With this one we sort of figured, you know, if things become a little bit too complicated or unclear, it really doesn’t matter. I mean, the plot is kind of not the…and again, this is similar to Chandler. The plot is sort of secondary to the other things that are sort of going on in the piece. I think that if people get a little confused it’s not necessarily going to get in the way of them enjoying the movie.
~Joel Coen on The Big Lebowski
The Coens wrote The Big Lebowski around the same time as Barton Fink. They based the character of The Dude on two people. One was Jeff Dowd, a film producer and political activist who helped the brothers finance Blood Simple. During the last sixties and early seventies, Jeff was a member of a radical anti-Vietnam war movement called the Seattle Seven, also known as the Seattle Liberation Front. He served three months in prison after a trial for inciting a riot at the Federal Courthouse in downtown Seattle. During the trial, members of the Seattle Seven disrupted the proceedings, eventually walking out and refusing to re-enter the courtroom. The judge declared a mistrial and the defendants were charged and sentenced for contempt of court. Many believed they would not have been sent to prison had they not provoked the judge with catcalls during the proceedings. Fucking fascists.
The Dude was also based on a Vietnam War veteran named Pete Exline (now a USC faculty member and script consultant). One of Exline’s stories provided inspiration for one of the film’s most memorable scenes. According to Exline…
Back in ’89 Joel and Ethan Coen were in town shooting “Barton Fink,” and I had them over for dinner. The neighbors had moved out and left behind a rug, which I appropriated for my living room, joked about how it “…tied the room together…” all night long. Joel and Ethan thought it quite funny.
I kept talking about my friend “Big” Lew Abernathy, also a Vietnam Vet from Denton, Texas. He’s a former private eye, mercenary and screenwriter. Big friend of Jim Cameron and Gale Anne Hurd and went diving with them. He’s the basis of a character in “The Abyss.” Also, Cameron used him in “Titanic.” In the opening he’s operating the robot inside the submersible.
So, I’m telling the story about my car getting stolen and finding a kid’s homework in the car, then tracking the kid and calling his folks. Lew and I went over there. Lew had a briefcase and inside it were baggies filled with stuff from the car. One baggie had a Whopper wrapper, another the kid’s homework. 2
In this particular case, the story was…very loosely based on the narrative structure of a Chandler novel. Those novels are very episodic in nature. They usually follow the main character as he encounters these different characters on a journey to uncover a mystery, or find a missing person, or whatever it may be in the novel. In this case, that was the model for this story. 3
The film took inspiration from Raymond Chandler’s The Big Sleep (later a Howard Hawks film with Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall). In The Big Sleep, the protagonist, Philip Marlowe, is hired by the “disabled” General Sternwood to deal with a blackmail case regarding supposed gambling debts of his daughter to a purveyor of rare books. It’s later revealed the purveyor of rare books actually peddles porn and has nude pictures of the General’s daughter. Those are the major similarities between the two. Once both narratives get moving, they drift further apart, hardly resembling each other at all.
We gave the script to Joel Silver, the producer, who gave us a really interesting note, which we actually ignored, but maybe shouldn’t have. He said that the movie should have ended with him getting his rug back, or some mention of the rug, which would have been a nice resolution, but we never did do it. 4
This is a film about a man, in a case of mistaken identity, has his favorite rug micturated upon by one of his attackers. He doesn’t learn anything new about himself. He’s the same person in the end that he was at the beginning. Internally, he just wants to take it easy. That’s what he’s doing when we first see him at Ralphs, writing a sixty-nine cent check for half & half, and that’s what he’s doing as the film closes. Takin’ her easy for all us sinners. Structurally, the film is driven by three strong external goals:
1. To be compensated for his soiled rug (Act I)
2. To act as a ransom courier and identify Bunny Lebowski’s kidnappers (Act II-A)
3. To solve the mystery of Bunny’s kidnapping before The Big Lebowski kills him or The Nihilists cut off his Johnson (Act II-B & Act III)
The first goal deals with his rug. He meets with The Big Lebowski to seek compensation for his soiled rug, as the men who attacked him and ruined his rug were really targeting The Big Lebowski. When The Big Lebowski refuses, The Dude tricks his assistant into giving him a rug from the mansion. The turn that gives us the new external goal happens when The Dude is called back to the Lebowski mansion. There, he discovers The Big Lebowski’s wife, Bunny Lebowski, has been kidnapped and The Big Lebowski wishes to hire him to act as courier in the ransom drop-off. After a botched ransom drop-off and having his car stolen with the ransom money inside the trunk, The Big Lebowski puts a price on The Dude’s head with the kidnappers, giving us the final external goal of the film. From that point forward, The Dude must solve the mystery of Bunny’s disappearance before the kidnappers or The Big Lebowski have him killed.
The characters bring this film to life. I would bet that this film has more memorable scenes than the mighty Casablanca and I don’t say that lightly. Okay…I should probably speak for my generation, though generations on either side might agree, too. There’s something special about the Coens. They understand that everything doesn’t need to be taken seriously. They spend time with characters who do nothing to influence or antagonize their protagonist because they help paint a unique world. It’s a risk most don’t pull off and they seem to make it look easy.
Donny’s around in some major scenes. He rides with The Dude and Walter to shake down Little Larry Sellers, but Walter makes him wait in the car. Poor Donny escapes mere seconds before any angry Corvette owner takes a crowbar to it. He fights off Nihilists with The Dude and Walter, only to die of a heart attack after the altercation. His funeral takes up over half of the epilogue. All that, and Donny’s total significance to the plot equals zero. You could take Donny out and it would still be the same story, but it wouldn’t be the same movie.
Jesus Quintana is a one helluva bowler. His bowling team stands in the way of Walter, Donny, and The Dude surviving the semi-finals. He also happens to be a registered sex offender who served six months in Chino for exposing himself to an eight-year-old. The Coens give us one of the most memorable and quoted characters in the film, and he has less than five minutes of screen time. With all that character, what does Jesus have to do with the plot? Nada, folks. Nada.
I watched a great interview with Sam Elliott on Charlie Rose during my research for this analysis. I’ve embedded a YouTube clip below, where Sam talks about his involvement in The Big Lebowski:
Voice-over narration has developed a bad rap from its use of telling audiences the thoughts of a particular character, something that should be revealed through subtext and action. I’ve taken a ride on that boat before, but it didn’t take me long to realize some of my favorite films use it (The Shawshank Redemption,Network, Taxi Driver, Goodfellas, Memento, Annie Hall, Fight Club, Risky Business, Adaptation, The Royal Tenenbaums).
The Stranger is just another fine example of The Coen Brothers’ brilliant use of character. He’s a third-party perspective to the story, similar to Red in The Shawshank Redemption, but without major scenes that influence the protagonist. He’s another color that paints a more vivid picture. Like with Donny and Jesus, you could take The Stranger out and have the same story, but you sure wouldn’t have the same film.
Inciting Incident — minute 6 — At his apartment, The Dude is attacked by men looking for his wife, Bunny Lebowski. One of the attackers, an Asian-American, pees on on The Dude’s favorite rug. Sadly, it’s just a simple case of mistaken identity — The Dude is not married and his favorite rug has been soiled.
Strong Movement Forward — minute 16 — After meeting with The Big Lebowski and pissing him off, The Dude lies to TBL’s assistant and steals a rug from the mansion.
End of Act One Turn — minute 24 — The Dude meets with The Big Lebowski again to discover his wife, Bunny Lebowski, has been kidnapped for a hefty ransom. Brandt fills him in on the details…
Note: the decision is shown off camera. The Dude accepts The Big Lebowski’s offer. Dialogue later reveals The Big Lebowski offered The Dude twenty thousand dollars for his service.
First Trial / First Casualty — minute 37 — Throwing out a ringer, Walter screws up the ransom drop with Bunny’s kidnappers. The kidnappers escape with Walter’s dirty undies, not the one million dollars.
Combat — minute 40 — The Dude’s car, with one million dollars in the trunk, is stolen.
Midpoint — minute 53 – Outside his apartment, The Dude is manhandled into a waiting limousine. Inside, The Big Lebowski accuses The Dude of stealing the ransom money.
Assumption of Power — minute 67 — The Dude wrecks his car after dropping a joint in his lap. Attempting to get out, he discovers evidence from the car thief: a high school essay on The Louisiana Purchase.
End of Act Two Turn — minute 91 – Maude reveals her father doesn’t have any money of his own. Her family’s money belonged to her late mother and Maude gives her father “a reasonable allowance” to live.
Note: discovering The Big Lebowski has no money gives The Dude a potential motive for The Big Lebowski to pocket the ransom money for himself.
Decision — minute 93 — The Dude calls Walter to drive him to The Big Lebowski’s mansion.
Point of No Return — minute 99 — The Dude and Walter confront The Big Lebowski about the missing money.
Climax — minute 104 — Outside the bowling alley, The Nihilists have torched The Dude’s car. They attack and Walter kicks all of their asses.
Note: it’s funny that The Dude does absolutely nothing at the climax of the film. Along with Donny, he’s just trying to give The Nihilists all his cash and pray they go about their business. It’s Walter that defeats the bad guys in the end.
I’ve provided a detailed, micro-analysis of The Big Lebowski screenplay and film – which breaks down the protagonist’s characterization, misbehaviors, internal and external goals, theme, central dramatic question, story engines, plus a complete beat breakdown — for free. This is based on Daniel P. Calvisi’s Story Maps method. Dan is a story analyst, screenplay consultant, author and screenwriter. Story Maps: How to Write a GREAT Screenplay can be purchased from Amazon.com.
written by Rob Rich