The Coen Brothers Look Wryly at Their Films

06.09.2013 17:00

When Joel and Ethan Coen were
growing up, they used to make Super 8
films, including remakes of Hollywood
movies that they had watched on TV.
Since then, the Coens have continued to
let their imagination loose while
ranging wide across cinematic and
literary genres, drawing on pulp
literature (“Blood Simple,” “Miller’s
Crossing” ), screwball cinema (“The
Hudsucker Proxy,” “Intolerable
Cruelty”), Homer’s Odyssey (“O
Brother, Where Art Thou?”), the Bible
and their own suburban Minneapolis
childhood (“A Serious Man” ) to make
movies that, increasingly, have the
quality of an evolving, distinctly
American mythopoeia.
In July, Manohla Dargis and A. O.
Scott, the chief film critics for The New
York Times, met with Joel Coen, now
58, and Ethan Coen, 55, in Santa
Monica, Calif., to discuss their work,
including their latest film, “Inside
Llewyn Davis” (Dec. 6) about a 1961
folk singer (played by Oscar Isaac),
who’s struggling with his music, the
world, the changing times and — this
being the Coens — his comically flawed
humanity. The brothers sat across
from each other and at times seemed to
share a single (very large and fast-
moving) brain. These are excerpts from
the conversation.
Q. Can you talk about the genesis of
“Inside Llewyn Davis”?
Ethan Coen We were in the office and
Joel said, “O.K., suppose Dave Van
Ronk gets beat up outside of Gerde’s
Folk City. That’s the beginning of a
Joel Coen It was an idea we kept
coming back to. We were thinking
1961 is interesting, because it’s the
scene that Dylan came into, not the one
he created or transformed, because
people know more about that. Dylan
once said something — and I’m
paraphrasing him — “Really, all I
wanted is to be as big as Dave Van
Ronk.” That’s how limited that scene
was, in terms of the people in the
broader culture.
Did you grow up listening to that
Ethan Yeah, sort of, through Bob Dylan,
like everybody else, probably.
Joel I’m a little older than Ethan, but I
have very vague early memories of
hearing folk music, my mother playing
it or something, when I was fairly
Ethan We had a fantastic record of a
concert, a rock concert, of Big Bill
Broonzy and Pete Seeger, which is kind
of ——
Joel Yes, that was a really early record
that was a concert in Chicago, where
Pete played. In fact, that’s how we met
T Bone [Burnett]. T Bone called us up
sort of out of the blue after he saw
“Raising Arizona,” because he thought it
was very amusing that we played
Beethoven on banjo in the score in the
movie. We said to him, “Well, we really
stole that from Pete Seeger,” because
Pete Seeger played that. We knew it
from this concert record.
Ethan Oh, the one disclaimer I
should’ve made when we talked about
the genesis of the movie: We did start
thinking about Dave Van Ronk, and in
fact read his memoir, which is kind of
great, “The Mayor of Macdougal
Street.” But the movie’s not about Dave
Van Ronk, although Oscar, the
character, has his kind of repertoire.
It’s his music. It’s a fictional character
we gave his music to.
How did you find Oscar Isaac?
Joel After we wrote the movie and we
started casting it, we knew that there
was going to be a lot of performance in
the movie, and that actually when you
heard a song in the movie, we really
wanted to hear the whole song. And it’s
also a story where we felt like there’s
got to be something about the character
that you only know through his
performance and his music — you
know, like a real musician. So we only
auditioned real musicians.
Ethan [Laughs.]
Joel You know, that was not so great.
It’s often possible — sometimes it’s
even easy — to get somebody like that
through a scene or two scenes or three
scenes or whatever, and it’s great, it’s
fine. But this character’s literally in
every scene in the movie, so we
realized we were going the wrong
direction, and we just started seeing
actors who could play, as opposed to
musicians who could act. And there are
more of those, by the way.
Ethan And we’ve been doing this like,
30 years. You’d think we know
something as basic as this, that you
need an actor.
Joel I know. It was a little insane.
Oscar came in and he said, “Most
actors, if you ask them if they play
guitar, they’ll say they played guitar for
20 years, but what they really mean is
they’ve owned a guitar for 20 years.”
Oscar’s actually played guitar since he
was little little, you know? He played,
and we sent the tape to T Bone, and T
Bone said, “This guy’s actually a better
musician than a lot of the studio guys I
work with.” So we went, “We found
Can we talk a little bit about how you
write? Are you locked in a room
Joel It’s always been the same. We
don’t split it up. You know: “You write
this scene. You write that.” There’s a
lot of just sitting around talking ideas
before we start writing anything. So
there’s kind of a long period of that,
and then we generally start at the
beginning and just kind of start
hammering the scenes out. We don’t
outline stuff or any of that, although
there are some movies where we kind
of have a pretty good idea of the shape
of it. Or we even know how it’s going
to end when we start, and then others
where we just have no idea whatsoever,
and it goes where it goes. They don’t all
Ethan This one actually ——
Joel Don’t get finished. They get put
aside for a while, you know.
Ethan The rule is: It goes where it goes,
although in the case of this one, we
kind of knew either at the beginning or
near the very beginning, that it was
going to circle back.
Who’s typing?
Ethan Usually me, because I type
faster, but sometimes Joel. We’ll just
talk the scene back and forth, and
occasionally, one of us will sit down
and say, “Oh, wait, I’ve got something.”
If it’s an idea that consists of a few
lines, an exchange, one of us will type
without consulting the other.
Are you comfortable throwing out
each other’s bad ideas?
Ethan Oh, sure, yeah.
Joel Perfectly comfortable, very
comfortable. But you know, someone
asked us once how we adapt novels,
and Ethan said, “Joel holds the book
open by the spine, while I retype it into
the computer.”
Your recent adaptations [of “True
Grit” by Charles Portis and “No
Country for Old Men” by Cormac
McCarthy] are remarkably faithful.
Ethan Yeah, they’re really good books,
Joel Don’t change it if it’s not broken!
Has working together changed over
the 30 years?
Joel Not really.
Have other things changed?
Joel Well, the craft of it’s changed a lot,
just because of digital technology.
That’s the thing that’s been the most
radical. I mean, outside of that, it’s still
the same as when we were making
Super 8 movies, basically. This movie
was not shot digitally. We shot it on
film. It’s probably ——
Ethan Probably the last one.
Joel It might be the last one we ever do
on film.
Ethan “True Grit” was the last film that
Roger Deakins shot on film.
Joel We were one of the last people to
stop cutting on film. And when we
stopped, people would say, “Why?”
Honestly, the answer was because we
couldn’t find assistants who knew how
to work on film. They didn’t exist
anymore. I mean, it was — I remember
being in Ken Loach’s cutting room
around then, and I said — he was
cutting on a Steenbeck back then — and
I said, “How do you do this?” And he
pointed like that [points] and there was
this, like, 96-year-old guy on the
When did you make the shift to
digital editing?
Ethan “Intolerable Cruelty” was the
first one we cut.
Have you tried out any digital
cameras yet?
Ethan We’ve seen Roger’s tests of the
Alexa, which are pretty remarkable,
which is the eerie thing.
Joel I think both of us — and T Bone I
would throw in here, too — are very
sort of analog. I’d rather listen to vinyl
than to a CD. I’d rather see a movie
shot on film. I don’t think they look the
same. I think you can duplicate things
with digital technology, but what you
end up doing is trying to recapture
elements of photochemical technology
that aren’t there, and they always look
a little screwy.
Ethan The analog texture feels so good.
Joel There was a period of time when
you could choose whether you were
shooting in black and white or in color,
and depending on the subject matter —
and usually it’s sort of genre-driven
and all the rest. It would be great if
you could say, “This movie lends itself
to digital shooting, this one, black and
white,” without there being any kind of
arty stigma put on it. It’s just another
thing you can try.
You make movies that are released
by studios and win Oscars, yet on
some level, you are still not
mainstream guys. It’s kind of a
contradictory position.
Joel Yeah, I know. You know, we’ve
talked about that ourselves. It’s weird.
Ethan Yeah. If you’ll pardon me, the
indie thing might all just be a
journalists’ thing. James Cameron
makes huge movies that are what he
wants to do, and they’re financed and
released by studios. Indie is like, a
term of praise that you use for us,
fortunately, and some of you bash Jim
Cameron for not being, although he
kind of is.
But certainly there were people who
were making movies outside of the
studio system.
Joel Maybe that’s more what it is.
Because when we started out, it was
just the default place because no one
would give us money to make a movie.
We would’ve taken it if it had been
offered when we were making our first
movie. We would’ve gone, “Is there
somebody who will pay for this in a big
Hollywood studio?” We were moving
toward the indie thing, but in another
way we were always hoping a big
studio would release the movies. And
there was a point where we looked at
each other, and we went, “I guess we’re
kind of the mainstream guys.” You
know, when we won the Oscar.
Ethan That’s true.
Joel We said, “How’d that happen?”
Ethan We are the establishment now.
Some of that is generational.
Ethan I was just talking about that,
actually, with our dear friend Steven
Spielberg. The three of us ——
Joel It’s true. It’s true. Because even
he’s had to go: “How did I get here?
Why am I the establishment guy?” —
you know?
Ethan Is there a way to half-put irony
quotes around the “dear friend” thing?
Since you mention him: He and
George Lucas recently talked about
the state of the movie business and
how frustrated they are with it. Do
you have thoughts on it?
Ethan God, I don’t know. What do you
say? I don’t know. What do you say?
A lot. Or nothing.
Ethan You know, moaning about that
stuff: it might be true, and it might be a
hallmark of getting old, and it might be
both. You know? Isn’t that what you
complain about when you get old,
about how it’s harder?
It’s a recurrent theme — the crisis in
Joel It’s definitely harder now. On the
other hand, I think you can exaggerate
that, too, because the movie business in
the United States, despite the sort of ups
and downs of the economy, is still a
very healthy business. And that healthy
business is going to support — and it
always has — a lot of niche
moviemaking. More than you might
expect it to, given the mentality.
There’s still a lot of interesting stuff
being made which is completely outside
of the kind of trend that we’re
describing, you know?
Ethan We’ve always actually been
remarkably commercially successful.
Not in terms of making huge amounts
of money, which we rarely do, but in
terms of not losing money and making
modest amounts of money. We’re
actually strangely consistent in that
respect. We’ve been able to keep
making movies because of that and also
because, strangely, we’ve had studio
patrons, starting from Barry Diller.
Sometimes they’re establishment people
who know they’re not going to make
huge amounts of money, but they like
your movies. They’re moviegoers, too.
Joel And mostly they’re making
blockbusters, but when you get in a
room with them, they go, “Go off and
make your movie, and I’ll do it as long
as I can’t get hurt too bad.” You know?
They’re completely open to that still.
They don’t want to get burned.
Ethan They don’t want to look stupid.
Joel Nobody wants to look stupid or
lose lots of money. On the other hand,
they’re not afraid of doing other stuff
if they can trust you to keep it
reasonable. So, yeah, they kind of let us
wander off without any adult
supervision and do what we want.