Ego-free partnership is key to brothers' success
The Coen Brothers, Joel and Ethan, have etched a special place in filmmaking. They have released their 10th movie, "The Man Who Wasn't There," which won Joel Coen the director's award at the 2001 Cannes Film Festival.
The Coens are unique. They "co" everything - write, produce, direct, and edit. A few years ago, Joel, the senior member of the team (by three years) decided, "It might be bad form to have too many Coens on the list of credits. Tricia Cook is an editor, who has done several of our films - she is Ethan's wife."
But, who is Roderick Jaynes - the editor so often listed? "There's been some controversy about that," Joel Coen confessed. "Some say it could even be us!"
The idea for "The Man Who Wasn't There" came from a poster that hung for four years on their office wall. "It had been a prop in a movie we filmed in North Carolina. It showed a small-town barber shop in the '40s."
One day, they were studying the poster as if for the first time. Together, they came up with the idea of making the barber in a small town the central character in their next movie. While Joel's wife, Frances McDormand, was doing a play in London, the two brothers wrote the script in England.
In the film, Billy Bob Thornton plays a barber who works in the shop of his brother-in-law. That role is played by Michael Badalucco, the Emmy-Award winning actor from "The Practice." It's his third film with the Coens.
The barber discovers that his wife, played by Ms. McDormand, is having an affair with her employer (James Gandolfini of "The Sopranos"). It's blackmail, love, and murder. As Coen describes it, "There are a few L-turns in the plot."
Before starting the film, Thornton took lessons at a barber school. "I could see the extras tense up when they had to do scenes where he cut their hair," the senior Coen admits. "I hired a professional barber to be on the set to restyle the hair after Billy Bob whacked it." Both brothers have thick black hair, and neither got near Thornton when he'd pick up the scissors.
All of Coens' films have been creative - starting in 1984 with "Blood Simple" followed by "Crimewave," "Raising Arizona," "Miller's Crossing," "The Hudsucker Proxy," "Fargo," "The Big Lebowski," and "O Brother, Where Art Thou?"
"Our mother was an art historian and an avid collector of paintings," Joel confides. "My earliest recollections were visiting the museums with Mom. She exposed me to visual art, for which I'm grateful. Somehow, it seeped into my appreciation for those things, [which have become] useful in what I do now."
The pair filmed "The Man Who Wasn't There" in black and white because they wanted to capture a '40s feel. They decided to shoot on color stock and printed on black and white stock because color provides faster speed and finer grain.
"You can shoot in any situation, with a lot lower light level, and still get a good result," Joel says.
"There is a deliberate pace to this movie, and I want the audience to fall into the rhythm as the story unfolds. Billy Bob has little dialogue, yet you can't take your eyes off him. You learn his thoughts as he narrates, which makes you feel you're almost inside his head."
The Coen partnership is amazingly ego-free. "We grew up in Minnesota. In fact, the name of our production company is Mikezoss, and we got the name from the drugstore on the corner where we grew up."
George Clooney, a Coen favorite, is another small-town boy (from Maysville, Ky.). He's just signed to do his second film with them. The first was "O Brother, Where Art Thou?" in which he played a hillbilly who escapes from a chain gang. In the next, "Intolerable Cruelty," Clooney plays a sophisticated Hollywood divorce lawyer.
The Coens' movie track record is paved with success, yet they remember the lean times. "We were living in New York," Joel says. "I'd just graduated from [New York University's] film school and got a job as an assistant editor on a low-budget movie, while Ethan was working as a statistical typist at Macy's.
"At night, we worked on our first screenplay, 'Blood Simple.' We've never divided up scenes; we've always written together, line by line. We were so far in debt, raising money to produce the film, the only way out was to make it."
Still hardworking and down-to-earth, Joel credits living in Manhattan with his actress wife and 7-year-old son for keeping him grounded. "We live a healthy distance from the 'company town' [Hollywood]. My son and I can play ball in the park, or walk over to 'museum mile' and see the new exhibitions. I like to expose him to painting and sculpture, just like my mom did for me. It may rub off."