The Oscar-winners are trying to recapture the feel of their childhood in their new gentle, low-budget comedy.
Directors and producers Joel Coen, left and Ethan Coen, right, pose in the press room after receiving the Darryl F. Zanuck producer of the year award for theatrical motion pictures for their work on "No Country for Old Men" along with producer Scott Rudin, not pictured, at the 2008 Producers Guild Awards on Saturday, Feb. 2, 2008 in Beverly Hills, Calif.
If you usually start your week with breakfast at Keys Cafe in Roseville, make other plans. On Monday it's closed to the public as filmmakers set up Shot No. 1 of "A Serious Man," the Minnesota-made film based on a loosely autobiographical script by Joel and Ethan Coen.
The Coen brothers, shooting in Minnesota for the first time since "Fargo" in 1995, are working fast, cheap and personal with this dark comedy about a Jewish academic family similar to their own, set in their hometown of St. Louis Park, circa 1967.
"It's a story inspired by where they grew up, things that they remembered from their childhood," said Bob Graf, the Coens' longtime producer.
The Coens, whose "No Country for Old Men" won four Oscars, including Best Picture, followed up with the star-studded comedy "Burn After Reading," which opens Friday.
In their newest movie, they're offering "the antithesis" to those high-profile efforts with this no-name, low-budget lark, said producer Eric Fellner. Since Fellner had worked with the Coens on another "tiny little weird movie called 'Fargo,'" which went on to become a huge international success, he feels it's a safe bet.
"It's not about whether there are stars in it or whether it's a huge production. It's a wonderful story which they will tell in a unique way," he said. "If someone said we want to make 'A Serious Man' as a $100 million movie, you'd think twice. But when you cut your cloth to fit the budget, which is way less than they usually work on, it makes sense." "A Serious Man" will likely be made for less than $20 million.
A 1967 period piece
The film is ambitiously recreating a vanished era of bell-bottoms, family restaurants, pristine suburban ramblers and San Francisco rock music.
"It was a huge project," said assistant art director Jeff Schein, who also worked on "North Country" and "A Prairie Home Companion." "It's a mental travelogue of 1967, and for me, since I grew up near the Coens in St. Louis Park, it's a childhood story."
The location department not only had to find neighborhoods of unaltered 1960s homes, they had to be in areas where storms had knocked down most of the mature trees. When they found an appropriately retro block on 4th Avenue between 84th and 85th Streets in Bloomington, the production resurfaced the street, re-sodded and landscaped eight houses, poured new driveways and added false chimneys, new facades and decorative brickwork.
Two vintage school buses, shipped from Connecticut to Minnesota, were repainted the precise legal-pad yellow of the Coens' memories. Homeowners around the Twin Cities have answered knocks on their doors to find production designers, checkbook in hand, eager to buy their scalloped aluminum window shades or filigreed screen doors.
"I couldn't believe how many things have been sanitized in Minnesota," said Anne Healy, a St. Paul-based location consultant. "We are in such a hurry to tear everything down and remodel."
It's even hard to locate an old-school family restaurant, let alone one as quaint as the defunct Jolly Troll smorgasbord in Golden Valley, she said. "If you want to find an old Mr. Steak, it's now a Thai restaurant that hasn't redecorated. It looks exactly the same, it's just not a Mr. Steak anymore."
Think big, cast locally
Rachel Tenner, a casting director who has worked with the Coens for years, drew heavily on local acting talent for the film. Minnesotans have 23 of the 39 speaking roles. "You have a wonderful acting community with people immersed in the theater and committed to their craft, honing their chops" rather than pursuing stardom, she said. Unusual for a Coen movie, Tenner held a large open casting call for significant roles, specifically requesting Jewish-looking applicants. Some 600 kids turned out for two featured roles, the son and daughter of the comically embattled Gopnik family.
"It was like 'The Revenge of the Brunettes,'" said Thea Sass, 15, of Minneapolis. "Like, 'No Blondes Allowed.'" Her twin brother, Larry, scored a background part in a schoolroom scene and joins in a stampede when a storm panics a group of kids outdoors.
Aaron Wolff, 14, whose résumé includes St. Paul Academy productions of "Peter Pan" and "Bye Bye Birdie," landed the plum role of Danny Gopnik, a troublemaking bar mitzvah boy who empties his father's wallet to buy pot and obsessively watches "F Troop" on TV. He began his first read-throughs and rehearsals with professional actors last week.
"The brothers laughed a lot at my lines, so I feel pretty good," he said. "I guess they're just going to treat me like the rest of the cast."
With a larger-than-usual contingent of observant Jews in the cast and crew, accommodations have been needed for scheduling, catering and work practices, especially since the film is shooting through the High Holy Days, Graf said.
If their big night at the Oscars went to the Coens' heads, they're not letting it show, Healy said. Their demeanor is friendly, calm, decisive and appreciative, she said, a very different vibe from "Public Enemies," the Michael Mann Prohibition saga she recently advised in Wisconsin.
"It's nice to be around people who are calm and unflustered, because I've spent plenty of time around people who are really loud and erratic all the time."
Image-conscious Minnesotans can expect a very different view of their home state than "Fargo" offered, said Graf. "If there were some people who felt 'Fargo' was caricature, I don't think they'd feel that about this." We'll know for sure when the film goes into release next fall.
Colin Covert • 612-673-7186