Coen Brothers Hail Caesar Variety
François Dischinger for Variety

The Coen brothers are just as quirky as the characters from their movies. Just ask Josh Brolin, who has collaborated three times with the writer-directors, including on the upcoming “Hail, Caesar!” He recalls meeting the brothers on his “No Country for Old Men” audition, and not knowing what to do with the awkward silences. “Joel was intimidating,” Brolin says. “He didn’t say anything.” Months later, he was having dinner with Ethan, and noticed his friend continually glancing at his lap. “I looked down,” Brolin says. “He had been reading a book under the table. I was like, ‘Come on!’ ”

Photographed in New York City by François Dischinger for Variety

In this age of Twitter and Instagram, the directors of such beloved classics as “The Big Lebowski,” “Blood Simple” and “Raising Arizona” are still fairly private — and awkward with press interviews. Although they grew up together making films on their Super 8 cameras in Minnesota, they aren’t attached at the hip. Joel, 61, lives in an Upper West Side penthouse apartment with his wife, actress Frances McDormand. Ethan, 58, is married to film editor Tricia Cooke, and bikes to work to their downtown Manhattan production offices. Friends say they don’t see each other much outside of work. As they greeted a Variety reporter at Joel’s place, Ethan kept pacing in a circle in the living room, avoiding eye contact, while Joel grimaced a lot, giving off the vibe of a stern philosophy professor.

The pair’s latest picture, “Hail, Caesar!” which opens the Berlin Film Festival next week after rolling into theaters Feb. 5 via Universal Pictures, is a valentine to classic Hollywood. Set in the 1950s, it revolves around Eddie Mannix (played by Brolin, based on the famous studio “fixer”) who over the course of a day tries to clean up a series of disasters at Capitol Pictures (a double for MGM). The cast includes George Clooney (as a Gary Cooper-like movie star who has been kidnapped), Channing Tatum (a stand-in for Gene Kelly with a tap-dancing routine), Scarlett Johansson (a bombshell actress playing a mermaid, a la Esther Williams) and Tilda Swinton (as twin sister gossip columnists).

Joel and Ethan Coen give Channing Tatum his orders in “Hail, Caesar!”
Courtesy of Universal

Like Woody Allen, the Coens can attract such A-list talent — at a fraction of their usual salaries — because of the respect they engender. “They are really easy to work with,” Clooney says. “They sort of edit before they shoot, which is why their films have such a point of view. They don’t ever disagree. They kind of look at each other and say, ‘Yeah, yeah.’ The fun part is always saying out loud, ‘Oh Joel, that’s a much better idea than Ethan’s.’ ” Joel and Ethan opened up — in their own way — during a conversation with Variety.

“Hail, Caesar” is set in a 1950s studio. Are the characters based on real people?
Ethan: Is Scarlett Johansson Esther Williams? Not really. We don’t know anything about Esther Williams.
Joel: We’re not big on research.

The hero of your story is named Eddie Mannix, but he’s not the real Eddie Mannix, who was also — like the character — a studio fixer.
Joel: Yeah, you can go down the rabbit hole really fast.

There are many A-list stars packed into this film. All the actors must have taken pay cuts.
Ethan: That’s how you separate the men from the boys.
Joel: It’s not a secret that we operate on the fringes, in terms of the kind of stuff that we do and the budgets we work with. Most actors in the business, or movies stars who consider themselves actors, if they see a part they want to play, they are willing to make accommodations.

“The fixer is the sane person in an insane universe. The movie business is a lunatic asylum.”
Joel Coen

Do you let your actors improvise?
Joel: They can improvise all they want, but we’re not going to necessarily shoot any of it. Sometimes the actors are more strict about what we’ve written than we are. I remember Bill Macy struggling with something on “Fargo” — he had a line where he goes, “I … ,” and a couple of stumbles. I said to him, “Billy, this is just to indicate that you’re having trouble finding the words.” And he said, “No, I want to say it exactly as it’s written.”

Do you offer a lot of direction?
Ethan: We don’t. As Billy Bob Thornton, who is also a director, said, “If you find yourself talking to the actor a lot, you probably cast the wrong person.”

Do you require a lot of takes?
Joel: Not really. We’re not Stanley Kubrick.

You write your scripts together in the same room. Do you work in chronological order?
Ethan: Yes, we start at the beginning.

Acting on the Fringes
The Coen brothers’ quirky films have drawn a host of stellar casts
$252m True Grit (2010)
Stars: Jeff Bridges, Hailee Steinfeld, Matt Damon
$172m No Country for Old Men (2007)
Stars: Josh Brolin, Javier Bardem (1),
Tommy Lee Jones
$164m Burn After Reading (2008)
Stars: George Clooney, Brad Pitt, John Malkovich
$120m Intolerable Cruelty (2003)
Stars: George Clooney, Catherine Zeta-Jones
$77m The Ladykillers (2004)
Stars: Tom Hanks, Irma P. Hall, Marlon Wayans
$72m O Brother, Where Art Thou?(2000)
Stars: George Clooney, John Turturro, Tim Blake Nelson
$61m Fargo (1996)
Stars: Frances McDormand, William H. Macy, Steve Buscemi

Do you take turns?
Ethan: I do most of it. I’m better and faster at typing.

When did you first connect with Clooney?
Ethan: We offered him the part in “O Brother, Where Art Thou?,” the first movie we did with him, not having met him. He said, “Great, let’s get together to talk about it.” We went to Phoenix, Arizona. He was shooting “Three Kings” nearby. We thought of him because he’s funny. We’d seen “Out of Sight.”

You tend to work with the same actors.
Ethan: It’s a combination of things. Personally liking them figures into it. You got to not only work with them, but also have lunch; you’re spending time with them. When they are good at what they do, you want to spend more time with them. It’s self-perpetuating. But frankly, it’s also a bit of a crutch. If you know them well, you think: “What would be interesting for them to play?”
Joel: You do it to have fun. Not for it to be a pain in the ass. That’s a big factor.
Ethan: We’ve done four with Clooney, three with Josh Brolin. I don’t know how many with Fran (McDormand). Just two with Tilda.
Joel: Tilda is a gas.
Ethan: Maybe it’s three with Tilda, because she plays two people in this one.

Several of your movies include a kidnapping: “Fargo,” “Raising Arizona,” “The Big Lebowski” and now “Hail, Caesar.”
Joel: I’m not sure why. They are all very different. We should probably give that a rest.

Josh Brolin and George Clooney are frequent members of the Coens’ ensembles
Courtesy of Universal

What draws you to a character?
Joel: Miasma.
Ethan: It’s a whole gestalt. What’s going to serve the story that’s going to accommodate interesting characters? It’s hard to separate the two.
Joel: It’s the chicken and egg thing. Sometimes you start to think about a particular actor, and about a character you might like to see them play, and the story coalesces around that mental exercise. And sometimes it’s the story.
Ethan: In the case of this movie, we started to think about a fixer — in a studio like MGM. He figures things out, and everyone else is, in effect, children.
Joel: He’s the sane person in an insane universe. The movie business is a lunatic asylum.

Has it gotten more or less crazy with time?
Ethan: Probably less crazy, sadly.

Is that because studios are less inclined to take risks?
Joel: Is that what it is? I’m not so sure, to tell you the truth. Studios have always been, in a certain way, risk-averse.
Ethan: I agree — I wouldn’t blame the studios. Like Barney Frank once said: “People talk about how horrible politicians are. Sometimes the electorate is no prize either.” The audience for movies, their tastes have gotten more homogeneous. Mainstream movies used to be more adventurous because people went to them.

Early in your careers, Joel would take the directing credit, and Ethan would be the producer. It wasn’t until 2004’s “The Ladykillers” that you were listed as joint directors. Did your style of filmmaking change after that happened?
Joel: Nothing changed except for the credits. The reason for splitting the credits in terms of what we did was very complicated. We were trying to preempt other voices from coming in. We thought if one of us is the director and one of us is the producer, we’re not going to get a creative producer to come in. And it’s true — we didn’t.

“Like Barney Frank once said: ‘People talk about how horrible politicians are. Sometimes the electorate is no prize either.”
Ethan Coen

But what happens if you disagree?
Joel: What happens if you disagree with the cinematographer? Movies are not sitting in a room painting a picture. Or as David Lean used to say, “You’re not some English teacher in your basement.” It’s a social enterprise.
Ethan: Dealing with each other is the least of it.
Joel: Most directors, if they are talking to a cinematographer, it’s just them and the cinematographer. With us, we’re a gang of two against whomever we’re talking to.
Ethan: If it’s just Joel, it would be some asshole’s opinion. It’s theoretical for us. We write the script together, and we go from there. Any division of labor doesn’t occur to us.

You started making movies as teenagers growing up in Minnesota on a Super 8 camera. What were they about?
Joel: We’d remake what we saw on TV.
Ethan: We were watching movies from the shittiest period of Hollywood history. The ’60s was pretty poor material — Bob Hope movies, but not Bob and Bing Crosby.
Joel: “That Touch of Mink” would be a very important movie for us. Or “I’ll Take Sweden,” “Advise and Consent.” Every now and then, late at night, we’d go out and see “The Maltese Falcon” and go, “Wow! That’s pretty happening.” Ethan pointed out once, we saw a lot of stuff that was programmed by a guy in Minneapolis who had the Joseph E. Levine catalogue. It was very eclectic. You would see a Hercules movie one day, and the next day you’d see “8½.” And that mix of high and low, we took in.

The Coens go over their plans with Josh Brolin on the set of “No Country for Old Men,” clockwise from right; “Fargo” d.p. Roger Deakins; and Hailee Steinfeld on “True Grit.” Says Joel: “Actors can improvise all they want, but we’re not going to necessarily shoot any of it.”

How do you like to watch movies?
Joel: We like to watch them in movies theaters. We don’t get to see as many as we used to. There’s this insidious thing with the Academy now where they send you DVDs of everything, which I think is just terrible, because — it’s too convenient. Something that you spend a lot of time and effort making look good on a big screen, yet most people are watching them on a shitty little screen.
Ethan: Yeah. But then it’s like telling your kid not to smoke dope, because you sneak the screeners yourself.

Frances McDormand became a breakout star in your first film, 1984’s “Blood Simple.” How did you find her?
Joel: We were casting a very low-budget independent movie. We hadn’t done anything, so we were going and watching a lot of theater. We saw “Crimes of the Heart,” which Holly Hunter was in. We thought she was interesting, and asked if she wanted to come and meet on the movie. She had another commitment, but she was Fran’s roommate at the time. Fran came in and auditioned, and that’s how we met Fran.

And how long before you asked her on a date?
Ethan: Wait a minute!
Joel: Let’s just leave it at how we met.

“Fargo” has become a critically acclaimed TV hit. Would you ever consider directing television?
Ethan: I don’t think so. Actually, I’m not sure what TV is anymore. HBO gives you money and maybe they release it theatrically or on TV.
Joel: It goes back to what I’m saying before about all the Academy discs, and people watch them on their TV. How does that not make me a TV director?
Ethan: It’s hard to get away from being old. I still talk about the TV set.

It’s not a secret that we operate on the fringes, in terms of the stuff we do and the budgets
we work with.”

20th century fox/photofest

Have you seen “Star Wars: The Force Awakens”?
Joel: I haven’t.
Ethan: No.

You’re the last two people in America who can claim that.
Joel: I’m very anxious to see it. Oscar Isaac (whom the Coens discovered in “Inside Llewyn Davis”) is now a “Star Wars” character.
Ethan: And Adam Driver. It’s very weird when people you know are in “Star Wars.”

Oscar should give you a commission.
Joel: Tell Oscar that.

We’re in the business of sequels now.
Ethan: People go to them. Now we’re a couple of old guys bitching about the good old days.

I hear that a “Big Lebowski” sequel might be in the works.
Joel: Tara Reid likes to announce that just like Clooney likes to announce “Hail, Caesar!” In this case, I don’t think we’ll oblige.

John Turturro has also said that there could be a spinoff with his character, Jesus.
Ethan: No. We’re going to do a “Barton Fink” sequel at some point.
Joel: That’s the one movie that we thought deserved a sequel, called “Old Fink.” But we don’t want to do it until Turturro is quite old. He’s getting there.

Have you written it?
Ethan: No, but there’s a huge groundswell of demand for it.
Joel: This reminds me of an event some years ago; Ann Richards, the governor of Texas, was there. And we were showing some movie in Austin, and she asked me what we were doing next. I said, “Well, we’re making a movie about a barber who wants to be a dry cleaner.” There was a long pause, and she looked at me and said, “I’m trying real hard to get excited about that.”

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