NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN unfolds against one of America’s most visceral and mythologized landscapes: the hardscrabble, desolate Texas-Mexico borderlands, where the two countries are divided only by the banks of the Rio Grande.
To authentically capture this sunravaged, blood-soaked locale that straddles two countries, the production journeyed to the dry plains of West Texas and the deserts of New Mexico, where the Coens collaborated once again with five-time Academy Award® nominee Roger Deakins as cinematographer.
“The setting is actually part of the reason that we wanted to do this film,” Ethan Coen notes. “We'd done our first movie (BLOOD SIMPLE) in Texas, although that was in Austin, but we'd also traveled through West Texas, and were attracted to it even before we read the book.”
He continues: “The setting is so integral to the book, to the story it’s about where it takes place as much as anything else. It is a very beautiful landscape, but in a bleak rather than picturesque way. It's not an easy place to live in, and that's important to what the story is about the human confrontation with this harsh environment.” Joel concurs, “It’s a place with a history of violence and of being inhospitable in a way. As with all of Cormac McCarthy’s novels, the location is a character itself and it can't be separated from the story.”
Deakins contributed stunningly austere visuals that allowed the locations to come to electrifying life. He recalls that in earlier conversations with the Coens, “we talked about the heat and the light and the mix of colors for the motel and the streets at night.” Deakins also had his own influences in mind.
“For me, NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN was like a Sam Peckinpah movie,” he explains. “It has the feel of a period piece but then the contemporary world intrudes. I especially thought of Peckinpah’s BRING ME THE HEAD OF ALFREDO GARCIA, where the characters still live by the rules of the past and are out of touch with the modern world.” To heighten this tension, Deakins used light as a storytelling device throughout NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN.
“I loved contrasting the brightness of exteriors with the darkness of interiors and the bleached feel of the landscape with the garish colors of the nighttime world,” he says.
“One of the biggest challenges was making a smooth transition from dawn to nighttime at the ‘drug deal’ location and into the river. We dealt with it as best we could by shooting in the dawn light, shooting at dusk and recreating a ‘fake dawn’ with lighting rigs.” At the same time, Deakins believes that the landscapes are merely echoes of what really counts in the frame characters.
He says, “Every film that I’ve worked on has been primarily about character. To me, the locations are only a backdrop and I always feel that I am primarily photographing characters. If a shot is pretty, but doesn’t set a mood or help develop the story, then it is pointless. I love photographing faces and we had some of the best actors working today.”
Deakins’ work with the Coens has won widespread acclaim and awards, including Academy Award® nominations for FARGO, BARTON FINK and THE MAN WHO WASN’T THERE. He notes that their simpatico creative relationship lies at the core of their successful collaborations. “We know each other well and have a similar approach to visuals,” the cinematographer summarizes. “I really just hope the photography works for the story and appears seamless.”
That sense of seamlessness in storytelling was also aimed for in the editing room, where the Coens’ long-lived collaborator and seeming third-wheel, the enigmatic and elderly British editor Roderick Jaynes, who has been with them since BLOOD SIMPLE, once again cut their picture.
The shoot itself began in Marfa, Texas, a notoriously rugged area about three and a half hours from El Paso. Best known as the spot where the 1950s epic GIANT was filmed, Marfa population 2030 boasts as its main attraction the Hotel Paisano where James Dean, Elizabeth Taylor, Rock Hudson, and Dennis Hopper set up headquarters during filming.
Here, rising young production designer Jess Gonchor whose work to date has included the high-fashion comedy THE DEVIL WEARS PRADA and the more intimate period drama CAPOTE, began collaborating with the Coens, searching for just the right locations for the film’s most dramatic scenes. For Gonchor, the key was understatement. Says Gonchor: “The Coens did such a tremendous job with the script, that I didn’t want to upstage anything I just wanted to add to the storytelling with the scenery that I designed.” One of Gonchor’s biggest challenges was creating Ellis’s cabin where Sheriff Bell comes to his Uncle, a former Deputy Sheriff himself, for advice when he’s at the brink of despair.
Recalls Gonchor, “We prefabricated the structure in Santa Fe where Joel and Ethan could see the progress, painted it, aged it, dressed it and then trucked the entire cabin out to Texas.” Despite the long distances between locations, the unpredictable weather, poisonous desert creatures and scorching temperatures, the authentic locations proved invaluable offering up the haunting, lonely atmosphere that makes the borderlands of Texas at once so fierce and so poetic.
Following their work in Texas, the company moved on to New Mexico, where they also shot in Las Vegas, New Mexico, a historic town seventy miles from Santa Fe, where the timeless, Western-style streets and iconic downtown plaza were able to double for several small Texas towns. It was also the site of another of Gonchor’s pre-fab marvels, the U.S.-Mexico border crossing which leads from Eagle Pass, Texas to a small Mexican town. The simulated border crossing was erected on the University Boulevard freeway overpass in Las Vegas, and necessitated closing down the bridge and freeway exit for a week while the 50,000- pound steel structure was hauled in and put into place.
Las Vegas residents took it in stride but tourists and out-of-towners driving through were mystified as to why the U.S.-Mexico border checkpoint had moved this far north or if New Mexico was really part of Mexico after all! The landscape of NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN also extends to the characters’ heads, particularly that of Javier Bardem, who sports an evocative haircut in the role of Chigurh, designed by Academy Award® winning Lead Hair Stylist, Paul Leblanc (AMADEUS).
Explains Leblanc: “I worked very closely with Mary Zophres, the costume designer, and ‘the boys’ as I call them, in designing this look for Javier’s character. We wanted him to look strange and scary but not over-the-top. So I designed this original haircut to give the sense that he’s really mysterious one that leads you to ask ‘where is this guy from?’ but without necessarily giving away the fact he’s a killer. It’s kind of a bi-historical hairstyle, if you will. It could be 17th Century, it could be 1970s.” Leblanc, who also worked on O BROTHER WHERE ART THOU and THE LADYKILLERS, happily came out of semi-retirement to re-team with the Coens. “They are my favorite filmmakers to work with,” he says.
“They’re so collaborative and I think they really like hair, because they focus on it a lot. Ultimately, like everything else, the hair is used to create character.”