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Two Semi-Serious Men: Interview With Joel & Ethan Cohen

Joel and Ethan Coen shed light on their new film—sort of

Mel Brooks once had a song called ‘Jews in Outer Space.’ That’s sort of the idea,” explains Joel Coen. Well, “explain” really isn’t the proper verb for a conversation with Joel and his brother Ethan, both of whom look like they rolled out of bed minutes before entering this Toronto hotel room. And while they’re perfectly happily to chat about their new movie, A Serious Man, with the half dozen journalists sitting across the table from them, it’s clear that “explaining” is nothing they’re terribly keen on doing.

You can just about see their flesh creep when they’re asked about a rare personal appearance coming up at the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis, their home turf.

Says Joel, “We don’t engage in a lot of reflection about our 25 years of making movies, and ordinarily don’t like to do those kinds of things. We’re doing it for the Walker because it’s a hometown thing and we got an unbelievable amount of support from the community in Minneapolis when we were making the movie, but it’s…not really desirable.”

Even their casts don’t claim to know what goes on the heads of the world’s most famous sibling filmmakers. After the Coens leave and co-star Richard Kind joins us, he upends the usual journalist-interviewee role by asking us, “Did they give you any literal answers? I’d love to hear what they had to say, ’cause they never told us.”

Of course, this new film, their 14th feature, is a bit more opaque than a lot of the Coen oeuvre. Here’s my capsule description: Imagine that Jehovah spent the early part of the 20th century reading Freud, found it amusing but unpersuasive, and in 1967 decided to re-do the Job bit on a contemporary Jew. That poor bastard is Larry Gopnik (Michael Stuhlbarg), a physics professor at a Midwestern university who feels that, with a house in the suburbs, a wife and two kids, and tenure right around the corner, life is good.

Guess again, Larry. Things start to go downhill, inexplicably but ineluctably. And the more Larry tries to find solace or direction, the worse things get.

It’s not quite like anything the brothers have done before, and yet the black humor and visual precision mark it unarguably as a Coen brothers film, albeit one less willing than usual to make concessions to a mass audience.

Advance word is that A Serious Man (which, despite the title, is very funny) is the brothers’ most autobiographical film, set in the milieu in which they grew up. That’s where the conversation begins.

Joel Coen: It’s semi-autobiographical, I guess you could say, in the sense that in takes place in a community very much like the ones we grew up in, in 1967. There are some very superficial similarities to our family—really the only one is that the father is an academic, and our father was a university professor. But beyond that he wasn’t really anything like the character in the movie, and the story doesn’t have anything to do with anything that happened in our family.

AV: So you weren’t into [the 1960s sitcom] F-Troop and the Jefferson Airplane like the kids in the movie?

Joel: Well that’s the other similarity. [He laughs.]

AV: The film’s point of view seems to be that Jews in this geographic setting are somehow out of place.

Ethan Coen: The thing that’s incongruous to us, just the whole nature of the landscape with Jews on it is funny to us. [Referring to the film’s opening segment, a fable that takes place on a 19th century Russian shtetl.] Maybe this is why we put that beginning story in there, to frame it. You go, “Right, Jews in shtetl,” then you go to the prairie, and you think, “What are we doing there?” It just seems odd.

AV: Was this a film that you chose to make now because you’ve had a lot of box office success in recent years and therefore the clout to do something less commercial?

Ethan: Being non-commercial is never an ambition. [Laughter.] Movies come together at different points for fortuitous reasons. You do them as you get the opportunity, as opposed to doing them when you choose to or design to.

AV: As Midwestern Jews, did you grow up feeling like strangers in a strange land, and has that influenced the way you approach storytelling?

Joel: That’s an interesting but very difficult question to answer. [He ponders.] I guess everything having to do with your background has some influence on how you tell stories but it’s hard to parse how growing up in a Jewish community in Minnesota really affected it. There were other things which were probably much more culturally influential on us, like television, pop culture, and other things kids are exposed to, if you want to look at the things that are the most formative.

AV: Like Jefferson Airplane and F-Troop?

Joel: Yeah, exactly.

AV: Do you think the movie might be perceived differently by Jews and non-Jewish audiences?

Joel: That’s something we’ve been very curious about, how a lot of it translates to a broader audience, I mean, outside of its obvious constituency. So far it’s been pretty encouraging, I have to say.

Ethan: We were both curious about whether there would be hostility, but religious Jews who’ve seen it so far have been surprisingly open to it. I guess one’s concern is that a lot of Jews see things through the prism of “Is this good for the Jews?”

Joel: We haven’t encountered any negative pushback. In fact, it’s been just the opposite, which is very gratifying because it was made as an affectionate representation of something we were very familiar with.

AV: Is it fair to say the film is supportive of spirituality?

Joel: At least it’s about a person wrestling with those issues.

AV: Your next film is a remake of True Grit [the 1969 western for which John Wayne won an Academy Award as best actor]. Is that a movie you’re fans of?

Ethan: We saw it as kids. It made very little impression on me. We subsequently both read the book and the book made a huge impression on us, and I guess that’s why we’re interested in doing the movie.”

Joel: It’s not a great movie. But it is a great book.

AV: Can you comment on the cult that has grown up around The Big Lebowski?

Joel: Nobody’s more surprised than we are.

AV: Was it harder to get the look of this movie right because it was close to your own childhood experiences?

Joel: No, I think maybe a little easier because we had so much personal knowledge of the details that we were familiar with that we wanted to put in. It might have been the opposite.

AV: Is making movies easier after 25 years?

Joel: It feels the same except in the respect that recently, over the past eight or 10 years, because we’ve been working with the same people so long, we now have a very efficient production machine.

Ethan: That’s true. Production doesn’t feel as daunting, but it’s still as hard to get your mind around attacking the problem of how you’re going to do stuff in some basic way.

Joel: It’s a puzzle, yeah.

Watch the trailer for A Serious Man

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