Sunday 19 November 2017

The Coen brothers talk acceptance, Oscar controversy, and brotherly love

With their new comedy about to hit cinema screens, the Coen brothers spoke to our reporter about acceptance, Oscar controversy and brotherly love

Done roman: Ethan and Joel Coen's latest comedy ‘Hail Caesar’ stars George Clooney.
Done roman: Ethan and Joel Coen's latest comedy ‘Hail Caesar’ stars George Clooney.
Donal Lynch

Donal Lynch

'Squint against the grandeur", bellows the director of the religious romp at the heart of Hail Caesar. Faced with the real directors of the film - the Coen brothers - backdropped by a rather epic tapestry at the Soho hotel in London, that seems like pretty apt advice. The setting, the company and, most of all, the memory of all those era-defining movie classics - Fargo, The Big Lebowski and Barton Fink amongst them - is enough to make anyone squint and quake. But the brothers themselves are easy company. Ethan twinkles boyishly, Joel glowers like a big, stern eagle, but neither are the taciturn intellectuals I had feared from poring over previous transcripts.

They are dressed like worldly slackers, and speak with a thoughtful instinct for the one-liner (Joel once said "The three great themes of 20th-century literature are opera, the Greek diner business and insurance"). They don't talk over each other - I believe them when they tell me they never fight - and seem mildly baffled that the furore over their comments about the whiteness of the Oscars - they said that the controversy is "escalating the whole subject to a level it doesn't actually deserve" - have reached across the Atlantic. "It's extended to here? Wow we got a fair bit of that in the United States. It's not that diversity isn't important, it's that the Oscars aren't important" Ethan sighs.

"The whole discussion is so misguided at so many levels. I mean, if someone wrote a book, would we demand that the characters in the book were representative of the different races in society?" Joel asks. They shrug at each other and squint slightly. At the stupidity of the controversy perhaps.

Like many of the brothers' biggest triumphs, Hail Caesar hasn't set the box office alight out of the gate, but has been a big hit with critics - it got a standing ovation at Sundance, for instance. The film is set in fifties Hollywood, a period when the studios effectively owned the big stars and when filmmakers were, what Susan Sarandon calls, "the keepers of dreams."

It is suffused with nostalgia, but I wonder whether the brothers would really have relished working in that period, long before the public had truly absorbed the concept of a director's film. "It's such a different world", Ethan begins. "It doesn't seem that either by temperament or the way we do things that we do things that we'd be suited to it, but on the other hand there's something very seductive about working inside this factory, which is so beautifully designed to create that kind of magic." Joel chimes in: "Alfred Hitchcock made 54 movies. That is astonishing. But at the same time he didn't have to deal with the contaminating concept of self expression. John Ford, to take another example, was a guy who was quite brilliant, but he made cowboy movies. He didn't have to deal with people evaluating him on an artistic basis."

That's a luxury the brothers do not have. Perhaps more than any other directors there is a sense of fan ownership for their output; they have a following so large and loyal it can hardly be called cult any more. They led the art house revolution of the 1990s and parlayed their success into some huge box office triumphs, but they never seemed enslaved or weighed down by their own success. Their most successful films - No Country for Old Men, Fargo and True Grit - each made over $170 million at the box office.

Interspersed with these were defiantly moralistic, bleakly funny movies with limited budgets (such as Inside Llewyn Davis) and some mainstream comedies. Overall this latter category of their work has tended to be their weakest ground (think Ladykillers) but it has also spawned classics like The Big Lebowski, which has inspired its own festival and religion.

"We definitely don't make movies to put them in a closet - you want people to see them and like them", Ethan says. "The general audience reception is important. To the extent that critics enjoy our films, they have an influence on how many people see them. On the other hand your personal perception of the movie doesn't affect how it does on either of those levels. When I look back on our movies the reaction has something to do with how I see the movies - it's important but it's not the principle things."

The slow-burn nature of their success has been gratifying to an extent they say, "but at the same time I'd prefer if it were the other way around" Ethan adds. "The Big Lebowski did not open well but of course it's gone on to a life of its own. I'm not sure I like that. I'll take more respect now and less respect later. How would that work?"

Just fine, you feel, for a duo who exude the camaraderie of two boys laughing at the teacher from the back row of a classroom. The Coens' parents were university teachers who valued high art. Ethan has reminisced about being brought to the theatre by his parents "because it was supposed to be good for us." Growing up in the suburbs of Minneapolis, like many kids in the neighbourhood, they loved to mess around with a video camera. "The difference was, I suppose, that we loved it just a little bit more", Joel says. "We were just a little more dedicated."

In adulthood Joel completed a film course at New York University, later working as an editor for Sam Raimi on his cult horror film The Evil Dead. Meanwhile Ethan took a degree in philosophy, writing a thesis on Wittgenstein. "A serious and good philosophical work could be written consisting entirely of jokes", the great philosopher wrote, long before The Dude began issuing his own enigmatic lines. In 1984, the same year Joel married Frances McDormand (who would go on to win a best actress Oscar for Fargo) they began working together. It seemed like a natural transition for both of them. "People assume that there must be some sort of Cain and Abel thing going on, but we don't argue with each other and we don't really argue with anyone we work with", Ethan says. "We didn't really argue as kids. It was a peaceful household. The tempestuous artist thing feeds into some sort of stereotype I guess. An artist has to be a chair thrower, I guess." They both moved to New York City. Joel adopted a son, Pedro, with Frances McDormand. Ethan married film editor Tricia Cooke.

They carved out a niche making movies about likeable anti-heroes, losers with crosses to bear, and became superstars of cinema by innovating where others conformed. In the process they also became the outsiders, with whom everyone in Hollywood wanted to work - Hail Caesar was made for just $22m but features everyone from George Clooney to Channing Tatum (breakout star Alden Ehrenreich is the only leading cast member who auditioned for them). Their films have defied categorisation and they never seemed to settle into the mainstream. When they won Best Picture and Best Director for No Country For Old Men they bounded up onto the stage at the Oscar ceremony looking like mischievous kids who'd just been caught mitching. This year too, they will attend, and the questions on the red carpet seem inevitable, given their pooh-poohing of the controversy about the overwhelming whiteness of the nominees.

"The Academy Awards are just like the critics; they seem like they're full of shit until they give you one" Joel smiles. "And then you're like maybe they know what they're talking about, but of course to an extent they're always full of shit. We get dressed up and go of course. The drinks at the bar are free. We'll see what happens. We just go to have some fun."

Hail Caesar is in cinemas nationwide from March 4

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