The Coen Brothers' struggle to film in B&W
USA Studios didn't initially embrace ''The Man Who Wasn't There,'' their noir homage
What words will drain blood from a studio executive’s face fastest? Try ”I want to shoot it in black and white.”
So sibling moviemakers Joel and Ethan Coen discovered when they first pitched USA Films on their color-free tribute to film noir, ”The Man Who Wasn’t There,” the twisty tale of a reticent barber (Billy Bob Thornton) who finds himself in a scrape after blackmailing his wife’s boss (James Gandolfini). ”Distributors tend to feel if it’s black-and-white, it’s arty-farty,” says Ethan. ”They don’t want to finance it.”
”Schindler’s List” and its eight Oscars aside, conventional wisdom decrees that black-and-white flicks have become untouchables to a mass audience (and especially to the MTV generation). Case in point: ”Ed Wood,” Tim Burton’s 1994 labor of love, eked out less than $6 million in North American theaters. And in some foreign video markets, black-and-white movies are virtually verboten. For all those reasons, USA Films countered the Coens’ request with a catch-22 offer: Make the picture in black and white for about $20 million — as long as it’s releasable in color.
Huh? ”They’d do it only if we were able to furnish a color video version for certain European markets,” explains Joel, 47, who was named best director for ”The Man” at the Cannes Film Festival in May. (Brother Ethan, 44, gets a producer-cowriter credit, though he’s a de facto codirector, too.) In exchange, the deal specified, theatrical-release prints would be in black and white only.
For a while, the Coens considered shooting in black and white and hiring Ted Turner’s colorization minions to add flesh tones. But, says Joel, ”the technology to do that is not really in place anymore, at least not cheaply.” And that’s where the Coens’ Faustian pact got technically topsy-turvy. It turned out that the best way to get a sharp, silky black-and white image was to shoot on a low-contrast color negative first, then print from that to high-contrast monochromatic stock originally designed for closing credits.
John Boorman tried something similar with 1998’s ”The General,” and so did French director Patrice Leconte for 1999’s ”The Girl on the Bridge” — but they didn’t achieve the fine-grained, intensely inky look of the Coens’ picture. Getting the chemical marriage to work so well took more than a year of testing on the part of Deluxe Laboratories and the Coens’ cinematographer of choice, Roger Deakins, 52, who’s shot all their films since 1991. (He’s a four-time Oscar nominee, for ”Fargo,” ”Kundun,” ”The Shawshank Redemption,” and ”O Brother, Where Art Thou?” — and come February, Deakins could conceivably cop two Academy noms, competing against his own work on next month’s ”A Beautiful Mind.”)