Run Through

The Stacks: The Day ‘The Big Lebowski’ Came to Life

Alex Belth worked on the Coen brothers’ cult favorite. In an excerpt from his ebook The Dudes Abide, Jeff Bridges and John Goodman meet the Dude and Walter for the first time.

Courtesy Everett Collection

I was 25 in the summer of 1996 when I landed a job as a personal assistant to Joel and Ethan Coen. Their sixth movie, Fargo, had come out to rave reviews and good box office that March. Now, they were headed from New York, where they lived, to L.A. to film their next movie, The Big Lebowski. I’d worked on three movies as an apprentice film editor, but happily took the personal assistant job. Later, during post-production, I was one of the assistant film editors on Lebowski.

It turned into one of the most enjoyable experiences I had in my brief time working in the movie business. I’ve written a long profile about watching the Coens at work: The Dudes Abide: The Coen Brothers and The Making of The Big Lebowski, for Kindle Singles.

Here’s a nugget to whet your appetite. It’s early December ’96 and we’re in Joel and Ethan’s West Hollywood production office. Jeff Bridges (the Dude) and John Goodman (Walter) are meeting with the brothers for the first time to read through the script.

“Did we tell you about the barbershop movie?” Joel said to Goodman as they waited for Bridges to arrive. It was the original script they’d been writing back in New York.

Ethan paced, Joel and Goodman sat on the couch, and I sat in a chair, having been invited to sit in and read the part of Donny (Steve Buscemi was in New York and wouldn’t arrive until January).

“It takes place in northern California in the late ’40s,” Joel said. “It starts off with, y’know, voice-over narration and the first line is, ‘Yeah, I worked in a barber shop but I never considered myself a barber.’”

They laughed and Joel continued. I’d never seen him as confident or animated. “It’s about this barber who’s filled with rage,” he said, “and … I’m thinking Ed Harris.”

“Yeah, Ed Harris,” said Ethan.

“Ed Harris, who’s pretty in touch with his rage,” said Joel. “Anyway, it turns into a noir-Postman thing …”

As Joel talked about the movie, Bridges walked into the room and sat in Ethan’s chair. He listened, a little confused, trying to catch up, while he pulled off his galoshes to reveal tan suede moccasin boots. He had on tan pants and a white T-shirt, had a goatee, and his overgrown hair was held back to one side with a barrette. (Bridges contributed several wardrobe touches, from his clear Jellies to the Sadaharu Oh T-shirt.)

When he asked Joel if he was pitching a movie, Joel said, “Yeah, it’s something we’ve half-finished.”

After an awkward moment, Goodman stood up, extended his hand to Bridges and said, “That’s how I got this job a few years ago.”

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The four men made small talk, then opened the script.

Joel described the dynamic between the Dude and Walter. “It’s like the relationship with your mother where … like the Dude can’t help it but Walter pushes his buttons. Like that relationship when you’re very close with someone but they can drive you fucking nuts. It’s definitely a yin-yang thing. It’s trading off. When one is calm, the other is popping. In a way, the movie is about how these two interact. In a way, it’s a portrait of a dysfunctional marriage.”

“It’s a George and Gracie thing,” said Ethan. “I don’t think Walter carries his anger. It’s residual.”

Bridges and Goodman read through the scenes as the Dude and Walter. I read Donny, giddy every time Goodman told me to shut the fuck up. Bridges and Goodman didn’t try to act yet, they just read the lines. I was surprised by how flat they sounded.

After reading through their scenes twice, Joel smiled and said, “So we’ll do some more of this tomorrow.”

On the second day, Bridges asked the Boys if the relationship between the Dude and Walter progressed during the movie. Did it remain the same or change in some way? The answer — it didn’t change at all.

Joel said, “The only time the anger is deeper, more genuine for Walter is at the funeral home.”

Ethan said, “It also ties up the fact it’s a funeral and they’re getting older in a weird sort of way.”

Who is more inept, Walter or the Dude?

“It’s like Laurel and Hardy by consent,” Ethan said. “Hardy is the dumber one but only by agreement.”

Joel said, “It takes Walter a bit when he realizes he’s wrong after it’s staring him dead in the face.”

Ethan explained to Bridges that when the Dude is exasperated, “It’s a pothead thing to say, ‘Everything’s fucked.’”

Bridges asked questions. He was a searcher. Goodman took direction and did whatever the Boys suggested. When they’d settled in, the two actors put their scripts down and improvised. Joel sank into the couch, smiling, while Ethan threw a balled-up eraser against the wall and laughed. When Bridges and Goodman finished their improv, Ethan sat down, opened his script and said: “Top of Page 58 in your Passover Haggadah.”

The Dudes Abide is available now. You can purchase it here. You don’t need to own a Kindle in order to read it. You can download the Kindle App for free on your desktop or laptop computer, smart phone or tablet. For another excerpt, go here.