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‘Serious’ side to Joel and Ethan Coen

Director brothers find revelations in film casts

If Joel and Ethan Coen’s uniquely dark and comic vision once placed them largely outside the mainstream, their 2007 Oscar winner “No Country for Old Men” (also their biggest B.O. hit) offered proof that the sibs weren’t such outsiders anymore. Their latest, “A Serious Man,” is perhaps their most personal film in a decade, and, with its exacting mixture of surrealism and sophisticated humor, it could also be one of their best.

GENESIS: “We just started thinking about the environment we grew up in, this Midwestern Jewish community, and it started to strike us as an interesting place to set the story,” Joel says. “This may be one of the first times where we started with the setting as opposed to a story idea.”

VISION: “One example is the depiction of the neighborhood — in a practical sense, that it be devoid of trees. We wanted this idea of suburban communities on the prairie, and new development as opposed to old. That kind of starkness was important,” Joel says. Also, adds Ethan, “It’s 1967, but here it’s the apex of postwar midcentury modern. What we didn’t want, and were actively fighting everywhere, is any sense of ’60s nostalgia.”

CHALLENGES: “Finding the neighborhood was a challenge,” says Ethan. “And dealing with … the physical and digital tree removal was the object of a lot of discussion.”

MAGIC: “If a movie is working well, it’s the cast,” Joel says. “You cast people on an educated hunch, but in a movie like this, especially with unknown actors and actors that we hadn’t worked with before, the big surprise was when they bring things you couldn’t imagine. Michael (Stuhlbarg) was a revelation.”

NEXT: An adaptation of 1969 Western “True Grit.”

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