The Coen Brothers, unlike many siblings, tend to work pretty well together. Some might say eerily well. They write their screenplays together and direct their films together, although Ethan is more of a writer and Joel more of a director (and Joel got a slightly earlier start than Joel, serving as an assistant editor for another small cult film, The Evil Dead, in 1981). They even play nice when it comes to taking credit by alternating top billing for their screenplays and sharing editing credits under the alias Roderick Jaynes.
The Nerdy Coen and the Artsy Coen
The brothers were born in St. Louis Park, a suburb of Minneapolis. They made movies in their backyard using a Vivitar Super 8 camera. Their very first film was called Henry Kissinger—Man on the Go; even back then, they were pretty fond of poking fun at important people.
Ethan was always more interested in writing and reading, and Joel was usually the one who took the reins behind the camera. Ethan ended up going to Princeton University, where he majored in philosophy. Joel attended the undergraduate film program at New York University. When they got out of college, they decided to combine forces to form the Coen Brothers, a dynamic filmmaking duo. (No, they don't have superpowers, although if you look at their body of work, it sometimes seems like they do.)
It's All Coming Together
A lot of the characters in The Big Lebowski were actually based on people the Coen Brothers knew in L.A. They actually met a guy who was a Vietnam vet who owned a small rug that he said "really tied the room together." While filming Barton Fink, they met a filmmaker who loved guns, and he became the inspiration for Walter.
They wrote the roles of Donny and Walter for Steve Buscemi and John Goodman, respectively, but they weren't sure who was going to play The Dude. Jeff Bridges eventually auditioned for the role and won it. He claimed he'd been kind of a slacker himself in the '60s and '70s, which put him in tune with The Dude's mellowed-out vibe.
Struggling to justify The Dude's ability to rent an apartment without a reliable source of income, the Coens originally wanted to make him heir to the Rubik's Cube fortune. But that idea was eventually scrapped from the screenplay because the other Jeff Lebowski in the movie is already a multimillionaire. Having two wealthy Lebowskis just seemed redundant.
Pitch Time? Not Exactly …
Since the Coen Brothers were directing their own movie—Joel gets the official title in the opening credits, but directing was still a team effort—they didn't exactly have to pitch the screenplay to themselves. But they did have to develop a coherent vision that would help them make the movie they wanted to make. According to Joel, their vision went something like this:
We wanted something that would generate a certain narrative feeling—like a modern Raymond Chandler story, and that's why it had to be set in Los Angeles ... We wanted to have a narrative flow, a story that moves like a Chandler book through different parts of town and different social classes. (Source)
The brothers used Robert Altman's film adaptation of The Long Goodbye for visual inspiration and set out from there.
The Finished Product
As brother-auteurs with hits like Blood Simple (1984), Barton Fink (1991), and Fargo (1996) behind them, the Coens made The Big Lebowski pretty darn confident that they wouldn't have to compromise their artistic vision. The Big Lebowski ended up being exactly what the Coens set out to make: a new take on the gritty L.A. detective stories of the '40s and '50s with a surreally comedic twist. And, of course, that hidden political agenda.