The Coen brothers — Joel and Ethan — do everything together, including interviews. They talk about their latest movie, “Hail, Caesar!”
When it comes to filmmaking, the Coen brothers — Joel and Ethan — do practically everything together: write screenplays, produce, direct, even edit their features (the latter function under the pseudonym Roderick Jaynes).
That goes for doing interviews as well — which can be something of a problem when they’re talking to an interviewer over a speakerphone from Los Angeles. The sound quality isn’t that great, and good luck trying to differentiate between their very similar-sounding voices. How does one tell who is saying what under those conditions?
“It doesn’t matter in the least,” Ethan — or was it Joel? — said. They’re a unit. Interchangeable. Whichever one is speaking, he’s speaking for both. So for the purposes of this call, let’s lump them together and simply think of them as: Coen.
Coen’s latest movie, “Hail, Caesar!,” is a comic homage to old-time Hollywood moviemaking. Set in the early 1950s, when the studio system was still going strong but was beginning to perceive a threat from that upstart, television, it gave the brothers the opportunity to dip into a wide variety of genres as it takes the audience from film set to film set on the lot of “Caesar’s” fictitious Capitol Pictures. (Think: MGM. Or maybe Paramount.)
“We have an enormous amount of fondness and respect” for Hollywood’s Golden Age, Coen said, and they did everything they could think of to connect their movie to that long-ago time. They shot a great deal of it on the historic Warner Bros. back lot in Hollywood. For a segment in which Scarlett Johansson performs in an aquatic ballet patterned after the extravagant Busby Berkeley-choreographed routines featuring Esther Williams in “Million Dollar Mermaid,” they filmed it in the very same water tank on the one-time MGM lot where Williams and Berkeley worked their splashy magic.
In addition to Johansson’s aquatic extravaganza, the movies-within-their-movie include a cowboy picture, a sophisticated drawing-room comedy and a musical with a dancing-sailors number in which Channing Tatum’s energetic footwork evokes Gene Kelly.
Above all, there’s the movie-within that gives “Hail, Caesar!” its name. That one is a sword-and-sandals epic starring George Clooney as a Roman general. Clooney’s off-screen character is one of Capitol Pictures’ biggest and most glamorous stars. He’s also not very bright.
“Caesar” is Clooney’s fourth collaboration with the Coens — “Intolerable Cruelty,” “Burn After Reading” and “O Brother, Where Art Thou?” are the others — and they seem to have a genius helping the actor tap into his inner idiot. His “O Brother” character, the hair-gel-obsessed escaped convict Ulysses Everett McGill, is a classic dim bulb’s dim bulb.
What made them think such a glamorous leading man could be convincing as a dolt? Coen laughed. “We have so much fun” working with Clooney. “He’s very adept at playing an idiot, and you have to be a very good actor to play an idiot.
“He has very little movie-star vanity and great comic timing.”
Coen movies are notable for the fact that they never seem to repeat themselves. The noirish “The Man Who Wasn’t There” is a very different kind of picture than “True Grit,” and “True Grit” seems to have nothing in common with “The Big Lebowski,” perhaps their most iconic movie. Most notably, they don’t do sequels. Yet.
Coen said that in the past few years they have been kicking around the idea of making a sequel to “Barton Fink,” which stars John Turturro (another frequent Coen collaborator) as a self-absorbed playwright-turned-screenwriter with the world’s worst case of writer’s block.
Their idea for a sequel would join Barton Fink in 1967 where he’d be making a living as a professor of writing at the University of California, Berkeley. They even have a title for it: “Old Fink.” They’ve been in talks with Turturro to reprise the character, but they’re waiting for him to age into the role.
Like “Caesar,” it’s set in Hollywood during its Golden Age. Do they see “Caesar” as a companion piece to “Fink”?
“Not really,” Coen said. For one thing, “Caesar” “takes place 10 years later” than Fink. And in terms of tone, the movies are very different. There is none of the goofiness of “Caesar” in the ominous world of “Fink.” They take place “in totally different universes” Coen said.
Do the brothers ever chafe at their joined-at-the-hip filmmaking identity? Do they maybe wish to do solo projects? Nope. They like doing what they’re doing just fine.
“We’re old now,” Coen said (Joel is 61, Ethan is 58). Too old to change.
And why change a successful formula that’s worked very well for more than 30 years? No reason at all.