By Arun Fulara. Posted on September 10, 2015
Somewhere around 2011, the Film Society of Lincoln Center invited the four-time Oscar-winning filmmaker duo of Joel and Ethan Coen for a rare, career-spanning discussion of their work, moderated by Noah Baumbach. The discussion, which mainly revolves around the opening of their films, also diverts at points and gives us a glimpse of how the brothers go about working, making their unique brand of films. The Coen brothers have directed some of our favourite films including The Big Lebowski, Barton Fink, Fargo, O Brother, Where Art Thou? and No Country For Old Men. The one hour long video doesn't cover their films post 2011, but it is a pretty enriching take on their career spanning over a decade.
Here's a summary of some of the most interesting parts of their conversation. You can watch the video below.
"Yes that is true. With digital around, you can hardly argue with it. We did use a live performance in 'O Brother Where Art Thou', including a lot of playback. You know, as you make more and more films, you realize that these are some of the cumbersome aspects of production. It's part of life that you can't avoid but just get used to it. Our new movie (Inside Llewyn Davis), will have even more live performance music."
"At some point in our career, we started using 'The Third Man' concept; putting characters in the middle without explaining it. There's a narrator, a floater, who is never seen; In The Big Lebowski, we attempted to do a different voice-over. TBL has probably the first narrator in Hollywood who loses his train of thought. We also did use quite a bit of narration in The Man Who Wasn't There and True Grit."
"Best example is opening of Burn After Reading; never thought they would open like that. Never done it, but why not do it now. Who the characters are becomes the story. A very observational take. BAR has a Tony Scott kind of opening. We also don't think of our characters as heroes or villains; it all depends on the story and how it is going ahead, and accordingly characters are developed."
"Most of what we draw from books is partly a gimmick, yet it is true (real) to a certain extent. It's true when you are doing a literary adaption... There's a huge temptation to try and draw deeply from the book. It's also a formal thing that you can be very resonated and take in a little too much. One of the leading practitioners is Terrence Malick, you know. His last movie has almost no dialogue, only voiceovers. It's all very distilled and very idiosyncratic.
In a few cases, it's a hallmark of hard boiled fiction. The Big Lebowski (Raymond Chandler) and Blood Simple both kind of fall in noir genre. It's a big part of a convention where these novels and films are in first person and the narrator is a big part of the story. The Man Who Wasn't There also started with a voice-over, but was also kind of a film noir."
"On of the interesting things is that we do the storyboards and the shots together. If I want a pan, or have a character move right to left through the frame, Ethan sees it left to right or vice-versa. We think pretty similarly but often conflicting-ly in terms of screen direction. Which we think is completely arbitrary.
It is funny that you have the picture in your head and it is right in the other way although it's completely arbitrary though Joel seems like he is completely wrong-headed."
"The relationship with the DP is very essential. Its always a combination; in our case, we often write with specific actors in mind and then we tend to write for people who will work with us. The adaptions we have done are written with in mind as to who is going to play who. With stories we come up with ourselves it is specifically with actors (we know) in mind. For A Serious Man we knew we wanted to cast all unknown actors."
"Generally we start from the beginning; it is a little hard to jump to the middle or the end and then figure out the beginning. It is not that you don't know some of the scenes or how it ends, but when getting it on paper it is a fairly common practice that it proceeds in a linear fashion. We talk it through to a certain extent; sit down and discuss the story and everything, though it depends from movie to movie. A Serious Man started in a very radically indirect way. It is as far as it can go in terms of misdirection.
In A Serious Man, we knew that it would start with a community of mid-western Jews. The idea to begin with a Yiddish folk tale way came after we knew what the body of the film would be."