By Rob Rich.
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 Big Lebowski Screenplay: The History
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, following a ruling of 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.
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. ~Joel Coen
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 the 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.
The Big Lebowski Screenplay: The Structure
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. ~Ethan Coen
This is a film about a man, in a case of mistaken identity, who 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 a 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.