Behind the Coens' A Serious Man trailer
The sounds of a car crash. A fat woman’s cough. The whack-whack-whack of a man’s head being slammed against a blackboard. Taken together, they’re the rhythmic pulse behind one minute and 40 seconds that Ain’t It Cool News calls “the best trailer of the year.”
In a movie marketing world where movie promos are edited with a comfortably familiar orthodoxy, the exhilaratingly out-there trailer for the new movie by the Coen Brothers, A Serious Man, is cutting through the clutter. That’s perhaps because unlike so many trailers that spoil the plotlines of their movies, this trailer simply tries to create, according to Patrick Goldstein of the Los Angeles Times, “an unsettling yet irresistibly mesmerizing tone,” a vibe that signals to fans the picture is vintage Coen Brothers.
Goldstein and the Ain’t It Cool News folks aren’t the only ones taken with the trailer. Brian Zitzelman of the Seattle Movie Examiner calls it “a fresh, exquisitely designed piece of pop, with a smart sound design that is unrivaled in this arena.” Matt Bradshaw of Cinematical posts, “Here's a trailer that understands what trailers are supposed to do: grab your attention and make you curious to see more.” And perhaps the most passionate if not most personal praise comes from The FlickFilosopher, who writes, “And holy shit, that is a trailer, isn’t it? No stars, no ‘in a world where’ nonsense, just that rhythmic thumping and the sweaty desperation and the blank stares and the palpable angst…. this trailer makes me so eager to see this film that I’m just about peeing my pants, and I don’t care who knows.”
The A Serious Man trailer was cut by Mark Woollen of Mark Woollen and Associates, the company behind the award-winning campaigns of Schindler’s List, Traffic, and The Royal Tenenbaums, among others. Myles Bender, Senior Vice President of Creative Advertising, Focus Features, oversaw the creative direction and remembers his first meeting with the Coens to discuss the concept. “They wanted something ‘different,’” Bender says, remembering the Coens asking, “‘Can you find one scene from the movie for our trailer and not do the traditional trailer structure?’ And then one of them said, ‘Maybe just show the guy getting his head bashed in for 30 seconds.’ I took that suggestion a little more seriously than they expected me to!”
The directive to “find one scene” recalled for both Bender and Woollen what Bender calls “one of the best teaser trailers ever made, the one for The Shining, which consists of a single shot in which blood pours out of the elevator. It encompassed everything you needed to know about that film.” Also remembering another favorite trailer — M. Night Shamalayan’s Unbreakable, which is structured around a single scene of Bruce Willis waking up in a doctors’ office after a train crash — Bender sat down with Woollen with the idea of extracting a resonant moment from the film that would convey the idea “that this is a movie for people who love Coen Brothers films.” He says he didn’t worry too much about explicating the film’s narrative because “it was more important for us to convey the vibe, ‘the essence of Coen-ness,’ than the premise.” And while Bender and Woollen did find a central scene that accomplished this – yes, the film’s protagonist, Larry Gopnik (Michael Stuhlbarg), having his head thumped against the wall — they also added another key creative idea.
Explains Bender, “Mark had worked on a couple of trailer remixes, where he took little bits from the movie and treated them almost like elements of a song. So for A Serious Man we thought, let’s take this head being bashed against a blackboard and create a remix without first creating a mix. Let’s skip a step.”
Comments Woollen, “I thought it would be fun to apply a contemporary remix technique to a period-set film. You expect more of a remix, mash-up vibe on a more modern-looking film, so it was neat to use it in this context.” But whereas the word “remix” makes one think of music, Woollen says another influence on the A Serious Man trailer was a rare movie trailer that lacked music. “I always say that music gives a trailer its rhythm,” he continues. “But a couple of years ago we did a trailer for Little Children with the directive to not use music. We got creative with sound and used the sound of the train horn [as a recurring motif].”
To extend the trailer beyond the blackboard scene and create elements for their “remix,” Woollen and Bender pulled other images and sounds — a car crash, the announcement by Gopnik’s wife that she wants a divorce, a fat woman’s cough, and, most significantly, the comically sparse dialogue surrounding Gopnik’s failed attempt to meet with a rabbi — and added them to the mix. Using these scenes, a trailer was created that marries the sensibility of a pop song remix to the image juxtapositions and looping of an avant-garde film. So while one walks away from the trailer remembering that cranial bashing, the trailer’s soundtrack is actually a collage of all those sound cues underscored by a piece of Carter Burwell’s soundtrack and then concluding with a source music cue taken from the film, the Jefferson Airplane’s “Somebody to Love.”
Aside from the blackboard, how were the individual sounds chosen? Says Woollen, “Once we started going with sound, we thought, what are the sounds [found in A Serious Man] that would evoke the sensibility of the Coen Brothers’ movies? The cough, the clearing of [the woman’s] throat, just made me laugh. It felt so Coen-esque and something that would never get into a regular story trailer. All these sounds became little accents. And I love that we’re able to stop the trailer after building all this anxiety for the scene of the secretary who makes [Gopnik] wait [to see the rabbi]. The whole trailer has been done with this syncopated rhythm running throughout, but even when it seems to stop, there’s still a clock ticking back and forth in the same tempo as the [head bashing against the] blackboard. There’s a silent heartbeat that runs through the whole trailer.”
Viewed as a whole, it’s the way all these sound elements are each introduced as diegetic sounds and then looped to form a composition that makes the trailer so original. With scene material relooping too, the approach recalls avant-garde works like Bruce Conner’s A Movie, which Bender saw in college (“It’s always fun to sneak stuff like that into advertising,” he says) as well as experimental compositions like Steve Reich’s seminal 1965 work It’s Gonna Rain.
Of course, others have mined these techniques over the years. Conner is a forefather to today’s music video directors, and Reich’s compositions have been an influence on popular music from David Byrne and Brian Eno’s work to Moby to much hip hop. Nightclubs feature video mixers who project stutter-stop clips of films and television shows on screens above the dancers. “A lot of this [technique] can be found in DJ culture,” confirms Bender. “You take something, remanufacture it, and find something new in the process.”
As the Jefferson Airplane song concludes the trailer, there’s one final touch: a stately on-screen crawl proclaiming “From the creators of Raising Arizona, Fargo, O Brother, Where Art Thou?, No Country for Old Men, and Burn After Reading.” For Woollen, that’s a direct nod to The Shining trailer, which is almost comical in its giant nods to novelist Stephen King and director Stanley Kubrick. “I was very excited to do this crawl because you never see a film crawl in a trailer,” Woollen says. “It’s almost kind of ridiculous. Normally you’d do ‘the director of such and such,’ but after this whole crazy cacophony and then this moment of uncertainty [with the rabbi], there was something funny about ending with this great list. It helped assure people that this is one of those movies. And I love that it’s being argued over online. There are people posting, “Why isn’t Millers Crossing listed!”
Were Woollen and Bender worried that this trailer might just be too offbeat? No, says Bender. "Being different is good," he states, although he also adds, "sometimes you have to make sure you're not too different. Most art-house filmgoers have a high tolerance for weirdness, but when something is completely bizarre you run the risk of confusing your audience and turning them off. You have to ride the line between familiarity and peculiarity — you don't want to go too far in either direction."
A Serious Man opens October 2.