In 1990 Joel and Ethan Coen were not yet the Oscar-winning, cinephile-worshipped filmmaking legends they are today. They had only written and directed two films: 1984’s inventive neo-noir Blood Simple and 1987’s screwball kidnapping comedy Raising Arizona. Though the brothers had drawn critical acclaim for both, they hadn’t yet proven themselves as the true cinematic chameleons we know them as now.
With Miller’s Crossing, an intricate gangster drama that contrasts fedoras and overcoats with the serenity of the forest, the Coens proved they were capable of even more than their brilliant first two efforts suggested. Though it was critically acclaimed, Miller’s Crossing was lost to most audiences in the mire of that year’s other gangster pictures (most notably Martin Scorsese’s Goodfellas, which was released just two weeks ahead of Miller’s Crossing) and as such is one of the lesser-known entries in the Coens’s filmography. In honor of its 30th anniversary, we dug up some fascinating facts in the hope of changing that.
1. Miller's Crossing was inspired by a single contrasting image.
One of the most memorable shots in Miller’s Crossing features a hat belonging to Tom Reagan (Gabriel Byrne's character) floating through the forest on a breeze. It’s more than a pretty shot; it’s an indicator of the deliberate contrast that inspired the film. The Coen brothers noted that the film was conceived based on the idea of “the incongruity of urban gangsters in a forest setting.”
2. The Coen brothers turned down Batman to make Miller's Crossing.
After Raising Arizona’s success established the Coens as more than one-hit indie film wonders, the brothers had some options with regard to what project they could tackle next. Reportedly, their success meant that they were among the filmmakers being considered to make Batman for Warner Bros. Of course, the Coens ultimately decided to go the less commercial route, and Tim Burton ended up telling the story of The Dark Knight on the big screen.
3. Miller's Crossing was the final film the Coens made with Barry Sonnenfeld.
Barry Sonnenfeld became a very sought-after cinematographer throughout the 1980s, in part because of his collaborations with the Coens. Their directorial debut, Blood Simple, was his first feature film as a director of photography, and he went on to shoot both Raising Arizona and Miller’s Crossing for them. The year after Miller’s Crossing was released, Sonnenfeld made his directorial debut with The Addams Family, and went on to direct further hits like Men In Black and Get Shorty.
4. Miller's Crossing was the Coens's first collaboration with Steve Buscemi.
Throughout their careers, the Coens have developed a very prestigious company of actors who frequently appear in their films, and Steve Buscemi is among the most prolific. He has appeared in six Coen films, most famously Fargo (1996) and The Big Lebowski (1998). The collaboration started here, when Buscemi was cast as Mink, apparently because he was able to speak faster than anyone else, and fast-talking was crucial to the role.
5. Miller's Crossing was also the Coens's first movie with John Turturro.
When John Turturro was cast as Bernie Bernbaum, the bookie who ignites the mob war at the center of Miller's Crossing, it marked the beginning of a fruitful four-film collaboration with the Coens. They wrote the title role of their next film, 1991’s Barton Fink, specifically for Turturro (who won the Cannes Film Festival’s Best Actor Award for his performance). Of the brothers’s working relationship with Turturro, Ethan Coen once said: “It’s beyond shorthand. We don’t even talk to him!”
6. Miller's Crossing is one of the few Coen brothers movies (so far) not edited by Roderick Jaynes.
To date, the Coen brothers have written and directed 18 feature films, and 15 of them have been either edited or co-edited by Roderick Jaynes. That level of deep collaboration would make Jaynes the Coens’s most frequent collaborator ever … if he were a real person. Jaynes is actually a pseudonym used when the Coens edit their own movies.
7. A sudden death led to Albert Finney being cast as Leo O'Bannon in Miller's Crossing.
As Irish mob boss Leo O’Bannon, Albert Finney is at the center of some of the film’s best scenes—and he’s fantastic in them. Sadly, though, he’s only in the film because another actor died tragically before filming began. The Coens originally cast American actor Trey Wilson, whom they had worked with on Raising Arizona, as Leo. But when Wilson died suddenly from a cerebral hemorrhage at the age of 40, the part went to Finney instead.
8. Peter Stormare was supposed to play a mob enforcer in Miller's Crossing.
The Coens’ original plan for Miller’s Crossing involved Peter Stormare playing a character called “The Swede,” who would be the trusted enforcer of Italian mob boss Johnny Caspar (Jon Polito). A commitment to a theatrical production in Sweden meant that Stormare had to turn down the role, though, so the part was rewritten as “The Dane” and played by J.E. Freeman. Stormare ultimately got to work with the Coens six years later on Fargo, and again two years after that on The Big Lebowski.
9. Gabriel Byrne had to convince the Coens to let him keep his Irish accent in Miller's Crossing.
Though he was an Irish native playing a lieutenant to an Irish mobster, the Coens did not originally want Gabriel Byrne to use his own accent in the film. Byrne argued that his dialogue was structured in such a way that it was a good fit for his accent, and after he tried it, the Coens agreed. Ultimately, both Byrne and Finney used Irish accents in the film.
10. Marcia Gay Harden faced some stiff competition for her role in Miller's Crossing.
As Verna Bernbaum, whose relationships with both Leo and Tom ignite some of the film’s key tensions, Marcia Gay Harden delivered one of the best performances of her career, but it wasn’t an easy role to get. She reportedly competed for the role against the likes of Julia Roberts, Demi Moore, and Jennifer Jason Leigh.
11. Jon Polito had to convince the Coens to cast him in a different role in Miller's Crossing.
When Polito read the Miller’s Crossing script, he loved it and immediately wanted to audition for the role of Johnny Caspar. The Coens had different ideas, and were considering the 39-year-old actor for the role of Caspar’s enforcer, Eddie Dane, instead. The role of Caspar was originally supposed to go to an actor in his mid-50s, but Polito was adamant.
“Anyway, I said I won’t read for anything but Johnny Caspar,” Polito, who passed away in 206, told The A.V. Club. “’And tell them that they’re gonna have to come back to me cause I’m gonna play Johnny.’”
The Coens ultimately gave in, and Polito was cast. They must have liked what they saw, too, because they ended up casting him in four more films after that.
12. A snag in the Miller's Crossing script ultimately led to Barton Fink.
Miller’s Crossing is a complicated beast, full of characters double-crossing each other and scheming for mob supremacy. In fact, it’s so complicated that at one point during the writing process the Coens had to take a break. It turned out to be a productive one: While Miller’s Crossing was on pause, the brothers wrote the screenplay for Barton Fink, the story of a writer who can’t finish a script.
13. Miller's Crossing features several cameos from regular Coen collaborators.
The Coens frequently include cameos from actors and friends in their films, and Miller’s Crossing is particularly full of them. Frances McDormand, who is married to Joel Coen and has appeared in several of their films to date (including Fargo, for which she won an Oscar), plays the mayor’s secretary in one scene. In another, Sam Raimi—a Coen friend and collaborator (the Coens wrote 1985’s Crimewave with Raimi, which Raimi directed, and Raimi later co-wrote The Hudsucker Proxy with the brothers—appears as a crooked cop in a shootout scene. Albert Finney already had a prominent role as Leo, but he enjoyed making the movie so much that he stuck around after his scenes were completed and showed up in drag in a ladies’ room scene. (He’s the “woman” in black on the right side of the screen.)
This story has been updated for 2020.