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Mr. Beaks Interviews Joel And Ethan Coen For A SERIOUS MAN!

Some might be tempted to view A SERIOUS MAN as an uncommonly personal film for Joel and Ethan Coen. But while they've carefully recreated the suburban Minneapolis of their 1960s youth, and settled on a professor as their protagonist (both of their parents were college educators), the brothers claim that the similarities end there. This is all fiction. Not a true story. Like, um, FARGO. There's always a great deal of gamesmanship to the Coens' storytelling, so who knows if they're fibbing? And who cares? Since making their brilliant debut twenty-five years ago with BLOOD SIMPLE, the Coens have kept us enthralled by perpetually keeping us off balance. Sure, you can usually tell within the first few minutes of any of their films that you've strayed into the Coen-verse, but good luck trying to guess where they're headed. Very few directors working today throw as much narrative junk as the Coens; they live for misdirection. They also enjoy putting their heroes through the ringer, even when they don't necessarily deserve it. Actually, scratch that. Especially when they don't necessarily deserve it. And in A SERIOUS MAN, they hurl a Job-like heap of misfortune at Larry Gopnick (the excellent Michael Stuhlbarg*), a middle-aged physics professor whose biggest cosmic crime appears to be not standing up for himself. When Larry's wife takes up with another man, she suggests that he move out; when his bratty son clamors for better reception on their TV (lest he watch a static-snowy F-TROOP), Larry gets up on the roof and fucks with the antenna; and when a Korean exchange student bribes him for a passing grade, Larry allows himself to be intimidated as if he's the one in the wrong. And since this is a Coen brothers movie, Larry's plight is mostly played for laughs. Why do the Coens enjoy torturing their protagonists so? This is one of several questions I asked the Coens last week when I briefly chatted with them over the phone. Knowing that the brothers specialize in terse answers, I tried to draw them out by about process and filmmaking technique - and while they didn't exactly open up like we were old friends, I think they at least enjoyed talking about aspect ratio. They were also amused by the idea of Zhang Yimou remaking BLOOD SIMPLE. Hope you enjoy.

Mr. Beaks: Would you guys do me a favor and say your names?

Ethan Coen: This is Ethan.

Joel Coen: This is Joel.

Ethan: But don't worry about attributing whichever to whomever. [Beaks note: I am 99% sure that every quote has been accurately attributed.]

Beaks: I've read that this recent string of films was derived from a period of writing you did about four years ago. You wrote NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN, BURN AFTER READING and A SERIOUS MAN all at the same time. Is that how it usually works? Do you guys get to a point where it's time to write a new batch of scripts?

Ethan: That was kind of unusual. Sometimes we'll work on a couple at the same time or overlap. The whole process is ill-defined and a little sloppy, but writing three at the same time is unusual even for our standards. We were hired to write [NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN].

Joel: We were working on two of them, and then Scott Rudin came to us with [NO COUNTRY]. He had come to us with the book earlier and asked us to do it. It all kind of got done in the same general period.

Beaks: How quickly did you bang them out?

Ethan: Not real quickly. It took a fair amount of time. And when that time began and ended is a little fuzzy. But it wasn't real fast.

Beaks: How long had you been carrying the story for A SERIOUS MAN around?

Joel: We weren't really carrying it around.

Ethan: Actually, none of them were carried around. For the most part, at a certain period in time, we started thinking about [A SERIOUS MAN], and it got done. It wasn't like we were thinking, "Well, we've got to write a movie that takes place in Minnesota in 1967 in the Jewish community," and we finally got around to it. It was not a long-harbored ambition to write something set in 1967 where we grew up.

(This section deals with spoilers.) Beaks: I ask because I grew up in the Midwest, and there's something very personal and evocative in the way you use the setting - especially in the way you set up the tornado. The way the rain dots the window and the ominous tint of the sky outside: this is all very indelible from childhood. Was that a set-piece or an event you'd thought of before, or was it just something that came up naturally in the writing?

Ethan: I can't really remember where in our writing process we came up with that.

Joel: But you're right: the feeling was important. That feeling that you mentioned about the sky being a weird color... that's a feeling that's familiar to people from the Midwest. Getting that to feel right in the movie, as we sort of remembered it from those types of situations... you're right that that was kind of important.

Beaks: What's weird is that I sensed a tornado coming even before I knew one was going to show up. I could feel that strange exhilaration that gets mixed in with the terror.

Joel: Yeah, that seemed very much connected to that period in our lives and just specifically that place.

(End spoilers.)

Beaks: In terms of how you approached this film visually, it struck me that this might be the kind of thing you'd want to shoot in scope. I know you've only done that two times in your career, but that suburban flatness just seems suited to widescreen. How did you decide on the look of the film?

Joel: That's interesting. You know, with Roger [Deakins]... (To Ethan) What are you laughing about?

Ethan: I'm just laughing because we did it on NO COUNTRY and O BROTHER, and... we talked to Roger on NO COUNTRY. I remember talking about it and mulling it, and then Roger sat down with Andy [Harris] to shoot a couple of plates, but I didn't remember having actually resolved the question as to whether we'd go for that. (Laughs)

Joel: There's always at some point an aspect ratio discussion. On this one, a decision was made to shoot the Yiddish story in a flat aspect ratio, and do a transition to a 1.85 frame. When did that happen?

Ethan: We actually talked about that a lot, about what should the transition consist of between the flat and the 1.85. We thought maybe it should be more dramatic, but obviously what we opted for is pretty not pointed. I don't think most people would be aware of the change in aspect ratio between the beginning scene and the rest of the movie.

Joel: But you're right. Essentially, I think it was decided that while the prairie aspect of the movie was important, the movie was mostly interiors and people talking to each other. It wasn't really a landscape movie the way O BROTHER or NO COUNTRY were.

Ethan: This makes me think of Noah [Baumbach's] movie.

Joel: Yeah.

Ethan: We just saw [Baumbach's GREENBERG]. It was shot widescreen, but it's a very domestic, verite movie. It's kind of interesting.

Joel: It does work in all kinds of situations, where it has a different feeling. But I guess the answer to your question is that [the aspect ratio discussion] happens initially in consultation with Roger.

Beaks: But it sounds almost like Roger might've been pushing for widescreen?

Joel: For this movie? No. But, you know, it might've been interesting in widescreen. It sometimes makes certain kinds of things awkward - at least that's the fear. But GREENBERG works very well that way.

Ethan: It's a kitchen-sinky type of movie, but it's widescreen.

Beaks: (Laughing) I don't mean to belabor the whole aspect ratio thing. Moving on to your protagonist, Larry, and your torturing of him, do you guys still adhere to those old rules that are often attributed to you - and Sam Raimi as well? "The innocent must suffer, the guilty must be punished, and you must taste blood to be a man." Is that something that's still relevant to you?

Ethan: We haven't talked about that for a while. I remember there's a fourth rule: the dead must walk the earth. That happens in the movie. (Laughs)

Joel: The dead must walk is sort of... yeah. (Pause. Ethan's giggling and saying something to Joel in the background, but I can't pick it up.) The dead must walk is the first amendment to the constitution.

Beaks: How much does that drive the narrative, though? That thought of "What are the worst, most humiliating things we can do to this guy?"

Ethan: That's kind of how you get the story going. "He has this problem. How do we make it worse?" That is the way we think about it as we're writing it.

Beaks: How do you know the script works? Are you trying to make yourselves laugh? What's the emotional response you're trying to elicit?

Joel: Sometimes it's funny and sometimes it's not. As Ethan would say, whether you laugh or not, it's a progression.

Ethan: But even if you do laugh, it's not necessarily because it's funny. You laugh because it's like, "Okay, this would be good. This is a topper." You laugh because it works. (The publicist gives the "One more question" warning.)

Beaks: It's recently been announced that Zhang Yimou is going to remake BLOOD SIMPLE. Have you had any conversations with him?

Joel: We just found out! We had no idea.

Ethan: Joel's Mandarin is a little rusty.

Joel: I think he's shooting it or has shot it. I think he was finished with the movie before we even knew he was doing it.

Beaks: Seriously?

Joel: Yeah!

Beaks: How do you guys feel about the remake?

Joel: We're curious.

Ethan: I'll go see it.

Joel: We'll be the first ones in line - because apparently we're not getting a free ticket to the movie.

Beaks: (Laughing) That's amazing. I'm surprised [Zhang] didn't run that by you first. You don't feel slighted, do you?

Joel: No, we're happy that he's doing it.

Ethan: A producer approached us for the rights, but he conveniently did not mention that Zhang Yimou was making the movie. We knew someone was interested in remaking the movie, but we didn't know it was going to be him specifically.

And that, frustratingly, was all the time I had with two of my favorite filmmakers on the planet. I really wish I could've clarified that comment about Deakins sort of deciding the aspect ratio of NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN for them. A SERIOUS MAN opens in limited release this Friday, October 2, 2009. Mr. Beaks

*Also of Antonio Campos's AFTERSCHOOL, which opens Friday in New York City and is said to be incredible.

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