Following up the Oscar-winning thriller “No Country for Old Men” would be a near impossible job for any filmmaker – so much so that the acclaimed Coen Brothers go in a completely different direction with the cynical sex farce meets broad comedy “Burn After Reading”.
On hand to promote the film at the Toronto International Film Festival were Brad Pitt, Tilda Swinton, John Malkovich, and Joel and Ethan Coen which world-premiered in Venice a few days before and hits theaters this weekend:
Question: Tilda, is it set that you and George Clooney are going to do two or three more movies together? Same goes for you Brad with George and what about you and Angelina re-teaming onscreen again?
Swinton: I’m working on having George Clooney in every contract. It’s tough but I’m trying. I’ve gotten the consolation prize of having Brad Pitt in every contract also. George and I do have the aim one day to be in a film where we say one nice thing to each other. Hopefully one day.
Pitt: I’m working on stealing Tilda away from George. We have something coming out in the fall. Angie and I are working together every day, I guarantee you.
Question: This is a comic film, but there is also a very dark undertone. It seems that you walk away from it with a very pessimistic feeling about human nature. It portrays people as empty, vacuous, and self-serving. Is there really that dark undertone?
Ethan Coen: Sounds like it. I don’t know.
Joel Coen: Yeah, I’m not even sure it’s an undertone. Yeah, they are pretty terrible.
Question: I like the way that all the people think they are part of some international conspiracy. It’s a way of making light of the climate in Washington, DC. Can you talk about that and what inspired you to want to take out that subculture there?
Ethan Coen: I guess we sort of wanted to do a spy movie. It didn’t exactly turn out that way. I don’t really think it is a spy movie. That’s how the original idea was structured. Like most of our stuff, it’s not really meant to be a comment on Washington. It’s really about these particular characters. I’m sorry I lost the thread of the question. Whenever you do these things you want to be specific about the place that your story is set. In that respect you want it to be about not just the people who are in government in Washington, but also the people who are just sort of ancillary to that, who live in that community. We had an idea of people that we were thinking vaguely about as references for the characters in a way. It wasn’t a specific kind of lampoon of anybody.
Question: What people did you use for references?
Ethan Coen: I knew I shouldn’t have said that. When we first started thinking about [inaudible] in the vaguest way, because of the plastic surgery, and we thought ‘That would be interesting to see Brad play something like that, Linda Tripp.’ [this makes no sense but it’s exactly what he says] Don Rumsfeld.
Joel Coen: You have to stop.
Question: Brad, who is the inspiration for your character?
Pitt: That was all me. That was all me in a former day. I really don’t know. It’s a mystery to even me and I’m somewhat disturbed by it all, including my other half. She’s disturbed by it as well I think. I can’t really say. It was just this idea of assuming or presuming a certain situation would go the way it’s supposed to go and it doesn’t. Then not understanding how there is any other realm of possibility.
Question: You wrote this movie after coming up with the characters. Then you cast people you wanted to work with, that you’ve worked with before, or that you wanted to work with but haven’t. Brad, how was it to know that they had written you as this silly fool to work with them for the first time?
Ethan Coen: He was a fool?
Pitt: I’m surprised at that too. I don’t understand. No, I’ve been knocking on the Coen brothers’ door for a few years, so I was really happy that they called. Then I read the piece and I was a little upset at them. [Laughs]
Question: How tight was the script? How were the characters written in the script and how much did you get to play and add to them as you went along?
Swinton: Well I would say as another first timer with the Coen brothers, one of the most fantastic things about working with them is that there is a script, which is so rock solid, mean machine, kind of clean thing to work with that playful is what everybody is. You just all rock up and play with it and then you go home again. The script is absolutely written down on paper. You mess with that at your peril because they write it so well. How could you possibly improve it? It feels like the invitation to play with them is exactly that, it’s come and let’s all amuse ourselves with this script.
Question: John, it seems like this part for you was very physical and vocal workout for you. Is that more so than usual? Is it a role you enjoyed playing?
Malkovich: Oh, I enjoyed it very much. No, I wouldn’t say it was more or less of a workout than usual particularly. As per Tilda’s remarks, there is nothing to change or improv with a good script. You just do it. There is a reason they say a football field has boundaries. There are a million ways to do a good script within those boundaries. Then you play with those and it was a delight.
Question: Brad can you talk about what it was like to take on a role that has that comical, self-satirizing dimension, particularly in light of some of the more dramatic films you have coming up?
Pitt: I’m not sure I can completely articulate it. I’m kind of groping my way through it. I guess I’ve been investing in American characters lately. I find America really, really interesting in this last decade. That’s been my focus. As for comedies, I felt like I’ve been doing comedies for years. [laughs] Maybe they weren’t so funny. The film coming up with David Fincher and Tilda is “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button” and again, I’m not sure how to describe it. It’s a bit of a love letter to New Orleans, it’s a bit of a love letter to family, and the people who may dance in your lives along the way I think is the best way to describe it really.
Question: A lot of the anticipation around this new film comes after “No Country For Old Men” which was a movie that people found very meaningful, resonant and serious. This film goes out of its way, especially at the end, to say it’s kind of meaningless. Can you talk about what we are meant to draw from it?
Ethan Coen: Do you mean maybe having seen this you would like to take back having liked the previous movie?
Question: No, I’m not saying that at all. I just think it’s a real change in tone.
Ethan Coen: You know, we don’t relate one movie to the other among any of our movies. Why would we? We’re thinking about whatever we’re working on. They are different movies. They feel different. I guess to the extent that they feel very different, that’s good. Certainly it’s an ambition that you change from movie to movie. You don’t want to repeat yourself. As for the meaningfulness or meaninglessness of each of those two movies, I don’t know what to say to that. The characters don’t… I don’t know what to say. The characters are probably leading lives that don’t have a whole lot of meaning, but they can still be interesting characters and actors in an interesting story.
Question: You take these dramatic actors, for example Jeff Bridges in “The Big Lebowski,” George Clooney in “O Brother, Where Art Thou?,” and now Brad Pitt in this film. Audiences are a little more used to seeing them in dramatic films and you cast them in these very funny comedies. Can you talk about the decision making process that goes into choosing the actors? Is there anyone else you would like to work with?
Joel Coen: It is true, we don’t necessarily make the distinction between actors and comedians, dramatic acting and comic acting in that way. If we put actors in comedies that aren’t normally associated with comedies, it’s just simply a reflection of our interest in them as actors. We are confident in their ability to inhabit the material the way it’s written. We wouldn’t necessarily think “Well, it’s a funny movie so we have to cast comedians or people that are associated with working in comedies.” We like to write, and we always have written parts for specific actors. As we sit down to write, it helps us often times to imagine the story. Sometimes we do and sometimes we don’t. This was a case where we wrote… Most of the parts in this movie were written for the people who played them. That’s often the way it works with us. We know an actor and want to work with them. Or we don’t know who is going to play it, that happens too, and we simply cast the part. That was the case for instance with Tilda. We didn’t know who, that part wasn’t written with anyone specifically in mind. We hadn’t worked with Tilda before. It’s all over the place.
Question: Can you talk about working with Carter Burwell, who did the score, and talk about the music for this film?
Joel Coen: Yeah, Carter has done all of our movies. This was one where he came to us early on and said he thought there should be a lot of percussion in the track. We wanted something big and bombastic, something important sounding but absolutely meaningless.
Ethan Coen: We kind of felt that since the characters thought they were all in a spy movie, for whatever reason he thought the composer should be similarly deluded. Actually the one specific score we talked about was “Seven Days in May” which is all drums. It really amused Carter because it sounded so important.
Joel Coen: These were a lot of big Taiko drums, you know, Japanese kodo drums.
Question: John, you are in three films at the festival this year. How does the Toronto Film Festival stack up against the others?
Malkovich: I worked in Toronto several times, and I like the city. I’ve been here a few times for the festival. Obviously when you come to promote a film, this is mostly what you do. It’s perhaps somewhat more difficult than one might imagine to try and take the pulse or heart of the city.
Question: But you have three very different films playing at the same time in this festival. How do you think of this festival in comparison to others?
Malkovich: But that assumes even if you go to a festival that you know something about it, and really nothing could be further from the truth.
Question: I wanted to ask the actors about working with the Coen brothers. A lot of actors say it’s something they look forward to and once they’ve done it that it was one of the best experiences of their careers. They have a hard time articulating what it is that they like about it. Can you put that into words a bit?
Pitt: Short days.
Swinton: So easy, really short days. Lots of laughing, uniquely, my experience laughing throughout the takes, but that’s all credits to Peter [Kurland], the sound guy who seems to wire the set in such a way that us honking like donkeys doesn’t feature on the sound track. That’s fantastic.
Pitt: He’s a bit of a mystery.
Swinton: He’s a mystery. I think it’s your confidence that the audience will be laughing.
Ethan Coen: There is a scene in “Fargo” where Steve Buscemi was sliding through the snow trying to bury this money and he kept sinking up to his waist. I think even in the finished movie you can hear me laughing at him.
Joel Coen: We left it in because we thought “Well, it kind sounds like Steve breathing.”
Question: John, do you want to answer that question as well?
Malkovich: I will give it a whirl. I think that among the things that for me were delightful was first of all you are working with people who have made really, really fun things. That’s always exciting and inspiring and calming also. They run a very calm set, a fun set, and partially because they are both very good. Because there are two of them, nothing gets out of the in field. Things are seen, things are noted, things are remarked upon. That isn’t always the case in a movie. I think Tilda and Brad would agree that a lot of times you can go days and days wondering if the director or directress saw that take, or any other take, and do they have any kind of feeling about it whatsoever. Sadly the answer to that could often, at least ostensibly appear to be, no. They haven’t seen it. That’s not the case with this. Not many actors put on plays in their garage by themselves, without an audience. It sort of presupposes that somebody has to be watching. They are watching. That’s not as normal or as quotidian as one would think it’d be. A lot of times they aren’t watching at all.
Question: Intelligence is relative. The phrase applies to a lot of characters in your movies. Do you think that films should speak for themselves? Is that what you seek?
Joel Coen: It’s just an odd situation. You make the movie because you find something about the story compelling. You find something about the characters. You do think it should speak for itself. Even stronger than that, you don’t have anything to say beyond that because you don’t think about it in other terms, in the way a journalist would think about it. Then here you are, sitting in front of a bunch of journalists, and legitimately they ask you to say something that isn’t just self-evident from the movie. You are stumped and sometimes they think you are being coy or allusive, but the fact is that you don’t have anything else to say. A lot of our movies have dolts and knuckleheads. I don’t know why that is either. Maybe its just because it seems to go somewhere in terms of the story. If everybody knows what they are doing and they’re very capable, and everyone is on top of things, then what is going to happen that is interesting or fun, or surprising?
Question: A lot of the film seemed to look like your hometown if I’m not mistaken. From what I understand it’s sort of a personal film since it’s set in your hometown. How are all these tax credits affecting filmmakers and does it determine where you make your film?
Joel Coen: Oh yeah. It does. It can mean a lot of money. It’s definitely a factor, especially if you are making a film on a limited budget. You go where you are going to get the most bang for your buck. If you can make it somewhere that is reasonable, in terms of the resources and the location, and what you are looking for. Wisconsin and Minnesota are different places. They are certainly [fungable?] in terms of movie locations. It makes a big difference. There are a lot of states that will offer tax rebates for local production costs. It’s getting a little bit easier. It used to be just a few states in the south but that’s certainly a factor. Minnesota is starting to have more liberal and generous tax benefits for production. We preferred to make it there for a number of reasons. That’s what we were thinking about in our minds when we wrote the story. Also, we have previous experience there with production crews and all the rest of the things. We just know that territory better so that’s why we ended up there.
Question: Is the film “A Serious Man” autobiographical?
Ethan Coen: No, it’s autobiographical in terms of the context of the story. It’s a context that we grew up in. It’s the Midwest in 1967. The plot or story itself is not in any way autobiographical.
Question: What was the inspiration for the machine Clooney’s character builds in his basement?
Joel Coen: The machine, there were two inspirations for it. One was a machine I saw that a key grip made once. The other was a machine that is in the Museum of Sex in New York City. We actually at one point said to George, “We’ll show you the machine if you want, it’s down at 23rd street and Madison.” George said “That’s all I need is to be seen coming out of the Museum of Sex.”
Question: How was it working with a new cinematographer after all these years?
Ethan Coen: Oh, it was great. It’s interesting because we had worked with the same cinematographer for many years, many movies. He just lights differently, works differently. It was interesting and stimulating. It was a fun and good experience. In fact we are working with Roger Deakins again in the upcoming one.
Joel Coen: Yeah, it was really a great experience because that is such a close relationship on the set. It’s the closest relationship you have with any of the crew members. As Ethan was saying, in many ways they are complete opposites. They both do amazing things by approaching it in such different directions.
Question: Do you direct differently because of that?
Joel Coen: A little bit. It’s like any collaboration. Cheebo [?] had to adjust to the style in which we work and we had to adjust to the way in which he works. You meet anyone half way like that. It’s how you work.
Question: Often we hear actors talk about how attractive it is to play an age other than your own. What is particularly delicious about playing characters that are not as intelligent as you are? John, you are also at the Toronto Film Festival in “Disgrace” and I wonder about the character of David Lurie and getting into that skin. What did it tell you about South Africa and shooting there?
Malkovich: You might want to clarify that I’m here in “Disgrace.” I’m not really here in disgrace. [laughter] Well, I would never say a character is more or less intelligent than I am. I just don’t think of it that way. I read what they do and when the writing is good it gives you a fairly clear notion of how they see the world. Then it’s just a matter, as Joel said, about collaborating with people you’ve never worked with before. There is the give and take of how they work, how they view things, and how you do. You develop a kind of language. Usually that can be developed pretty quickly and readily. I never think “Oh, is this man brighter or less bright than I am?” We have the great misfortune to hear some excerpts from his book in the film. Yes, I did say “That’s not a book I would rush out and buy.” I feel like it’s something I could do without, but I haven’t written a book myself. I really shouldn’t comment probably. As far as “Disgrace” goes, I am mistrustful of going somewhere as complicated as present or past days South Africa and saying anything that would make someone believe that I understood it, or had something important to say. I liked it very much there. I found it unimaginably beautiful. Of course it’s also sad and difficult as well. My basic feeling about it was very hopeful.
Pitt: The leading man role is the guy who has the answers, can figure things out, and diffuse a bomb within seconds. It’s all experienced. All of that is pretty good for the ego sometimes. It’s much more fun to play the guys who make the wrong choices, have limited experience, and make the wrong presumptions, and then have to deal with it from there. That is all the fun we had with this one.
Question: I’m curious who made the decision for Osborne Cox to say his book was a ‘memoir’?
Malkovich: That was a collaborative choice. There were several ways that you could go and we went with the most irritating. [laughter] That was unanimous.
Question: There seems to be a thread running through some of your movies where, as you say, knuckle heads, or Clooney calls it his ‘trio of idiot’ roles. Everyone seems to want something they can’t get. They seem to be lacking in intelligence and they set off catastrophic events. Do you think that history is made by idiots rushing into things? Single-mindedness? Do you think this is the way of the world? Perhaps with George W. Bush?
Ethan Coen: Actually, each of the three actors has said this in different ways. I would just second them. It’s not a comment about other people, it’s not a part of ourselves that we would disavow. It’s certainly not about George Bush or anything specific politically, or other people we’re laughing at, or find amusing. We’ve all got the inner knucklehead. It’s again good fodder for stories.
Joel Coen: As Ethan was saying before, we think about these things so specifically in such a narrow context. You sit down, write the story, come up with a story, and start thinking about the characters. It’s all circumscribed by the story. There isn’t a lot, or any really discussion about extrapolating any of it out of the context of the story. That is why, as Ethan was saying before, it’s a funny thing. It’s understandable, when you get in front of a bunch of people who want to talk about it in a larger context. It’s not the way we think about it. It’s not an illegitimate question, it’s just a difficult one for us to answer.
Question: It’s such a different role from anything we’ve seen you play in the past, Brad. How did you prepare for it?
Pitt: You approach them all the same way. As John was saying earlier, you just start understanding their arithmetic, how they view the world, and then give them the situation and how they would respond to it. It’s really no different, this one, from any other one. You just don’t know if it’s going to work or not.
Question: How do you react to the adverse reaction by critics to your following up “No Country For Old Men” with “Burn After Reading”? Does it matter to you guys?
Ethan Coen: Does it matter? You would rather people like it than not, including even critics.
Question: Tilda, can you talk about the hair thing?
Swinton: We had a competition going on the set about who had the most ridiculous hair. [to Brad] I think you might have won that, but we were all going for the Javier Bardem prize. I went down the Mrs. Crabapple route with my red thing.
Question: Did you come up with that yourself?
Swinton: It had a mind of its own. It landed there one morning. I can’t remember. It’s gone now.
Question: Your get an awful lot of dramatic mileage out of the F-bomb. How did you approach your character’s use of profanity?
Malkovich: Profanity, most specifically the F-bomb, is not as expressive as dude, but it’s an incredibly expressive word. It can really mean anything or nothing, and everything in between. It’s always fun to draw upon that.
Question: How did Dermot Mulroney end up in the mix?
Ethan Coen: Dermot is a good friend of ours, someone we’ve known for a long time. We just asked him and he was incredibly gracious, and a good sport to come out and do that little piece in the movie within the movie.
Question: From a creative standpoint, when it comes to a script, what is more difficult to develop, a successful adaptation or something original and unique?
Joel Coen: They don’t feel much different actually, in terms of the actual process of making a movie. Having just done an adaptation, then doing something that was not, it was not that different. The writing of it is obviously a little different. In certain respects it’s a lot easier doing an adaptation because there is an aspect of the figuring out that has been done for you.
Question: Aren’t there more expectations?
Joel Coen: You know, we’re pretty oblivious to the expectations honestly. We don’t trouble ourselves too much with what people might be expecting from this or that, so I would say no. Not really.
Question: You are often writing several things at once?
Joel Coen: This one was a little mixed up.
Ethan Coen: All three kind of over lapped together. The Cormack one, this one, and the one we’re about to serve.
Question: How do you write? Do you write together in a room or separately?
Joel Coen: We write together in the same room. We go in the office and sit there and talk each scene back and forth together.
Question: Talking about expectations, for Tilda, Joel, Ethan, you had a great night at the Academy Awards and went home with Oscars. Did it change anything? Are things different professionally?
Swinton: I must confess, I’m really sorry, but it doesn’t seem to have changed anything for me. Pretty much everything I’ve done since I was going to do anyway. Occasionally people remind me that was a peculiar night that happened. It was sort of a nasty dream. I’m not so keen on standing up in front of three billion people. It’s traumatic. It would be all right if they sent it to you in the post. No, it’s been business as usual for me.
Joel Coen: We had already shot this movie when that happened. The next movie we are doing had already been written and essentially financed. Our story is pretty much the same. We are doing what we would have been doing anyway.
Swinton: We survived.