Storyboard Artist J. Todd Anderson on Working with the Coen Brothers and Hail, Caesar!
J. Todd Anderson likes to say that he’s the first person to see a new Coen brothers movie. As the Coens’ storyboard artist, Anderson is the conduit between the film in Joel and Ethan’s imagination and its first physical manifestation. “My job is to put down on paper what they see in their heads,” Anderson says. “I’m just an interpretive artist. Joel and Ethan come up with the shots. I just draw them.”
Anderson has been “just drawing them” for every Coen brothers feature since 1987’s Raising Arizona. The Coens’ latest, Hail, Caesar!, follows a ’50s Hollywood fixer (Josh Brolin) as he contends with a series of potentially ruinous fiascos, including the kidnapping of the star (George Clooney) of an expensive Ben-Hur-esque biblical epic by a gang of Communist screenwriters. Anderson spoke to Filmmaker about the joy of recreating Golden Age genres for Hail, Caesar!, getting a wink from Robert Mitchum, and the value of feedback from after hours office cleaners.
Filmmaker: How old were you when you first began drawing?
Anderson: I started drawing when I was about 3. My mom was an artist. She used to hand-tint photographs for Olan Mills. Back before color film was a big deal, they took black-and-white photographs and would tint them. They would blue the eyes and add skin tones with cotton balls and oil paints. That was what they did for years and years, through [World War II] and into the ’50s. And then finally Kodachrome came around and they didn’t need to do that anymore. But that’s what my mom did. That was her job.
Filmmaker: Starting out, what types of things did you like to draw?
Anderson: When I was really small I would draw whatever was on television. I drew a lot of Superman. On summer days, that’s all we would do — a bunch of kids would come over and we would just draw. Then my father was a Cleveland Browns fan and on Sundays he’d watch Browns football. I’d draw football players and that’ s where I learned to draw action. I also drew a lot in school and would get sent home because I wasn’t paying attention.
Filmmaker: You went to college in Ohio at Wright State University, but headed to Texas to start your career. What drew you down there?
Anderson: I had a friend who was in Texas and he said, “They’re making a lot of movies down here.” So I just loaded up my car and left. Once I was down there I figured out that all of the movies would have their production offices in certain hotels in Dallas. So I would call all the hotels and say, “Can I speak to production?” and if they had a movie in the hotel, they’d send you through. Then I’d go down to the production office and plead my case for employment. I’d say, “I’ll do anything. I’ll do it for free,” and that was back when I didn’t have any money. They’d ask if I could do craft services and I’d say “Sure.” And I had no idea what craft services was.
There was a made-for-TV movie shooting there called Thompson’s Last Run with Robert Mitchum and every day I would go into the production office and bug them for a job. One night I got a call at about two o’clock in the morning saying, “We need you over here right now.” I’d told them before that I could draw and when I got there the production designer showed me all these Polaroids on a table. Then he showed me some stills from the locations and he said, “Draw this furniture (from the Polaroids) in these locations.” So I took all of this stuff back to my apartment — which was a real teeny apartment, where you’d come in and turn on the lights and all the cockroaches would say “Scram! He’s here!” — and I drew it all up and turned it in. They asked me if I wanted to stick around and be a set dresser and that’s how I got the job on my first movie. I’ve still got those drawings. It’s hard to believe, but I’ve still go them.
Filmmaker: Did you have any interactions with Mitchum?
Anderson: Robert Mitchum was great. I got yelled at all the time because I wasn’t a very good set dresser. I was so disgusted and frustrated that I just wanted to quit. Those made-for-TV movies were gypsy trains, man. They moved heavy and fast. But Mitchum was so nice to me. He heard me getting yelled at all the time and every time they yelled at me he stuck up for me. He’d go over there and yell back at the director and then wink at me. He was really fantastic.
Filmmaker: How’d you segue from getting berated as a set dresser on that TV movie to working with the Coens on Raising Arizona the following year?
Anderson: I was working on another TV movie, Dallas: The Early Years, and I was flirting with this girl who worked in accounting and she mentioned that she was going down to Arizona to work with the Coen brothers. One of the best movies that I saw while I was in college was Blood Simple. I watched it a couple of times. So I told a friend of mine — Roger Belk, who was a set decorator on Thompson’s Last Run — and he said, “Let’s go! I’ve got my dad’s credit card. We’ll go down there and get jobs.”
Filmmaker: To get that job, you had to audition for Joel. What scene did he have you draw?
Anderson: It was the scene where H.I. chases the baby after it crawls under the bed. So I drew that scene and Joel said, “Yeah, that’s pretty good.” They were still interviewing other people so Joel said, “We’ll call you.” But Roger and I didn’t have any address or anything and this was before cell phones. We didn’t have a place to stay so we’d camp out in the desert and then we’d drive into the city each day to a payphone and call in and ask, “Hey, we get those jobs yet?” And they’d say, “Stop calling us! We’ll let you know.” (laughs)
Filmmaker: Once you got the gig, did you and the Coens have an instant rapport?
Anderson: They told me the first week, “If we like you, we’ll hire you for the rest of the movie. But we haven’t decided whether we like you or not.” And I said, “That’s fair enough.” Then the first week went really well and at the end of the week Joel said, “Well, J. Todd, we decided we like you. [laughs] We’re going to keep you on for the next five weeks.”
When they released Raising Arizona and I saw it in New York, it actually looked like what we drew. And I thought, “Well that’s pretty cool.” The drawings weren’t very good, trust me, but they resembled the movie. Still to this day it’s hard to match that experience on Raising Arizona. Every movie I picked up for the next few years after that, I’d be kind of disappointed because the scripts weren’t as good. I thought all the movies they asked me to draw were going to be as good as Raising Arizona. [laughs] But I was just fortunate to get on a super good movie with a couple of super talented guys.
Filmmaker: How did the tradition of giving you joke credits begin? You’ve been tagged as everything from “pen grappler” to “graphite operator” in the final scroll of Coen Brothers movies.
Anderson: That was Ethan’s idea. I always told Ethan to just come up with a title because it was boring to always just have “Storyboard Artist.” On Hail, Caesar! I got a little tired of doing those credits. I think it’s just “Storyboarded for the Screen,” or something like that, this time. Sooner or later all jokes run dry. We haven’t figured out what we’re going to do next.
Filmmaker: Let’s talk a bit about your process of working with the Coens. Was there anything unique about Hail, Caesar?
Anderson: The only thing different about Hail, Caesar! is that we did everything in Los Angeles. When [the Coens] normally do their movies, they start them in New York at their office there and then we go to the location and continue drawing.
Generally the way we work is — and it’s always been this way, it hasn’t changed — [during preproduction] I go in for a session in the morning and they’ll bounce into my office and say, “Let’s draw some.” Joel has a shotlist and he’s very specific about that shotlist and Ethan’s not a bad artist and he’ll have drawn thumbnails. I stand there with a clipboard and they both hit me with ideas and I scribble them down as fast as I can on a fabricated piece of paper that has little squares on it. If a drawing isn’t working, I throw that paper on the floor. So I’m usually standing there with a bunch of paper around my feet. Then they’ll say “You got enough to keep you busy, J. Todd?” and they’ll bounce away.
Then I put those drawings on my tracing table and do a second pass. The next day they come in and I’ll show them that pile of drawings. They’ll okay them or they’ll say, “This one’s not quite right,” or they’ll get a different idea and want to change it. Then the third pass is when I go in and make them look as nice as I can. I’m always suspicious of really nice-looking storyboards, though, because time is money.
We storyboard the whole movie, every set-up. We even draw the over-the-shoulder stuff. It’s a big volume of work. It takes about six to eight weeks most of the time and the irony is that it takes about as much time to shoot the movie as it does for me to draw it.
Filmmaker: During that process do you share the storyboards with people like the cinematographer or production designer?
Anderson: Absolutely. We tend to get the movie drawn a couple of weeks before the shoot so everybody can look at the storyboards and understand what the movie is all about. Until I get them all drawn people aren’t really allowed to take them out of my office — because then I’d go crazy — but I put a table in my office and people can come in and look at the drawings. That’s part of my job — to make everybody else’s job a lot easier. So I always try to make my door as open as possible.
And anybody that comes into my office — it could be somebody’s parents who’re visiting or even the after hours cleaning guy — I’ll sit them in my chair and I’ll go through my drawings and I’ll say, “What’s happening here? What’s happening here?” They’re just people off the street, but if they can understand what the movie is from the drawings, then I know we’re in business.
Filmmaker: What kind of input does Roger Deakins, the Coens’ regular cinematographer, give during the storyboarding process? Will he talk about how he intends to light certain scenes?
Anderson: He does. And then he makes these incredible drawings of how he plans to light things, overhead plans based on the storyboards. Roger sits in on a lot of the sessions [with the Coens]. A lot of DPs are also working on commercials so they don’t want to sit in on a free storyboard meeting. It’s just not cost-efficient for them to do that. But Roger is always around.
Filmmaker: Hail, Caesar! seems like it would be fun to storyboard because of all the genre-hopping. One scene you’re in a Busby Berkeley-inspired musical and the next it’s a Ben-Hur-esque Biblical spectacle.
Anderson: We were basically shooting a bunch of movies inside of a movie. One of the funnier things that happened on the set was that Betsy (Magruder), who’s the 1st assistant director on the Coen pictures, would get really frustrated because the actor they had playing the AD [in the fictional movie] would call cut and everybody on the set would start talking, but the scene wasn’t over. (laughs) No matter how much people got yelled at for it, it kept happening. Every time that actor would call cut, everybody’d start talking again.
It was fun. I’ve always loved movies about movies, like Truffaut’s Day for Night and Sunset Boulevard….
Filmmaker: …Singin’ in the Rain…
Anderson: That was a reference on this picture. It’s one of the most perfect movies ever made. The cool thing about Hail, Caesar! is that they did it the old fashioned way. They built sets — monstrous sets — and they just don’t do that anymore. Everything’s greenscreen. There was a crucifixion scene [for the Roman epic starring Clooney] and everybody was dressed in biblical attire and it was just like watching an old movie being made. I don’t know if I’ll ever get to see that again.
Matt Mulcahey writes about film on his blog Deep Fried Movies.