Coen Brothers MOVIE
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...
1 LOOK INTO YOUR HEART
“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.
2 CHECK THE COEN BOTTOM DRAWER
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.
3 LEARN FROM THE BEST
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
“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.”
4 KEEP IT IN THE FAMILY
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.
5 SET IT IN AN AMERICA OF THE MIND
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…”
6 BASE IT ON A TRUE STORY. NO, REALLY
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.”
SUBURBICON IS IN CINEMAS NOW
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).