Filming of Lebowski began on January 27th, 1997, and lasted three months. As on all of their movies before 2004's The Ladykillers, Joel got sole directing credit and Ethan was listed as the producer. In actuality, both men split the duties right down the center. "It was unheard of back then," says Universal executive Rick Finkelstein, who worked on Lebowski. "We had to get a waiver from the Directors Guild in order to do that, because they have a rule against it." Goodman, who also starred in Barton Fink and Raising Arizona, remains fascinated by the brothers' unique relationship. "They share a uni-mind," he says.
Bridges can recall seeing the duo argue only once on the set. "It was while filming the dream sequence and my head was going to hit the bowling pins," he says. "Joel said, 'When you hit the pins, kind of grimace because it's going to hurt.' Ethan replied, 'Really? I always thought he would kind of smile when he hits the pins.' I'm looking back and forth like, 'Oh, no, here it comes.' Finally, they just said, 'Aw, let's just shoot it both ways and deal with it in the editors' room.'" (Ethan ultimately won.)
Curiously, Bridges had vowed to abstain from smoking weed until the movie was in the can. "I wanted to have a clear head," he tells me. Bridges says he only occasionally smokes now: "Usually around Christmastime is when the harvest comes in, and somebody will say, 'Hey! Look what I got!'"
Anyone who's worked on a Coens set marvels at the attention to detail. Every camera angle is drawn out on a storyboard months before filming begins, first in extremely crude thumbnail sketches Ethan creates and later in more fleshed-out drawings by the Coens' longtime storyboard artist, J. Todd Anderson. Looking at them now, you see that a sketch of a relatively insignificant shot – like a close-up of Jesus, a rival bowler and sex offender, ringing the doorbell as he goes door-to-door telling his neighbors about his criminal history – matches the finished scene with perfect precision. "The Coens are the most fiscally responsible filmmakers that I've come across," says Finkelstein. "Whatever they tell you, you know you can take it to the bank. They're so precise in their vision and execution that it's just astounding."
The Coens are also willing to make less money on a movie if it means they have more control. When Bridges got his initial offer for the $15 million Lebowski, he was shocked. "It was a split between John [Goodman], me and the Coen brothers," he says. "I got the initial offer, and I said, 'Jesus, this is the best you guys can do? You won the Academy Award, and this is the kind of offer you're making me, man? Come on, we can do better than that.' And they said, 'No, we really don't want to make it any bigger deal than this, because we want the financiers to be beholden to us. We don't want to be beholden to them.' They were getting a great deal having these Academy Award winners for very little. Therefore, the atmosphere on the set was so relaxed, no pressure."
As for the script, the cast of The Big Lebowski still talk about it as if it were a holy document passed down from the heavens, with no room for deviation. Consider the line the Coens wrote for the Dude to say to the wealthy Lebowski in the back of a limousine:
"I – the royal we, you know, the editorial – I dropped off the money, exactly as per – look, I've got certain information, certain things have come to light, and uh,"
"[I did] my best to follow this script, word, by ellipses, by 'fuck,' by 'man,' every little thing," Bridges says. "I tried to put an extra 'man' in or an extra 'fuck,' or a pause or something, and it didn't feel as right. It felt undone. It was just written so perfectly." (Goodman remembers the only nonscripted lines to hit the screen come at the very end, when the Dude calls the wealthy Lebowski a "human paraquat.")
"Everything in the script has intention to the point that it's rhythmic," Moore says. "I remember Ethan just coming up and giving a direction where he asked me to remove [a word]. Those are the kind of directions they would give because they have that much specificity."
When The Big Lebowski hit theaters on March 6th, 1998, critical reaction was mixed. Most declared it an overindulgent, too-quirky departure from the comparatively sparse Fargo; a few found it hilarious. Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert's argument over the movie perfectly encapsulated the debate. Ebert: "Few movies could equal [Fargo], and this one doesn't – though it is weirdly engaging." Siskel was much harsher. "I just think that the humor is uninspired," he said. "Isn't kidnapping for ransom a tired plot these days? Kingpin was a much funnier movie set in the world of bowling. The Jeff Bridges character wasn't worth my time. There's no heart to him. The Big Lebowski? A big disappointment."
At the box office, America was still in the midst of Titanic mania. That March weekend, the three-hour James Cameron epic would win its 12th straight weekend box-office battle with a $17.6 million haul. The Big Lebowski opened in sixth place that weekend with a tepid $5.5 million, placing it just $300,000 above Good Will Hunting, which had come out three and a half months earlier. The shine of Fargo was all but forgotten: The Coens were back to making overpriced disasters.
"I thought it was hysterical, and I thought that Jeff and John were geniuses and they both deserved Academy Awards," says Moore. "Nobody saw it, and I was like, 'What?!'"
"After this incredibly controlled minimalist gem that Fargo was perceived to be, The Big Lebowski was like this Tourette's outburst in the limo on the way home from the Academy Awards," says Robertson. He gives another analogy: "It's like they were opera stars who sang a perfect aria – and farted as they walked offstage."
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