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At first glance, The Man Who Wasn't There might seem to bring Joel and Ethan Coen back to the genre that they first explored on-screen, in their debut film Blood Simple (1984). But this film takes a different tack in that it is steeped in one particular area of that genre: what the Coen brothers describe as "the world of James M. Cain."

As with James M Cain's oeuvre, The Man Who Wasn 't There takes place in the 1940s. "This movie is heavily influenced by Cain' s work. It's his kind of story," Joel Coen says. "Except that it's got a guy who you'd call a schlub as the main hero," adds Ethan Coen. "But when you think about it, Cain's stories nearly always had as their heroes schlubs - losers, guys who were involved in rather dreary and banal existences -as the protagonist. Cain was interested in people's workaday lives and what they did for a living: he wrote about guys who worked as insurance salesmen, or in banks, or building bridges. We took that as a cue."

"It really evolved from that haircut poster."

Cain was a pulp fiction writer par excellence. His hard-boiled crime stories continue to be admired for their accuracy of dialogue and characterization, and for the author's direct and immediate storytelling style. His most famous novels provided the basis for three 1940s classics: Billy Wilder's Double Indemnity (1944), Michael Curtiz' Mildred Pierce (1945), and Tay Garnett's The Postman Always Rings Twice (1946).

Yet the inspiration for The Man Who Wasn't There came not from a specific Cain opus but rather on a Coen brothers movie set several years ago, while they were shooting The Hudsucker Proxy (1994) in North Carolina.

Joel recalls, "We filmed a scene in a barber shop, and there was a poster on the wall showing all the different 1940s-style haircuts. It was a fixture on the set, and we were always looking at it. So we started thinking about the guy who actually did the haircuts, and the story began to take shape. It really evolved from that haircut poster.

"We wrote the character of a barber as someone living in the late 1940s in a small northern California town, working in a barber shop which is owned by his wife's brother. The guy, Ed Crane, isn't satisfied with his life but doesn't know how to change it. But he's sure that he doesn't want to be cutting hair forever. When he learns from a customer about a scheme to get rich by investing in dry cleaning, he's intrigued. Then, after he learns that he wife is having an affair with her married employer, the well-to-do owner of a department store, it sets in motion a chain of events that has tragic consequences for everyone involved."

"The crime element here is sort of inadvertent."

"Even though there is crime in the story, we were still very interested in what this guy does as a barber," adds Ethan. "We wanted to examine exactly what the day-to-day was like giving haircut after haircut, and use that as the background to a crime story. Many crime stories take place in an underworld setting. They tell tales of small, mean people doing nasty things to each other and nobody walking away happy. That's sort of what this film is about- and sort of not. The Man Who Wasn't There is really about ordinary middle-American people who get into a situation that spirals out of control. The crime element here is sort of inadvertent. The hero sort of stumbles into it."

The Coens worked on the screenplay for a period of time and then, because of various other commitments, put it aside for a while. They resumed work on it in earnest when Joel accompanied his wife Frances McDormand to Ireland, where she was appearing in a production of A Streetcar Named Desire at Dublin's Gate Theater. Ethan joined them. and he and Joel completed the screenplay during their stay.

Once the screenplay was completed, the brothers sent it to Eric Fellner and Tim Bevan, whose company Working Title Films has produced many of the Coen brothers' films. As Fellner points out, "We work with Ethan and Joel on a regular basis - barring extenuating circumstances, we'll always be involved in putting their films together."

Fellner was very impressed with the finished screenplay: "I'd read some of it when they first started writing it, and was excited about doing it then because of the material and the period. Having been involved with Fargo [1996], I saw similar themes in both stories. But the new one stands entirely on its own. I think it will hold enormous appeal for audiences all over the world."

The Man Who Wasn't There was prepped for production but plans changed for the filmmakers. George Clooney had already agreed to star in another of the Coens' projects, 0 Brother, Where Are Thou?, and was suddenly free to begin work right away. As a result, Fellner notes "0 Brother leapfrogged over The Man Who Wasn't There and went into production with all due haste." As soon as the Coens finished shooting and editing the former, they again turned their full attention to The Man Who Wasn't There. USA Films came aboard the project with financing, and plans were at last finalized for a summer 2000 shoot.

"wanted to make something interesting out of that passivity"

The first order of business? Casting. The Coens had a particular actor in mind for the lead character of Ed Crane. Joel comments, "Billy Bob Thornton is someone we like and have known casually for rather a long time. He's also one of these transforming actors who changes radically from part to part. That's what we thought would be interesting. We were intrigued by what he would do with the role. The character of Ed Crane is very passive. He mostly reacts, and that's a very difficult thing for an actor to do. He's mostly ruminating and reacting. The character has a lot of voiceover dialogue in the film but doesn't have very many lines. So the role needed someone who can carry a movie that way. I don't think there are many people today who can do that."

"Billy Bob is very soulful," adds Ethan. "Montgomery Clift comes to mind; if this movie was being made in 1949, when it's set, Clift would have been the man to do it. He had the same quality that Billy Bob has. The ability, as Joel says, to be passive without disappearing." Joel concurs, stating that he and Ethan "wanted to make something interesting out of that passivity ."

Thornton was delighted to be offered the role: "I actually said yes to the movie before I read the script. When I got a call from Joel and Ethan saying they wanted me for their movie, I said, 'I don't care what it's about, I'll do it.' I knew it would be good. There are certain people you know you can't go wrong with. When I read the script, it confirmed my feelings. It's just plain good. The writing is good and the characters are great. Even though Ed Crane is a very internalized guy, I think that in the end that it's an oddly emotional movie."

"I call her 'the bitch' -a lovable bitch." Frances McDormand

The role of the barber's wife was more or less written with Joel's wife, Frances McDormand, in mind. Playing Doris Crane teamed her with the Coens for their first movie together since she won the Best Actress Academy Award for playing Marge Gunderson in Fargo. The role of Doris Crane marks a distinct departure from the actress' previous starring roles in Coen brothers films, as both Marge from Fargo and Abby from Blood Simple were far more sympathetic female protagonists who were caught up in crime stories.

McDormand confides, "I know that when Ethan and Joel write a script, they often have certain actors in mind because they want to offer these actors a challenge -and I must say that this role is a challenge for me. I guess I first heard about Doris about eight years ago. Then the project was put on hold, and about four years ago they started working on it again. But it's only very recently that it all came together.

"Doris is fascinating. I don't have much in common with her. I don't have the style she has. She's disenchanted with her life. She comes from a large Italian family that she's trying to disengage herself from. The story is a murder mystery in a way and all of the actors are playing iconic roles -with Ethan and Joel's twists to them. Doris isn't exactly a femme fatale. ..she's a bit too old for that. I call her 'the bitch' -a lovable bitch."

For the pivotal role of Big Dave, Doris' employer and lover, the Coens cast James Gandolfini, an Emmy Award winner for his role on HBO's hit series The Sopranos. "We really thought that he would be perfect for the part," says Joel. "He'd been working a lot and was just wrapping another movie [The Mexican] and about to return to his television series. We sort of had to twist his arm, but finally he agreed to join up."

"The script was unlike anything I had ever read. I laughed a lot." James Gandolfini

Gandolfini explains why: "The script was unlike anything I had ever read. I laughed a lot. And Big Dave is different from anything else I've ever done. He's kind of a big lug, a bit of a loudmouth, and clotheshorse kind of guy. When he gets blackmailed, he goes berserk. Then, when he finds out who's responsible, it really becomes more than he can handle."

To play Doris' brother Frank, the owner of the barbershop where Ed works, the Coens turned to Michael Badalucco. An Emmy Award winner for his role on ABC's hit series The Practice, Badalucco had previously worked with the Coens on Miller's Crossing and 0 Brother, Where Art Thou? Ethan praises Badalucco as "an actor who fills the frame with excitement."

Badalucco recalls, "Ethan and Joel called me and said they had this role of a barber they wanted me to play in their new film. When I read the script, I was amazed at how original it was. It's such a departure from 0 Brother... I was impressed by all the twists and turns. The story's very dark- but dark in a good way."

Two more veterans of the Coens' films, Jon Polito and Tony Shalhoub, were also signed up. Rounding out the cast were Adam Alexi-Malle, Katherine Borowitz, Richard Jenkins, and teenage actress Scarlett Johansson.

The Man Who Wasn't There was made in black and white. More accurately, it was photographed on color negative film but printed in black and white, to be exhibited in black and white on movie theater screens.

"Black and white is evocative"

This was a major departure for the Coens, but, as Joel explains, it came part and parcel with the material: "For a lot of intangible reasons that aren't easy to explain, it seemed as if black and white was appropriate for this story. It's a period movie, and black and white helps with the feeling for the period. Black and white is evocative in ways for a story like this that color photography isn't. That it stands out these days as being unusual is unfortunate. I think it's a shame that people don't do more black and white movies. Or that it's not a natural choice you can make depending upon the subject matter. Now almost everything is done in color. Black and white is a whole different kind of photography that nobody uses any more and when you do, there's a chance you can get stigmatized for doing it. It's seen as being 'arty,' and it becomes an issue."

But the fact is, anything the Coen brothers do is going to be unique one way or another and always different.

Published December 27, 2001

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