Sunday, November 18, 2007
Breath, footsteps, terrain: Josh Brolin on No Country For Old Men
The dual nature that haunts No Country For Old Men is elegantly conveyed in its opening moments. As we look upon a desolate, depopulated Texan desert, we hear the voice of Ed Tom Bell (Tommy Lee Jones) consider the emergence of a new plateau of evil and danger in the world: an old man speaking of change over a vision of a place that seems to have remained essentially unchanged for far longer than any of us can imagine.
The Coen Brothers have fiddled with authors from Homer to Dashiell Hammett, but No Country is their first genuine literary adaptation. Cormac McCarthy’s exquisite novel about $2 million in cash, a resourceful Vietnam vet, a weary small-town sheriff and a terrifyingly efficient killer (played with unforgettable precision by Javier Bardem) possessed by a cold understanding of the randomness of human existence, was already so vivid and immediate that any smart filmmaker would know enough to basically just shoot it as it reads, which is precisely what the Coens have done.
There’s a certain purity to McCarthy’s novel. It spends little time with character background or interior voice. In this world action equals character. The Coens honour McCarthy’s terms and have crafted a masterful work of suspense, evocatively spare, full of easy charm, ultimately chilling. A grunt, the creak of floorboards, a relentless dog or a man’s reflection in a television set invoke the film’s themes far more compellingly than any grand gesture could.
Josh Brolin plays Llewelyn, one of the film’s triangle of lead characters. When I sat down with Brolin on behalf of Vue Weekly last September he was hung-over but bright-eyed, cheerful and fuzzy looking in his V-neck sweater. He knows No Country’s something special, that he’s very good in it and that both will be recognized accordingly, and thus carries with him the air of humble satisfaction that comes to a guy who’s deserved this break for a long time.
Vue Weekly: Was No Country For Old Men something you’d heard about and actively pursued or something you were sent?
Josh Brolin: I heard about the book first. Sam Shepard told me about it. We were in Texas. I was doing Grindhouse and he was promoting Don’t Come Knocking. I had done True West for him in New York.
VW: Which part?
JB: Both. We traded roles every four performances, Elias Koteas and me. Anyway, Sam told me I had to read this book so I went out and bought it. I heard about the movie long afterward. I ended up doing an audition tape with Robert Rodriguez and Quentin Tarantino. I asked Robert if he’d make a video of me and he said, “Let’s just use our equipment,” so we used a $950 000 Genesis camera. Quentin directed me, Robert shot it, and we sent it to the Coens. Their first response was, “Who lit it?” It was that good-looking. But I didn’t get the movie from that. No, they weren’t interested in me. It wasn’t until their last meetings with actors that they finally phoned my agent and said, “Fine, you’ve bugged us for too fucking long”. And then I met them and that was it. I got the part.
VW: Were you surprised how cleanly the film just lifted the novel off the page?
JB: Yeah, with one significant exception, it’s a very loyal adaptation of a book you don’t want to mess with. With adaptations you either take an idea and make it into something else or you have something like No Country that reads so cinematically a movie can only enhance it. Because its about breath, its about footsteps, its about wind, its about the terrain.
VW: Do you read a lot of American fiction?
JB: Do I read a lot? Yes. Do I read a lot of American fiction? Not necessarily. But McCarthy’s been on my mind a lot for a while now. I became a big fan. He’s like the Dylan Thomas of West Texas, so incredibly poetic.
VW: Yet because his prose is so spare, the film itself realized so starkly, was it difficult to find a way in as an actor?
JB: It was wonderful, actually. We talked about it a long time. We felt these characters conscientiously. What was wonderful was just being able to experiment with less is more. Being able to create an atmosphere where “Mn” actually means something. There were single words we’d rehearse because one word might be the only thing he’s saying within a 10 minute stretch of film.
VW: So throughout the process you were able to consult frequently with the Coens?
JB: Yeah, about Llewelyn’s laconic nature, how we want him to communicate, how far we wanted to go with him talking to himself, where it’s like he’s got a little friend helping him out, as opposed to someone losing their mind. There was some ad-libbing. There was stuff we took out. There was one point where I went up to Joel and Ethan and told them that I didn’t think we should have Llewelyn say anything here, that the wind would be better.
VW: The wind played a pretty big role in this movie.
JB: (Performs a whistling desert wind)
VW: The atmosphere, how strongly it informs the audience’s involvement in the material—were you able to glean what that atmosphere would be like when you were making choices as an actor?
JB: The atmosphere spoke for itself. Or rather it was spoken for. Let’s put it that way. All you have to do is go out to Texas and you’re in it. I think what you’re responding to is more how they lit it, what lenses they used, how they’d let a little guy in a big landscape walk from one end of the screen to the other. That was the tone they were trying to create. But when you get out there, to West Texas, the character of the setting is so specific, so developed for you already, there’s not a lot of manipulation that goes on. You just have to show up.
VW: I think your work in this film is so distinctive. I wonder if perhaps you look at it as a sort of turning point for you as an actor.
JB: No. I think I’m the same actor I always was. It’s just that people are seeing the movies now. That’s the difference. The difference is working with people who are really accomplished, iconoclastic filmmakers. That’s the difference. I love working with people who are about the work. I’ve worked with people who aren’t about the work. “Is this gonna make me more famous? Is this gonna make me more money?” Which is fine, if that’s what you’re in it for. I think money’s great. I’m a businessman. I love money. But it’s not very satisfying in the end when you look back and realize that you could’ve done a better job had you been more focused on the humanity of the piece, or something like that.
VW: Could you put your finger on the kind of film you want to be involved in from here onwards?
JB: The parts that I respond to are the ones where you pigeonhole the character at the beginning of the movie and then it breaks again and again. Llewelyn you figure for a dim-bulb at the beginning, and as it turns out he’s not. I did a movie called Flirting with Disaster where I played the FBI agent. You see him with the glasses and the hair back, and then it turns out he’s got tattoos, he’s bisexual, he’s a fetishist. I like those characters. Those are fun characters. I like those kinds of characters because I like those kinds of people. People who aren’t what they seem.