5 Filmmaking Techniques the Coen Brothers Use for Dialog Scenes
The Coen Brothers have this knack for taking something dark and tragic and dressing it up in a bathrobe and jellies so we can laugh at it.
Because, you know, someone putting a guy through a wood chipper is not actually funny, but for some damn reason when the Coens do it — with that stupid leg hanging out — it's comedic genius! Well, there is a method to their madness, namely in how they shoot dialog. Their approach to filming these classic shot/reverse shot sequences is explained in this video essay by Tony Zhou, from which we've highlighted the 5 things that the directors do to create that carnivalesque, "I'm terrified, but I'm laughing" feeling that's present in all of their films.
Zhou shares a ton of great insight about the techniques of the Coen Brothers and long-time collaborator, DP Roger Deakins, but he mentions five things in particular that we want to highlight in case anyone wants to try and capture that uncomfortably funny feeling in their own dialog scenes. Let's run through them quickly:
They keep their shots simple but precise
You won't see a ton of camera movement, handheld work, or rack focuses in the Coens' dialog scenes. And if you do, it's usually a simple push-in. They have a simple set up — two (or more) people having a conversation — but they're very precise on the set design, wardrobe, and positioning of the camera.
They shoot a lot of singles
The Coens like to shoot dialog from "within the space of the conversation." Many other dialog scenes are shot in a series of over-the-shoulder (OTS) shots, and they certainly have their place, but what a single shot does, at least in the Coens' case, is isolate the characters. But it also does something else —
They shoot with a wide lens
— it allows them to shoot with wide lenses. The Coens prefer to capture dialog with a 27mm or 32mm lens, and the look this produces does quite a bit psychologically to the viewer. It adds a comedic undertone to the shot because of the distortion, but it also reveals more of the frame, giving the audience a chance to look around the space and gain more information about the location and character. As Deakins explains, it gives a "sense of presence," and a weird one at that.
They dolly in to get close
Another advantage the Coens have to shooting with a wide lens is that camera movement, should they choose to use it, is exaggerated. In other words, for their trademark push-ins, not only do we get to see the subject's features begin to distort comedically, but the speed seems much faster, too. It's all very carnivalesque. (You can see a bunch of these dolly moves in the dream sequence from The Big Lebowski.)
They really nail that comedic rhythm in post
Of course, these shots would be severely lacking without the comedic timing of the editing, and the Coens are absolute pros when it comes to nailing it. Unfortunately there isn't a whole lot to be said about how to nail it — like director Chantal Ackerman once said, "When I cut -- I feel, I feel, I feel, and I say, "Here." For no reason. Just feeling." (Sry.)
These choices might seem like smalls deviations from how a lot of filmmakers choose to film a typical conversation, but shooting this way for a back-and-forth between characters can actually have pretty peculiar psychological and emotional effects on your audience.