Here's how the story begins: A young guy with a film degree but no idea what to do with it leaves his home in Ohio and goes to Texas to talk his way into a low-end job on a movie set, runs out of money, hears about a couple of vaguely eccentric brothers who are making a movie in Phoenix called “Raising Arizona” and heads there to see if, what-the-heck, they'll hire him.
It sounds like the set-up for a movie; as the story unfolds, the young man gets the job, and 20 years later is still working with Joel and Ethan Coen, having forged with them the strong working relationship that takes their movies from the script stage to the here’s-how-it-will-look-on-film stage.
In other words, J. Todd Anderson is the guy who lets us see exactly what’s going on in the Coen brothers’ heads. Lucky him. And lucky us.
Anderson, a resident of Oakwood in suburban Dayton, is the storyboard artist for the Academy Award-winning Coen brothers and has been since “Raising Arizona” in 1987. Today he counts “the boys,” as he often calls them, as friends and colleagues.
Not bad for a guy who graduated from Wright State University and lives far, far from Hollywood. At age 49, he can claim a successful moviemaking career while making his home not on the coasts, but in the Midwest, where he is very much from and still prefers to live. He says he wasn’t “brave or crazy enough” to live in Los Angeles when he might’ve made the move (“I’m a big coward; I can’t put up with all that LA attitude”), but now loves the city as a place to visit and refire his movie engines.
Those engines have fueled Anderson into becoming quite a renaissance guy: He works not only for the Coens, but also has done storyboards for George Clooney, Drew Barrymore and other directors; he’s done some acting; he has produced and directed two small comedy movies; and he hosts a show on public radio.
But it’s the storyboarding that “pays the bills.”
Storyboard artists, for those who don’t pay attention to the credits that roll past at the end of a visit to the multiplex, are involved in the pre-production of a movie, plotting out the scenes and shots before the cameras start rolling. They are hired to take the script and talk through it with the director, translating their vision for the film into a practical, shot-by-shot layout that can serve as a blueprint on the set for getting everything done.
Some directors barely bother with this process, choosing instead to make things up as they go once they’re on location. The Coens are most definitely not in that group.
“They are very meticulous; they have a system,” Anderson says. When Joel and Ethan, who write, direct and produce together, are ready, they call Anderson for the storyboarding sessions. The three of them, along with the director of photography, hole up and hash through the movie. The Coens work through the script a scene at a time, describing what they want on screen and how they think shots and scenes should unfold. Anderson, Sharpie in hand, listens closely and puts it down on paper as quickly as he can. Angles, approaches, camera movements, close-ups — he draws them all. That night, he redraws and refines the day’s session, reworks it as necessary and then they move on.
What he produces are well-designed, minutely detailed narratives that lay out the entire movie, so that the Coens have to waste no time, or money, on the set. Anderson’s storyboards are so precise that if you see the movie before you see the storyboards, it looks as though they were drawn from the film afterward, rather than the other way around.
Many of his friends and fans in Dayton got to see that when he showed his storyboards, in sequential order, for three movies as a benefit for Film Dayton, a local film support group. The movies were the cult favorite “The Big Lebowski,” made by the Coens in 1998; “No Country For Old Men,” last year’s Best Picture Academy Award winner; and Clooney’s retro football comedy, “Leatherheads.” At the exhibition reception last summer, Anderson showed how he does his storyboarding by pulling somebody out of the audience and drawing a scene the man described off the top of his head; the crowd of about 200 people watched the idea take shape and bloom into what could easily become a motion picture.
With the Coens, this process typically takes four to eight weeks and results in a finished book of nearly 1,000 drawings. Once the shooting starts, he says, his job is largely done — until it’s time for them to start making another movie. “The guys have a pretty good system,” he says. “I’m just awfully lucky that they keep hiring me to do it. I have a really good time.”
When he was taking film classes at Wright State, he couldn’t have imagined it would turn out this well. Not sure what to do with himself and his degree, but knowing he could draw, he headed to Dallas after graduation on a tip that he might get a job on the set for a movie that was being shot there — an experience he ended up hating. When he heard about “Raising Arizona” in 1985, he headed out on a lark, and Anderson was stunned to learn that the Coens needed a storyboard artist — something he knew he could do.
It worked out and they kept calling, through the 1990s and “Miller’s Crossing,” “Barton Fink,” “The Hudsucker Proxy,” “Fargo,” “Intolerable Cruelty” and other films, all the way up to “No Country...” and the Coens’ most recent, “Burn After Reading.” His name got around and storyboarding work came from Clooney, Barrymore and others; his storyboard credits for non-Coen films include “Men in Black,” “Nell” and “Twister.” His resume at the Internet Movie Database, imdb.com, is long.
His own shot at being on screen came during “Fargo,” in which he is the “dead guy in the show,” as he puts it, and in the Coens’ recent “Burn After Reading,” in which “I’m the idiot.”
While “Raising Arizona” is his favorite, since it was his first, he’s most passionate about his own movies. In 1997, he made “The Naked Man,” a small and little-seen indie about “a wrestling chiropractor,” in Anderson’s words, that mostly taught him how to make a movie from scratch. Later, he wrote, produced, directed and starred in “My Mummy,” a supernatural comedy that might remind one of a cross between Mel Brooks and the Marx Brothers, on a very low budget. He finished it last year.
Anderson’s budget was so low, in fact, that he took the production to his hometown of New Carlisle, a village in Clark County between Dayton and Springfield. His friends, downtown streets and local businesses all show up in the movie, which took four years to make, and which later gave Anderson a crash course in the hard fact that finding a distributor for a small independent film is harder than making the film in the first place, which is already hard enough.
Meanwhile, he keeps busy with other projects. With his longtime friend and film-buff buddy George Willeman, he produces a weekly public-radio show on WYSO-FM in Yellow Springs called “Filmically Perfect,” in which the two wax enthusiastically — and knowledgeably — about great movies and why they’re great (visit www.perfectmovie.net
He also recently wrote and produced “Nativity,” a new, original pop opera about the birth of Jesus that was modeled after the rock operas of the 1970s, and which got six performances in December at a Dayton-area church.
Despite his success, Anderson remains modest and approachable in his hometown, where his career is well-known but not too much fussed over. The Dayton area, after all, has its share of film talent — Martin Sheen, Rob and Chad Lowe, Allison Janney, Dave Chappelle, among others, hail from there — but so far, the region has only one star storyboard artist. Nobody is more nonchalant about his work than Anderson himself.
“In the movie business, there’s really no such thing as talent — it’s all persistence. I just persisted, was all. I’ve been able to make an artist’s living, and I’m very, very fortunate. The Coens have looked out for me and protected me, and taken me along for the ride.”
Quite a ride, at that.