Writer’s Desk: Start with a Severed Toe

The Coen brothers’ ‘The Big Lebowski’

The filmmakers and brothers Joel and Ethan Coen are productive as hell, but make a good game out of seeming lazy. In this interview from the book on the making of their 1998 faux-noir classic The Big Lebowski, they toss out a few notes about their collective writing process:

Trish and Fran [Ethan’s and Joel’s spouses, respectively], they’re both always saying, ‘I know you guys just go to the office and take naps.” Joel’s laughter implodes asthmatically. ‘It’s true – it’s actually really true. We deny it, but it’s true.’ His laughter fades. ‘But I wouldn’t want that in the book.’

Later on, they talk about how they work through the screenplays themselves. Mostly they go in order. Start at the beginning. But sometimes they have an idea or image they want to include and aren’t sure what to do with it. Like the severed toe that makes a fairly important appearance in The Big Lebowski:

‘You just come up with a bizarre image.’

‘Right. We want to goose it with a toe. And then you’re left with the problem of whose toe it is.’

‘You’re sort of deliberately setting up hurdles for yourself. Is that part of it, do you think?’ I say.

‘Well, yeah… I mean, that’s a way to work, painting yourself into a corner and then having to perform whatever contortions to get yourself out,’ Ethan says.

Painting yourself into a corner like that can be a challenge. But it’s one that can pay off.

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