The Coen brothers: interview
The Coen brothers are back with ’No Country for Old Men‘, a violent adaptation of a Cormac McCarthy novel that stars Javier Bardem as a psycho with a strange ‘do. Geoff Andrew talks hair styles and bloody socks with Hollywood‘s smartest siblings
‘If it aint, it’ll do till a mess gets here.’
Wendell (Garret Dillahunt) and Ed Tom Bell (Tommy Lee Jones) in the Coen Brothers’ ‘No Country for Old Men’.
The above exchange, between a sheriff and his deputy shortly after their discovery of the rotting carnage that’s all that remains of a drug deal gone murderously wrong in the west Texan desert, could easily have been penned by Joel and Ethan Coen, writers, directors and co-producers of ‘No Country for Old Men’. Like the movie as a whole, the dialogue exudes the droll, dark humour and vivid colloquial colour that have been their trademark since they made their debut with another Texan crime movie, ‘Blood Simple’.
In fact, however, both the pointlessly obvious question and the stoically witty response are word for word the creation of Cormac McCarthy, whose novel was the source for the Coens’ latest gem.
It’s remarkable how well the preoccupations and stylistic tropes of the book fit with those of the brothers; so much so, indeed that when the film premiered in Cannes last year, many saw it as a cross between ‘Blood Simple’ and ‘Fargo’ – though this writer’s recent revisiting of ‘Raising Arizona’ even found similarities between that latter-day screwball farce and the McCarthy adaptation. In short, ‘No Country for Old Men’ is Coens through and through – and, unsurprisingly, one of the finest American movies of the year.
Both novel and movie chronicle the nightmarish chaos that befalls one Llewellyn Moss (Josh Brolin) when he finds, while out on a solo hunting expedition, a case containing $2 million at the scene of the aforementioned bloodbath. Rather than hand it in, this otherwise decent ’Nam vet hangs on to the haul, and sends his wife (Kelly Macdonald) north to stay with her mother, knowing their trailer-park home will be visited sooner or later by the law and, more worryingly, by the traffickers whose money he’s filched. He’s right, of course, except about the timing; by the time Sheriff Bell (Jones) turns up, the trailer has already been checked out by Anton Chigurh (Javier Bardem), a psychotic hitman with an arsenal of weapons almost as strange and scary as his pageboy haircut (this is 1980). Moss, luckily for him, has recently flown the coop; not that Chigurh will let that, or anyone he meets, curtail his vengeful quest for the money.
It was producer Scott Rudin who brought the novel to the Coens’ attention, rightly surmising they’d find McCarthy’s story simpatico. Though they’d famously reworked other books – from Hammett’s ‘Red Harvest’ to Homer’s ‘Odyssey’ – into their earlier films, this was the first time they’d attempted an adaptation of something by a living author. Did that make any difference to their approach? Did they feel a greater sense of responsibility towards the book or its creator?
Ethan, evidently a little mystified at my rather theoretical question, shakes his head, while Joel sensibly explains. ‘The responsibility you feel, if you put it in those terms, is kind of of clarified when you take the job. We were asked to do this, so we said to Scott, “Here’s how we see doing it; does that jibe with how you want it done?” – ’cos he’s the employer. Once that was set, we felt we could do whatever we wanted, within the agreed terms. But we didn’t feel any specific responsibility to the material or Cormac McCarthy. The thing for us was to preserve aspects of the book the studio or the producer might baulk at: so we said, “If we make this, you do know it’s going to be very violent?” That’s what the story’s about.
‘There was also the peculiar aspect of the book that a central character dies abruptly and, essentially, offscreen. That was also something we wanted to preserve. Not that we wanted to slavishly follow the novel or felt an obligation not to change anything; indeed, there were things we were puzzled by and we had no problem throwing them out the window. It was just that certain things made the story more interesting to us, so we kept them.’
Ethan nods. ‘Yeah, if we did feel a responsibility, it was more like, “Okay, this could be good, let’s not fuck it up.” It’s like people ask if we wanted to do this film because it had similarities to “Blood Simple” or “Fargo”. But at the time, of course, we didn’t think of it that way; it was just a question of us feeling we could make a good movie out of the material.
‘We had no contact at all with Cormac while we were writing it; only when we were filming. As it happens we shot a lot of it in west Texas, where the novel takes place, but we also shot some of it in New Mexico, because it was cheaper. Cormac lives down there, so he visited the set a couple of times. But they really were just social visits.’
In many respects the film is unusually faithful to the letter of the book: whole stretches of dialogue are retained. Yet there are also telling alterations. Sheriff Bell’s disenchanted ruminations on how the world has taken a turn for the worse have been trimmed, while some of the action sequences have been substantially changed or souped up. That might sound like the story has been brought closer to the generic conventions of the action movie – but in fact their film, while highly successful in providing suspense and excitement, repeatedly does things rarely found in Hollywood fare. An off-screen death has already been mentioned, while the film’s ending, especially, feels very unlike the traditionally tidy cinematic closure. Did the brothers feel they were trying something a little different with their film?
‘Yes,’ responds Joel. ‘There were things we found interesting in the novel which we felt could be even more interesting in a movie. You think: If it has that effect in the book, it could be magnified in a movie. So when we’re told something won’t work in a film, our response is, “We’re not sure that’s true; you’re just not used to it.”
‘Though we did cut it back, the stuff about things getting worse is very interesting. How much of that perspective on things is old age talking, and how much of it is true? Cormac put in Bell’s conversation with his uncle, which we always felt was the centre of the story; it suggests, “This is just the world, it’s not anything new.” But if you were living in Germany in 1939 and said things were getting worse, you’d be right. So it’s not just old age. That’s why this story’s 1980 setting is important; it was a time when the cross-border drug wars were getting very, very violent.’
One of the film’s subtly impressive achievements is the way McCarthy’s somewhat challenging play with narrative point of view is translated into filmic terms. Often, for example, Chigurh’s presence is established not by a shot of the character himself but by a through-the-windscreen shot of the diabolical ornament on his car bonnet as he drives hunting for his prey. Like the similarly repeated shots of blown-out door locks, these near-abstract scenes generate considerable unease as to what the killer will do next.
Ethan explains. ‘The book specifies that he drives a Ramcharger, and we even found the little ornament, which even looks a bit like Chigurh’s haircut, with its little curl. But generally, it’s more perverse and unusual not to follow certain conventions in a movie, than it is to do that in a novel. The thing about not always showing Chigurh kind of comes from the book, and the idea of him being ghostlike – is he human or isn’t he? – which Cormac plays with; that’s more fun to play with in a movie. I remember us saying when we were doing the script, “It’ll be successful if we can make it really scary, like a horror movie.” It had to create a real sense of dread.’
So is that how Bardem’s bizarre barnet came about? Ethan laughs. ‘That came from the wardrobe department. They found a photo of a guy in west Texas in 1979 who was just odd-looking, with that haircut. We wanted Chigurh to be believable for that place and period, but not like everybody else. That’s one reason we chose Javier Bardem. In the novel, it’s strange the degree to which Chigurh is withheld; he’s not described physically. Someone suggests he’s not of the region, which we took as licence to make him not even of the United States. So he’s kind of alien, an outsider.’
And finally, what’s all the interest in socks? The film has an unusually strong fascination with them. Ethan: ‘Footwear generally. There’s something great about Chigurh peeling his bloodied socks off…’ Joel concurs enthusiastically. ‘It’s in the book, but we play it up. One of the many interesting things Cormac does, which we also do, is this weird doubling of Moss and Chigurh: taking off their boots, walking around in their socks, buying shirts…’
I respond that the Coens have brought Bell into the equation as well, by showing first Chigurh then Bell reflected in Moss’s television; in the latter case, that’s not actually in the book. ‘It’s as if you’re establishing,’ I venture, ‘a whole moral-relativity thing there between the three different men.’
‘Right, yeah,’ Joel smiles, patiently.
‘No Country for Old Men’ opens on January 18.
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