According to many critics, ‘heart’ is not something the Coen brothers invest in their motion pictures. If they have, it’s probably been broken, shot at or carved up. But what not denied is that over the past 30+ years, Joel and Ethan Coen have consistently delivered some of the finest, most original, genre-twisting movies to come out of America.
Straddling Hollywood and the US indie scene, their films mercilessly plunder genres with abandon. Each one is a meticulously crafted affair, with every shot storyboarded beforehand a la Alfred Hitchcock. The results are as vivid as they are varied. Working with a regular troupe of actors, though always inviting new players into the Coen family, their scripts are laced with eclectic references and antiquated slang that fits the characters like a pair of comfortable loafers.
From Blood Simple to The Ballad of Buster Scruggs, the famously reticent Coen’s have frequently fallen in and out of favour with public opinion. Still, they have always responded by ploughing their oblique furrow.
Wary of the studio system, their relationships with the likes of Working Title (beginning with their 1995 film Fargo) ensured they had had final cut on all their movies to date. Not bad for two men who look like bespectacled hippie academics having bad hair days.
The Early Years…
Born in 1954 and 1957 respectively, Joel and Ethan grew up in a Jewish suburb of Minnesota in Minneapolis, the state they would return to for Fargo yers later. While their father was an economics professor and their mother art history lecturer, the brothers (who have an older sister, by the way) were cineastes from an early age. Joel began making Super 8 movies when he was eight, and would eventually study film at NYU. Ethan read philosophy at Princeton “for fun”, but was reunited with his sibling when he moved to New York. The boys began to write scripts over evenings and weekends, out of which their James M Cain-inspired neo-noir Blood Simple was born.
With no contacts in the industry, it would principally take three new friends to help them along the way. The first was Barry Sonnenfeld, who shot their first three films as the cinematographer, before making his mark as a director with The Addams Family in 1991. “Joel and I met at a party one night,” he recalls.
“The only people at the party were white, Anglo-Saxon Protestants, whose parents were all from Darien, Connecticut – a very rich, suburban community. They all owned coal mines, for some reason. We were the only two Jews at the party, and we saw each other from across the room; Joel on one side and me on the other. And we talked about Wim Wenders’ The American Friend, which had just opened. Joel told me he had written the script for Blood Simple, and was looking for someone to shoot it. I had owned a 16mm camera, and Joel said: ‘If you own a camera, I’ll hire you.”
The pair, along with Ethan, would go on to shoot a trailer for Blood Simple as a means to raise private investment for the movie. The trailer was made with no actors; it just featured a series of bullet-holes shot through a wall, a reference to the film’s visceral final scene. Upon completion, Joel door-stepped Minneapolis-based rich folk, screening it in their homes on a 16mm projector he lugged around with him. Over the course of just nine months, he raised $750,000 from 68 different investors, or “real gamblers,” as Ethan put it. “They stood to lose everything… but didn’t mess with us, asking to read a script or anything like that.”
Casting for the film led the brothers to meet – for Joel in particular – one of their most important collaborators, a young Frances McDormand. Auditioning for the role of the adulterous Abby, she was urged on by her friend Holly Hunter, who had also tried out for the part. McDormand was not overly impressed when she met the Coen brothers face-to-face. “They were chain-smoking, and there was a huge ashtray full of cigarette butts in the middle. I thought they were weird, geeky intellectuals. I asked Joel a question about the character, and he went into a twenty-minute monologue from a writer’s point of view”. Nonetheless, she won the role, and within a year married Joel.
The film was shot in the autumn of 1982, it wouldn’t be released for another three years. “Joel and Ethan took a year to edit Blood Simple,” recalls Sonnenfeld. “I used to visit the cutting room all the time, and one day I was there, and the shot [where the camera travels along a bar and moves up-and-over an unconscious drunk] was being cut out.
Joel said: ‘It felt kinda self-conscious.’ I said: ‘Joel, the whole movie is self-conscious – why pick on that shot?’ And he put it back in. The great thing about Blood Simple was that, as none of us had been on a movie set before, we took real chances. I took real chances in the lighting; we took real opportunities in the design of the shots. And if it failed, no-one could compare it to our previous work. We had nothing to lose.”
Neither were they alone. The Coen brothers had already met a man who would have the most immediate impact on their career. In the spring of 1980, Joel was working as an assistant editor on Frank LaLoggia’s religious horror Fear No Evil. It was during this time that he met a shy-and-retiring Michigan lad, who had just shot a gruesome gore-fest for the princely sum of $500,000. But when Sam Raimi pulled up to the edit suite with cans of raw footage for Evil Dead in his trunk, he was less than impressed by Joel’s appearance. “This guy came up to the car with long, scraggly hair down to his chest, looking undernourished. I thought he was trying to rip us off. That was my first meeting with Joel.”
Raimi, who has been called “The Coens’ doppelgänger”, would prove to be a massive influence on the siblings and vice versa. Inspired by Raimi’s hyperkinetic camera work from Evil Dead, the Coen Brothers would emulate their friend’s techniques in their sophomore effort Raising Arizona, notably in the jaw-dropping sequence that propels the viewer over a car, up a ladder, through a window and into the mouth of the wailing Florence Arizona, who has just discovered the theft of her quintuplets. Years later, when Raimi reined in his usual frenetic style for the snow-bound A Simple Plan, the residue of Fargo could be felt.
Between 1984 and 1985, they were sharing a house with Raimi in the Silverlake district of LA, along with McDormand, Holly Hunter and Kathy Bates. The Coen brothers were still trying to find a distributor for Blood Simple. After a year of unsuccessfully hawking the movie around to LA distributors, the film eventually got noticed via the festival circuit, ultimately winning the Grand Jury Prize at Sundance in 1985.
It was during this time that the trio co-wrote both Crimewave and The Hudsucker Proxy, a corporate screwball comedy inspired, in part, by Ethan’s time working as a typist in Macy’s. The latter would eventually become the Coen Brothers fifth film, some nine years later in 1994. It was their most expensive project up to that point, and their first (and only) collaboration with studio Warner Brothers and future Matrix producer Joel Silver; it belly-flopped upon release and (unfairly) garnered some of the worst reviews of their career.
Likewise, Crimewave, an undisciplined hybrid of Looney Tunes cartoons, screwball comedy, Mickey Spillane novels and the Three Stooges, would prove to be an unmitigated disaster for director Sam Raimi. Fired by the production company, Embassy, who recut the film themselves, Raimi had to suffer the shame of having his name attached to such a tedious mess, or Slimewave as he now calls it.
“Joel and Ethan just sat there laughing all the time,” says Raimi. “I’d moan about the editing, they’d moan about finding a distributor for Blood Simple, and somehow we wrote Hudsucker Proxy in between. That pretty much sums up our relationship: me crying, them laughing.”
The Coen brothers penned Raising Arizona, with Holly Hunter in mind to play the role of baby-napper Ed. A zany live-action riff on the cartoons of Chuck Jones, you could call it Road Runner meets Mad Max. It certainly succeeded where Crimewave failed, giving Nicolas Cage as fellow criminal ‘Hi’ one of his most memorable roles. “We spent a month in Arizona, working out all the shots,” recalls Sonnenfeld. “Usually Ethan would pace up and down, smoking cigarettes, Joel would lie down, and I would move around, and we would throw out ideas all day.” Released in 1987, it took $22.8 million in the US, making it the Coen Brothers biggest hit until the release of Fargo.
Bankrolled by Twentieth Century Fox, it would be a relationship the brothers would carry onto their next film, the excellent 1990 gangster film Miller’s Crossing. So torturous was the process of writing the convoluted screenplay, the Coen’s called in Raimi, Barry Sonnenfeld and actor John Turturro, who would play the film’s resident rat-fink, Bernie Bernbaum, for advice. Their solution was to write another script about a writer with a creative block. “That sorta washed out our brains,” said Joel, “and we were able to go back and finish Miller’s Crossing.” The script that would become the Coen’s fourth film was called Barton Fink (and, in testament to their saviour, an apartment block in Miller’s Crossing is named ‘The Barton Arms’). Written with John Turturro in mind, he would star as the eponymous left-wing playwright struggling with a mainstream Hollywood assignment.
But before that, came an unprofitable run (recouping half of its $11 million budget in the US) of the Coen brothers third effort, Miller’s Crossing. Despite its rich photography from Sonnenfeld, elegant Irish-themed score from regular composer Carter Burwell and stand-out performances from stars Gabriel Byrne and Albert Finney, Miller’s Crossing would get overlooked in a year that saw the release of both Goodfellas and The Godfather Part III. Yet it confirmed The Coen as a class-act, masters of hijacking genres for their own ends. Marrying the high-style of their early films, with the whip-crack dialogue they would become famous for, it was a nod of the Fedora to a master of American pulp, Dashiell Hammett, in particular his novel The Glass Key.
But it would be Barton Fink, one of the Coen brothers most exceptional achievements, that would position them as two of the most influential artists working in American cinema.
Winning an unprecedented trio of awards at the Cannes Film Festival – Best Actor for Turturro, Best Director for Joel and the prestigious Palme D’or itself. The film united the Coen brothers with a new DP, Roger Deakins, after Sonnenfeld left the fold to make The Addams Family. Along with Turturro, it also reunited Miller’s Crossing alumni, Jon Polito and Steve Buscemi.
Influenced by Roman Polanski’s The Tenant (who just happened to preside over the Cannes jury that year), it drew from other creepy hotel movies like The Shining, melding with a stinging portrayal of 1940’s Hollywood. With certain characters amalgams of real-life figures (Barton’s mentor WP Meyhew recalls novelist William Faulkner, for example), It’s a Faustian tale that represents the Coen brothers’ anxieties about the studio system.
As it would transpire, with the failure of $25 million-budgeted The Hudsucker Proxy – despite the presence of Paul Newman, Jennifer Jason Leigh and Tim Robbins – their feelings were well-founded. A patchwork pastiche, drawing from Frank Capra’s Mr Deeds Goes to Town and Meet John Doe among others, it tainted the Coen brothers as filmmakers who were all style and no substance, a common complaint from critics unable to see the heart at the core of all their films.
Scurrying back to the relative safety of independent financing, the Coen brothers then delivered Fargo, their left-field film blanc thriller that was embraced by the mainstream, taking a respectable $25 million in the US off of a $7 million budget (It finished worldwide with over $60 million). As Joel said; “Fargo was the final straw in trying to figure out why certain things are popular, and others aren’t. Its success was a complete surprise to us, so we gave up at that point.”
It also offered McDormand her first lead role with the brothers since Blood Simple. As methodical Marge Gunderson, the Minnesotan police detective who sets out to uncover the perpetrators (Buscemi, along with William H Macy and Peter Stormare) of a botched kidnapping. She won an Oscar for her role, as did the Coen brothers for their screenplay. It was the only time that their fabricated alter ego editor Roderick Jaynes was also up for a gong.
As regular pranksters, the Coens’ also had the last laugh by stating that a true story inspired the plot. Revealing the deception months later, it was a wheeze that nevertheless tricked audiences into readily accepting events. Ironically, their seventh outing, the 1998 film The Big Lebowski, was based on a semblance of truth. Given that it was a counter-culture comedy about a faded stoner trying to seek payment for his soiled rug from a namesake who uses a wheelchair. That might be hard to believe, as it was written before Fargo for Jeff Bridges (and again reuniting the Coen brothers with Buscemi, Turturro, Stormare and John Goodman, already seen in Raising Arizona and Barton Fink). The lead role of the Dude was inspired by film producer Jeff Dowd, while John Milius fed into Goodman’s Vietnam vet Walter. Set in LA during the first Gulf War, this cross-pollination of Raymond Chandler’s The Big Sleep, with the Dude a pot-addled Marlowe, a Busby Berkley musical and the Western refined porno performance art, surfers and Kraftwerk. Eminently quotable (“You treat objects like women, man,” says a dazed Dude), it deserves to be up there with Withnail And I as one of the finest films to roll a spliff too.
Not to be outdone, their next film was an equally bizarre hybrid – a Depression-era set musical inspired (in the loosest) fashion by Homer’s The Odyssey and Preston Struges’ film Sullivan’s Travels. Featuring Turturro and old friend Holly Hunter, O Brother, Where Art Thou? – which took its name from the film-within-a-film in Sturges’ movie – hooked them up with their first bona fide star since Paul Newman, Mr George Clooney.
The result was a crowd-pleasing comedy that proved to be the Coen Brothers biggest hit to date, taking $45 million in the US.
Naturally, rather than trade on their new-found Hollywood clout, the brothers delivered their most oblique, existential and probably best film since Barton Fink. Shot in black-and-white – as rich in its own way, as Deakins’ yellow-tinted photography on O Brother – The Man Who Wasn’t There would win Joel his third Best Director award at Cannes, after Barton Fink and Fargo—joining Billy Bob Thornton, Polito, Tony Shalhoub (whose fast-talking lawyer recalled his studio producer in Barton Fink) and O Brother’s Michael Badalucco.
After the release of The Man Who Wasn’t There, the Coen Brothers were set for their biggest project yet. It was to be a $60 million adaptation of James Dickey’s WW2 novel To The White Sea starring Brad Pitt. Set on the eve of the Allied firebombing of Tokyo in 1945, Pitt was cast as a B-29 gunner shot down over enemy lines. To be their first co-production (with veteran Englishman Jeremy Thomas), the fact that Pitt’s character had barely a word of dialogue (he’s in Japan, after all) scared the financiers to the point that the project collapsed. “It’s such a fucking great script,” said McDormand in sympathy. “It had nothing to do with Brad. It’s an insane project, but it would’ve been a gruelling thing to do.”
While keeping Brad Pitt silent sounds like a trick right up the Coen brothers crooked alley, the implosion of the film surprisingly pushed them towards Hollywood, rather than further from it.
The Coen’s next couple of films, Intolerable Cruelty, with new friend George Clooney taking the leading role as a Beverly Hills divorce lawyer and The ladykillers, with Tom Hanks playing Alec Guinness’s old role as a scheming professor on a riverboat casino, were both massively overshadowed by the 2007 release of the Coen brothers most exceptional work.
No Country for Old Men was released in 2007 and showed the world that the brothers were still able to make a masterpiece. Starring Josh Brolin, as a hunter who stumbles across a drug deal gone wrong and decides to pocket the briefcase of cash, to the psychotic hitman, Anton Chigurh (played by Javier Bardem), who could give a man on death row nightmares. It cleaned up come awards time, with four Oscar wins for Best Motion Picture, Javier Bardem picking up the Best Supporting Actor gong, Ethan and Joel Coen winning for Best Director(s) and also for Best adapted screenplay.
Joel and Ethan are still going strong, with over 18 directorial credits to their names. Their next project is rumoured to be Macbeth and is due out in 2021. One thing we do know is that, given their fantastic body of work, from their humble beginnings back on Blood Simple, we would never rule them out of topping their achievement that is No Country for Old Men.