20 Things You Might Not Have Known About The Coen Brothers’ Raising Arizona
In 1984, brothers Joel and Ethan Coen wrote, produced and directed their debut film, the moody noir Blood Simple. As impressive as it was, this film didn’t necessarily announce to the world that these filmmaker siblings were set to make a major impact on cinema.
Their second feature, the madcap comedy Raising Arizona, went in a radically different direction – and it was here that a distinct film style, soon to be dubbed ‘Coenesque,’ would start to take shape.
Not only that, but three major acting talents would make their first significant mark with the film: Holly Hunter, John Goodman and a certain Mr Nicolas Cage.
Here are 20 things you might not have known about the Coens’ comedy classic.
20. The role of Ed was written specifically for Holly Hunter
The role of Ed – the cop who falls for Nicolas Cage’s repeat offender Hi, and later plots to abduct a baby with him once she learns she’s infertile – seems custom made for Holly Hunter.
As it turns out, there’s actually a pretty good reason Hunter fits the role so well.
The Coens wrote the role specifically for Hunter, who was close friends with Joel Coen’s wife, actress Frances McDormand.
Hunter and McDormand had been dorm-mates whilst studying at the prestigious Yale School of Drama in 1982.
McDormand actually met her future husband whilst sharing an apartment with Hunter, resulting in the three becoming a tight-knit group.
19. Nicolas Cage’s improvisational style jarred with the Coens’ specific directions
Raising Arizona was one of the first films that really allowed Nicolas Cage to do what he does best: i.e. go completely bananas.
However, the actor’s rather unique approach to acting often put him at odds with the Coens.
The actor is said to have made regular suggestions to the brothers which were disregarded.
Cage also did a lot of ad-libbing, his deviations from the Coens’ script ultimately ending up on the cutting room floor.
The relationship between the two Coens and Cage was described as respectful, but turbulent.
18. John Goodman really hit it off with the Coen brothers
Cage may have been at odds with the Coens, but one actor who really gelled with them was John Goodman.
This would be the first of many collaborations Goodman would have with the writer-director duo.
Goodman – who landed his famous role in sitcom Roseanne the year after Raising Arizona – has since appeared in five further Coen Brothers movies, the most famous being 1998’s The Big Lebowski.
Goodman also went on to work with Hunter on several more occasions, including in Always (1989).
Goodman and Hunter would also feature in another Coens movie: 2000’s O Brother, Where Art Thou?.
17. Kevin Costner was a serious contender for Nicolas Cage’s role
In another of those fascinating, yet hard to imagine “what if” stories, it turns out the Coen brothers were very seriously considering another Hollywood superstar for the role of Herbert ‘H.I.’ McDunnough before Cage: none other than Kevin Costner.
Costner reportedly auditioned for the part three times, before the Coens decided on Nicolas Cage instead.
Another star vying for the part early on was Richard Jenkins, who auditioned for the role but ultimately did not make the cut.
This was not the last Coen film the actor would unsuccessfully audition for, with Jenkins also trying out for roles in Fargo (1996) and Miller’s Crossing (1990).
When he finally landed himself a role in one of their movies, it was for a film he never actually auditioned for: The Man Who Wasn’t There (2001).
16. The film’s visual style owes a lot to Sam Raimi’s The Evil Dead
On paper, light-hearted PG-13 comedy Raising Arizona wouldn’t appear to have much in common with notorious video nasty The Evil Dead.
However, it’s long been noted that the camerawork and editing on the two films are remarkably similar.
The Coens were undoubtedly influenced by Evil Dead director Sam Raimi, a friend of theirs and regular collaborator in this period.
Joel Coen helped edit The Evil Dead, while the brothers co-wrote Raimi’s second movie, Crimewave.
It’s generally believed that the brothers chose Raising Arizona’s specific visual style in homage to The Evil Dead, a film they both admired.
15. The Coens were genuinely scared of Lone Biker of the Apocalypse actor Randall ‘Tex’ Cobb
Leonard Smalls, AKA the Lone Biker of the Apocalypse, is perhaps the most outlandish character in a movie that’s already pretty out there.
It might seem unbelievable, but reportedly actor Randall ‘Tex’ Cobb was every bit as larger-than-life in reality.
The actor caused quite a few issues on set, with his overwhelming presence and full-on personality.
Joel Coen described Cobb as “less an actor than a force of nature,” and noted “I don’t know if I’d rush headlong into employing him for a future film.”
It seems Coen stuck to his word, as Cobb has yet to make another appearance in a movie by the Coen brothers.
14. Cobb couldn’t actually ride a motorcycle
While Cobb had the intimidating persona down no problem (he was formerly a boxer), there was one rather important personal detail he neglected to tell the filmmakers when was cast as the biker.
This was the small matter of the fact that he didn’t actually know how to ride a motorcycle.
As a result, Cobb fell off his bike and broke his shoulder on his first day of filming, and subsequently had to have surgery.
This didn’t deter the actor, who completed his scenes under the influence of heavy painkillers.
Cobb’s shoulder injuries would go on to haunt him for several more years, however: in Golden Child (1986), you can see Cobb holding his belt loop on his right side as he still couldn’t move his right arm easily.
13. The film had some vocal critics in the real Arizona
Despite the title and the setting, the Coen brothers admitted to not knowing much about the real state of Arizona.
Joel explained the film takes place in ‘an Arizona of the mind,’ based primarily on the filmmakers’ creative sensibilities.
Many in Arizona were unhappy with the film, with one local paper complaining it depicted the state’s citizenship as ‘hicks with bad taste in clothes.’
There was so much outcry, in fact, that Joel Coen felt compelled to release a public statement defending the film.
Despite this, the mayor of Scottsdale remained unconvinced, angry about the film’s apparent lack of ‘societal value’.
12. There’s a hint that the film exists in a Coen Brothers cinematic universe
In the early scenes which see Cage’s H.I. working alongside M. Emmet Walsh in a machinist workshop, eagle-eyed viewers might notice that their uniforms are marked ‘Hudsucker Industries.’
This fictitious corporation would be the focal point of the Coen Brothers’ 1994 film, The Hudsucker Proxy.
The Hudsucker Proxy had actually already been written when Raising Arizona went into production.
The Coen Brothers had planned to make that screwball comedy after the success of Blood Simple (1984).
However, because the movie’s budget ($40 million) was too great for the studio, they decided to produce Raising Arizona instead. The Hudsucker Proxy would finally be released in 1994.
11. It’s been named one of the best comedies ever, and is a favourite of some notable filmmakers
While a lot of critics didn’t know what to make of it on release, Raising Arizona’s reputation has grown with time.
Initial criticisms included the fact that the film was ‘too self conscious’ and ‘manneristic’.
There was also confusion over whether the film was supposed to be fantasy or set in the real world.
However, the film has since been listed as one of the greatest comedies ever by both the American Film Institute and the British Film Institute.
Shaun of the Dead filmmaker Edgar Wright has to boot declared Raising Arizona his favourite film of all time, whilst actor Matthew McConaughey says he’s watched it more times than any other movie.
10. 15 different babies play the Arizona quintuplets in the film
Yes, you read that right. It took a small army of babies to play the Arizona quintuplets – an army of 15, in fact.
The directors encountered baby problems on set, largely down to the fact that the babies just wouldn’t stop growing (who’d have thought it?).
The parents of these adorable rogues went to extreme measures to prevent them being canned from the production.
After one baby was fired when it started to walk, a mother of one actor baby decided to take matters into her own hands.
She went so far as to put the baby’s shoes on backwards to prevent him from being able to walk.
9. Nicolas Cage gave a fan a horrifying autograph during filming
According to Sam McMurray, who plays Glen in the film, Cage had a strange encounter with a fan on the set of Raising Arizona.
Whilst on a break from filming, Cage and McMurray headed to a local chain restaurant.
Before too long, however, the two actors were approached by an excited female fan.
At first, the woman couldn’t decide if Cage was actually Nicolas Cage, and took quite some convincing to come around.
Once she was persuaded, the fan asked for an autograph. Cage took her napkin and wrote: ‘Tomorrow you will die. Nic Cage’.
8. It was written to be the complete opposite film to Blood Simple
Although the Coens’ Blood Simple had shot them to success, they were after something a little less refined the second time around.
They decided Raising Arizona should be much more simple and upbeat, with the script worked around the character of H.I.
In order to create the character’s unique-sounding dialect, the Coen Brothers created a hybrid between the local Texas accent and the dialect used in reading materials read by the characters.
This largely consisted of various magazines, as well as the Bible.
In contrast to the characters in Blood Simple, the actors’ on-screen personas were supposed to incite feelings of sympathy from the viewer.
7. It received mixed reviews on release
After its release, Raising Arizona received a mixed reception from critics, despite the fact that it would later become a cult classic.
David Denby of New York labelled the film a ‘deranged fable of the New West’, appreciating the Coens’ use of sarcasm as a ‘rude yet affectionate mode of comedy’.
The New Yorker had a similar sentiment, stating that although the film was ‘no big deal’, it had ‘rambunctious charm’.
However, not everyone had such glowing reviews, with some critics declaring that the film had ‘more style than substance’.
Roger Ebert was scathing in his appraisal, writing that Raising Arizona ‘stretches out every moment for more than it’s worth, until even the moments of inspiration seem forced’.
6. One actor playing Nathan Jr was considered a ‘natural’
As previously mentioned, there were a total of 15 babies playing the role of Nathan Jr (baby Arizona). These select few were whittled down from over 400 baby applicants.
Of course, due to those pesky child labour laws, it was vital that the role be shared between the 15 babies. One of these babies seemed to enjoy the limelight more than others, however, and made quite an impression on the crew.
TJ Kuhn was considered such a natural that it was decided he didn’t even need a stand-in for the part.
Despite his talent, Kuhn did not continue his acting career, and now works as a realtor in Phoenix.
His dad, however, wasn’t quite as keen to let go of his child’s promising future in the arts, and apparently still loves to give out signed copies of the film today.
5. No animals were harmed in the making of this film
If you’re a lizard fan, you’ll be relieved to hear that no animals were harmed during the filming of Raising Arizona.
The introductory scene might point to the contrary, however (it largely consists of animals coming to grisly ends).
Luckily for the rabbits involved, ‘killing’ them with a hand grenade was actually the result of post-production editing.
For the shot of the lizard being blasted off a rock by a shotgun, meanwhile, slightly more unorthodox tactics were used.
The crew attached a miniature harness to the lizard, and swiftly yanked it out of the bomb’s path.
4. There was an eclectic soundtrack
Carter Burwell was the composer behind the iconic soundtrack of Raising Arizona, and this was his second collaboration with the Coen Brothers.
The sounds come from a mix of instruments, including an organ, a banjo, a choir, yodelling and a good old human voicebox, in the form of whistling.
Burwell chose to borrow themes from ‘Goofing Off Suite’ by legendary singer Pete Seeger, which also includes an excerpt of a chorale movement from Beethoven’s Symphony No.9.
There was even a professional yodelling expert brought in named John R. Crowder.
Hunter also sings a traditional murder ballad, Down in the Willow Garden, as a ‘lullaby’.
3. The Coen brothers appeared to communicate psychically on-set
Nicolas Cage was just 22 at the time of filming Raising Arizona, and he struggled to adapt to the Coen brothers’ insistence that the actors involved stick staunchly to the script.
As previously mentioned, this led to difficulties between the Coens and their leading man.
Cage had not yet fully found his footing in the film industry, and was anxious to add his own personal stamp to the role, much to the Coens’ frustration.
In an interview, Cage recalled the time Ethan Coen was unhappy with a take, and got his brother’s attention by simply saying ‘hey’.
Joe replied to him with a simple ‘I know’, with the pair then going on to explain exactly what Cage had done wrong.
2. H.I.’s hair reacted to his stress levels
According to legend, Cage was a big fan of the new ‘do the Coens gave him to play H.I. on Raising Arizona.
And let’s face it, with that bouffant’s unique Woody Woodpecker vibes, who can blame him?
Apparently, this hair also displays some rather magical qualities throughout the film, which a close observer may just have noticed.
The hair actually reacts to H.I.’s stress level, which we can only imagine must have been quite high considering he was on the run with an abducted child.
If you watch the film closely, you’ll see that the bigger the danger H.I is in, the bigger the wave in his hair gets.
1. The stadium Nathan Jr plays football in is featured in other popular films
Towards the end of Raising Arizona, we see a fully-grown Nathan Jr playing football.
The stadium featured is the Sun Devil Stadium, on the campus of the Arizona State University in Tempe.
However, this is not the only film to feature the iconic university stadium.
It can also be seen in the remake of A Star is Born (1976), starring Barbra Streisand and Kris Kristofferson.
You can also spot it in the Robert Zemeckis comedy Used Cars (1980) and in Cameron Crowe’s Jerry Maguire (1996).