The Curious Case of Roderick Jaynes

On February 11, 1997, Roderick Jaynes received his first Oscar nomination, for the editing of Joel Coen’s film Fargo. The award went to Walter Murch for The English Patient, and one might argue that in Jaynes’ case simply being nominated was a victory in its own right – not least because, as the man himself candidly admitted a few years later, Roderick Jaynes doesn’t exist. 

It is not uncommon for filmmakers to use pseudonyms for whatever reason (besides Alan Smithee scenarios): Takeshi Kitano has a sort of artistic split personality, going by Beat Takeshi for his acting credits and his real name for everything else, while Steven Soderbergh uses the nom de camera Peter Andrews when he moonlights as a cinematographer and Mary Ann Bernard when he edits.. 

The Coen brothers, who up until 2018 wrote, produced, directed, and edited together, came up with Jaynes because their own names already appeared often enough in the credits: while they shared the writing credit, they had to split the directing and producing mentions (Joel officially did the former and Ethan the latter), since Directors Guild rules forbid dual credits unless the co-directors are an established duo. This lasted from 1984 (Blood Simple) until 2003 (Intolerable Cruelty). Jaynes stuck around for a while longer. 

In fact, he is – or, at this point, was – the Coens’ longest-serving collaborator behind the camera, aside from composer Carter Burwell (Roger Deakins, the duo’s go-to cinematographer, joined the cinematic family in 1991).

That is perhaps also the reason he was chosen to write the introduction for the volume collecting Joel and Ethan’s first four screenplays (Blood Simple, Raising Arizona, Miller’s Crossing, and Barton Fink), sardonically recounting the beginning of a fruitful, albeit completely imaginary partnership that had lasted almost uninterruptedly for two decades at the time, even though he only worked on the first of the four movies featured in the collection: Michael R. Miller edited the brothers’ second and third film, while Thom Noble handled the fourth.

Over the years, the Coens came up with biographical details, painting a portrait of an elderly, curmudgeonly Englishman who had technically retired from the film industry but made an exception for the two brothers. His regular absences at awards ceremonies were, according to the duo, because of his fondness for cricket matches, which he watches at home in Howards Heath (a place that, naturally, does not exist). And, in true Coenesque fashion, the ruse was unveiled in the most unpredictably hilarious manner. 

In 2001, Jaynes penned an article for The Guardian, describing his professional rapport with the Coens and detailing the surreal backstory of the title The Man Who Wasn’t There. It’s a perfectly charming flight of fancy in its own right, perfectly attuned to the brothers’ sense of humor, and then it ends on the brilliant note that is the author’s biography: “Roderick Jaynes is a figment of the imaginations of Ethan and Joel Coen.” There it was, in print. And yet…

And yet, even though the connection is, at worst, an open secret, Joel and Ethan would still be unable to accept any Oscars that might come Jaynes’ way, because of Academy rules: as he has a separate credit on their films, he is considered his own person. As such, he would have to accept his own award, since the Academy banned speeches by proxy after Marlon Brando’s 1973 stunt involving Sacheen Littlefeather (the sole exception is for posthumous prizes). 

This reached delightfully paradoxical levels at the 2008 Academy Awards, when Jaynes was nominated for editing No Country for Old Men (the winner was Christopher Rouse for The Bourne Ultimatum). In addition to keeping up the charade in interviews, explaining their collaborator’s failure to show up, the brothers had also submitted an official photo of the British gentleman to the Academy, to be used when announcing the nominees. When he lost the Oscar, the brothers stated they hadn’t yet heard from him on the matter, as he likes to keep to himself. 

In fact, chances are he will remain a recluse for the foreseeable future, even without taking his fictional age into account (per the Coens’ anecdotes, he’s supposed to be a centenarian by now). His last credit was on 2018’s The Ballad of Buster Scruggs, a film that will go down in history as marking the end of the brothers’ cinematic partnership: by all accounts, Ethan Coen is done with moviemaking, while Joel keeps working on his lonesome, this time truly earning the sole directorial credit he used to exhibit out of necessity. 

His first movie without his brother’s involvement is 2021’s The Tragedy of Macbeth (which will be available worldwide on Apple TV+ starting January 14). Perhaps as a nod to that shift, the editing of this bold and brutal adaptation of the Bard’s text is now credited to one “Reginald Jaynes,” rather than Roderick. More notable, though, is the fact that, for the first time in 20 years (Ethan’s wife Tricia Cooke co-edited the films released between 1998 and 2001), someone else is officially credited alongside the Coens’ quirky alter ego. And that person is very real. 

His name is Lucian Johnston, and he’s best known for editing Hereditary and Midsommar, in addition to serving as the first assistant editor on the aforementioned Buster Scruggs. Whether he will be Joel Coen’s new go-to collaborator remains to be seen, but it is certainly an interesting spin on a story that has produced memorable results for almost four decades. And if he stays on, one imagines he will actually be allowed to speak, should his non-existent colleague win an Oscar one day. But that, as Shakespeare might have put it, is a question for tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow…

“The Tragedy of Macbeth” streams Friday on Apple TV+.

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