Exeposé 558 (this won first prize in the University of Exeter Students Guild Xmedia Awards in the category of “Best Interview”. I’m something of a fraud, as the interview was actually more a roundtable Q&A session held in Claridge’s rather than the intimate, face-to-face conversation the article implies. As such, one might track down a half dozen other, awfully similar articles in the student press from this time. Mum’s the word, eh?)
“Would you call yourselves artists?” That was the final question presented to Joel and Ethan Coen during my brief time and the one that stayed with me the longest, possibly because of the fact that, for a pair of men who have given the world some of the most intelligent, thoughtprovoking films over the past couple of decades, the Coens can come across initially as rather a surprise.
Slightly shy, prone to giggling and refreshingly unpretentious, the word “artist,” though perhaps befitting as far as an audience is concerned, hardly seems appropriate. Joel, the older brother at 54, is a tall, wild-haired laconic figure who answers questions with a drawl and comes across as a cross between Tim Burton and Bernard Black. Ethan, 52, meanwhile, is slightly more relaxed but nonetheless seems to share his brother’s occasional habit of breaking into infectious laughter at the odd humorous comment or suggestion. Certainly, the two almost answer seamlessly as one single unit – both offering expressions of the one single whole that is their partnership. No wonder that in Hollywood they are commonly dubbed “The Two-Headed Director.”
The writer-director pairing of Joel and Ethan Coen is a partnership which has been producing films for 25 years. Over this time they have experimented with noir (1990’s Miller’s Crossing), screwball comedy (2003’s Intolerable Cruelty) and even Homer’s Odyssey (2000’s O Brother, Where Art Thou?). To great critical acclaim. However it is their latest film, A Serious Man, which appears to be their perhaps most low-key film yet, bereft as it is of the Coens’ usual range of regulars such as George Clooney, John Turturro and, Joel’s wife, Frances McDormand (although the latter Exeposé shared a revolving door with, so to speak, as she exited London’s exclusive Claridge’s hotel where the interview was taking place).
Indeed, when asked why the brothers sought for the role of Larry Gopnik, the film’s protagonist, an essentially unknown actor, the answer provided by Ethan is one which perhaps encapsulates the film rather well. “We wanted to immerse the audience in that setting, it seems like kind of an exotic… even though it is where we were from, where we grew up. With the benefit of a lot of years perspective it seems like an exotic place to us, and we wanted it to feel like that to the audience and putting a familiar face, y’know, putting a movie star face in that setting would not help, it would diminish the whole feeling of ‘here we are in the everyday reality in this suburban Jewish community in 1967.’ One doesn’t expect George Clooney to show up, or whoever.” Hearing an adjacent laugh from his brother, Ethan deadpans “Actually, it sounds like maybe it would’ve been more interesting.”
As for whether this is indeed their most personal – even autobiographical – film to date, Joel is slightly more non-committal. “Well, it’s… it’s a little bit of both, it’s not really autobiographical because the story’s made up, but it certainly is a movie that takes place in the community just… y’know, consciously we set out to recreate the community we grew up in.” Certainly, the similarities to the brothers’ own backgrounds are there; both went to Hebrew school, both had Bar Mitzvahs, their father was even, like Larry Gropnik, an academic; a professor at a Midwestern university. As Joel adds, “We grew up in a house like that in a neighbourhood like that; all those things I guess you could say in some sense autobiographical, but the story is fiction.”
Does this mean that the Coens see themselves as Aaron Gropnik, the lead’s 13 year-old underachieving son who witnesses his father’s life slowly unravel? “No,” Joel attests. “The character that Michael Stulhbarg is in the movie is not anything like our father; he couldn’t be more different in many ways. The characters themselves weren’t meant to reflect real characters or members of our family or anything else like that.” Nonetheless, Ethan interjects, “That said, Aaron’s character is a pretty typical kid of that environment and probably we were too – not particularly like him, but, y’know, part of that time and place.”
Another interesting point is how A Serious Man fits into the Coen’s overarching filmography. After all, does the move perhaps to a more semi-autobiographical and even more conventional dramatic style reflect the pair having matured as filmmakers? “Well, I don’t know,” Ethan responds, “We don’t really compare movies one to the other or think about it much and maturing… God, who knows. I don’t know – they’re all equally juvenile to me.” Certainly, compared to some of their more genre-oriented pieces A Serious Man is a rather odd inclusion in their catalogue, however for Ethan this is an “unexamined question,” adding, “we don’t actually think about where we’re going or relate the movies one to the other or think about other progressing or regressing.”
It’s interesting, too, to hear how the two actually go about a typical day’s work, particularly when writing. After all, these are two of the greatest American filmmakers working today – do they strive to churn out a regular two or three thousand words each day? “Oh shit no,” Joel attests, however Ethan is slightly less dismissive. “You know, it’s funny – I think that Joel will say if he disagrees but it feels like we’re fairly lazy and yet relative to other people we do seem to get a fair amount done but that just seems to reflect poorly on other people as opposed to well on ourselves.” Ever self-deprecating, he adds “we get very little accomplished and yet we’re outpacing many of our peers.”
However, Joel will admit that their writing process has changed somewhat over the years. “I think maybe it’s become in certain respect a little bit more… professionalised, just due to the sort of pressures of… y’know, when we did Blood Simple we were in our twenties and probably, I can’t remember, sharing an apartment somewhere or living nearby and blah blah blah, and now we’re old fogies with kids and families and we go home at night.” However, does A Serious Man – a film which deals with the trials and tribulations of middle-age – represent any anxiety regarding the years to come for the Coens? “No,” notes Ethan, “not in a specific way. But I don’t think either of us would have written this movie when we were 30, it’s just in a very… imponderable way, yes – only a middle-aged person would have written that, even though neither of us are plagued by any of the problems this character has.”
Nonetheless, the two haven’t always been producing such universally-known material. As a child, Joel saved up money from mowing lawns to buy a Vivitar Super 8 camera which he used with his brother to remake their favourite television shows and produce such fare as Henry Kissinger, Man on the
Go. As for whether they had any advice for budding filmmakers, Joel is slightly wary of prescriptive tips. “It’s been so long since we were ‘budding’ it’s hard to know whether or not any of our experience is relevant to somebody who’s just starting out now.” Ethan adds to this, stating that, “it might sound like a cop-out but it’s so difficult to give a prescription for what you’ve gotta do. From first-hand experience everybody I know in the movie business, which is most of the people I know, got into it through… everybody did it a different way, they all kinda stumbled into it.” Nevertheless, Joel shares that, “it’s certainly easier if you can somehow manage to generate or find your own material as opposed to being reliant on other people for the actual material that you want to make into a movie because then you have an ownership of something, you can go out and try and do something with yourself as opposed to waiting for people to offer you the opportunity to make something… I think it was true when we were starting out and it’s probably still true now.”
Despite this, however, the Coens’ next film is indeed an adaptation, this time of Charles Portis’ 1968 novel True Grit, which was adapted to film in 1969 with John Wayne in the lead role, winning an Oscar in 1970 for his performance. Replacing him as ageing U.S. Marshall Rooster J. Cogburn will be Jeff Bridges, who previously starred in the brothers’ The Big Lebowski. Joining him will be Matt Damon and Josh Brolin, previously seen in No Country for Old Men. When asked whether he thinks Westerns still hold relevance with modern audiences, Joel calmly replies “Yeah, absolutely. So do vampire movies and outer space movies, I’m just not sure we could make an outer space movie.”
But to return to the question raised right at the beginning of this feature – whether or not the Coens consider themselves artists – the pair are characteristically selfdeprecating. “Maybe by default we’re artists,” answers Ethan, “because we can’t figure things out in any kind of organised way.” Joel adds to this by stating “we don’t really think about it. That’s really the honest answer – it’s just, yeah, we consider ourselves ‘filmmakers,’ y’know; we make movies. I wouldn’t put ‘artist’ down on my passport.”
Said like a true Coen.