Joel and Ethan Coen love to poke fun at elements of popular culture and literature, turning them on their veritable heads. Their latest film, O Brother Where art Thou, has, as its source material, none other than Homer’s The Odyssey, with a little help from thirties film director Preston Sturges.
“We didn’t really start with Homer”, Joel explains. “We started with the idea of these three fugitives escaping from the chain gang and Homer suggested itself later when we realised the movie was essentially about the main character trying to get home and having this series of adventures along the way”. At that point they remember this old Greek writer called Homer. “We never actually read it”, Ethan interjects. “But we read the comic book version of The Odyssey and tarted the movie up with the Cyclops, etc.”
O Brother Where Art Thou is set in Mississippi in the 1930s and tells of three prisoners (George Clooney, John Turturro, and Tim Blake Nelson) escape, hoping to return home to their families. While dodging a tracker who is hot on their trail, the three men travel across the South, having wild adventures and meeting a bizarre cast of characters along the way.
While O Brother may be inspired by the Homer tale, it also pokes fun at America’s idiosyncratic Deep South. “There are some odd things in the South, no question about it”, Joel says. One memorable moment features the dreaded Ku Klux Klan dancing, in their traditional hooded garbs, which points to the unique and bizarre elements of the south. Joel compares moments like that to, of all things, The Wizard of Oz. “That scene is sort of reminiscent of that movie, in that there are parallels between that scene and the scary monkey scene of Oz. We wanted it to be creepy, weird and also ridiculous in a way.”
The Coens’ own odyssey, has been remarkable, though the brothers themselves are not so sure, that Brother is clearly as evolutionary as their first film, Blood Simple, which was reissued in the US earlier this year to wide acclaim. “For us the differences aren’t so much evolutionary as they specific to the particular projects themselves”, Joel explains. “We were appalled at how crude Blood Simple was cut, which was one of the reasons we decided to re-edit it. Maybe we learned a little bit about editing”, Joel adds smilingly.
While fans of the Coens may view O Brother as their most cinematic film, it’s certainly has more cinematic depth than its predecessors, Ethan argues that each film requires different devices. “Each one is different and each story demands that it be told in a different way. The salient difference between this movie and anything we’ve done before, is the music. We’ve never used music like this before.” The film, set in the thirties, uses period country music from the likes of Harry McLintock, songs that perfectly evoke the period and the comic tone of the piece. In discussing the process of writing this script, Joel says that he put certain scenes to music, before submitting it to music producer T Bone Burnett. “We’d get together with him and talk about how certain songs would fit certain scenes, or alternative ways in which songs and music would enhance the narrative.”
Born in Minneapolis, the Coens first collaborated on their first screenplay shortly after Ethan’s graduation from university. He and his younger brother began writing screenplays while Joel acted as an assistant editor for good friend Sam Raimi’s Evil Dead (1982). Joel says that while the pair was close when growing up, they didn’t have a burning desire to work together from childhood. “There was no grand design from the time we were little kids that we should work together. We just started writing together,. Joel explains. “I was working as an assistant editor, and we both started getting writing jobs for some of the producers I was working with and it developed out of that”.
In 1984, the brothers made their screen debut with Blood Simple. Both of them wrote and edited the film (using the name Roderick Jaynes for the latter duty), for which Joel took directing credit and Ethan took producing credit. It earned considerable critical acclaim and established the brothers as fresh, original talent. Their next major effort (after Crimewave, a 1985 film they wrote that was directed by Raimi), the 1987 Raising Arizona, was a screwball comedy miles removed from the dark, violent content of their previous film, and it won over critics and audiences alike.
Their fan base growing, the brothers went on to make Miller’s Crossing (1990), a stark gangster epic with a strong performance from John Turturro, whom the Coens would also use to great effect in their next film, Barton Fink (1991). Fink earned Joel a Best Director award and a Golden Palm at the 1991 Cannes Film Festival, as well as the Festival’s Best Actor award for Turturro. A surreal, nightmarish film revolving around a writer’s creative block, it was a heavily stylised, atmospheric triumph that further established the Coens as visionary arbiters of the bizarre.
Their follow-up to Barton Fink, The Hudsucker Proxy (1994), was a relative critical and commercial disappointment, though it did boast the sort of heavily stylised, post-modern irony that had so endeared the brothers to their audience. Whatever failings The Hudsucker Proxy exhibited, however, they were more than atoned for by the unquestionable success of the Coens’ next film, Fargo (1996). A black, violent crime comedy with a surprisingly warm heart, it recalled Blood Simple in its themes of greed, corruption, and murder, but it provided more redemptive sentiment than was afforded to the characters of the previous film. The brothers shared a Best Original Screenplay Oscar for their work, and another Oscar, for Best Actress, went to Frances McDormand, to whom Joel had been married since 1984.
Following Fargo, the Coens went on to make The Big Lebowski in 1998. A blend of bungled crime and warped comedy, Lebowski was a laid-back, irreverent revision of the hardboiled L.A. detective genre. It met with mixed critical reception, though it did net a Golden Bear nomination for Joel Coen at the Berlin Film Festival.
What remains remarkable about the Coens’ OWN odyssey, is that they have become like a collective Woody Allen, able to get their dream casts for a movie. George Clooney is the lead actor here, Billy Bob Thornton in the next one, and they have Brad Pitt lined up for the film after that. “I guess we’ve been lucky as far as casting goes”, Ethan says. “I can’t recall any major disasters in the casting process. But if you’ve written a part which you think is interesting, you somehow in your mind tend to relate it to a certain actor, and maybe odds are that actor will be in the same mindset as you and will do the film.”
It’s been over 15 years since the Brothers Coen surfaced with their Blood Simple. Asked what keeps the relationship fresh all those years later, Ethan jokingly retorts that “it’s certainly not fresh; it’s getting pretty ripe”.
Next up for the Coens is The Barber, stylistically different yet again from what has gone before. “It’s in black and white, set in 1949, and Billy Bob Thornton plays a barber. It’s a dark comedy, very interesting I think” Joel says.
Today, while they are credited separately as producer and director, the Coens remain a unified force. “We direct together, and to be honest, we view filmmaking as a collaborative process, and that remains our philosophy”. And that suits those who flock to be a part of a Coen Brothers movie.