The Big Lebowski: About The Production

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That the plot of THE BIG LEBOWSKI turns on a case of mistaken identity, complicated by extortion, double-cross, deception, embezzlement, sex and dope should come as no surprise to the fans of the Coen brothers. Such themes have surfaced in the Coen's work from their very first film, 1985's Blood Simple. But even though the story of THE BIG LEBOWSKI contains its fair share of mayhem and assorted suspicious and unsavory incidents, the film is definitely a comedy. We see THE BIG LEBOWSKI as our version of a 90s Raymond Chandler story with a mystery private eye plot , Ethan Coen says, referring to the great detective writer whose novels served as the basis for several 1940s film noirs including The Big Sleep and Murder, My Sweet.

But instead of the protagonist being Philip Marlowe, who was Chandler's private eye, we have as our hero a laid-back, unemployed guy who's stuck in the 70s named Jeff Lebowski who calls himself the Dude.

The Dude is described by the Coens in their screenplay as a man in whom casualness runs deep. He lives a peaceful beach existence in a run-down bungalow in Venice, pretty much content to spend his time bowling with his buddies. They are Walter, a pompous security-store owner and amateur military historian, and Donny, a mild-mannered ex-surfer.

The Dude's peace and quiet is shattered, however, when he's terrorized by two thugs who warn him that he's responsible for his wife's debts to a shady character named Jackie Treehorn. But, in fact, the Dude's not married; it turns out that he's been mistaken for someone else named Jeffrey Lebowski, an aging millionaire who lives in Pasadena. When Walter persuades the Dude to contact this other Jeff Lebowski, our hero and his friends become embroiled in a series of underhanded, not to mention criminal activities.

Just as in the Chandler novels, the story of THE BIG LEBOWSKI is set in Los Angeles, and the plot--again as in Chandler--moves among the different social classes and different types the Dude runs across as the story unfolds.

I suppose the THE BIG LEBOWSKI is specifically about L.A. in the way Fargo was about the Midwest, says Joel Coen. "Certainly the story takes place in the L.A. that we're familiar with, and many of the characters in the film are based on people that we know and people we've met here."

"But we ve placed it all in a Chandleresque kind of context. We have a voice-over narration, and elements of double-cross and deception that exist on several levels among people whose motives are devious and obscure, and many of these characters deliberately recall types you'd run across in Chandler. In The Big Sleep, for instance, there's a sophisticated older sister and a younger one, who's a tart. In THE BIG LEBOWSKI, the sophisticated female character is the millionaire Lebowski's daughter, Maude, and the immoral figure is Bunny, his young wife."

"We've written the story from a modern point of view and set it very precisely in 1991 during the Persian Gulf War, Ethan adds, which also has a direct effect on the Dude and his friends. In the end, the amateur sleuthing of these guys unearths the secrets of the plot and solves a case that might have challenged a professional private eye like Philip Marlowe... if he had lived in the Los Angeles of the nineties and been an avid bowler and a pothead."

Although the leading character of THE BIG LEBOWSKI is the Dude, the Coens were prompted initially to write the screenplay in order to create something for John Goodman. He always impressed them as a major talent whose gifts haven't been fully explored on the big screen. They also love working with him. Accordingly, they wrote him the smashing role of Walter, the Dude's best friend.

On the other hand, the part of the Dude wasn't conceived with any particular actor in mind, says Joel Coen. But after the character became focused and developed, we couldn't imagine him as anyone but Jeff Bridges. We had his image in our mind.

In fact, the screenplay for THE BIG LEBOWSKI was completed several years ago, and Working Title made plans to produce the film for Gramercy Pictures. But it wasn't until early 1997 that THE BIG LEBOWSKI was ready to go before the cameras.

The reason it's taken so long is that we were never able to coordinate our schedules with Jeff and John until now, Ethan says. Finally everything converged at the beginning of the year.

"I was tremendously excited about working with Ethan and Joel, says Jeff Bridges. When I first read the script, I felt as if I was born to play the Dude. I understand the man inside out. I suppose there's a side of me that, had I not been an actor, might have lived his life like the Dude."

"But, you know, sometimes I think the thing I love the most about the guy is his relationship with his bowling buddies, Walter and Donny. There's a great kind of loyalty there, like you know that these guys wouldn't rather be with anyone or anywhere else than with themselves at their local bowling alley."

"Beyond that--and it's the great thing about working with the Coens--there are all these other great characters that move in and out of the story even if they don't do anything for the plot. They're just there and sort of serve as brain candy. You just love meeting these cats. They're fascinating."

For John Goodman, the greatest challenge in THE BIG LEBOWSKI was being able to do justice to the character of Walter.

He's so well-written--he seems to just jump out of life. He's like a million guys you ve met, a recognizable loudmouth type. But you have to be careful not to go over the top, not to make him appear oafish. Walter's got this Army background. He's obsessed with his service in Vietnam and he's not going to let anyone forget it.

The Dude can't really help but turn to Walter when he gets drawn into a jam with the thugs who rough him up. Walter's always there, always helpful--over-helpful because he's kind of over-amped. He's just gotta serve, gotta help. In a way, things get out of hand for the Dude because of Walter. He can see straight, and is able to figure out what's going on. But because he pushes so hard, with Walter's help the Dude sort of loses control of the situation.

Once all the schedules meshed and the project moved forward, the Coens started casting the film, filling roles with several actors who might be called Coen brothers regulars --Steve Buscemi, John Turturro and Peter Stormare.

Buscemi was signed for the role of the mild-mannered Donny, who bowls with the Dude and Walter in their tournament league; Turturro is Jesus Quintana, a bowler from a rival faction. And Stormare, so effective as Buscemi's killer sidekick in Fargo, appears here as Uli, a self-styled, far-out German nihilist.

In addition to Jeff Bridges, several other actors, such as Julianne Moore, Ben Gazzara, David Thewlis, David Huddleston and Sam Elliott are also making their first appearance in a Coen brothers film.

Julianne plays the rich Lebowski's daughter, Maude, an attractive woman who takes a shine to the Dude; Huddleston is the other moneyed Lebowski; and Ben Gazzara is the notorious Jackie Treehorn.

Sam Elliott appears in cowboy gear as the film's narrator, the man called the Stranger. And David Thewlis plays John Herrington, an eccentric associate of Maude's the Dude meets when he visits her loft in downtown LA.

Also featured in important roles are Flea (of Red Hot Chili Peppers fame), Philip Seymour Hoffman, Torsten Voges, Philip Moon, Mark Pellegrino and Tara Reid.

With the principal cast in place, the Coens then staffed the technical crew with several of their longtime collaborators, such as the Academy Award-nominated director of photography Roger Deakins, production designer Rick Heinrichs, and costume designer Mary Zophres. As he has on all their other films, the composer Carter Burwell writes the score for THE BIG LEBOWSKI . The editor is Academy Award nominee Roderick Jaynes, whose true identity is still shrouded in mystery.

After a week of rehearsals, filming began on THE BIG LEBOWSKI on January 27, 1997, on location in North Hollywood with the brothers filming the scene in which the Dude reclaims his stolen car from an impound lot.

The unit then moved to Beverly Hills, where scenes that take place at the Lebowski Pasadena mansion were filmed on two separate estates: one on Charing Cross Road and the other in Greystone Park, after which production shifted to a West Hollywood soundstage on which the interior of the Dude's Venice bungalow had been constructed.

Here work began several important sequences: the film's opening, in which the Dude is mistaken for the rich Lebowski and roughed up by two of Jackie Treehorn's thugs; the nearly surreal scene in which a group of so-called German nihilists surprise the Dude in his bath and set a marmot on him; the Dude's visit from two police officers who question him about his missing car; and the Dude's two encounters in his home with the mysterious, elegant, enigmatic Maude Lebowski, an avant-garde feminist painter.

In terms of real estate, the Dude's bungalow and the Lebowski mansion exist at opposite ends of the spectrum, of course. But both are significant in the film, in that they demonstrate the various layers of Los Angeles life the Dude must travel across as he unravels the mystery of THE BIG LEBOWSKI that has more or less landed in his lap.

The houses are also important, however, because of what they reveal about the characters who reside inside. The Lebowski mansion, outsized, opulent and austere, speaks big money; the Dude's house, anything but. It's comfortable, yet shabby in the extreme. So in visual terms alone, we learn a lot about the two Lebowskis just by seeing where they live. This is not unusual for the Coens. Sophisticated, exquisitely wrought visuals are a hallmark of their work and here, once again, the brothers attain their stunning, unique, unforgettable images working with three key collaborators--Roger Deakins, Rick Heinrichs and Mary Zophres.

Production designer Heinrich neatly describes the challenges he faced on film.

"Throughout, we wanted to reference a traditional Los Angeles. We focused on LA architecture from the 50s and 60s, not only to establish the feel of the city, but also to comment on the characters of the Dude and Walter, who are anchored in the past in the way they lead their lives. Somehow this architecture even refers back to Vietnam era--which is so important to Walter and to the Dude, in a way."

"Of course we didn't want to overdo it and hit the audience over the head, so the Lebowski mansion is opulent in a fairly traditional way--we wanted to summon up the greenhouse scene in The Big Sleep --and the Dude's bungalow is cluttered, threadbare and kind of representative of its type."

Some of the most interesting elements in the look of the film were not in fact created by Heinrich, but rather enhanced by him, because they belonged to the architecture that came with several locations. For instance, the two coffee shops that figure in the action. Both of the places we used, Johnnie's, on Fairfax and Wilshire, and Dinah's, in Culver City, are Los Angeles landmarks, prime examples of the Googie style of architecture from the 50s and 60s. They really represent the world the Dude and Walter inhabit.

"Of course," Heinrich continues, "when it came to the studio we had total control over what we created there. But at the Greystone Lebowski mansion, we ran into a problem that got solved in an unusual way. Inside the huge house was a black and white checkered floor that Joel was unhappy with. He didn't feel it was right. But there was nothing we could do. He loved the rest of the place so we make do with the floor. But since it grated on him, he used the black and white checkered visual motif in the Dude's dream that occurs later in the film. It appears as an element that has stayed in the Dude's mind, so it justified us having to go with the floor in the mansion."

Another interesting problem Heinrich had to grapple with was the period. The action occurs during in 1991 during the Persian Gulf War, he says, the not very distant past. We summon it up in some of the clunky technology the characters are involved with, the cellular phones, the cars. Some things don't change that much but, six years have made quite a difference in that regard. It's amazing.

After completing the location work at the two coffee shops, in Malibu and at a house in the Hollywood hills that served as the interior of Jackie Treehorn's beach estate, the unit moved to the Hollywood Star Lanes on Santa Monica Boulevard to film the bowling alley exteriors.

We did a study of every bowling alley within 30 miles of Hollywood, location manager Bob Graff reports. We wanted a certain size, a look that was a little retro but not rundown, with manual scoring tables, and we found it here. We revamped it a bit, jazzing it up with oranges and blues.

In many ways the heart of the film occurs inside the bowling alley--it's where the Dude, Walter and Donny bond. It's in the bowling alley that the Dude first describes to his friends how two thugs roughed him up and soiled his rug. And it's here that the Dude first runs across the enigmatic Stranger played by Sam Elliott who functions as the film's narrator, a kind of benign figure--even a guardian angel--looking out for our hero's welfare.

Most of Steve Buscemi's scenes take place in the bowling alley, and like Bridges and Goodman, he was tutored by bowling pros for his part. But the main challenge for Buscemi was the interaction of the characters, as part of creating the essence of the good-hearted Donny.

I don't think Walter and the Dude would be friendly with Donny if he weren't such a good bowler. He's a simple guy, always coming late into the conversation. He's always getting on Walter's nerves and it creates a lot of the comedy.

But Donny's character is so beautifully drawn, so true to life. Ethan and Joel are really good writers. They write really tight scripts. All those half-finished sentences, all those ers and ums and ehs , they're all scripted in. You can't be relaxed about it. The dialogue is like music. All the characters have their own score and it takes practice and timing to get it right. You can't slack off.

And, of course, I have to keep up with these other great actors, he says, referring to his co-stars. I often feel as if we're part of a string trio and have to sense what the others are feeling and go with that. But Ethan and Joel are with us all the way. They're great with actors.

Bridges agrees.

"The Coens have a group of actors they work with over and over and I ve been made to feel real welcome in the bunch. They create such a relaxed atmosphere, they listen to your ideas and give you all the room you need to take risks."

"You know, my brother Beau [Bridges] and I have worked together and we have designs to produce and direct a project in the future. Watching these master filmmakers, I feel as if they're pointing the way. "

Following scenes in the bowling alley, exteriors in the Fairfax section of LA, and driving shots in Simi Valley, the unit filmed on a bluff in Palos Verdes and then moved downtown where scenes were filmed in a space that served Maude Lebowski's artist's loft.

I sort of exist in a pocket of the film, says Julianne Moore, who plays the self-assured, unconventional Maude. I move in and out of the Dude's life and I don't think he's really sure what's hit him. Literally. Maude's terribly sophisticated. That she's attracted to the Dude comes out of the blue and is what makes their scenes together so fascinating and witty. Joel and Ethan write such vivid, crackling dialogue. I had a great time working with them and with Jeff. It was an actor's dream.

With work completed in Maude's loft, the next large set piece was the Dude's big dream sequence. This features Maude dressed as a Wagnerian Valkyrie and takes the form of a Busby Berkeley spectacular, replete with a bevy of dancing girls. It was photographed in a huge airplane hangar at Santa Monica airport that was transformed into a soundstage.

Choreographers Jacqui and Bill Landrum worked with the brothers on the number, which was largely inspired by Busby Berkeley's choreography for the 1930 film Whoopee! starring Eddie Cantor.

We put together a tape of various sequences and patterns from the film for Ethan and Joel and they responded, says Jacqui Landrum. The feeling was exactly what they wanted.

We also showed the reel to Jeff Bridges who had to dance in the scene. Jeff is a natural dancer. He's uninhibited. We showed him various steps and combinations and he took what he felt comfortable with, and just kind of owned them.

In the sequence the Dude is dressed as a handyman in a jumpsuit and a full tool belt--a dramatic change from the bowling/ beach gear he sports for the most of the action.

The way I dress the Dude and his friends in the film is character-driven, says costume designer Mary Zophres, a way of having the clothes tell the story about the person as well as the action. It's obvious the Dude gives little thought to what he wears, and the costumes show that. Things tend, well, not to match. It's the opposite with, say, Maude who's eccentric but regal. This woman gives a lot of consideration to what she puts on and you sense it right away.

Zophres approach was embraced by all the actors, especially Bridges. The Dude may not pay much notice to his clothing, but this wasn't the case with the actor who played him.

Jeff wore his costumes during rehearsal and also took them home to wear, Zophres says. He simply inhabited the guy. Steve Buscemi actually copied the outfits of great bowlers that he found photos of. The clothes don't make these guys, but they definitely help tell the story.

As for the Dude, Bridges, the Coens and Zophres carefully crafted his outfit for the dream sequence, since it contrasts with what he wears for the rest of the film. Cinematographer Roger Deakins also consulted with the Coens about the scene. Deakins, who not only lights but operates the camera, is a master of composition and framing. Most of THE BIG LEBOWSKI is shot in his pristine, richly evocative style, saturated with shadows and color, highly representative of the film noir mood the brothers were after. The dream sequence is equally imaginative but shot with bright, direct light.

We lit the Dude and all the dancing girls exactly as Busby Berkeley would have lit them in the 30s and 40s, Deakins says. I think he would have recognized what we were doing and been quite at home with it.

A second dream sequence, as well as several days of bluescreen work, took place on a West Hollywood sound stage, and production was completed after eleven and a half weeks of filming on April 24, 1997.

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