When George Clooney was cast in the Coen Brothers’ 2000 comedy “O Brother, Where Art Thou,” he naturally turned to a family member for research. He sent the script to his Uncle Jack in Kentucky, with instructions that he read it out loud on tape. His uncle protested, saying he didn’t sound like that, but helped Clooney anyway. “I threw the script away and used the tape recorder,” Clooney recalled Sept. 29 at a 15th anniversary reunion with the cast at Alice Tully Hall at the New York Film Festival. “After two months of shooting, Joel and Ethan came over and they’re like, ‘You say every word exactly as written except you don’t say ‘hell’ and you don’t say ‘damn.’”
That’s when Clooney realized what his Baptist uncle had done. “He rewrote the Coen brothers,” Clooney said. The line got one of many big laughs. After a screening, Clooney was joined onstage with Joel and Ethan Coen, co-stars Tim Blake Nelson and John Turturro and director of photography Roger Deakins for a reunion.
Joel said that the script didn’t start out as a story inspired by Homer’s “The Odyssey.” “It started with a three-saps on the run movie,” Joel said. “At a certain point, we looked at each other and said, ‘They are trying to get home — let’s just call it ‘The Odyssey.’”
“In certain respects,” Ethan explained, “we were thinking more about ‘The Wizard of Oz,’” he said, alluding to the line, “There’s no place like home.”
Nelson recalled visiting Joel’s house and seeing a copy of “The Odyssey” with a post-it note that read, “Soon to be a motion picture by Joel and Ethan Coen.” He considered the role his big break in Hollywood. “I felt like the luckiest person in the world, to get to be directed by him,” he said. “These guys were mentors. They were so kind and generous.”
When Joel introduced “O, Brother,” he threatened to go into the editing room to make more cuts, but he said after the screening that he enjoy re-watching it. “Most of what you notice is editing things you would do a little different,” he said.
“I could have made more big faces,” joked Nelson.
“I think we were fined by SAG,” chimed in Turturro.
“When we first started doing the film,” Clooney said, “the first day was when I got the corn knocked out of me by John Goodman. I was really intimidated working with these guys. I was playing it like an idiot. Joel came over and said, ‘No! No! No! You’re the smartest guy in the room.’”