The Coen Mystique


Here they are, the merry pranksters of filmmaking: talking up a storm but downplaying every topic thrown their way.

The Coen brothers' body of work, for all its surface playfulness and black humor, is taken very seriously indeed by their admirers. College students write treatises about them, while fans earnestly discuss the tiniest details of the Coens' scripts, characters and film and literary allusions. One feels that the Coens' minutiae alone could fill a Trivial Pursuit category.

"I've always felt our films are [over-analyzed]," said Ethan Coen, 40. "I don't know why. We seem to invite it. We don't intend our stories to be a code for another story or message perversely hidden by us. Yet some people treat the stories as if there is a code."

His brother Joel, 43, agrees, pointing to "Barton Fink" (1991) as the movie that invites more obscure readings than, say, a middle-period Bob Dylan lyric. In the film, John Turturro plays a self-important left-wing 1940s playwright who arrives in Hollywood to write for the movies and becomes stifled by writers' block in a run-down L.A. hotel.

"In the case of 'Barton Fink,' we almost have to plead guilty to baiting the animals," Joel says. "Because the movie is intentionally ambiguous in certain respects, and not so immediately easy to read, it almost seems to invite that [analysis]."

He pauses for effect. "So it's almost ridiculous to complain about it." The brothers laugh loudly and gleefully together, hugging their knees and rocking back and forth on the hotel sofa they both occupy.

"On the other hand," Joel continues, "what was in ["Barton Fink"] was arrived at in a more intuitive, not intellectual way in terms of how the elements came to be put into place."

Ethan chimes in: "In the case of that movie, one is ambiguous because one wants things to be ambiguous, not because one wants to hide something." In unison, the brothers nod.

This is a quintessential Coen brothers exchange--punctuated by laughter, full of droll understated humor, slyly puncturing theories and upending expectations, one sibling finishing the other's verbal musings. On such occasions, they're two individuals with one invariably shared opinion.

They offer a contrast in style and body language: Joel is taller and more lugubrious; Ethan, compact, wiry and energetic, is the natural diplomat. A certain reputation precedes them, maybe because of the mordant humor of their films and a suspicion that they are enjoying a huge private joke at the expense of the rest of us; yet the brothers turn out to be nice Midwestern boys: polite and affable.

The Coens are visiting Paris because Joel's wife, Frances McDormand, is here shooting a film. She starred in their first movie, "Blood Simple" (1984), and their last, "Fargo" (1996), for which she and they won Oscars for best actress and best original screenplay, respectively. While the Coens are in town, their distribution company has screened their latest work, "The Big Lebowski," for a handful of European journalists.

A crime caper set in Los Angeles, "The Big Lebowski," filmed on a $15-million budget, confirms the Coens' ability to straddle Hollywood and the independent sector; as visually lush and technically accomplished as any studio movie, it retains a skewed art-house sensibility.

It stars Jeff Bridges in the title role, along with a gaggle of actors who have come to constitute an informal Coen brothers repertory company: John Goodman, Steve Buscemi, Turturro, Jon Polito and Peter Stormare. Julianne Moore (as an English-accented aesthete), Sam Elliott and Ben Gazzara appear in supporting roles, as do several musicians, including singer-songwriter Jimmie Dale Gilmore and Flea from the Red Hot Chili Peppers.

Bridges plays the indolent Lebowski, otherwise known as the Dude, a fortysomething hippie. The Dude's idea of exertion is bowling with his buddy Walter (Goodman), an excitable conspiracy theorist with a string of lurid Vietnam reminiscences.

Two thugs break into the Dude's home and rough him up. They were sent by a Mr. Big who is owed money by Lebowski's glamorous young wife. But the thugs have the wrong Lebowski; the one they should have targeted is an elderly Pasadena millionaire. The ensuing plot twists involve a kidnapping, a sudden death and a nail-biting bowling tournament.

One can only speculate what the more fanatical Coen watchers will make of the plot's twists and turns and its range of allusions. But what was actually going through the brothers' heads when they first sat down to write "The Big Lebowski"? Was it just this array of colorful characters?

"Yes," Joel says. "Simple as that. With certain conscious references or models that you use to get the [narrative] idea rolling."

Like what? "In the case of 'The Big Lebowski,' it was Raymond Chandler," Ethan says, "in that he wroteprivate eye stories in and about Los Angeles. His characters are all emblematic of L.A., and a [protagonist] journeys among these different characters. This is not the case with our film. Obviously, it's not a private eye movie--the main character's an aging pothead. But in terms of narrative structure, that's what it is."

"Beyond that," Joel adds, "John Goodman's Walter character is a composite loosely based on several people we know. The Dude's based on an old friend of ours. So we were thinking about these people in the context of this kind of story. It's about L.A. and it moves episodically."

Though Joel is credited as director and Ethan as producer, both share duties on films; they consult over every take, every shot until they reach consensus.

This sounds like a recipe for self-indulgence, time-wasting and bitter sibling arguments on the set. But collaborators insist it isn't so.

"There's something about those guys; they make me laugh," says Goodman, who has appeared in three Coen films. "I'd say 'The Big Lebowski' was the most fun I ever had on a set; I laughed every day. I'd love just showing up for work. I'd show up an hour early just to be there, and I'd hang around whether I was working or not."

Eric Fellner, who jointly runs Working Title, the London-based company funded by PolyGram that has produced the last three Coen films, says: "They're really nice, genius guys, but they have no ego. I've never seen them argue, and I've never had an argument with them."

The Coens' most notable setback was "The Hudsucker Proxy" (1994), a sour twist on Capra-esque fantasy films, for which Warner Bros., which had U.S. distribution rights, and PolyGram, distributors in the rest of the world, split negative costs. There was talk that the film went over budget, and its poor U.S. box-office performance was seen as evidence that the Coens were an art-house act better suited to low-budget fare.

" 'Hudsucker' came in at $25 million, and it began at $25 million, all rumors to the contrary," Fellner says. "It did well outside the U.S. We [PolyGram] didn't lose a penny on it. But then PolyGram knows how to distribute specialized films. The Coens' work needs great care, love and attention when it comes to distribution."

As the Coens tell it, their deal with Working Title offers the creative freedom they demand, along with wide distribution from PolyGram to enable their films to recoup their money and reach wide audiences.

"It's very comfortable," Joel says. "I've known Eric Fellner ever since 'Hidden Agenda' [a British-made political thriller from 1990 in which McDormand had a supporting role]. He's very easy to work with."

The brothers' insistence on creative independence was hatched from their first feature, "Blood Simple," a film noir exercise with Texas Gothic overtones. "It came about by accident," Ethan notes. "On 'Blood Simple,' we raised money for ourselves--by default, because we had to. No studio would give us money to make our first feature. Joel had done some editing, but we had no production experience. Selling out to Hollywood was an option we'd have availed ourselves of, if we'd had the chance."

"But then we became victims of our own choices," Joel continues. "We became spoiled. Since we financed 'Blood Simple' ourselves by going through the laborious process of finding individual investors, we then had complete freedom. We part owned the movie as a limited partnership and we could do whatever we wanted in terms of production.

"So from that point on, we kind of figured that was our prerogative. Why take a step back? It seemed perverse to us to make a second movie and relinquish the control we had on the first one. So we insisted on it."

But they knew they could make the films they wanted only by keeping budgets small, so they struck a deal with a company called Circle to finance three tightly budgeted films while they retained creative control.

So the madcap "Raising Arizona," a commercial and a critical hit, cost just $5 million. "Miller's Crossing," sleek and visually handsome, was delivered for $11 million and the intriguing "Barton Fink" for $8 million.

After the relatively expensive "Hudsucker Proxy," the Coens made "Fargo," their most acclaimed work to date, for only $6.5 million.

The brothers concede that they were both surprised at the critical and public reaction to the Oscar-winning "Fargo."

"It was very cheap," Joel says, "and we expected it to squeak by. We thought it was an art movie. After 'The Hudsucker Proxy,' we wouldn't spend enough on it for anyone to get really burned. Yet it did better than any of our other movies.

"That was probably because people identified with Marge [McDormand's character] in a way they don't usually in our films. People said she was someone with heart, someone to root for. She was closer in that respect to what audiences expect or are used to."

The Coens' creative freedom has helped define and shape them as filmmakers. "True," Joel says. "If we'd had the chance to sell out on 'Blood Simple,' our whole history would have been defined by that experience. It wouldn't have been a good thing. The fact we didn't have any options and no one was willing to give us the time of day was probably the best thing that could have happened to us."

Their films have the hallmark of supreme self-assuredness, which they agree might spring from a secure, intellectual home atmosphere. The Coens grew up in Minneapolis, where their parents were both college professors (their father in economics, their mother in art history).

"They were always supportive and encouraging," Joel says. "Even though filmmaking fell outside their realm, they were very open-minded."

"Remarkably so," Ethan adds. "In retrospect, it must have seemed pretty crazy."

"They were remarkably relaxed," Joel says. "I have to hand it to them."

The boys used to read and watch movies voraciously. They remember a late-night movie show on Minneapolis TV, introduced by a local presenter.

"Ethan used to kid that this guy must have bought up the entire Joseph E. Levine catalog," Joel says. "All the films would be Italian productions, but all different. It might be a Fellini film, then 'Sons of Hercules.' A highbrow Italian movie, then the next night Steve Reeves."

This blurring of film categories seems to have rubbed off in the Coens' work. They often undercut their most dramatic films with dark humor and switch between various styles and genres.

"We've always liked subject matter that was not just flat-out comedy," Joel says. "But it's hard for us to write without amusing ourselves at a certain level, which means making ourselves laugh. We've never done anything we didn't try to leaven with a certain humor."

They are based in New York, where they share a production office. Joel and McDormand have a 3 1/2-year-old son, Pedro, while Ethan and his wife, Tricia Cooke, have a 2-year-old son, Buster. Cooke is a film editor who since "Miller's Crossing" has worked on all the Coens' films.

The brothers see little of each other away from work. "We spend all day together," Ethan says, "so we don't exactly need to go out for a beer."

They are weighing their next move. Ethan will have a collection of short stories published this year. They have adapted Elmore Leonard's novel "La Brava" for Universal and may return to one of their scripts, "Suburbicon," which has been in development for some years.

"We've done writing assignments before, adapting other people's scripts for studios on an unattributed basis," Ethan says.

"Generally," Joel says, "we don't like to put our names on things we don't control."

If "La Brava" turns out to be their next project, it will mark another Coen work involving kidnapping, along with "Raising Arizona," "Fargo" and "The Big Lebowski." What is it with these guys and the kidnap motif?

"It only ever strikes us in retrospect, but it's undeniable; we did it three times," Ethan muses. "I guess it's a pregnant plot thing, an ongoing criminal enterprise that suggests all kinds of promising plot opportunities. It's easy to spin things out of control, have them go progressively wrong."

Still, there's no guarantee "La Brava" will be up next. As Joel observes, the brothers like to move along at a comfortable pace: "We tend to make a movie once every two years. We're slow. We're pretty lazy. That's why we like the Dude."

Well, maybe. Or maybe it's because the Dude isn't a prototype lead character. Maybe it's because the Coens deliberately shy away from taking the obvious routes in the way they write and direct their films and refuse to offer audiences clues about how to react--whether to laugh, to be shocked, appalled or afraid. And in turn, maybe this playful tweaking of audience expectations gives them a mystique they might otherwise lack.

They consider this for a moment. "Well," says Ethan finally, with a wry smile, "that's something we'll take."

"Yeah," Joel says, "it's another reason not to complain about it!"

Again the brothers rock back and forth, hugging their knees. And laugh and laugh and laugh.

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