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This page was created on December 2, 2001
This page was last updated on May 29, 2005



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 the new 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 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."

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 barbershop, 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 barbershop 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."

"Even though there is crime in the story, we were still very interested in what this guy, who's a barber, 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 in '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 (as, variously, "The Barber Movie," "Untitled Barber Project," and "Untitled Barber Movie") - but plans changed for the filmmakers. George Clooney had already agreed to star in another of the Coens' projects, "O Brother, Where Are Thou?," and was suddenly free to begin work right away. As a result, Fellner notes "'O 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.

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 called them up and 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 going to be an oddly emotional movie."

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."

Gandolfini comments, "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 "O 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 'O 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 Coens next began to assemble their crew, turning to creative collaborators who have worked with them on most of their films. Among them are cinematographer Roger Deakins (marking his sixth consecutive stint as director of photography for the Coens); Academy Award-winning production designer Dennis Gassner (on his fifth film with the Coens); costume designer Mary Zophres (working on her fifth consecutive Coen brothers film); film editors Roderick Jaynes (a frequent collaborator of the Coens ever since "Blood Simple") and Tricia Cooke (on her fourth straight Coen brothers film); and co-producer John Cameron (working on his fifth consecutive Coens movie).

For all of them, working on The Man Who Wasn't There would be an assignment unlike any previous Coen brothers project: 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.

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.

"It was quite a learning experience for us, figuring out what the tonal values of things you are seeing in color were going to be like in black and white. It was an unfamiliar process for us that has proved fascinating."

Director of photography Roger Deakins relished the challenge: "I love the process. I'd shot black and white footage in film school, and even recently photographed material in black and white for 'The Hurricane' [1999] that was used on a TV screen. I love black and white - it can be very expressive. For example, color can sometimes makes things too pretty. This way we don't have the distraction of color, and we can shape the visuals to make them look the way we want them to appear.

"Most black and white films made in Hollywood over the years were lit with direct light, which resulted in a lot of hard shadows. In Europe, they handled black and white differently. Jean-Luc Godard used softer light in his black and white films, and that's the approach I took here."

Deakins notes, "We aimed for less contrast and used few but larger light sources. What we mainly did is separate things tonally and use little diffusion so we didn't create a lot of those hard shadows. The light kind of wraps around everything and gives figures and objects a certain fullness of dimension.

"I thought about using more direct light. But I rejected the idea because we weren't trying to make an old movie, we were shooting a new one. I wanted The Man Who Wasn't There to reflect the era in which we're working, so I used the newer technology. Black and white film stock hasn't changed in forty years. In today's color negative stock, the grain is finer than it's ever been, so you're able to achieve a great deal of beauty shooting on color negative and printing in black and white."

Still, Deakins admits to the pull of the past: "In everything you do, you're influenced by the past - whether you're conscious of it or not. What I did in the way of research and preparation was to look at Alan Ladd films of the period, 'This Gun for Hire' [1942] and 'The Blue Dahlia' [1946]. The photography is particularly evocative. I'm particularly fond of the big climax of 'This Gun For Hire,' which takes place in the fog. The fog softens everything and adds to the ambiance. The images it creates are haunting and magical."

Production designer Dennis Gassner and costume designer Mary Zophres focused on how their work in black and white could best highlight the film's characters, rather than call attention to itself.

Gassner says, "The essential element for me was, how to convey the emotional state of the characters in the movie in my design. In that regard, working in black and white isn't so different from working in color. I had to keep in mind the right tone to strike in the sets, to make sure that there was no startling contrast that distracted from the drama unfolding on the screen."

Zophres concurs, stating, "You want to use various textures and shades that don't create a lot of high contrast, so that things don't stand out as unusual. For example, there's a particular dress I designed for Doris at the wedding reception that is based on a red dress. But I learned that red doesn't photograph so well in black and white, so we used the design but made it in a softer, paler pink."

Meanwhile, in front of the camera, the actors took advantage of the absence of color. McDormand says, "You don't think about black and white when you're doing a scene. But the first time I went to dailies, I saw how dramatic black and white lighting can be. In a way, it creates an ambiance so that you can do less as an actor. For example, a close-up alone is so startling because of the shadows and the sense of depth. Even just the blink of an eye can have an enormous effect."

With longtime colleagues on hand in front of and behind the cameras as well as behind the scenes, The Man Who Wasn't There at last was in production - seven years after being inspired by a poster.

Principal photography on The Man Who Wasn't There began June 26th, 2000, on location in Los Angeles at the Lincoln Heights Jail. The facility doubled as the jail cell in Santa Rosa (the small northern California community where the story is set). Next, courtroom sequences were filmed at the Don Carlos Stages in East L.A., where Dennis Gassner and his workers had crafted a period courtroom set.

Next, the renowned Hollywood steakhouse Musso and Frank's became the Santa Rosa eatery where Ed Crane meets with hotshot defense attorney Freddy Riedenschneider (Tony Shalhoub). The Musso and Frank's d?cor - wood-paneled walls, plush banquettes - is especially redolent of the era in which The Man Who Wasn't There unfolds.

The production journeyed an hour outside of Los Angeles to the community of Thousand Oaks for two days of filming of the wedding reception sequence (set in wine country). This location shoot was a high point for all on hand because the scenes called for, among other things, a huge live pig. Ethan muses, "Riding a pig sounds easy enough, but Michael Badalucco had to practice for it on a couple of huge animals, and one of them turned really mean. But he did a great job, and we all got a kick out of it."

The unit then returned to L.A. to film Santa Rosa bingo hall scenes in the recreation room of an imposing Presbyterian Church on Wilshire Boulevard, in the mid-Wilshire district. Another scene, set in the lobby of a seedy Santa Rosa hotel that figures prominently in the action and is referred to in the script as the Fleabag Hotel, was also shot in mid-Wilshire. The latter location was an apartment house entrance lobby on a side street not far from downtown L.A.

Filming continued on location in an abandoned Bank of America branch in a downtown L.A. office building for the scene in a Santa Rosa bank in which Frank is forced to take out a new mortgage on the barbershop.

At the next location, in Glendale, an abandoned furniture store was transformed into the ground floor and mezzanine of Nirdlingers department store, where Doris works as a bookkeeper. Gassner enjoyed the process of remaking the empty space into an upscale (for Santa Rosa) department store, remembering, "We had to retrofit it in a way, keeping what was already there in the architecture and making it work for a 1949 moderne style. The space was like a quarry from which I could mine what I needed. In fact, I used some of the art deco chromium design fixtures that had been left on the walls, and various wall moldings. Once we dressed the space with period display cases and merchandise from the era, it all came to life."

The office of Nirdlingers owner Big Dave, on Nirdlingers mezzanine level, was seen as a reflection of the man who occupies it: large, powerful, and empty. Proper placement of a pane glass window gave Big Dave the vantage point to look down into his domain, the store.

Moving on from Glendale and east into Pasadena, exteriors of the Crane house were filmed in the historic neighborhood known as "Bungalow Heaven," named for the Craftsman style bungalows that line its streets. The modest and affordable type of housing originated in Southern California and was at the apex of its popularity mid-20th-century.

Gassner elaborates, "The Craftsman bungalow was pretty much standard in the middle-class California community of the period. We chose one of the houses with a slightly lower roof line than the others in the vicinity because it gave us a slight suppression of space in keeping with the barber's economic situation. The sense that the space inside the house was a little pinched served to underline the characters' emotional state as well - that was another reason we chose it."

Among the scenes shot on the house's porch, one - between Ed Crane and Ann Nirdlinger (Katherine Borowitz) - is especially significant, as Gassner sees it: "There's always a jump in the narrative in a Coen brothers film. I call it their trademark. Something so unusual happens in the plot that at first it seems out of place in the story but which, in fact, you see fits perfectly in the context of the film as a whole."

Gassner feels that, in The Man Who Wasn't There, this moment comes when Ann Nirdlinger tells Ed a story: "Ann's story resonates. It works itself into the script as a kind of metaphor and ends up becoming part of the main character's consciousness, almost as if we are getting inside his mind and know what he's thinking.

"A motif emerges from Ann's story. It even manifests itself into some of the sets as an element in lighting fixtures, doorknobs, decorative ornaments, and so on. But it exists on a subliminal level. The audience isn't consciously aware of it, yet it still has an effect."

Other locations in Pasadena included a top-floor apartment in the baroque eight-story Castle Green building (a former hotel). The Castle Green apartment was redressed as a piano teacher's studio.

For the Coens, the particularly important location was the city of Orange, in Orange County. In one long day, several exteriors were filmed as shots of the small town of Santa Rosa, where all of The Man Who Wasn't There takes place. Orange's main street and traffic circle stood in for Santa Rosa's main street and central plaza.

Moviegoers have been taken to Santa Rosa before: it was the setting of Alfred Hitchcock's masterpiece "Shadow of a Doubt" (1943), the film of his that The Master liked to cite as his personal favorite. Ethan and Joel wanted to capture, in The Man Who Wasn't There, the feeling of small-town America that permeated the Hitchcock classic. After scouting several locations in the Los Angeles area as well as small cities further north, the brothers fell in love with Orange and felt it could be Santa Rosa in The Man Who Wasn't There.

Physical preparations for the one long day of filming in Orange took more than two weeks. Traffic lanes in the main road had to be repainted with different stripes; street signs had to be replaced, repainted, or re-lettered; storefront signs had to be installed; and storefront windows had to be filled with period merchandise. Only then could Orange pass for Santa Rosa in 1949.

To achieve the proper look for the period, costume designer Mary Zophres worked intently with the actors: "Billy Bob Thornton has the physique of men in the 1940s, and it worked perfectly here. The clothes hung just right on him. He walked right into them and struck the perfect 1940s silhouette. Joel and Ethan explained that since Ed wears a kind of uniform all week - a barber smock - he'd dress casually when away from work. Ed's not comfortable in a business or dress suit, so we put him in sport jackets and the rayon/gabardine sport shirts that were so popular at the time. We stayed true to the period by having him wearing socks that had no elastic on top. Billy Bob had to use sock garters in every scene. We did that with the extras as well. The women had to wear seamed-stockings, girdles, and pointy bras. The silhouettes had to be just so."

Zophres muses, "It was quite a period. People dressed up in those days. Women wore gloves and hats, and carried handbags even when they were just going out on an errand. Santa Rosa is not a poor town and we present an almost idealized version of it. After all, the story is told from Ed's point of view."

Doris' costumes were designed with specific input from McDormand, remembers Zophres: "Fran and I talked about it very specifically. Doris works in a department store, and we figured that she spends about half her paycheck on clothes. The affair that she's having has brought out the flirtatiousness in her. She has had a sexual awakening, and we dressed her accordingly. Her neckline is always open, and all her clothes keep the emphasis on her chest. Also, she wears light colors that suit her skin tone. When she goes to her cousin's wedding reception, everyone's wearing dark colors. Since she's in light colors, she stands out as the belle of the ball."

Among the other characters, Zophres points out that "Big Dave dresses very well. He owns the best suits that his store carries, ones with pleated pants and slightly softer shoulder pads. They're different from the suits that Riedenschneider wears.

"Riedenschneider's clothes are definitely not off the rack. They're custom made, and he wears a lot of accessories. In fact, the inspiration for Riedenschneider's costumes comes from Salvador Dali, who always wore three-piece, double-breasted suits with peak lapels. It's slightly unusual for the time, and suggests luxury."

Clothes may make the men and women in The Man Who Wasn't There, but the actors were even more concerned with getting their characterizations right.

Thornton emphasizes that "Ethan and Joel were trying to stay true to the spirit of the 1940s, and I was, too. In every movie, I try to look different because I want people to know the character and not the actor. Ed is kind of an observer of life, he's a guy who's just waiting to see what happens next. But he's very much of his time. I looked at pictures of actors from the 1940s and appropriated parts of their looks: Raymond Burr, Humphrey Bogart, even Frank Sinatra. It's funny - once you get that look right, everything in your attitude changes."

A more detailed type of preparation undertaken by Thornton and Badalucco was barber training. While some soundstage work was done on the Universal Studios backlot (utilizing a water tank) and a West Hollywood soundstage, the actors were more looking forward to cutting hairs once the production, late in the shoot, reached the Paramount Studios backlot.

"I trained with a real barber," recounts Badalucco. "He taught me how to cut and style. He let me try it out and give a few haircuts - and he was there to straighten out what I did." Thornton had also trained at an actual barbershop, Dirty Dan's Clip Joint, and practiced his newly learned technique on some of Dirty Dan's customers.

On the Paramount Studios backlot, Gassner and his staff had constructed the interior of the three-chair Guzzi's barbershop as well its (Santa Rosa street) exterior. When it came time to film scenes of the barbers at work on different customers, it was clear that the actors were completely in-character - up to a point.

Ethan Coen recalls, "It was very entertaining watching Billy Bob and Michael give haircuts during the takes. The sad thing is that Billy Bob actually thinks he's good at it. He's like one of those guys who trains to be a boxer for a boxing movie and then thinks he can beat people up. It was quite funny seeing extras tense up in the chair as Billy Bob got ready to work on them. I must say, we saw some pretty gruesome haircuts."

Barber qualifications aside, the Coens enjoyed working with Thornton. Joel says, "We feel real lucky Billy did this part. Working with him was a lot of fun. Although he didn't have much dialogue, what's remarkable is that he himself was very talkative when he got on the set but he got all his talking out before the slate claps. As soon as he hears the clapstick, he's immediately into his character - who says very little. It's uncanny."

Of the Coens, Thornton says, "They're exactly what I'd thought they'd be like as moviemakers. They have an equal partnership, and I talked to them both about everything. I remember thinking in the beginning that I must always make sure that I don't disrespect one or the other.

"They're always calm, and they always defer to each other, give each other ideas. They get a kick out of each other and they're looking for the same thing out of you. I love their sense of humor. They weren't demanding at all. When we discussed the character, they talked about the fact that they see Ed as 'modern man.' Sometimes when I would ask what to do in a scene, they'd say, 'Be like Ed,' and I knew what they meant. It's been a joy working with them."

Of his leading lady, Thornton enthuses, "First of all, working with Fran is fun! She takes it easy, she's great to be around as a human being. But, you know, talk about your top five actresses - I mean, she's up there."

Returning the compliment, McDormand notes, "I was constantly in awe of how Billy Bob played entire scenes while hardly saying a word. He's breathing and smoking - and that's it. But the range he's created is extraordinary. Every single time he's on-screen in The Man Who Wasn't There, you want to know: 'What's going on? What's next?'"

"Billy Bob has so much experience," marvels Gandolfini. "Every now and then he'd give me a hint on how to play something - and I listened." For Gandolfini, working on the film was "great. I'm used to television, working quickly. On this shoot, the pace was calmer. Ethan and Joel are almost laid-back. They're intelligent, and very kind. Even when filming a violent scene, the atmosphere never changed from easygoing."

Katherine Borowitz states, "Working with Ethan and Joel is wonderful. There's no tension, no conflict."

Following completion of the barbershop scenes at Paramount Studios, production on The Man Who Wasn't There wrapped after ten weeks of filming on Friday, September 1st, 2000, one day ahead of schedule - and just in time for the Labor Day holiday.

The Man Who Wasn't There went on to world-premiere on May 13th, 2001 at the Cannes International Film Festival, where it won (in a tie) the Best Director Award.


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