Coens, Reitman, draw from personal experiences
Some screenplays make an impression by finding drama — or comedy, for that matter — in the everyday, or at least something that looks like it. “Ordinary People” and “Kramer vs. Kramer” won Oscars portraying fairly familiar American middle class lives. But other scripts invite the audience on a journey into hidden, hermetic worlds familiar only to insiders.
“Part of why a lot of people go to movies is to be exposed to something maybe a little exotic,” says Ethan Coen, whose “A Serious Man” takes filmgoers into the Jewish community of 1967 Minneapolis.
Variety spoke to the Coen brothers as well as scripters of two other movies that delve into hidden worlds they came to know from firsthand experience.
For the Coens, the opening vignette helped signal what community the movie would be about. They start with a Yiddish-language prologue set in a European shtetl “to announce from the very beginning that this is a movie about Jews. There is no ambiguity.”
Then there are ways of hooking the aud. Joel Coen points out, “It’s a hallmark of anthropological studies that the first thing they do is talk about societies that are foreign to the reader in terms of things that everyone can identify with, and then they reveal things that are weird and specific to the group. People like that.”
The protagonist of “Up in the Air,” Ryan Bingham, is part of two hidden worlds: He’s a high-end corporate termination specialist and a mega-mileage frequent flier who lives most of his life in what writer-director Jason Reitman calls “Airworld.”
The pic opens with Bingham (played by George Clooney) in an office, so the audience sees him in a familiar setting before they see him in an airport. But Reitman, who shares a writing credit with Sheldon Turner and directed the movie, notes the opening is hardly more comfortable for being in a familiar place.
“I’m actually starting the movie in the place where you’d be most uncomfortable, in the midst of a firing situation. From there, in contrast to that, I’m now taking Airworld and making it your comfort zone.”
Reitman, who like Bingham finds travel his favorite form of escape, choreographed the details of Air World scenes to be glamorous and attractive, down to the fluid camera moves.
Knowing he’d direct, though, he didn’t put most of that in the script — with one exception. “I write in the way that I edit, so when you’re reading the scene of Ryan going through security, the words pop the way the cuts are going to cut — two-word sentences, moving from idea to idea like poetry.”
“The Hurt Locker” scribe Mark Boal’s travel experience was less relaxing. He journeyed to Iraq as a journalist and rode along with the Army’s Explosive Ordnance Disposal Squad. Boal doubts he could have written the story without that firsthand experience but emphasizes, “It’s not a transcription of the experience. That would probably be a little more boring than the movie. ”
A number of Iraq War vets and active-duty servicemen have given him feedback. “On the whole, reaction has been positive in the sense that I think they have a job that most people didn’t know about,” though he also says, “One guy kind of complained to me that it wasn’t bloodier.”
Ultimately it’s the universality of a story that makes it resonate with auds, even when the setting is as offbeat as Air World or Baghdad. Ethan Cohen recounts, “I remember a Catholic guy who said (his community) was exactly the same shit, and an Asian-American guy who said it was the exact same thing in Houston.”