Coen Broth­ers MOVIE

Empire (Australasia) - - On Screen - WORDS IAN NATHAN

Ge­orge Clooney is do­ing an im­pres­sion of the Coen broth­ers. Not Joel or Ethan, but an in­dis­tin­guish­able combo of Joel and Ethan, con­joined in hurdy-gurdy amuse­ment. “‘That’s funny. Okay. Why not? Huh-huh-huh­huh-huh…’” Af­ter nearly 20 years of be­ing the butt of their jokes on screen, he had called them to ask a favour.

How would they feel if he di­rected their next movie?

The script he had in mind was named Subur­bicon and fea­tured a fa­mil­iar brew of mul­ti­ple poi­son­ings, in­sur­ance scams, in­ept hit­men and wanton ve­nal­ity, lo­cated, as the ti­tle sug­gests, in a pris­tine Amer­i­can sub­urb. He would cut the nec­es­sary deals, cast, shoot, edit, and dis­pose of the corpses. They could stay in bed. One other thing — rather than take their un­made home-in­va­sion-themed crime spree ver­ba­tim, would they mind if he changed it a lit­tle? Well, quite a lot. He wanted to make it rel­e­vant. Clooney starts up his Coen mo­tor again: “‘Sure. Go ahead. Take it. Huh-huh­huh-huh-huh…’”

Amid the flurry of the Venice Film Fes­ti­val, where Subur­bicon is mak­ing its de­but, Clooney is an oa­sis of charm. The 56-year-old is un­flap­pable, even when bom­barded with ques­tions at the press con­fer­ence about the cur­rent US Pres­i­dent. In fact, those ques­tions are more rel­e­vant to his new film than you might think — af­ter all, the Coen broth­ers could eas­ily have made Don­ald Trump up, an­other Amer­i­can id­iot with wacky hair. And Trump’s Amer­ica, what’s more, was the chief rea­son Clooney at­tempted Subur­bicon in the first place.

But even though Ge­orge Clooney is Ge­orge Clooney, he’s not a Coen. What he needed to do was think like a Coen, act like a Coen, di­rect like a Coen. Here are the rules he fol­lowed, to re­ally tie his film to­gether...


“I had spent about a year look­ing for some­thing to di­rect,” the star ex­plains to Em­pire. “My agent tells me I read 80 scripts.” He shakes his head. “Most of them shouldn’t even be films. While for some big ac­tion films, I just wasn’t the right guy for the job. Bot­tom line: I couldn’t find a film.”

Cue the Amer­i­can elec­tion, and the un­think­able buf­foon takes cen­tre stage be­neath a thatch of or­ange hair, as Clooney puts it, rant­ing about “build­ing walls and scape­goat­ing mi­nori­ties and all that shit”. He shiv­ered at the par­al­lels with the Mccarthy era he had por­trayed in his sec­ond film as di­rec­tor, Good Night, And Good Luck. There were res­o­nances too with the dirty cam­paign­ing of The Ides Of March, his fourth. But to cap­ture this new in­san­ity, he needed to draw from the ink-dark Coen well.


Subur­bicon wasn’t ex­actly fresh out of the oven. The Coens had writ­ten it back in the mid-’80s, when Blood Sim­ple was first blaz­ing an ironic trail of Texan mis­an­thropy. It lan­guished at Warner Bros. for 30 years, weighed down by too many pro­duc­ers and po­ten­tial stars. “This is a dis­ease that some­times hap­pens to good projects,” sighs Clooney. “All these peo­ple at­tach their names and then they want to get paid a lot of money. Sud­denly the film be­comes pro­hib­i­tively ex­pen­sive to make.”

From time to time, the broth­ers would at least try. Their scripts of­ten lie dor­mant: The Hud­sucker Proxy was a decade old, Fargo had been cast aside for years — small-time crook

Carl Showal­ter, ul­ti­mately to be played by

Steve Buscemi, left mid-coitus with a bored es­cort — while A Se­ri­ous Man be­gan life as part of a pro­posed port­man­teau of crazy shorts. Clooney first read Subur­bicon in 1999, when the Coens thought of him for the role of a slimy in­sur­ance man who has caught the whiff of wrong­do­ing in the ironic air. But it came to noth­ing.

Sworn Coen­head that he is, Clooney ad­mits that Subur­bicon still needed work. “There wasn’t much of a fi­nal act,” he says. “And they had done movies with the same themes. They were kind of rip­ping them­selves off a lit­tle bit: Fargo and Burn Af­ter Read­ing have the same tastes of things with

hap­less crooks and so forth.”

You can see how Subur­bicon led to other Coen plots. Be­hind the picket fence of a pris­tine sub­urb, mur­der most or­di­nary spins grue­somely out of con­trol. Unex­cep­tional ac­coun­tant Gard­ner Lodge (Matt Da­mon), his badtem­pered wife Rose (Ju­lianne Moore) and their nine-year-old son Nicky (Noah Jupe) en­dure a home in­va­sion by a pair of bum­bling vil­lains (Glenn Flesh­ler and Alex Has­sell), in which tragedy oc­curs. This be­ing an­other Coen tale in which the kids are way smarter than the grown-ups, Nicky be­gins to sus­pect that the crime could well have been cooked up. Es­pe­cially when Rose’s be­nign twin sis­ter Mar­garet (also played by Moore) turns up on the scene. Apart from the in­cred­u­lous Nicky, ev­ery­one turns out to be de­spi­ca­ble at heart.

An­other all-amer­i­can com­edy as sweet as a cor­nered stoat.


It was not with­out trep­i­da­tion that Clooney and his writ­ing/pro­duc­ing part­ner Grant Heslov (the Ethan to his Joel) set about giv­ing Subur­bicon a sig­nif­i­cant makeover. In all that mel­liflu­ous, see-saw­ing di­a­logue of a Coen script, not a syl­la­ble is out of place. Im­pro­vi­sa­tion is rarely en­cour­aged. Stick to the plan. “When I did O Brother, if I changed a ‘damn’ to ‘darn’ they would be on me,” laughs Clooney. “They are kind of spe­cific.”

Still, spend enough time reel­ing off this stuff and you get a feel for it. “That repet­i­tive na­ture, cer­tain words that they con­tin­u­ally come back to,” ex­plains Clooney. “I ain’t say­ing I’m the Coen broth­ers, that is not the point. The point was, we had to find a way to ex­press their way of talk­ing. It is not an easy thing to do.”

Be­sides, they were al­ways at the end of the phone if he wanted to try out an idea: “Huh-huh-huh-huh-huh.”

When he showed them the fin­ished film — “Which was fuck­ing nerve-rack­ing, can you imag­ine?” — the first thing they men­tioned was a scene of theirs that had sur­vived ver­ba­tim, in which Os­car Isaac’s sly-boots in­sur­ance in­ves­ti­ga­tor ties Moore’s flus­tered house­frau up in ver­bal knots. “Hey, that scene still works!” the broth­ers crowed in uni­son. Then they gave him a fuller cri­tique. “They ac­tu­ally loved the movie,” says a re­lieved Clooney.

The film will go on to get a mixed re­cep­tion from the crit­ics at Venice. Still, there’s joy in the ob­vi­ous Coen mo­tifs, in­clud­ing its funny-look­ing dou­ble act of hit men who roll into the story in a bat­tered VW Beetle to do the dirty work. “Straight­away you think of Fargo,” says Da­mon. The cam­era is of­ten found scam­per­ing be­hind a pair of dart­ing heels or in an un­remit­ting close-up of a smirk­ing face. But if any­thing, Clooney has pumped up the story’s malev­o­lence. He proudly ad­mits that a scene in which

Da­mon’s in­creas­ingly dis­turb­ing pop threat­ens to mur­der his own son while loudly munch­ing on a cheese sand­wich is en­tirely his and

Heslov’s con­coc­tion.

“That scene is pretty fucked up,” Da­mon ad­mits. “Even though I was jok­ing with Noah be­tween takes to try and lighten the mood, I found out later that he went back to his trailer and cried be­cause we didn’t get what we needed from him. The next day Ge­orge said, ‘Watch this...’ I put the head­phones on and Ge­orge is just let­ting him have it, and he’s just bawl­ing.

And at the end of the scene Noah just smiles and high-fives him.”

So im­pressed were the Coens at Clooney’s gift for er­satz Coen, they in­sisted on shar­ing the writ­ing credit. “Trust me, Grant and I in no

way wanted to put our name on as writ­ers,” pleads Clooney. “The last thing you want is your name on a thing be­side the Coen broth­ers — I’m not stupid. They were like, ‘No fuck­ing way, you guys did this, you put your name on it.’ They were in­sis­tent to the point that it was ir­ri­tat­ing.”


While Clooney would stay safely out of harm’s way be­hind the cam­era, his cast has a know­ing ring to it. Da­mon ( True Grit), Moore ( The Big Le­bowski) and Isaac ( In­side Llewyn Davis) have each par­taken of the Coen­verse be­fore. In­deed, Da­mon, plump and be­spec­ta­cled, was Clooney’s only choice for this homi­ci­dal ev­ery­man. He was a movie star who could eas­ily re­sem­ble “some­one’s dad”.

Com­ing off the back of five movies vir­tu­ally back-to-back, Da­mon had been plan­ning some down­time with his very func­tional fam­ily. So when Clooney emailed re­quest­ing his pres­ence in Subur­bicon, he had to turn him down.

“It was shoot­ing in At­lanta,” says Da­mon, “and I wrote back and told him, ‘I would rather be wa­ter­boarded than pass on one of your movies, but I can’t be away from my fam­ily.’”

Half an hour later Clooney emailed back: “What if we shot in LA?”

For the erst­while Ja­son Bourne it was a rare chance to ven­ture to the dark side. With the added bonus of hang­ing out at In-n-out Burger rather than spend­ing four hours in the gym ev­ery day. “I worked hard to look like my grand­fa­ther,” he laughs.

“I think he just put the weight on, then blamed it on the movie,” smirks Clooney.

Josh Brolin ( No Coun­try For Old Men) was an­other Coen vet­eran set to ap­pear in the film, as an un­re­con­structed base­ball coach who teaches his charges what the word “fuck” means. But he ended up on the cut­ting-room floor. “When we tested the movie it was the fun­ni­est scene,” says Clooney, “but he gave the kid a safety net of some­body he could go to. We had to seal them into this world and not let them out.” In­va­sion Of The Body Snatch­ers comes to mind.

Moore, mean­while, was de­lighted to re­turn to the “el­e­vated” char­ac­ters of the Coens purview. If not quite as out-there as Maude in The Big Le­bowski, Rose is all thorns, and Mar­garet is a shrink­ing vi­o­let with a heart of stone. “When you are shoot­ing you ask your­self, ‘Where does this film live?’” she says. “‘What is the re­al­ity of this world?’”

The dis­com­fort­ing thing was that they were ask­ing them­selves the same ques­tions when the cam­eras weren’t rolling.


When Trump’s now-no­to­ri­ous clar­ion call to “make Amer­ica great again” first re­ver­ber­ated from his TV set, it oc­curred to Clooney that he was re­fer­ring to a myth­i­cal Amer­ica of the ’50s. The Amer­i­can Dream of pros­per­ity, con­tent­ment and house­hold ap­pli­ances, as long as you were white, straight and male.

“When, in fact, you know they were all screw­ing on the back seats of their cars and every­body was get­ting preg­nant, and black peo­ple couldn’t sit at their lunch counter,” he says. “All of that stuff is what was just sit­ting right un­der­neath the ve­neer of how beau­ti­ful it was.”

To feed in Trump’s na­tion­al­ist fer­vour, Clooney found it rel­a­tively sim­ply to re-route the drama from the orig­i­nal script’s Rea­gan­ite, con­sumerist ’80s to Eisen­hower’s hal­cyon

’50s, when sub­urbs sprouted up all over

Amer­ica. It was a decade the Coens might as well have in­vented: an al­most her­met­i­cally sealed, hy­per-real vi­sion of Amer­ica. “They are so spe­cific in what they write,” he says. “They cre­ate a world that is in the screen­play, in the char­ac­ters, in the di­a­logue. But un­der­neath flows this un­der­cur­rent…”


At the same time as his thoughts turned to this buried Coen trea­sure, Clooney hap­pened upon a short doc­u­men­tary en­ti­tled Cri­sis In Le­vit­town, di­rected by Lee Bobker and Lester Becker in 1957. With stark black-and-white footage, it charts the first African-amer­i­can fam­ily to move onto a new sub­ur­ban es­tate. “Within six hours,

500 [an­gry] peo­ple are on their lawn.” Clooney shakes his head. “These themes aren’t new. This is our orig­i­nal sin.”

He re­alised the times called for more than a Coen im­pres­sion. “Let me just say, my favourite di­rec­tors maybe of all time are the Coens. These guys have been knock­ing it out of the park for thir­tysome­thing years,” he says. “But their films don’t of­ten have a point to them. They en­joy be­ing point­less. They tend to have a lit­tle less heart in cer­tain ar­eas. That is part of what makes them my favourite film­mak­ers. I thought it was also im­por­tant to show how I feel per­son­ally about things.”

So Subur­bicon might best be de­scribed as “Clooe­nesque”, as the ac­tor-di­rec­tor crashes the broth­ers’ satir­i­cal alt-amer­i­cana with this vile slice of real his­tory, even splic­ing in scenes from the doc­u­men­tary. An im­pas­sioned plea for sense straight from the heart, the dram­edy hops from mid­dle-class mur­der to the very next street, where a newly ar­rived black fam­ily, the My­ers, sto­ically with­stand the pil­lory of their racist neigh­bours. The bit­ter irony is that as the crimes pile up in the white house, it is the in­no­cent black fam­ily tak­ing the blame. “I grew up in Ken­tucky dur­ing the Civil Rights move­ment,” Clooney says. “I can speak to white men think­ing they are los­ing their world and blam­ing mi­nori­ties pretty well.”

The film’s poi­soned sub­urb is never pre­cisely lo­cated, but as Le­vit­town was in Penn­syl­va­nia in the north-east USA, Clooney was in­tent on de­pict­ing racism as far from only a South­ern blight. “Ev­ery movie you see about big­otry is Mississippi Burn­ing — they al­ways sound like my fam­ily does from Ken­tucky,” he laughs. “I wanted a film that had a very north-east­ern feel.”

As he was deep into the edit of Subur­bicon, with Trump in­stalled in the White House, im­ages on TV of white su­prem­a­cists march­ing through Char­lottesville left Clooney stunned. Turn­ing back to his film, he saw a sea of scream­ing white faces spilling over the lawn of their new neigh­bours — life im­i­tat­ing art im­i­tat­ing life. Hell, life was im­i­tat­ing the Coens.

“Films at their best re­flect their place in his­tory,” Clooney con­cludes. “You can’t lead it — you can only say this is how peo­ple were feel­ing. It is an an­gry time in my coun­try and this film cer­tainly re­flects that. This is a re­ally an­gry Coen broth­ers film.”


Os­car Isaac as snap­pily dressed in­sur­ance man Bud. Top: Mar­garet (Ju­lianne Moore) has much to be con­cerned about. Here: Writer-di­rec­tor Ge­orge Clooney with Joel and Ethan Coen.


Left: Is Gard­ner about to snap? Here: Young star Noah Jupe’s Nicky meets neigh­bour Andy (Tony Espinosa).

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