect on Hollywood. Getz, who brought toughness to the role of the quiet cuckolder, later got lead roles in the MacGruder and Loud TV series and The Fly. Sam Williams, who played a bartender, has produced television comedies such as The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air and Martin. Hedaya has appeared in movies like The Hurricane, Dick, and To Die For. Barry Sonnenfeld, the director of photography, went on to direct Get Shorty and Men in Black. And perhaps the most significant find was McDormand, who won an Academy award in 1996 for her portrayal of the pregnant police chief in the Coen brothers’ Fargo.
Here’s a story about how McDormand got her part: The first person the Coens hired was UT film student Dede Clark, who became a location manager and local casting director. “Joel called me up and said, ‘I have looked all over New York, and I can’t find the right person to play Abby. Can you look there for me?'” she says. “He said, ‘This has got to be a woman you would commit murder for—who is so beautiful that you would kill for her.’ So I was looking for this woman I knew, who was this oddly exotic, fabulous person. Well, I got a call one day and Joel said, ‘Stop looking. I found her.’ He had found Fran. The irony is that Fran is a beautiful woman, but she doesn’t have the classic look anybody is going to commit murder for. But for Joel she was. He married her, and they lived happily ever after.”
Yet even if it is more than a local film, its tone clearly taps into the mythic Texas. Joel and Ethan were fascinated by the trial of Fort Worth millionaire Cullen Davis and the controversy surrounding the death of Houston socialite Joan Robinson Hill. “We’re big fans of Texas murders,” Joel has said. “Having read Blood and Money and Blood Will Tell, we decided to write one of our own.” The brothers took the title Blood Simple from a Dashiell Hammett expression, then they sat down to write their own Texas story. “When you come from another part of the country, you think of Texas as being somehow exotic,” Joel said in 1985. “I know the movie doesn’t deal with real Texas, but the movie doesn’t deal with real life. It deals with an exaggerated sense of life.” From the opening scenes, when spacious blue skies and fields with oil rigs accompany Walsh’s voice-over, “But what I know about is Texas, and down here you’re on your own,” the film borrowed from the legendary Texas milieu: quiet, spartan landscapes and tough men ready to kill in a heartbeat.
Here’s a final story: “At the scene in the grave,” Hedaya remembers, “it was a little bit chilly, and rather than go in and out of the grave as they prepared the shots, they brought hot chocolate and danishes and passed them down. It was cold. It was the early morning. It was a kind of perfect climate to work in . . . but you know, it was just a job. I mean, the Coens didn’t have any premonitions at all. Zero. And here it is sixteen years later, and they’re going to a film festival in the Czech Republic; Blood Simple is a big feature there. It’s amazing. It was a low-budget movie. I think my wardrobe cost about thirty dollars. But to have been a part of something groundbreaking—that’s why I’m eager to see it again.”