The Coen brothers discuss 'A Serious Man'

Masters of contrary comedy Joel and Ethan Coen have struck another original note with their latest film ‘A Serious Man’

Joel Coen - older (54), taller, quieter, shaggier hair, better clothes - is sitting at one end of the sofa. Ethan Coen - younger (52), shorter, neater hair, more inclined to laugh - is sitting at the other. They look like they've just had a massive row. But is this just an act? Once they get going, in their own restrained, staccato, way, they sound more like the brothers they are, starting and finishing each other's sentences but never looking at each other. At one point, Ethan cracks an Old Testament joke about Lot. ‘It's a David Steinberg joke,' he starts. ‘Lot and his wife are leaving Sodom and Lot turns to his wife: "God says you should look back." ' The gag being, of course, that he knew she'd be turned into a pillar of salt. The pair start roaring with laughter, locked in their own comic world.

The Coen brothers are one of leftfield Hollywood's most dependable brands. Last year they won the Oscar for Best Picture with ‘No Country for Old Men'. Over 25 years they've written, directed and produced 14 films, from their debut ‘Blood Simple', a nightmarish revenge thriller, to their last ‘Burn After Reading', a screwball farce. For their next trick, these two Jewish boys from Minneapolis have made one of the stranger films of their strange career: ‘A Serious Man' is a paranoid farce about Jewish people. A 1960s movie with rabbis. A film that begins in nineteenth-century eastern Europe before turning to the life of suburban academic Larry Gopnik (Michael Stuhlbarg), whose world is plunging into freefall.



Interview



You made ‘A Serious Man' after filming with George Clooney and Brad Pitt on 'Burn After Reading'. This has a cast of relative unknowns. Is it easier working with actors with less baggage?

Joel

‘You need less security; the set isn't being mobbed by fans trying to take pictures. And you're less encumbered by the people that those actors bring with them. When big actors work on our movies, it's a pretty stripped-down version of what they're used to on a full-blown, Hollywood studio picture. Those two guys, Brad Pitt and George Clooney, we know well enough for it to be like working with friends.'

The beginning of this film is very odd: we're in nineteenth-century eastern Europe watching a prologue in Yiddish. It's pretty discomfiting.

Joel

‘The "discomfiting" thing is nice to hear. Not that it's nice to hear you were discomfited. But that means the opening was doing its job.'

Claustrophobia and paranoia run through the film. The creepy opening sets the mood.

Ethan

‘Yeah, that's good. Not that we thought about it specifically. Or even verbalised the feeling. But, yeah, a little bit of unease is a good thing to carry into the rest of the film.'

Don't you have to talk about these things if you're working together?

Joel

‘Not exactly. Sometimes you come up with something and you say to each other: "That seems like the right thing for the movie," without necessarily saying why.'

Ethan

‘That only really happens if the other person isn't in agreement or doesn't quite get it. Then you've got to make a case or figure out why you like it.'

The prologue suggests Larry may have the weight of history on his shoulders...

Ethan

‘Yeah. It's tough being a Jew.'

Joel

‘You can look at the prologue retrospectively and say that it plunges you into the story full on as being a story about Jewish people. That's as opposed to a story about the Midwest, as opposed to a piece of Americana, as opposed to a specific community in 1967. All of which if you started without that prologue, you would get eventually. But this tells you upfront. This is a story about a Jewish community and Jews. That seems simple and straightforward, maybe, but it does that and has that benefit.'

I didn't spot it myself. But I read in the very negative New Yorker review of your film...

Joel

‘That review was very negative. He wasn't happy. He's a dear friend.'

... that the credits joke that ‘No Jews were harmed in the making of this motion picture'. Was it unavoidable that some people would find this film difficult?

Ethan

‘Yeah, right. Just because we get it with every movie. We assumed we'd get it more with this one. Whenever you're specific with ethnicity or religion, people find reason to take offence.'

Do you really feel you get it in the neck with every movie?

Joel

‘Well, yeah, a little bit.'

Ethan

‘This one was a surprise in the other direction.'

You thought you'd get more grief from the Jewish community?

Joel

‘Yeah, there was less pushback from the Jewish community in general, whose sensibilities tend to be very easily offended.'

Ethan

‘We really expected more of, "Wait a minute, is this good for the Jews?".'

Joel

‘And the film was done as a very affectionate look back, from our point of view, at that time and place. I think that's why people are less uptight than you might expect.'

You revisit your own childhood with this film. Do you think that as filmmakers it's the sort of thing you do at a certain age?

Ethan

‘Yes. Somebody pointed out recently that most people who trade in autobiography usually do it much, much earlier. Like Francois Truffaut and his first film, "The 400 Blows". We completely lacked that impulse when we were starting out. Even well into our thirties this wouldn't have interested us at all, really.'

Joel

‘Fellini was the other one who did it early on. But we're more in the category of those who have no interest for a long time. Then age and the perspective of three or four decades help spur something on. It's more like that John Boorman film "Hope and Glory", about his childhood and the little part of London he grew up in during the war. He did that when he was in his fifties.'

Did you talk about other directors or films that you wanted to emulate with this film?

Ethan

‘No, I don't think so. Nothing comes to mind. Occasionally we do. Probably much less than people suspect we do.'

How was it going back to the place where you grew up and filming there? Is it somewhere you're still familiar with?

Ethan

‘Our father lives there, so we do go back occasionally. Also, we made "Fargo" there, 12, 13 years ago. There's something strange - not in a bad way - about going back to where you grew up or recreating where you grew up. It's strange and stimulating.'

Read our review of ‘A Serious Man' here.

Author: Dave Calhoun




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