It started whenthey were kids. Growing up in Minnesota, the Coen brothers, Joel and Ethan, saved up money from mowing lawns to buy a Super 8 camera. They’ve been making movies together ever since – a line-up of eccentric, often hilarious yet sometimes pretty dark films that includes No Country for Old Men, The Big Lebowski and Fargo.
Their latest, Hail, Caesar!, takes us back to 1950s Hollywood… Josh Brolin plays a studio Mr. Fix It in a panic after one of his stars (George Clooney) goes missing from the set of a swords-and-sandals epic. As he searches for his missing A-lister, we meet Channing Tatum as a tap-dancing actor and Scarlett Johansson playing a high-diving beauty in a “water ballet.”
I meet the Coens in London, on their way to the Hail, Caesar! premiere in Berlin. Joel is older at 61, taller, more serious and chattier. Ethan, 58, is blunt, finishes fewer sentences and giggles a lot. It’s hard to imagine one of them talking about their movies without the other.
Is it true that George Clooney spent years trying to talk you both into making Hail, Caesar!?
Joel: “Yes! We told George the idea for the film many years ago, probably on the first ever movie we did with him, O Brother, Where Art Thou?. George was taken with it and he did this thing over the years where whenever he was asked what he was doing next, he’d say, ‘Hail, Caesar!’ After a while, we thought maybe we should just write it.”
What makes Clooney perfect to play Baird Whitlock, a big-name star but not the smartest cookie in the jar?
Joel: “George is like an old-style movie star. And we love it when he’s playing an idiot for us, which George is so great at. First of all, it’s difficult to do that unless you’re good, and George lets it all hang out there. He’s got no vanity when it comes to that stuff. But then we need you to believe he’s a movie star too. Not everyone can do that.”
We see a lot of movies being made in Hail, Caesar!. Are you fond of that era in Hollywood and those types of films you recreate – the musicals and westerns? They can look creaky now.
Ethan: “When we look at some of those movies we think: Wow, that level of craftsmanship is fantastic. Many Hail, Caesar! reviews – good and bad – say it’s spoofing or parodying or satirizing. What the fuck? I don’t understand that. Look at the Channing Tatum dance number. We’re not spoofing. We’re trying to do a good dance number!”
Hail, Caesar! is set in a specific time and place, but is it based on real events? You’re not historians, are you?
Ethan: “Oh God, no.”
Joel: “There are historical models for some of the characters, but they’re fictional. For instance, for the Scarlett Johansson character, we were thinking about Esther Williams [the swimmer-turned-actress who appeared in ‘aqua musicals’].”
So you riffed on what you already knew instead of heading to the library to research?
Ethan: “Yeah, we don’t do research. We just go: Oh, this character could be this and that, and we latch on to an idea that’s been rattling round our heads rather than going out to the library and researching things.”
Can you imagine making a whole film out of any of the movies you recreate in Hail, Caesar!? A tap-dancing musical perhaps?
Ethan: “[laughing] Well, we talked about how much we enjoyed doing the westerns that young actor Hobie [played by Alden Ehrenreich] stars in – both the action western and the singing western. We thought: Goddam! We should make a singing western!”
Joel: “It would be a little tough getting that one made…”
The film is fun, but it’s got a dark side, too. It has a rich seam of nervousness underpinning it.
Ethan: “They should put that on the poster! ‘A rich seam of nervousness!’”
Hail, Caesar! celebrates the genius and craziness of moviemaking in the early 1950s. Did it ever make you think: Why the hell have we spent over 30 years doing this ourselves?
Joel: “Why have we spent our entire lives in that vineyard? If you spend your life as a plumber or an academic or a politician, at the end of many decades of doing it, you’re going to look at it in a different way.” ■