Susan Sarandon crept up to the magnificent double doors. It was February 1993, in Wilmington, North Carolina, and she was visiting her longtime companion, Tim Robbins, who was filming The Hudsucker Proxy. The set's lavish scale clearly took her aback. Was this a Coen Brothers film? Weren't they supposed to be small-budget, art-house, seat-of-the-pants productions peopled with little-known character actors? She poked her head through the doorway to survey the scene: the gargantuan office, massive Art Deco fixtures, terrazzo-marbleized walls—and there, behind a huge desk, wearing a gray suit, smoking a fine cigar, and looking serenely iconic, Paul Newman.
Sarandon turned to the movie's director. "It's gorgeous!"
Joel Coen nodded, almost. Unshaven, ponytailed, fingering a cigarette lighter like a rosary, he has a perpetual up-all-night-for-the-French-lit-exam look. His brother, Ethan, unshaven, curly-haired, and shorter, wandered out of Newman's office trailing a hand along the wall, like a kid counting his footsteps. Ethan is nominally the producer, but the brothers write and film their movies together, behaving as one brain. "Can we make the second hand go faster?" Ethan asked the special-effects gang boss, referring to the huge Hudsucker Industries clock outside Newman's window.
"Like, a hair?"
"Two hairs," Ethan said, with no change of expression. "Two hairs and a tidge." The scene depends on a certain mechanized exactitude: the synchronized movements of a ticker-tape ma...