On the Circuit
A History of Film Festivals in 100 Movies
Episode 6: Blood Simple - Joel & Ethan Coen

Episode 6: Blood Simple - Joel & Ethan Coen

New York Film Festival

Welcome back to A History of Film Festivals in 100 Movies - Episode 6.

Blood Simple, directed by the Coen Brothers & the New York Film Festival

Joel Daniel Coen was born November 29, 1954 and Ethan Jesse Coen was born September 21, 1957. They were raised in St. Louis Park, Minnesota, a suburb of Minneapolis. Their mother, Rena was an art historian at St. Cloud State University, and their father, Edward Coen was a Professor of Economics at the University of Minnesota.

The Coens discovered their interest in movies through TV, growing up watching Italian films, particularly the works of Federico Fellini, and comedies from Jerry Lewis, Bob Hope and Doris Day.

In the mid-1960s, Joel bought a Vivitar Super 8 camera with money earned from mowing lawns. Together, the brothers remade movies they saw on television.

Around the same time they were making their own Super 8 projects, the New York Film Festival was born.

New York Film Festival Begins

Founded in 1963 by Richard Roud and Amos Vogel with the support of Lincoln Center president William Schuman, it is one of the longest-running and most prestigious film festivals in the United States. It is held every fall in New York City, presented by Film at Lincoln Center.

Lincoln Center President William Schuman recruited Richard Roud as NYFF's first programmer, in 1962. Roud was 33 years old at the time and based in London where he worked as a film critic for The Guardian and programmed the London Film Festival. Though Roud maintained his home base in London, he recruited Amos Vogel of the legendary Cinema 16 film club as his New York–based co-programmer.

The first edition of the Festival opened on September 10, 1963, with Luis Buñuel's The Exterminating Angel and closed on September 19. It was a success and nearly all the screenings sold out, or close to it.

Other highlights from year one include:
An Autumn Afternoon (Yasujirō Ozu, Japan)
Roman Polanski’s first film, Knife in the Water (Poland)
The Trial of Joan of Arc (Robert Bresson, France)

In 1966, Roud and Vogel formed the festival's first selection committee, consisting of Arthur Knight and Andrew Sarris; Susan Sontag was added the next year. Vogel resigned from his position as Festival Director in 1968. Though Roud was previously designated Program Director, he presided over the festival from 1969 to 1987. Roud's 25 years at the festival were characterized by a focus on the European art cinema of the postwar years and the rise of auteurism.

A number of European directors had their film Open the Festival, including:

1965 - Alphaville, Jean-Luc Goddard (France)
1966 - Loves of a Blonde, Milos Forman (Czechoslovakia)
1967 - The Battle of Algiers, Gillo Pontecorvo (Italy / Algeria)
1970 - The Wild Child, François Truffaut (France)

And in 1969, US filmmaker Paul Mazursky delivered Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice

The Festival celebrated their 10th anniversary 1972 with incredible slate.

Opening Night: Chloe in the Afternoon (Éric Rohmer, France)

Closing Night: Last Tango in Paris (Bernardo Bertolucci, Italy/France)

And included a number of talented filmmakers, including:

Satyajit Ray, India,
Jacques Rivette, France
Robert Benton, USA
Luis Buñuel, France
Ken Loach, UK
Paul Morrissey, USA
Robert Altman, Ireland
Bob Rafelson, USA
Jean-Luc Godard & Jean-Pierre Gorin, France
Rainer Werner Fassbinder, West Germany
Marcel Ophüls, Switzerland/USA
François Truffaut, France

Meanwhile, the Coen Brothers would be finishing school and eventually getting their feet wet in the business.

Joel spent four years in the undergraduate film program at New York University, where he made a 30-minute thesis film called Soundings. And  In 1979, he briefly enrolled in the graduate film program at the University of Texas at Austin, following a woman he had married who was in the graduate linguistics program. The marriage soon ended in divorce and Joel left UT Austin after nine months.

Ethan went on to Princeton University and earned an undergraduate degree in philosophy in 1979.

Joel Coen served as assistant editor on Raimi’s low-budget horror film The Evil Dead.

They would stay in touch and in fact Raimi gave them tips on how to raise funds independently, when they were mounting their first project, Blood Simple.  

A number of collaborations would follow, including a cameo from Raimi in the Coens’ Miller’s Crossing, Crimewave which Raimi directed and the three wrote together, and The Hudsucker Proxy, which the trio wrote together and the Coens directed. There was even a time when they shared a rental in Los Angeles with Raimi.

Blood Simple is in the Works

Back to Blood Simple. Joel and Ethan began developing this thriller but wanted it to be different from the formulaic bloody indies. They crafted the script to cross genre boundaries.  They wanted to integrate the double cross, and create tension for characters and the audience.

Coens would work with well known literary material, applying the essence of an author's style and then tweaking in original ways. they liked the hard-boiled style, and wanted to write a James M. Cain story and put it in a modern context.

Blood Simple’s plot follows a Texas bartender who is having a love affair with his boss’s wife. When his boss discovers the affair, he hires a private investigator to kill the couple. This was also the first major film of cinematographer Barry Sonnenfeld, who later became a director, as well as the feature-film debut of McDormand.

After writing the screenplay, the Coen brothers, shot a preemptive dummy theatrical trailer for the film, which showed a man dragging a shovel alongside a car stopped in the middle of the road, back towards another man he was going to kill and a shot of backlit gun holes in a wall. The trailer featured actor Bruce Campbell, playing the Julian Marty role, and was shot by recent film school graduate Barry Sonnenfeld.

Then came the fundraising.  Door to door, selling shares of the film.  The entire process of raising the necessary $1.5 million took about a year.

The film was shot in several locations in the towns of Austin and Hutto, Texas over a period of 8 weeks in the fall of 1982. The film spent a year in post-production and was completed by 1983.

All Coen brothers films are co-produced and co-directed by Joel and Ethan Coen, although Ethan was credited as the sole producer and Joel the sole director until 2004. The Coens share editing credit under the pseudonym Roderick Jaynes.

There was a lot of interest surrounding the title of the movie - Blood Simple

Criterion Essay
The New Partridge Dictionary of Slang and Unconventional English defines blood simple as “crazed by violence.” The citation is from a James Ellroy short story, “Torch Number”

The term Blood Simple is never actually spoken in the Coens’ debut film, but it is suggested in a few places. 

“You’ve been thinking about it so much it’s driving you simple,” says Visser,

Visser warns Marty not to “go simple” on him after he commits the murders.

Blood Simple Plays New York Film Festival

The film had it’s world premiere at the USA Festival in Dallas in March of 1984, before heading to Deauville in France and then Toronto, but it really made a splash at the New York Film Festival in September of 84.

This was the 22nd year for the Festival, and they had yet another strong line up, including:

Once Upon a Time in America (Sergio Leone, USA)
Stranger Than Paradise (Jim Jarmusch, USA)
Paris, Texas (Wim Wenders, West Germany) - Closing Night Movie

Blood Simple continued its fest run, then played Sundance Film Festival and won the Grand Jury Prize: U.S. Dramatic. It would then go on to play a number of other international festivals before being released by Circle Films. At the first Independent Spirit Awards, he tied Best Director (tied with Martin Scorsese for After Hours) and Actor M. Emmet Walsh won the top acting prize  

The film holds a 95% rating on Rotten Tomatoes based on 110 reviews, with an average rating of 8.3/10. Overall, in terms of sales, it would have modest success with international gross of over 4 million.

But the Coen Brothers had made their mark and would be back at it soon, and NOT suffer the sophomore Jinx.

Raising Arizona

A 1987 American crime comedy film directed by Joel Coen, produced by Ethan Coen, and written by Joel and Ethan Coen. It stars Nicolas Cage as H.I. "Hi" McDunnough, an ex-convict, and Holly Hunter as Edwina "Ed" McDunnough, a former police officer and his wife. Other members of the cast include Trey Wilson, William Forsythe, John Goodman, Frances McDormand, Sam McMurray, and Randall "Tex" Cobb.

The Coen brothers were set with the intention of making a film as different from Blood Simple, as possible. They wanted to share a sense of humor and deliver a faster paced movie. 

Even with a mixed critical reception, it did well financially, making over 22 million on a 5 million dollar budget.  Raising Arizona played out of competition in Cannes, a only a few other international festivals.

Back to the New York Film Festival with Millers Crossing

In 1988, Richard Peña, took over as lead programmer for the NYFF. HE WAS an accomplished film historian, academic, and programmer. During his stint as programmer (which also lasted 25 years), Peña honored the festival's traditions, continuing with the selection committees, the non-competitive format, the post-screening director Q&As, and the festival's curatorial strength. 

Two years later, in 1990, another Coen Brothers movie plays the NYFF. This time Millers Crossing opens the Festival.

Widely embraced by critics. On review aggregator Rotten Tomatoes, the film has an approval rating of 93% based on 68 reviews, with an average rating of 8.2/10. The website's critical consensus reads, 

"Though possibly more notable for its distinctive style than an airtight story, this Coen brothers' take on the classic gangster flick features sharp dialogue, impressive cinematography, and a typically quirky cast of characters." 

It was a box-office failure at the time, making slightly more than $5 million, out of its $10–$14 million budget.

Because of the intricate, dense plot, the Coens suffered from writer's block with the script. They stayed with a close friend of theirs at the time in Saint Paul, Minnesota, thinking that a change of scenery might help. It didn’t, so what do they do? Return to New York City and write Barton Fink (in three weeks), which of course, features a writer as a main character, suffering from, writer’s block!

In 1991, Barton Fink would win 3 of the top prizes in Cannes, including Actor for Turturo, Director for Coen and Palm d’or The first film to win all three major awards.

Two years later in 1993 - Robert Altman’s Short Cuts had its US Premiere at NYFF. Then Pulp Fiction Opened the fest in 94.

The Coens followed with Hudsucker Proxy - which really flopped. But they went back home to Minnesota for their next project and struck gold with Fargo in 1996, a commercial and critical success.

"Fargo" is a reality-based crime drama set in Minnesota in 1987. Jerry Lundegaard (William H. Macy) is a car salesman in Minneapolis who has gotten himself into debt and is so desperate for money that he hires two thugs (Steve Buscemi), (Peter Stormare) to kidnap his own wife. Jerry will collect the ransom from her wealthy father (Harve Presnell), paying the thugs a small portion and keeping the rest to satisfy his debts. The scheme collapses when the thugs shoot a state trooper.

Fargo received seven Oscar nominations at the 69th Academy Awards, including Best Picture, Best Director, and Best Supporting Actor for Macy, winning two: Best Actress for McDormand and Best Original Screenplay for the Coens.

Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert both declared Fargo as the best film of 1996, with Ebert later ranking it fourth on his list of the best films of the 1990s. Fargo was added to the National Film Registry by the National Film Preservation Board on December 27, 2006.  In 2010, the Independent Film & Television Alliance selected the film as one of its "30 Most Significant Independent Films" of the last 30 years. The Writers Guild of America ranked the film's screenplay the 32nd greatest ever.

In 2014 Fargo landed on FX as a TV series and has had over 50 episodes, and after a short break resumed in 2023 for its 5th season. The Coen Brothers receive EP credits on the successful series.

They would do 7 more films over the next 10 years, including: Cult favorite The Big Lebowski - with Jeff Bridges portraying the iconic “dude” character. And they would form their own production company, Mike Zoss Productions.

Mike Zoss Productions located in New York City, It was named after Mike Zoss Drug, an independent pharmacy in St. Louis Park since 1950 that was the brothers' beloved hangout when they were growing up in the Twin Cities. The name was also used for the pharmacy in No Country for Old Men. The Mike Zoss logo consists of a crayon drawing of a horse, standing in a field of grass with its head turned around as it looks back over its hindquarters.  Here is a clip to see the design:

The first movie under this banner was O Brother, Where Art Thou? in 2000, starring George Clooney, a movie with one of the greatest soundtracks ever. It won three Grammys and introduced a whole new audience to bluegrass music. This  triple Grammy-winning record ranks among the best soundtrack discs of all time, and reached No. 1 in America.

Then came The Man Who Wasn't There in 2001, a film that had a mixed reception but DID win the Best Director prize in Cannes, his 3rd, the most in the history of the prestigious festival.

The Man Who Wasn't There grossed $7.5 million in the United States and Canada, and $11.4 million in other territories, for a worldwide total of $18.9 million against its $20 million budget. The film was the Coen Brothers' worst-performing film at the box office since The Hudsucker Proxy. Some speculated that the poor returns were because the film is in black and white.

No Country for Old Men is a Hit

Their biggest hit came in 2007, with No Country for Old Men. The movie premiered in competition at the 2007 Cannes Film Festival on May 19. The film became a commercial success, grossing $171 million worldwide against the budget of $25 million. Critics praised the Coens' direction and screenplay and Bardem's performance, and the film won 76 awards from 109 nominations from multiple organizations; it won four awards at the 80th Academy Awards (including Best Picture).

The Coen brothers would do a combination of features, shorts, and TV programs before Netflix financed The Ballad of Buster Scruggs in 2018. On the review aggregator Rotten Tomatoes, the film holds an approval rating of 89% based on 234 reviews. Scruggs was an American Western anthology film, that consisted of of six vignettes set on the American frontier, with huge stars: Tim Blake Nelson, James Franco, Brendan Gleeson, Bill Heck, Grainger Hines, Zoe Kazan, Harry Melling, Liam Neeson, Jonjo O'Neill, and Tom Waits.

The film would open the Venice Film Festival and play in limited theaters before landing on Netflix.

Joel Coen’ next film would be his first without the partnership with his brother Ethan. This time with Apple, rather than Netflix.

Back to NYFF with The Tragedy of Macbeth

The Tragedy of Macbeth is a 2021 American historical thriller film written, directed and produced by Joel Coen, based on the play Macbeth by William Shakespeare. The film stars Denzel Washington, Frances McDormand, who also produced the film.

The film is presented in black & white, with the production design and visual style intended to evoke The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928) landmark film by Carl Theodor Dreyer, as Ingmar Bergman's The Seventh Seal (1957) film did before.

Where would the film premiere? At the 2021 New York Film Festival on September 24, 2021. By this time, the Festival had adopted a new programmatic structure, with specific sections:’

The Main Slate is the Festival's primary section, a program typically featuring 25–30 feature-length films, reflecting the current state of cinema. Typically a mix international art house fare from the festival circuit, emerging talent, and studio prestige pictures targeting awards season. The bigger studio films, or marquee directors, are often selected as Opening Night, Centerpiece, and Closing Night presentations

Currents emphasis on new and innovative forms and voices, along with short film content. Spotlight has been a showcase of the season's most anticipated and significant films. And the Revivals section showcases important works from distinguished filmmakers that have been digitally remastered, restored, or preserved  The Festival also introduced Talks, with in-depth conversations with filmmakers, critics, curators, and more.

The Tragedy of Macbeth performed well at the 2021 NYFF Premiere and received critical acclaim for its direction, cinematography, and the performances of Denzel Washington, Francis McDormand, and Holly Hunter. For his performance in the title role, Washington was nominated for the Academy Award, Golden Globe, Critics' Choice Award, and Screen Actors Guild Award for Best Actor. The film also received Academy Award nominations for Best Cinematography and Best Production Design.

NYFF Celebrates its 60th

In 2022 NYFF celebrated its 60th Anniversary, complete with a Film at Lincoln Center Podcast, a NYFF Spotify Playlists, with soundtracks from from of their past films, and an unforgettable slate, kicking off with Noah Baumbach’s White Noise.

Other highlights included:

Triangle of Sadness
Decision to Leave
All the Beauty and the Bloodshed
All that Breathes
Showing Up
Women Talking

Ethan Directs Drive-Away Dolls

In 2024, without his brother Joel at his side, Ethan Cohen directed Drive-away Dolls, a collaboration with his wife and editor Tricia Cooke. The movie was originally scheduled to be released on September 22, 2023, but was delayed due to the 2023 SAG-AFTRA strike.

The film made just over 6 million. Following its limited theatrical release, you can now find Drive-Away Dolls on streaming platforms. Click here for platform.

Future Collaboration between Coens

While Ethan was out promoting Dolls, he shared the idea that he and brother Joel are collaborating again, for a new horror movie.

At the Tromsø International Film Festival this past January, Ethan made the first mention of this new, untitled tale of terror during a masterclass event. 

They are co-writing the script and will co-direct.  As to what we should expect, Ethan Coen has put this intriguing pin on the board:

“It's a pure horror film, and it gets very bloody. If you like Blood Simple, I think you'll enjoy it.”

Ethan Coen

That’s good news for us Coen brother fans.  Happy to see them collaborating again. As their career has proven, they’re an incredible team.

And that is a wrap for this edition of A History of Film Festivals Episode 6: Blood Simple - by the Coen brothers, and the New York Film Festival.

And for our paying subscribers, we’ll be sending you a bonus pod on the Coen brothers, where we shore more insights, including the their top ten picks AND a PDF to the complete script for Blood Simple.

Thanks for listening, and until next time, you take care.



IMDb - Blood Simple

NYT - Blood Simple Release

Blood Simple: “Down Here, You’re on Your Own”
Criterion Collection essay
By Nathaniel Rich

NYFF Website 60th Anniversary

The Numbers - Drive Away Dolls

The Coen Brothers Are Reuniting To Direct A Horror Film, And The First Tease Has Me Excited

Who Are the Coen Brothers — Bio, Early Work and Film Style
Studio Binder


Blood Simple Score (Intro)
Provided to YouTube by The Orchard Enterprises Blood Simple ·
The London Film Score Orchestra

O Brother, Where Art Thou? (Outro)
Man of Constant Sorrow
This is the instrumental version of the song Man of Constant Sorrow, from the movie O' Brother Where Art Thou. This version is performed by Norman Blake. if you enjoed this song, you should go out and buy the whole soundtrack.

On the Circuit
A History of Film Festivals in 100 Movies
A History of Film Festivals in 100 Movies will share the backgrounds, the stories and the filmmakers that have influenced the fest circuit and the business of movies. Covering the films and players that helped shape the landscape, the podcast will include the backstories, quotes, box office totals and career trajectories for the filmmakers that helped define this industry.