That the plot of THE BIG LEBOWSKI turns on a case of mistaken identity,
complicated by extortion, double-cross, deception, embezzlement, sex and
dope should come as no surprise to the fans of the Coen brothers. Such themes
have surfaced in the Coen's work from their very first film, 1985's Blood
Simple. But even though the story of THE BIG LEBOWSKI contains its fair
share of mayhem and assorted suspicious and unsavory incidents, the film
is definitely a comedy. We see THE BIG LEBOWSKI as our version of a 90s
Raymond Chandler story with a mystery private eye plot , Ethan Coen says,
referring to the great detective writer whose novels served as the basis
for several 1940s film noirs including The Big Sleep and Murder, My Sweet.
But instead of the protagonist being Philip Marlowe, who was Chandler's
private eye, we have as our hero a laid-back, unemployed guy who's stuck
in the 70s named Jeff Lebowski who calls himself the Dude.
The Dude is described by the Coens in their screenplay as a man in whom
casualness runs deep. He lives a peaceful beach existence in a run-down
bungalow in Venice, pretty much content to spend his time bowling with his
buddies. They are Walter, a pompous security-store owner and amateur military
historian, and Donny, a mild-mannered ex-surfer.
The Dude's peace and quiet is shattered, however, when he's terrorized by
two thugs who warn him that he's responsible for his wife's debts to a shady
character named Jackie Treehorn. But, in fact, the Dude's not married; it
turns out that he's been mistaken for someone else named Jeffrey Lebowski,
an aging millionaire who lives in Pasadena. When Walter persuades the Dude
to contact this other Jeff Lebowski, our hero and his friends become embroiled
in a series of underhanded, not to mention criminal activities.
Just as in the Chandler novels, the story of THE BIG LEBOWSKI is set in
Los Angeles, and the plot--again as in Chandler--moves among the different
social classes and different types the Dude runs across as the story unfolds.
I suppose the THE BIG LEBOWSKI is specifically about L.A. in the way Fargo
was about the Midwest, says Joel Coen. "Certainly the story takes place
in the L.A. that we're familiar with, and many of the characters in the
film are based on people that we know and people we've met here."
"But we ve placed it all in a Chandleresque kind of context. We have
a voice-over narration, and elements of double-cross and deception that
exist on several levels among people whose motives are devious and obscure,
and many of these characters deliberately recall types you'd run across
in Chandler. In The Big Sleep, for instance, there's a sophisticated older
sister and a younger one, who's a tart. In THE BIG LEBOWSKI, the sophisticated
female character is the millionaire Lebowski's daughter, Maude, and the
immoral figure is Bunny, his young wife."
"We've written the story from a modern point of view and set it very
precisely in 1991 during the Persian Gulf War, Ethan adds, which also has
a direct effect on the Dude and his friends. In the end, the amateur sleuthing
of these guys unearths the secrets of the plot and solves a case that might
have challenged a professional private eye like Philip Marlowe... if he
had lived in the Los Angeles of the nineties and been an avid bowler and
Although the leading character of THE BIG LEBOWSKI is the Dude, the Coens
were prompted initially to write the screenplay in order to create something
for John Goodman. He always impressed them as a major talent whose gifts
haven't been fully explored on the big screen. They also love working with
him. Accordingly, they wrote him the smashing role of Walter, the Dude's
On the other hand, the part of the Dude wasn't conceived with any particular
actor in mind, says Joel Coen. But after the character became focused and
developed, we couldn't imagine him as anyone but Jeff Bridges. We had his
image in our mind.
In fact, the screenplay for THE BIG LEBOWSKI was completed several years
ago, and Working Title made plans to produce the film for Gramercy Pictures.
But it wasn't until early 1997 that THE BIG LEBOWSKI was ready to go before
The reason it's taken so long is that we were never able to coordinate our
schedules with Jeff and John until now, Ethan says. Finally everything converged
at the beginning of the year.
"I was tremendously excited about working with Ethan and Joel, says
Jeff Bridges. When I first read the script, I felt as if I was born to play
the Dude. I understand the man inside out. I suppose there's a side of me
that, had I not been an actor, might have lived his life like the Dude."
"But, you know, sometimes I think the thing I love the most about the
guy is his relationship with his bowling buddies, Walter and Donny. There's
a great kind of loyalty there, like you know that these guys wouldn't rather
be with anyone or anywhere else than with themselves at their local bowling
"Beyond that--and it's the great thing about working with the Coens--there
are all these other great characters that move in and out of the story even
if they don't do anything for the plot. They're just there and sort of serve
as brain candy. You just love meeting these cats. They're fascinating."
For John Goodman, the greatest challenge in THE BIG LEBOWSKI was being able
to do justice to the character of Walter.
He's so well-written--he seems to just jump out of life. He's like a million
guys you ve met, a recognizable loudmouth type. But you have to be careful
not to go over the top, not to make him appear oafish. Walter's got this
Army background. He's obsessed with his service in Vietnam and he's not
going to let anyone forget it.
The Dude can't really help but turn to Walter when he gets drawn into a
jam with the thugs who rough him up. Walter's always there, always helpful--over-helpful
because he's kind of over-amped. He's just gotta serve, gotta help. In a
way, things get out of hand for the Dude because of Walter. He can see straight,
and is able to figure out what's going on. But because he pushes so hard,
with Walter's help the Dude sort of loses control of the situation.
Once all the schedules meshed and the project moved forward, the Coens started
casting the film, filling roles with several actors who might be called
Coen brothers regulars --Steve Buscemi, John Turturro and Peter Stormare.
Buscemi was signed for the role of the mild-mannered Donny, who bowls with
the Dude and Walter in their tournament league; Turturro is Jesus Quintana,
a bowler from a rival faction. And Stormare, so effective as Buscemi's killer
sidekick in Fargo, appears here as Uli, a self-styled, far-out German nihilist.
In addition to Jeff Bridges, several other actors, such as Julianne Moore,
Ben Gazzara, David Thewlis, David Huddleston and Sam Elliott are also making
their first appearance in a Coen brothers film.
Julianne plays the rich Lebowski's daughter, Maude, an attractive woman
who takes a shine to the Dude; Huddleston is the other moneyed Lebowski;
and Ben Gazzara is the notorious Jackie Treehorn.
Sam Elliott appears in cowboy gear as the film's narrator, the man called
the Stranger. And David Thewlis plays John Herrington, an eccentric associate
of Maude's the Dude meets when he visits her loft in downtown LA.
Also featured in important roles are Flea (of Red Hot Chili Peppers fame),
Philip Seymour Hoffman, Torsten Voges, Philip Moon, Mark Pellegrino and
With the principal cast in place, the Coens then staffed the technical crew
with several of their longtime collaborators, such as the Academy Award-nominated
director of photography Roger Deakins, production designer Rick Heinrichs,
and costume designer Mary Zophres. As he has on all their other films, the
composer Carter Burwell writes the score for THE BIG LEBOWSKI . The editor
is Academy Award nominee Roderick Jaynes, whose true identity is still shrouded
After a week of rehearsals, filming began on THE BIG LEBOWSKI on January
27, 1997, on location in North Hollywood with the brothers filming the scene
in which the Dude reclaims his stolen car from an impound lot.
The unit then moved to Beverly Hills, where scenes that take place at the
Lebowski Pasadena mansion were filmed on two separate estates: one on Charing
Cross Road and the other in Greystone Park, after which production shifted
to a West Hollywood soundstage on which the interior of the Dude's Venice
bungalow had been constructed.
Here work began several important sequences: the film's opening, in which
the Dude is mistaken for the rich Lebowski and roughed up by two of Jackie
Treehorn's thugs; the nearly surreal scene in which a group of so-called
German nihilists surprise the Dude in his bath and set a marmot on him;
the Dude's visit from two police officers who question him about his missing
car; and the Dude's two encounters in his home with the mysterious, elegant,
enigmatic Maude Lebowski, an avant-garde feminist painter.
In terms of real estate, the Dude's bungalow and the Lebowski mansion exist
at opposite ends of the spectrum, of course. But both are significant in
the film, in that they demonstrate the various layers of Los Angeles life
the Dude must travel across as he unravels the mystery of THE BIG LEBOWSKI
that has more or less landed in his lap.
The houses are also important, however, because of what they reveal about
the characters who reside inside. The Lebowski mansion, outsized, opulent
and austere, speaks big money; the Dude's house, anything but. It's comfortable,
yet shabby in the extreme. So in visual terms alone, we learn a lot about
the two Lebowskis just by seeing where they live. This is not unusual for
the Coens. Sophisticated, exquisitely wrought visuals are a hallmark of
their work and here, once again, the brothers attain their stunning, unique,
unforgettable images working with three key collaborators--Roger Deakins,
Rick Heinrichs and Mary Zophres.
Production designer Heinrich neatly describes the challenges he faced on
"Throughout, we wanted to reference a traditional Los Angeles. We focused
on LA architecture from the 50s and 60s, not only to establish the feel
of the city, but also to comment on the characters of the Dude and Walter,
who are anchored in the past in the way they lead their lives. Somehow this
architecture even refers back to Vietnam era--which is so important to Walter
and to the Dude, in a way."
"Of course we didn't want to overdo it and hit the audience over the
head, so the Lebowski mansion is opulent in a fairly traditional way--we
wanted to summon up the greenhouse scene in The Big Sleep --and the Dude's
bungalow is cluttered, threadbare and kind of representative of its type."
Some of the most interesting elements in the look of the film were not in
fact created by Heinrich, but rather enhanced by him, because they belonged
to the architecture that came with several locations. For instance, the
two coffee shops that figure in the action. Both of the places we used,
Johnnie's, on Fairfax and Wilshire, and Dinah's, in Culver City, are Los
Angeles landmarks, prime examples of the Googie style of architecture from
the 50s and 60s. They really represent the world the Dude and Walter inhabit.
"Of course," Heinrich continues, "when it came to the studio
we had total control over what we created there. But at the Greystone Lebowski
mansion, we ran into a problem that got solved in an unusual way. Inside
the huge house was a black and white checkered floor that Joel was unhappy
with. He didn't feel it was right. But there was nothing we could do. He
loved the rest of the place so we make do with the floor. But since it grated
on him, he used the black and white checkered visual motif in the Dude's
dream that occurs later in the film. It appears as an element that has stayed
in the Dude's mind, so it justified us having to go with the floor in the
Another interesting problem Heinrich had to grapple with was the period.
The action occurs during in 1991 during the Persian Gulf War, he says, the
not very distant past. We summon it up in some of the clunky technology
the characters are involved with, the cellular phones, the cars. Some things
don't change that much but, six years have made quite a difference in that
regard. It's amazing.
After completing the location work at the two coffee shops, in Malibu and
at a house in the Hollywood hills that served as the interior of Jackie
Treehorn's beach estate, the unit moved to the Hollywood Star Lanes on Santa
Monica Boulevard to film the bowling alley exteriors.
We did a study of every bowling alley within 30 miles of Hollywood, location
manager Bob Graff reports. We wanted a certain size, a look that was a little
retro but not rundown, with manual scoring tables, and we found it here.
We revamped it a bit, jazzing it up with oranges and blues.
In many ways the heart of the film occurs inside the bowling alley--it's
where the Dude, Walter and Donny bond. It's in the bowling alley that the
Dude first describes to his friends how two thugs roughed him up and soiled
his rug. And it's here that the Dude first runs across the enigmatic Stranger
played by Sam Elliott who functions as the film's narrator, a kind of benign
figure--even a guardian angel--looking out for our hero's welfare.
Most of Steve Buscemi's scenes take place in the bowling alley, and like
Bridges and Goodman, he was tutored by bowling pros for his part. But the
main challenge for Buscemi was the interaction of the characters, as part
of creating the essence of the good-hearted Donny.
I don't think Walter and the Dude would be friendly with Donny if he weren't
such a good bowler. He's a simple guy, always coming late into the conversation.
He's always getting on Walter's nerves and it creates a lot of the comedy.
But Donny's character is so beautifully drawn, so true to life. Ethan and
Joel are really good writers. They write really tight scripts. All those
half-finished sentences, all those ers and ums and ehs , they're all scripted
in. You can't be relaxed about it. The dialogue is like music. All the characters
have their own score and it takes practice and timing to get it right. You
can't slack off.
And, of course, I have to keep up with these other great actors, he says,
referring to his co-stars. I often feel as if we're part of a string trio
and have to sense what the others are feeling and go with that. But Ethan
and Joel are with us all the way. They're great with actors.
"The Coens have a group of actors they work with over and over and
I ve been made to feel real welcome in the bunch. They create such a relaxed
atmosphere, they listen to your ideas and give you all the room you need
to take risks."
"You know, my brother Beau [Bridges] and I have worked together and
we have designs to produce and direct a project in the future. Watching
these master filmmakers, I feel as if they're pointing the way. "
Following scenes in the bowling alley, exteriors in the Fairfax section
of LA, and driving shots in Simi Valley, the unit filmed on a bluff in Palos
Verdes and then moved downtown where scenes were filmed in a space that
served Maude Lebowski's artist's loft.
I sort of exist in a pocket of the film, says Julianne Moore, who plays
the self-assured, unconventional Maude. I move in and out of the Dude's
life and I don't think he's really sure what's hit him. Literally. Maude's
terribly sophisticated. That she's attracted to the Dude comes out of the
blue and is what makes their scenes together so fascinating and witty. Joel
and Ethan write such vivid, crackling dialogue. I had a great time working
with them and with Jeff. It was an actor's dream.
With work completed in Maude's loft, the next large set piece was the Dude's
big dream sequence. This features Maude dressed as a Wagnerian Valkyrie
and takes the form of a Busby Berkeley spectacular, replete with a bevy
of dancing girls. It was photographed in a huge airplane hangar at Santa
Monica airport that was transformed into a soundstage.
Choreographers Jacqui and Bill Landrum worked with the brothers on the number,
which was largely inspired by Busby Berkeley's choreography for the 1930
film Whoopee! starring Eddie Cantor.
We put together a tape of various sequences and patterns from the film for
Ethan and Joel and they responded, says Jacqui Landrum. The feeling was
exactly what they wanted.
We also showed the reel to Jeff Bridges who had to dance in the scene. Jeff
is a natural dancer. He's uninhibited. We showed him various steps and combinations
and he took what he felt comfortable with, and just kind of owned them.
In the sequence the Dude is dressed as a handyman in a jumpsuit and a full
tool belt--a dramatic change from the bowling/ beach gear he sports for
the most of the action.
The way I dress the Dude and his friends in the film is character-driven,
says costume designer Mary Zophres, a way of having the clothes tell the
story about the person as well as the action. It's obvious the Dude gives
little thought to what he wears, and the costumes show that. Things tend,
well, not to match. It's the opposite with, say, Maude who's eccentric but
regal. This woman gives a lot of consideration to what she puts on and you
sense it right away.
Zophres approach was embraced by all the actors, especially Bridges. The
Dude may not pay much notice to his clothing, but this wasn't the case with
the actor who played him.
Jeff wore his costumes during rehearsal and also took them home to wear,
Zophres says. He simply inhabited the guy. Steve Buscemi actually copied
the outfits of great bowlers that he found photos of. The clothes don't
make these guys, but they definitely help tell the story.
As for the Dude, Bridges, the Coens and Zophres carefully crafted his outfit
for the dream sequence, since it contrasts with what he wears for the rest
of the film. Cinematographer Roger Deakins also consulted with the Coens
about the scene. Deakins, who not only lights but operates the camera, is
a master of composition and framing. Most of THE BIG LEBOWSKI is shot in
his pristine, richly evocative style, saturated with shadows and color,
highly representative of the film noir mood the brothers were after. The
dream sequence is equally imaginative but shot with bright, direct light.
We lit the Dude and all the dancing girls exactly as Busby Berkeley would
have lit them in the 30s and 40s, Deakins says. I think he would have recognized
what we were doing and been quite at home with it.
A second dream sequence, as well as several days of bluescreen work, took
place on a West Hollywood sound stage, and production was completed after
eleven and a half weeks of filming on April 24, 1997.