George Clooney sits in a chair in the shade on a sweltering day at a Valencia-area ranch during a break in shooting of the movie "O Brother, Where Art Thou?" He's chatting about the film, in which he plays a Depression-era con who's escaped from a chain gang in an oddball adventure based on "The Odyssey" by Homer, as adapted by the team of Ethan and Joel Coen.
As he talks, writer-producer Ethan Coen walks nearby, and just as he gets within earshot, Clooney raises his voice to make sure he's heard and, without missing a conversational beat, says, "And then last night Ethan was flat on his face drunk."
Coen, never breaking stride, rolls his eyes at his star. And make no mistake, Clooney is the star attraction. Riding in the cast and crew shuttle van back to lunch, he's the center of attention, an amiable raconteur.
But also make no mistake--this is not a George Clooney movie. This is a Coen Brothers movie. And that's exactly why Clooney is sitting here.
"After 'Batman & Robin' I went to my accountant and said, 'How am I doing?' " he says. "He said, 'You're fine even if you never work again.' So I said that I never had to take a job for the money and I could do movies just because I liked them."
And a Coen Brothers film fit the bill. Any Coen Brothers film.
"They came to see me in Phoenix when I was doing 'Three Kings,' " Clooney says. "They came to my hotel room, put the script on the coffee table, and I said, 'Great, I'm in.' They said, 'Don't you want to read the script first?' I said, 'No, I know what you guys do.' "
The Coens laugh later when they hear Clooney's anecdote.
"If that's George's story, we're sticking by it," says Joel, the team's writer-director. "Actually, we're not sure he ever read the script."
But anyone familiar with the Coens' films would have a pretty good sense of what they'd be getting into. From their first, "Blood Simple," through "Raising Arizona," "Barton Fink" and their best-known work, "Fargo," they've populated the screen with colorful rascals, tormented souls and wayward innocents caught up in unlikely predicaments that often reach mythological heights. In this context, transferring Homer to 1937 Mississippi seems a perfectly natural idea.
But it's an odd one for what the public might perceive as "a George Clooney movie." "A George Clooney movie by the makers of 'Fargo.' " And a Christmas season release, no less--a first for the Coens.
On the surface, that adds up to potentially high expectations, which the filmmakers shrug off.
"I don't know about the expectations," says Joel. "It's not our expectations. Our expectations--we've given up having them."
Not for the Popcorn Crowd
They've dealt with elevated expectations before and have encountered some backlash in the process. Both "Raising Arizona" and "Fargo," essentially linear but dark comedies, raised their profile with mainstream moviegoers. But each film's follow-up, "Barton Fink" and "The Big Lebowski," respectively, was more idiosyncratically stylized, with less leavening for the mordant twists--arguably deeper and more artistic, but not what the popcorn crowd attracted by the previous film had in mind.
That's still not of much concern to the Coens, whose closest proximity to a Hollywood production came with "The Hudsucker Proxy" in 1994.
"Everything would be easier if you made more money and had a wide audience," admits Ethan.
But they think the trade-off is well worth it.
"We're not in a position to complain," says Joel. "We get to do what we do, as long as we're playing quietly at our end of the sandbox.
"The truth of the matter is our movies almost always, with a couple of exceptions, do reasonably well from a commercial or business side given what we spend on them. They don't make $150 million, but they don't cost $60 million to make."
However, the film has already attracted attention in Europe, where it was released in the fall. And the brothers readily credit the presence of their star.
"It's already our most successful movie by a wide margin in Europe," Ethan says. "I'm sure a big part of it is Clooney. It's broad and accessible, and the music has a lot of appeal. And it's got Clooney. 'Perfect Storm' was a big movie there."
But that's not why they asked Clooney to be in it. They didn't approach him because of his performance in "Batman" or his "ER" appeal. They approached him after seeing the quirky, underappreciated "Out of Sight." And that appealed to Clooney.
"George is a real actor," says Joel. "He is a movie star, but he is an actor, and he responds to . . . "
"Brilliant material," interjects Ethan.
"I think he's responding to [it being] a part that's not like the last one that someone asked him to do," concludes Joel.
Don't be surprised if the Coens ask him again. There's a tendency for people who work with them once to do it again. John Goodman, who fills the Cyclops role in this one, made his film debut in "Raising Arizona," and was also in "Barton Fink" and "The Big Lebowski," while John Turturro (in the "O Brother" fugitive trio of Clooney and Tim Blake Nelson) starred in "Barton Fink" and worked for the Coens in "Miller's Crossing" and "Lebowski." And, the Coens point out, many in the crew and production staff are regulars as well. On the set there's an honest, frisky sense of camaraderie that Clooney clearly relishes.
"I never felt out of the loop," he says of being accepted into the film family.
As for their next movie, the Coens didn't even wait for anyone to ask, or at least see how "O Brother" fared. Before releasing it, they shot another one, an as-yet-untitled noir melodrama, set in the '40s, starring Billy Bob Thornton as a barber and "Fargo" Oscar-winner Frances McDormand (married in real life to Joel Coen) as his wife. They expect it to be released in late summer or the fall.
As for others' expectations, they simply believe that fans expect them to deliver something distinctive.
"I don't think audiences need it to fit certain rules," Joel says. "Maybe this kind of thing is harder to sell to a studio if you're pitching it. But the audience understands the suspension of disbelief. It's a made-up world."