“The Coen brothers, though polite, have something of a reputation for clamming up in interviews”
pulled, your hair cut and your will drawn up without going outside the community? “You could just about do that,” Joel says. “There were so many Jews in the professions, of course. On the other hand, there were all these ways in which you were assimilated. There was this weird semi-porous border between us and the rest of the world. Of course, at the time none of that seemed odd. It was just who we were.”
A Serious Man could only have been created by Jewish film-makers. This is true in the trivial sense that you would need inside knowl-
edge to recreate the neighbourhood so accurately, but, more interestingly, only somebody from that background could get away with portraying the community in such an unflattering light.
“This is a place that is foreign to most people in the Unites States,” Joel says. “A great many people have said if you weren’t Jewish you couldn’t make it. I agree with that. In a similar way, only a non-Jew like Quentin Tarantino could make Inglourious Basterds. I believe that too.”
The foreignness is, perhaps, heightened by the directors’ decision to cast the film with largely unknown actors. Following the use of so many proper movie stars in No Country for Old Men and Burn After Reading, their last two pictures, this is a marked change of approach.
“Actually that was a conscious decision,” Ethan says. “We knew that, given what we were doing and the kind of environment we were in, we wanted the audience to get totally immersed. A movie star might jerk you out of that very suddenly.”
Even given the origin of the film-makers, I would have anticipated some objections to A Serious Man from Jewish groups. This is a place full of angst-ridden schmucks intimidated by more assimilated gentiles who seem to have none of their neighbours’ neuroses.
“I’m happy to say that all our peers seem to like it. Nostalgia is a powerful thing,” Ethan says.
The main action begins with the hero’s son distracting himself in Hebrew school by listening to Jefferson Airplane on a transistor radio. We get the sense that he is hungry for escape from this weirdly contained environment. The Coens claim that they had a perfectly happy childhood and didn’t share such desperate urges. (Then again, they would say that.) Nonetheless, it’s a long way from the suburbs of Minnesota to the gaudy sidewalks of Hollywood. One can’t imagine how the little boy’s parents would react if he said he wanted to become a film-maker.
“It wasn’t always our ambition,” Joel says. “Anyway, it would have been very strange for somebody from that world to even think of going into show-business.” “Yeah. To become ‘show-folk’,” Ethan laughs. “In retrospect, though it wasn’t what they would have chosen for us, our parents were very supportive when we decided to go into making movies. They were very open-minded and liberal about it.”
Biographers have always assumed that the boys planned their assault on the movie citadel from an early age. With a gorgeous neatness – given the blend of deep thought and cinematic lore in their pictures – Ethan graduated in philosophy from Princeton and Joel spent four years studying film at New York University. Before they headed off for college, they had already spent time experimenting with Super 8 movies. It does look as if they made it their business to fashion one bifurcated cinematic brain.
“Yes, one of us was working for the power of good and the other was working for the power of evil,” Ethan says.
“But which is which?” Joel retorts. “One brother becomes a priest and the other becomes a gangster. Later they meet up. We were in a Jewish Angels with Dirty Faces.”
At any rate, the brothers launched an astonishing career in double-quick time. After helping out Sam Raimi (still a pal) on The Evil Dead, Joel grabbed his brother and set to work on their astonishing debut Blood Simple.
When it was released in 1984, before either had reached 30, the twisty crime film rapidly gathered an obsessive following. Such blends of knowing cinematic self-consciousness and cheeky black humour had, in those pre-Tarantino days, rarely been seen outside speciality cinemas. But, with subsequent movies such as Raising Arizona, Miller’s Crossing and Fargo, the team proved that smart, uncompromising cinema can find its place in the multiplex.
Yet the Coen brothers have never quite been inveigled into the establishment. Joel may be married to a movie star, but you wouldn’t confuse Frances McDormand (for it is she) with your average red-carpet hogger.
Ethan, married to Tricia Cooke, an associate editor on many of their films, also lives an unstarry lifestyle.
Even so, in 2007, they did finally manage to secure a brace of best-director Oscars for No Country for Old Men. I wonder if that changes things for them in Hollywood. Todd McCarthy, in his largely positive review of A Serious Man for Variety magazine, argued that this dark, eccentric film is “the kind of picture you get to make after you’ve won an Oscar”. The Coens aren’t buying. “It. Does. Not. Change. Things,” Joel says with dramatic emphasis of that Oscar win. “We made the deals for the next two movies even before No Country came out. We haven’t been in the marketplace since then, except recently to get the next movie together. And that marketplace has become much more difficult due to the recession. I’m afraid that fact trumps any awards you may have won a few years ago.”
Still, the Coens aren’t shirkers. They are already working on a remake of True Grit – the old Henry Hathaway western with John Wayne – starring (how perfect) Jeff Bridges. Well, I say “remake”, but they claim they are returning to the source material.
“We really liked the novel,” Joel says. “It’s a great book by Charles Portis that could have provided a better film than the John Wayne movie. Not that we have anything against old Henry, but, erm ...” “It lacked the Jewish perspective,” Ethan laughs. “We need Henry Hathabergh’s take.”
Tread carefully, boys. It sounds like you might be drifting back towards autobiographical waters.
Oscar-winning directors Joel and Ethan Coen on the set of A Serious Man (below) and (far left) a scene from the Minnesota-set movie