AS "No Country for Old Men" star Josh Brolin said in accepting the Screen Actors Guild Award for ensemble cast, "The Coen brothers are freaky little people, you know, and we did a freaky little movie."
Indeed, sitting down with the notoriously press-shy, iconoclastic auteurs in a suite at the Four Seasons in Beverly Hills with the only light coming from the rapidly dimming, overcast sky, is a little bit freaky.
Joel, the older and taller Coen, a cross between Tim Burton and Frank Zappa, wears inscrutable sunglasses in the unlighted room and barely moves. He does most of the talking, and that in a measured baritone, although the two often complete or enhance each other's thoughts. Ethan, the slighter Coen, paces nervously and smiles sardonically throughout. The conversation is dotted with clarifications of questions, denials delivered with a smile and long pauses, cones of silence.
When told that, in an earlier interview, "No Country" costar Javier Bardem described them as characteristically American filmmakers ("They do these very deeply American movies; there is always a deep America within their movies," the Spanish actor said), Joel shrugs off the notion that their work might shape international filmgoers' impressions of this country.
"Our movies are too outside of the mainstream," he says. "This is the biggest-grossing movie we've ever had. And even at that, it doesn't approach the kind of business and influence, in terms of people's perception of American culture, that big, Hollywood studio movies do."
Whatever the influence of their films is, says Ethan, "it would be very marginal."
Since their 1984 debut with the nouveau noir "Blood Simple," which grossed an underwhelming $2.2 million domestically on its initial release, the impact of the brothers' work would certainly be considered "marginal" if box-office figures were the only standard. Until "No Country's" $55 million take, their releases had averaged just over $19 million domestically and considerably less abroad, although surprisingly, their coolly received 2003 screwball outing with George Clooney and Catherine Zeta-Jones, "Intolerable Cruelty," picked up $35 million at home -- and $85 million internationally.
But if critical acclaim and awards are more indicative of directors' legacies, the Coens would unquestionably rank among the top American filmmakers of the last 25 years, with forests of laurels for their quirky visions, including multiple wins for direction at Cannes and a Palme d'Or for 1991's "Barton Fink."
Dark, complex works such as "Blood Simple," "Miller's Crossing" and "Fargo" gave birth to an entire subgenre of violent, low-budget crime movies with clever dialogue, creative camera moves and morally unsettled universes. Their earliest works, viewed today, seem to make more cinematic sense than they did at the time -- because they have been more influential and timeless than the behemoths then dominating the box office ("Three Men and a Baby") and Oscars of the time ("Chariots of Fire," etc.). They didn't receive an Oscar nomination, however, until 1996's "Fargo," for which they took home the screenwriting prize and Frances McDormand (Mrs. Joel Coen) won for her lead performance.
But even now, the brothers reject their status as leaders of American cinema:
"We ain't leadin' anything, buddy," says Ethan with that wry grin.
Odds stacked against it
TO most decision-makers in those "big, Hollywood studios," "No Country" must have sounded like a spectacularly losing proposition. It's a dark, brutal tale, in part about what Joel calls "how aging changes your perception of the world," and what Bardem had once called "this huge wave of violence that the world has been taken by." It's based on a book by Cormac McCarthy, a Pulitzer-Prize winner whose only previous film adaptation, "All the Pretty Horses," tanked despite an A-list cast.
"For Cormac McCarthy, it's a much pulpier novel than he usually writes," says Joel, 53, of the quirks in "No Country" that hooked him and his brother. "It's a crime story but it doesn't unfold in a conventional way."
He seems to dig in, even removing his shades, as he gets into the geography of the novel, both figurative and literal: "In certain ways, it can't be told without an emphasis on the landscape it takes place in. It's important to understanding the story, to the telling of the story, making it specific in the right ways as far as the characters are concerned. I think [McCarthy] once described it as natural history, which is sort of interesting . . . "
"He's a natural historian," interjects Ethan, 50.
"That is, he's interested in the natural history of that region," Joel says, "and the people who inhabit it are in a sense the flora and fauna and you have to understand them in the context of the region -- even though what I think the story's about in many ways is universal and not limited to that. So that was interesting," he says, adding, "and we knew that area a little bit, which was part of what drew us to the story."
"No Country" is not only the first of the brothers' efforts to cross the $50-million mark domestically; it's cleaning up on the awards circuit, especially for the Coens' writing and direction and Bardem's chilling turn as the cold-eyed, alarmingly coiffed hit man. Wins at the SAG and DGA awards and at the Golden Globes (for Bardem and the screenplay) make the film a front-runner in all three categories at the Oscars.
"It's very strange," says Ethan of the film's success. "You never know."
"I have to say that there were other people who saw early versions and predicted it," says Joel, corroborated by Ethan. "So the reasons may be transparent to some people but they're certainly not to us. We don't understand it."
This, from filmmakers who tried for some time to adapt James Dickey's World War II novel, "To the White Sea," into what they described to Time magazine as "this expensive movie about the firebombing of Tokyo in which there's no dialogue," and which would have starred Brad Pitt.
They're often called "The Two-Headed Director" because they work together so closely, although until 2004's "The Ladykillers" they were compelled by DGA rules to list only one brother (Joel) as director until they acquired a waiver permitting the dual credit. It took them only 20 years and 11 films to apply for it. They don't talk about how they work on set but by all accounts it is a pleasant experience. Clooney, who just completed the upcoming "Burn After Reading," his third film with the directors, says there is lots of laughter as filming progresses. "You can hear them . . . it'll actually screw takes up," the actor says.
Built from the actors up
IF anyone needs further evidence that the brothers Coen continue to think outside the box (office), consider how they arrived at "Burn After Reading."
"We wrote down a bunch of actors we wanted to work with," says Ethan: " 'What kind of story would these people be in?' "
They wrote parts for Clooney, Pitt, McDormand and John Malkovich, all of whom are in the film along with Tilda Swinton. But those roles aren't exactly star turns.
"All the characters in 'Burn After Reading' are numskulls," says Joel, "which Malkovich had no problem with; Clooney has never had a problem with . . . " Both laugh. "Brad was initially taken aback. He's very funny in the movie. He grew to love it as much as George does. Each character is dumber than the next. But they're all lovable.
"The original idea was sort of a spy story and does still have the residue of that, in that Malkovich's character is an analyst at the CIA who is fired in the first scene and starts writing a memoir. His story intersects with Fran and Brad, who are, respectively, the assistant manager and trainer at a gym in suburban Washington. So it's about the CIA and physical fitness."
And what of the long-rumored but as-yet only mythical "Hail Caesar"? They allow it would star Clooney as a matinee idol making a biblical epic, then go on to poke at their supposed leading man.
" 'Hail Caesar' is a movie that George Clooney keeps announcing to the press every couple of years, and it doesn't even exist as a script; it's only an idea," says Joel. "We kind of teased George with the opportunity to play another numskull. He was totally up for it. Part of the 'Numskull Trilogy' with George [with 'O Brother, Where Art Thou?' and 'Intolerable Cruelty'].
"After we finished shooting 'Burn After Reading,' I think on the last day, George said, 'OK, that's it, I've played my last idiot.' So we said, 'I guess you won't be working with us again.' " They laugh for a while.
Putting the dimwits in the drawer for now, the Coens' next actual project, union unrest allowing, is expected to be "A Serious Man."
"That's about a Jewish community in the Midwest in 1967, which is sort of reflective of the place we grew up in," says Joel. ". . . That's a hard movie to kind of synopsize."
They laugh again, raising suspicion, and Joel pronounces, "It's a 'domestic drama.' "
The thought of what a Coen brothers domestic drama would look like might intrigue or worry fans, considering their history of bold genre-bending with mixed results. But that they continue to make pretty much whatever they want, wordless World War II epics notwithstanding, is heartening. They're buoyed by the current creative environment, in which unconventional movies they admire, such as "Margot at the Wedding," "The Diving Bell and the Butterfly" and "There Will Be Blood," receive significant support.
"Any time you see great stuff, it's heartening," says Joel. "It makes me feel much better about the state of the industry and the possibilities that exist out there both for seeing more stuff like that from other people, and being able to do interesting work yourself. I actually think it's an indication of how healthy the business is."
"In a totally selfish way," adds Ethan, "forgetting about them, that there's an audience for that -- that Julian [Schnabel] gets money for a blinking movie about a blinking guy's locked-in syndrome, that's kind of great, you know?"
"Because it can be very depressing," says Joel, "when you start to feel like the only things that get made are sequels to action pictures which have established a huge potential for box office, or adaptations of comic books or things like that. Not to say that some of those aren't really interesting, great movies too, but that's the stock-in-trade of Hollywood. And it's good that, despite that, the business is bigger than that."Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times