Coen brothers keep it real

Siblings hold unique position in Hollywood

It’s tricky for any filmmaker to navigate the Hollywood system while keeping dignity, identity and creative freedom intact. But the Coen brothers are remarkably adept at doing so — usually to the mutual benefit of the siblings and the studios that back them.

“No Country for Old Men,” their 11th feature, is the culmination of all the films Joel and Ethan Coen have made, the lessons learned and the autonomy gained. The $30 million pic, which Miramax, Paramount Vantage and producer Scott Rudin are positioning for awards contention, spotlights a moviemaking model that clearly works.

The Coens have gotten away with their dark, chilly, bloody, wryly funny movies by keeping costs down and working with appreciative producers and studios.

“The Coens have always been extremely smart about what size movies they make for the audience they’re after,” says Jim Jacks, who produced “Raising Arizona.”

Despite the Coens’ modest B.O. track record, top producers from Brian Grazer and Joel Silver to Working Title and Rudin, routinely jockey to land their next projects.

“We make them cheap,” says Ethan Coen. “We have never made a huge amount, never lost a huge amount. We make modest amounts of money. The studios would rather make money, but as long as it’s painless for them, we don’t represent a threat. If it’s not a bad bet, even if it does not pay off in a huge way, they’re happy to play.”

It helps, first of all, to write your own screenplays. The sibs, who switch off typing chores as they talk out their scripts, recognized from the start the need to fiercely protect their pics from interference. On the set, they direct together, with Joel taking the title of director and Ethan that of producer.

With “Blood Simple,” the brothers’ first film out of film school, the Minnesota natives raised $750,000 to make the film with indie distrib Circle Releasing so they wouldn’t have to compromise. The darkly humorous and bloody crime thriller was a surprise hit with both critics and arthouse auds.

It also helps to retain final cut, which the Coens did throughout a series of low-budget pics half-financed by Circle and distrib 20th Century Fox. (Their supervising production exec was Rudin.) The $5.5 million fractured family fable “Raising Arizona,” starring Nicolas Cage, Holly Hunter and John Goodman, was a modest hit. The prohibition gangster film “Miller’s Crossing,” inspired by Dashiell Hammett and starring Gabriel Byrne, failed at the box office. And the lurid and surreal Hollywood tale “Barton Fink,” starring John Turturro and Goodman, scored big overseas after winning both the director prize and the Palme d’Or at Cannes. (Circle and the Coens owned the foreign rights.)

Cannes turned the Coens into namebrand auteurs, with the duo returning five more times and winning the director’s prize again for “Fargo” in 1996 and “The Man Who Wasn’t There” in 2001.

When Fox no longer wanted to back the helmers, producer Silver set up the $25 million mock-Capra period comedy “The Hudsucker Proxy” at Warners. While the Coens got a kick out of the iconic producer and managed to talk him out of casting Tom Cruise, going instead with Tim Robbins, Jennifer Jason Leigh and Paul Newman, the movie was a box office disappointment.

Luckily, while Joel was visiting wife Frances McDormand on the set of Working Title’s “Hidden Agenda,” he hit it off with producer Eric Fellner, who offered to help raise foreign financing, starting with “Hudsucker.”

Continuing to score modest returns on the domestic arthouse circuit, the Coens’ stature grew, peaking at its widest with “Fargo,” which won two Oscars, including original screenplay and actress for McDormand.

Paradoxically, the Coens have always been less than collaborative with their thesps. They don’t talk much about perfs, and prefer to shoot their storyboards and follow the script word for word.

“We’re incommunicative when we don’t have complaints,” says Ethan.

“They’re truly shy,” says Josh Brolin, who delivers a breakout performance in “No Country for Old Men,” the Coens’ adaptation of the Cormac McCarthy novel. “Even on the set, with us, there’s not a lot of dialogue. There’s not even a lot of direction. There’s a little bit of tweaking. They put a lot of onus on casting it correctly, then they let the actors do what they do.”

Still, thesps like Billy Bob Thornton (“The Man Who Wasn’t There”), Jeff Bridges (“The Big Lebowski”), George Clooney (“O Brother Where Art Thou?”) and Tom Hanks (“The Ladykillers”) line up to be in their movies.

And the brothers know when to press their case with the studios.

At one fateful meeting at Disney over the release plan for the $30 million “O Brother Where Art Thou?,” when the Coens realized that the studio was predicting a modest gross of about $15 million, they asked Mouse exec Dick Cook to consider giving the movie a bigger push. He went the extra mile, and “Brother” wound up grossing $45 million domestically, boosted by its hit bluegrass-folk-country soundtrack.

The Coens make up for minimal paydays on such smaller movies as “The Man Who Wasn’t There” by taking on the occasional studio screenplay assignment. Their former Circle Releasing producer, Jacks, gave them a three-week rewrite on the Universal romantic comedy “Intolerable Cruelty.” After a parade of helmers, including Michael Caton-Jones, Jonathan Demme and Ron Howard, flirted with the project, Howard’s producing partner Brian Grazer persuaded the Coens to direct the movie themselves, with George Clooney and Catherine Zeta-Jones starring.

It’s the only time the Coens have ever made a studio formula picture, with stars who got paid their studio price. Ironically, given the brothers’ indie vibe, “Intolerable” is their highest-grossing movie worldwide.

They tried the same process again, but their $40 million remake of “The Ladykillers” for Disney didn’t click with critics or auds, so the Coens returned to writing. Now, they’ve returned with their gritty instincts intact via Rudin, who wanted to reunite and saw in them the perfect match for McCarthy’s bleak, Texas-twanged Western.

Ethan admits that much of the film’s dialogue is “Cormac’s dialogue, as opposed to ours.” But it’s notably more sparse on the screen than in the book, especially when it comes to the movie’s laconic villain, Chigurh, played by Spanish actor Jarvier Bardem.

As they wrote their first outright literary adaptation, the brothers kept slashing the dialogue in service of better visual storytelling. “The less people spoke, the more we liked the way it seemed to work,” says Joel.

“It’s pulpier than what Cormac mostly writes,” adds Joel. “It’s just so much more interesting than an ordinary straightforward treatment of a crime story, because of what he does with the ending, and how a main character disappears three-quarters of the way through.”

They cast Bardem partly because he’s not well-known and brought “a strange foreignness, even exoticism” to the role, says Ethan. They modeled Bardem’s wardrobe and bowl haircut after a 1979 photo from a Texas bordertown bar. The Spanish thesp worked hard to erase as much of his accent as possible, because Chigurh is a man without borders, untraceable ethnically. “We didn’t want him to become the Terminator,” says Joel.

While Bardem was a lock for the villain Chigurh and Tommy Lee Jones an obvious fit for the pic’s Texas sheriff, there was considerable pressure to cast a name star in the Brolin role. But the Coens insisted on Brolin, and Rudin backed them up. “Scott was an unbelievable ally on this movie,” Joel says. “We didn’t need him on set. But he’s been invaluable.”

“Frankly,” adds Ethan, “we’re demanding.”

As the Coens edit their sixth film with Working Title and their third with Clooney, the darkly comedic spy spoof “Burn After Reading,” starring Clooney, McDormand, Brad Pitt, Turturro and John Malkovich, they’re gearing up to shoot another Minnesota movie, “A Serious Man,” a ’70s-era Job story, in March — strike or no strike.

“The script was locked a year ago,” says Ethan. “We shoot the script.”