The Coen Brothers are something of a Hollywood miracle: Despite the strange, eclectic, and often outright weird movies they make, they continue to get the chance to make more.
While tone and subject matter can vary widely in their movies, one thing that remains consistent is how visually gorgeous, inventive, and distinct their films are. It helps, of course, that they frequently work with legendary cinematographer, Roger Deakins.
To mark the theatrical release of Ethan and Joel Coen’s Hail Caesar! we decided to survey some of the filmmakers’ visual habits to find lessons that you can apply to your own creative work.
1. Want to Create Homage? Go All In
Few filmmakers have dedicated so much of their career to lovingly recreating what inspired them—film noir, gangster films, Frank Capra, and more. Hail Caesar! is no exception. A love letter to classic Hollywood, the movie doesn’t just recreate the look and day-to-day life of studio backlots in the golden days of American cinema—it also recreates the actual movies made during that era, like the wonderful “No Dames” musical number inspired by Gene Kelly’s sailor character in movies like Anchors Aweigh and On the Town.
The Coens demonstrate that if you’re going to pay tribute to those who have inspired you, go all the way. The more detail you invest in aligning your tribute to its point of origin, the better it will be. You’ll get a thrilling creative challenge out of it, and it will inspire a charming nostalgic feeling in your audience.
2. Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark
The Coen Brothers’ films are known for being a little dark—in mood, but especially in their looks. The Coen Brothers and Deakins, the Director of Photography, love to embrace extreme darkness, often leaving their actors and subjects obscured in heavy shadow, like in the showdown between Josh Brolin and Javier Bardem in No Country For Old Men (see below), or Brolin confessing in Hail Caesar!
In many visual fields there can be a reluctance to use darkness, whether in color schemes or lighting arrangements, because—well, isn’t the point of something visual to be visible? But the Coens’ body of work time and again shows that minimizing light and color can create powerful effects with thematic value. Why not try out a little bit of the dark side to bring new dimension to your work?
3. Embrace the Negative Space
We’re big fans of negative space, and it’s clear Deakins and the Coens are too. Their collaboration often places characters or objects in vast empty space, with the particular goal of making them look small or isolated. Their westerns—True Grit and No Country for Old Men—do this especially well, creating stunning pastoral images and beautiful compositions that also have symbolic meaning (i.e. people being dwarfed or isolated by forces larger than them). The next time you want to make your image pop, do what the Coens do: Make your subject appear smaller by submerging them in negative space.
4. Look Down On Your Work
The Coens like to use their camera to look down on things. They’ll often adopt an elevated or bird’s-eye view to train their camera downward on the subject. One major benefit of this angle is that it introduces a powerful sense of scale; the studio lots in Hail Caesar! look much larger, or rolling hills stretch further in True Grit. It can also make for unique shots that capture routine landscapes in remarkable ways (see the 0:53 mark in the video below). So, the next time you want your work to look grander, try shifting the point-of-view downward.
5. Adopt the Perspective of Someone (or Thing) Else
Speaking of perspective, the Coen Brothers have shown a continued fondness for point-of-view shots, showing us the world through they eyes of everything from a baby to a bowling ball.
Often, POV is used to create a perspective that audiences can share and feel connected to. But in their version of POV, the Coens uniquely demonstrate that it can be used for humor and whimsy as well. The perspectives they offer are wonderfully unexpected, strange, and delightful. They don’t just show us the world through someone else’s eyes—they show us the world in entirely new ways. In your own work, utilize a unique POV as a way to show your audience something they haven’t seen before.
Top image: The Coen Brothers with Josh Brolin and George Clooney on the set of Hail Caesar! Photo by Universal/Courtesy Everett Colllection/REX Shutterstock