How Blood Simple Started a 30-Year Hollywood Firefight

Joel and Ethan Coen convinced Hollywood that the easiest way to get over box office shock would be to traumatize moviegoers.
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Joel and Ethan Coen convinced Hollywood that the easiest way to get over box office shock would be to traumatize moviegoers.

New Hollywood died in 1982. That was the year Francis Ford Coppola, one of the movements guiding lights, bankrupted himself making One from the Heart, a $26-million sound stage musical that earned a laughable $636,796 during its domestic run. It was the flop that broke the camels back. The year before, Peter Bogdanovich had herniated that desert dweller by spending five million of his own dollars putting They All Laughed into theaters after its distributor folded — and made less than a fifth of that back. The year before that, Heaven’s Gate, the $44-million epic, destroyed United Artists, ruined Michael Cimino, and became the most notorious box office bomb of all time. All the up and comers were going the way of Icarus and the big arty had gone the way of the dodo.

Suddenly, there was room for something new: something unfamiliar, something radical, but especially something cheap. Joel and Ethan Coen wrote a screenplay.

The Coen Brothers, the phrase was not yet a brand, didn’t have money or connections, but they had a newly successful friend in Sam Raimi, who not long before had managed to finance his first film, the low-budget slasher Evil Dead. Under his guidance, they put together a rough but heavily stylized two-minute “trailer” for the feature they hoped to make. They brought the trailer and script to meetings with virtually every man of means in Minneapolis: a lot of “doctors, lawyers, and entrepreneurs,” as the Coens would later tell the New York Times. In the end, they managed to scrounge up $1.5 million — a fraction of what Coppola or Cimino would need for a new movie, but a windfall for two ambitious guys with no experience.

Joel and Ethan shot the movie, which had been inspired by Dashiell Hammett’s hard-boiled classic “Red Harvest,” over eight weeks in Austin and Hutto, Texas, in the fall of ‘82 then spent another year putting it together in the editing room. The dubbed the result Blood Simple and it was good. A mordant, gritty neo-noir indebted to classic mystery novels like Double Indemnity and The Postman Always Rings Twice, the movie had a deft, modern touch. Everyone who saw it liked it, but distributors were wary. Was it a murderous art film? Was it an artistic murder film? With so much of Hollywood running scared, it seemed possible that Blood Simple would languish unreleased forever.

It’s hard to imagine that sort of confusion keeping modern distributors away. Independent films about murder are a very successful genre. But, in the early 1980s, the indie film didn’t exist as it does today: this was a decade before films like Sex Lies & Videotape or Reservoir Dogs would make art and vulgarity into bedfellows. You could make and, in a small way, circulate a thoroughly arty movie like Eraserhead, or an unabashed genre picture like Night of the Living Dead or Halloween. But a weird movie about affairs and guns, a weird movie that was, in essence, still a thriller? There was no precedent. Simply put, there wasn’t anything to compare a Coen Brothers movie to because there weren’t other Coen Brothers movies.

Blood Simple had better luck once more people had a chance to actually see it. The film premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival in September of 1984, slated alongside other iconic independent films like Jim Jarmusch’s Stranger Than Paradise and Leos Carax’s Boy Meets Girl, before moving on to the New York Film Festival in October and Sundance the follow January. It was during the rush of praise that followed these presentations that Blood Simple found a distributor to bring it to theaters across the United States. It arrived on screens across the country thirty years ago this week and has informed what’s been playing on them ever since. The film taught American directors to paint with blood.

Blood Simple was a modest commercial success and a critical triumph, but it was way more than that. The movie showed Hollywood that financing self-conscious prestige pictures from big name directors made less sense than finding young hustlers with something to say – even if that something happened to be hard to describe.