Criterion Crash Course: Moviemaking Lessons from Criterion’s Blood Simple

Whether you’re a moviemaker, critic or devoted film collector, lovers of cinema can all agree: A Criterion Collection release is a stamp of cultural importance.

How can the arthouse distributor’s releases be used as tools to help independents hone their craft? Criterion Crash Course, our series focusing on new Criterion titles, considers every aspect of Blu-ray/DVD packages, from the film itself to its special features, as weapons in a moviemaking arsenal. Explore the moviemaking lessons from these packages—gifts that keep on giving.


Blood Simple (1984)

Blood Simple is a film of firsts.

Blood brothers Joel and Ethan Coen’s moody meditation on the criminal psyche marks their screenwriting, editing and directorial debut. Cinematographer (and later director) Barry Sonnenfeld’s neon-tinted neo-noir visual scheme marks the first entry in his now-storied filmography. Francis McDormand’s atypical take on the archetypical femme fatale marks her first major feature performance. Now, the first-ever release of Blood Simple’s newly restored 4K digital transfer from The Criterion Collection offers a masterclass in conjuring immersive atmosphere on a low budget.

Issued with Sonnenfeld and the Coens’ seal of approval, Criterion’s edition of Blood Simple boasts a carefully curated array of special features: a conversation between Sonnenfeld and the Coens on the film’s visual design, featuring Telestrator video illustrations; a conversation between author Dave Eggers and the Coens about the film’s journey from development to its release; exclusive interviews with composer Carter Burwell, sound mixer Skip Lievsay, and actors Frances McDormand and M. Emmet Walsh; and a booklet essay by novelist and critic Nathaniel Rich.

Lessons in Defining Your Film’s Look and Feel

Blood Simple is nominally a story about a murderously jealous bar-owner (Dan Hedaya), his ruggedly independent (and cheating) wife (McDormand), her lover (John Getz), and the psychopathic private eye hired to to kill the extramarital couple (Walsh). The way in which the film announces its arrival is by way of its total evocation of aural and visual atmosphere. From the outset, the Coens establish a milieu of sweat-drenched Americana with extreme wide shots of their Texas-bound landscape, and soon move inside seedy motels and through the ethereal glow of the Neon Boots jukebox bar run by Hedaya‘s character, Julian. Consider the tension the directors milk between public and private spaces throughout Blood Simple as a dichotomy through which cinematographic terrain can be defined and explored.

For moviemakers crafting a midnight movie that delivers a sensory experience, Blood Simple is an essential referent. Moments in which fog catches blue-hued light and shadow and gathers outside of towering windows invoke the gothic psychedelia of peak-era Dario Argento. Others scenes, like one composed of sustained, hand-held tracking shots through cramped corners of a house (shots that shift focus from a German Sheperd circling the halls to the tiny pangs of light that squeeze through half-closed shutters), are a direct descendent of John Carpenter’s Halloween. An early sequence in the Neon Boots, in which swirling smoke circles from private eye Loren Visser’s cigar cut through the pinks of the bar’s buzzing overhead lights and hang in the after-hours humidity like ghostly specters, feel like a precursor to the films of Nicolas Winding Refn.

Still, the Coens’ stylistic patchwork stands on its own two feet as a tone poem of uncanny originality. Each 360-degree environment Blood Simple renders is given its own set of lyrical shots—for instance, a close-up of a car ornament of a nude Hawaiian woman with blinking lights for breasts, or of a golden statue perched ominously in Julian’s bar—that are seemingly disjointed from plot, yet reinforce the film’s exploration of an American underbelly on the fringes of society. Roger Ebert once referred to this technique as “the pillow shot,” and considered Yasujirō Ozu and Isao Takahata two masters of its usage; the Coens, here, employ it to create temporal breaks in the film’s surmounting tension. Take cues from this shooting and cutting method, which alternates between plot and presentational pauses, to effectively lull audiences into the spell of your film’s look and feel. 

Maniacal murderer-for-hire Loren Visser (M. Emmett Walsh) takes a phone call. Courtesy The Criterion Collection

Special Features

In the package’s innovative commentary format, Criterion’s feature-length conversation between the Coens and Sonnenfeld bounces back and forth between footage of the three moviemakers as they sit over monitors equipped with Telestrator video illustration capabilities, and the actual film footage being discussed. Reflecting in remarkable detail on how they collaborated to achieve Blood Simple‘s distinct aesthetic, the trio give John Madden’s patented football announcing style a run for its money by circling and squiggling all over various sequences, to indicate where key grips, cameras, dollies and areas of light and shadow were strategically placed. Despite their agreement that Blood Simple‘s palette was discovered during shooting, rather than predetermined, Joel insists that “what we weren’t doing was saying, ‘It’ll look like what it looks like; who cares?’ We were all interested in the photographic look of the movie and each scene in particular. That was always important to us.”

The three beat themselves up considerably as they recall the relative amateurishness of their craft at the time the film was made, with Sonnenfeld critiquing his own favoring of “choking, uncomfortably tight close-ups,” and admitting that “I don’t know what the hell we were thinking.” 

“Joel and I say how if we re-shot Blood Simple now, we could do it for 10 times the amount and it wouldn’t be any better,” says Sonnenfeldacknowledging the film’s imperfect charms while speculating on how Evil Dead-influenced “shaky cam” shots, “high, wide and stupid shots,” and other formal modes might be executed today when operating under industry standards. 

Joel and Ethan Coen on the set of Blood Simple. Photo by Blaine Pennington, courtesy of MGM, River Road Productions and Foxton Entertainment

As instructive as the Telestrator feature is about moviemaking process, Eggers’ interview with the Coens provides key insights into the pair’s conscious conceptual and creative marketing strategies to get Blood Simple off the ground. On the delicate art of courting prospective investors, Joel says: “[Evil Dead director] Sam [Raimi] taught us that if you called people and asked them to invest in your movie, they’d tell you to go to hell, but if you said, ‘I have a piece of film I wanna show you,’ then some would allow you to come into their living room, set up your projector and show it.”

The Coens’ ripped-from-the-headlines marketing flair, Ethan says, helped the project generate financial interest by tapping into a kind of pulp nonfiction hook of real-life “high-profile Texas domestic murder stories—both of them wealthy people who had hired somebody to kill a spouse.” These tactics, plus their confidence in the film’s ability to appeal to the indiscriminate tastes of fans of slashers’ 1980s golden age, worked harmoniously to ensure Blood Simple‘s eventual release and return on investment. On the subject of the film’s critical receptionspecifically, the question of whether Visser’s opening monologue suggests a Cold War-era anti-American subtextEthan says, “I don’t know why people want social commentary stuff. Story isn’t enough for some people,” with Joel adding, “Maybe it’s just because it’s the only thing we know that we just write American stories and some of them are regional stories. There are times that we’re asking for it. But knowing that you’re asking for it doesn’t necessarily mean that you meant it.” Regard these revelations as proof positive that your film can find staying power even if its inception is informed by the stuff of genre, and when it prioritizes narrative potential over analytical intrigue. 

Criterion’s interviews, with Burwell and Lievsay on Blood Simple‘s blurred boundaries between music and design, and McDormand and Walsh on the actor-director rapport they built with the Coens to work toward a shared vision, include a number of teachable anecdotes and observations.

In an effort to fuse the film’s electronic drones and haunting piano melody with its sound mix, Burwell and Lievsay explain how they navigated enclosed spaces according to instruments’ sonic texture and the cadence of natural surroundings, setting rhythms with the sounds of bumpy tires, gun shots and speeding cars and tempos with windshield wipers which accelerate in speed. Their conversation makes clear the possibility of allowing your film’s musical motifs to take shape during production, and be derived from the human relationships your direction can organically reveal.

Both McDormand and Walsh demonstrate sharp self-awareness of the way in which their screen presence served to bolster Blood Simple‘s idiosyncratic and colloquial setting. McDormand explains how she tapped into her hard-edged Southern roots to inhabit what she considered to be a rather two-dimensional role as Abby (who was, she suspects, a byproduct of Joel and Ethan’s limited experience with women). Similarly, Walsh drew from his then-burgeoning reputation as a Dixie-fried character actor. McDormand also fondly remembers a strange noise that the brothers made that, she learned, signified an acting job well done. Moviemakers intent on becoming actors’ directors: for the sake of levity and efficiency, perhaps your production can benefit from coming up with an approving, non-verbal sound of your own? (We kid.)

From Nathaniel Rich’s rich and evocatively written booklet essay, independents can develop a keen sense of Blood Simple‘s cultural resonance by contextualizing contemporary noir and its relationship to film history.

The Takeaway

Criterion’s edition of Blood Simple is a definitive multimedia experience—one both painstaking in its attention to the moving parts that form the film’s sum total, and playful in the way that it reinvents the expected norms of Blu-ray/DVD supplemental material. The disc’s educational value lies in its demonstration of how first-time moviemakers can plan and improvise to pull off visuals that can disguise their inexperience. The Coens’ inaugural film is a clinic in contrasting opposing ideas, and a field guide to disorienting audiences by constantly reminding them that your film isn’t necessarily one thing or another.

Blood Simple has plenty of “firsts,” but the process of discovery and re-discovery encouraged by this package ensures that your first watch will be far from your last. MM

Blood Simple is released by Criterion on Blu-ray and DVD September 20, 2016.

Other titles in Criterion’s September line-up:

A 4K Blu-ray restoration of Kenji Mizoguchi’s 1939 gem The Story of the Last Chrysanthemum (our Crash Course here) // A newly restored Blu-ray/DVD edition of Krzysztof Kieślowski’s 10-part epic, Dekalog, a sprawling meditation on the human condition // Valley of the Dolls, Mark Robson’s adaptation of the pop cultural phenomenon novel of the same name, and its stakes-raising quasi-sequel, Russ Meyer and Roger Ebert’s Beyond the Valley of the Dolls, each cult favorite visual feasts and now treated to their own new DVD and Blu-ray editions // the much-anticipated release of Jacques Tourneur’s Cat People, a pivotal creature feature of horror cinema brought to fruition by titan producer Val Lewton // the first Blu-ray release of Carol Reed’s WWII espionage thriller, Night Train to Munich, and a Blu-ray-only collection of the 25-film adventures of Zatoichi, The Blind Swordsman.

Criterion Giveaway: Every week, we’re giving away a different Criterion title to one lucky winner. To enter the draw, all you have to do is subscribe to our newsletter! Full instructions here, and follow @moviemakermag on Facebook and Twitter for announcements on every week’s title.

2 Comments

  1. Zach

    September 25, 2016 at 3:27 pm

    Great essay. Just wanted to note it looks like you have a few misspellings of Dan Heyaya’s name in there.

    Love this Criterion column, keep up the good work.

    • Max Weinstein

      September 26, 2016 at 11:31 am

      Hi Zach,

      We’re glad you’re loving reading the column as much as we’re loving writing it.

      Thanks for the feedback and for catching the error; we’ve edited it now to the proper spelling.

      Cheers,
      Max

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