As Hail, Caesar! hits cinemas, Hollywood’s cult classic-crafting brothers talk ShortList through their strange and unique career
In a career that has spanned 32 years and 17 films, Joel and Ethan Coen, AKA the Coen brothers, have built a reputation as both Hollywood’s most idiosyncratic filmmakers and its most sought after.
Combining dark comedy with visual flair to create slightly askew worlds that are unmistakably their own, the Coens are also celebrated for the way in which each of their films is stylistically different to the last and a CV that includes everything from pastiches of Thirties gangster films to their Oscar-winning adaptation of Cormac McCarthy’s No Country For Old Men. With half of Hollywood clamouring to work on their films – latest effort Hail, Caesar! features everyone from George Clooney and Channing Tatum to Scarlett Johansson and Tilda Swinton – it’s the perfect time to look back at how they got here.
Miller's Crossing (1990)
Joel: The whole movie is a rip-off of Dashiell Hammett’s crime novels, so the point of Gabriel Byrne’s character Tom Reagan is that he’s enigmatic, like Sam Spade or the Continental Op character. The thing I’ve always found so compelling about Hammett is the way he would centre stories on someone who was impenetrable but always thinking.
Ethan: Also there’s a mystery not just about who the character is but about what the methodology is. It’s that Hammett idea of just throwing everything up in the air in order to deal with the pieces when they land. Kind of mixing it up.
Ethan: The other thing is that Tom is loyal but even he doesn’t really know how he’s going to go, which way he’ll fall.
Joel: Even at the end of the movie you don’t really know what Tom thinks.
Barton Fink (1991)
Joel: Barton Fink is like Hail, Caesar! from the communist writer’s side… [laughs]. No they’re stylistically different, intentionally so. But Barton Fink is the only movie we would consider doing a sequel to. The idea is that we do something called ‘Old Fink’ but we don’t want to do it really until [John] Turturro [who played Barton Fink] is actually old enough to play the part.
Ethan: He’s getting there.
Joel: I don’t think it has any real commercial appeal. We want to see the character doing the Summer of Love in 1967 as an older professor.
Joel: In a way, the idea with Marge [Gunderson, the pregnant police officer played by Frances McDormand] was just to write a heroically straightforward character but at the same time we thought that in a sense Marge was the scariest character in the movie.
Ethan: We all thought Steve Buscemi’s character was the hero – a sane person in an insane world.
Ethan: The TV series of Fargo is just something different that exists in the same world. I don’t even really know what to think about it because that’s so much the case.
Joel: And that’s fine. I think we both feel that if you throw something out into the culture then the culture can do whatever it wants with it after a certain point. It’s fine.
The Big Lebowski (1998)
Ethan: The Big Lebowski thing is weird [the film has an annual convention,
Lebowski Fest, and its own religion Dudeism named after Jeff Bridges’ permanently stoned lead character]. Yeah, I don’t know why that film in particular, go figure…
Joel: The Big Lebowski’s afterlife really surprises me. We don’t quite know what
to make of any of that.
Ethan: It’s definitely a college thing, though. Yeah, uh huh [laughs].
No Country For Old Men (2007)
Ethan: When you’re adapting someone’s book you are kind of invested in whether or not the author will like the movie, and it was gratifying that Cormac [McCarthy] did.
Joel: There’s a story about James M Cain where somebody says: “What do you think about what they did with your book?” “They didn’t do anything, it’s right here on the page.”
Ethan: You can’t actually make the novel. You take the parts that are interesting to you and that you think are translatable in form and then make something you hope will then please the person who originated the ideas.
A Serious Man (2009)
Ethan: You can overstate the case for it being our most intimate film, but we had to go back to where we grew up to make the movie and it was important to do so.
Joel: You actually did feel like you were revisiting and recreating a world that you had kind of lived through – unlike almost everything else we’ve done.
Ethan: Oh definitely. You know for each movie you want to do a certain world but this one is weird because…
Joel: It’s one we actually remember.
Ethan: In most of our films we feel we’re being faithful to the world but it’s a strange mandate because the world in question is made up, so how are you faithful to it?
Joel: Or you didn’t actually experience it – like we didn’t experience New York
in 1961, right? But we did experience Minnesota in the Sixties.
Ethan: And in that respect I must say that people can like or dislike the movie but objectively we’ve succeeded in that the world on film is what it was.
Joel: I think of that old Flannery O’Connor thing where she was accused of creating caricatures and she said: “People who think I’m exaggerating have obviously never been to the American South.” There’s a little bit of that with A Serious Man. You’ve obviously never been there if you think that’s exaggerating.
Ethan: Yeah. Sorry. I know. I was there.
True Grit (2010)
Ethan: Shooting the scene with the vulture was the most ridiculous afternoon. The vulture was called Odom and we could not get him to move. We thought, “For God’s sake, why are we using a real vulture?”
Joel: That was one of the great ‘why are we in showbusiness?’ moments.
Ethan: It would have been a really great video extra. Just the 10 minutes of people screaming louder and louder at this vulture and trying to get him to move. Everyone yelling: “Odom, Odom” and then just kind of banging things with trashcan lids.
Inside Llewyn Davis (2013)
Joel: It was really gratifying to know that Bob Dylan liked Llewyn Davis.
Ethan: Yeah, because with a film like that you’re mucking around in somebody’s yard and you want him to say what you did in my backyard feels right.
Ethan: The appeal of that film is that he’s true to himself and his music. He’s not getting anywhere but it’s still worthwhile.
Joel: It was impossible to cast. It was really difficult to find an actor who could convince you that not only was he a musician but he was a good musician, somebody you could believe in as a real musician not just an actor pretending he could play. And Oscar [Isaac] is that. I still find it weird to think that Oscar walked into the room, that level of luck.
Ethan: I find it weird looking at his career now.
Hail, Caesar! (2016)
Ethan: It started from something we’d talked to [George] Clooney about years ago – an actor from a biblical sword-and-sandals epic being kidnapped.
Joel: There’s an expression people use in the movie business that comes from The Godfather: “This is the business we’ve chosen.” And [Hail, Caesar!’s] subtext is [about] how lunatic that can be at some points.
Hail, Caesar! is at cinemas nationwide from 4 March