MINNEAPOLIS — Since their debut with “Blood Simple” in 1984, Oscar winners Joel and Ethan Coen have created an innovative, iconoclastic, idiosyncratic body of work that reflects their unique sensibilities. They have also been filmland’s main interpreters of Minnesota’s culture, ethnicity and behavioral tics to the outside world.
Returning to their home state last weekend for the regional premiere of “A Serious Man” they discussed their careers, their image and the importance of their regional roots.
Q: You guys are at the top of your game right now. What’s the best thing about this job you have?
Ethan: One thing that’s really good is the travel for every movie. We’ve revisited a couple of places, Minnesota being one of them, but going around to different places to shoot a movie is interesting. It’s one of the things that keeps us stimulated. The gypsy thing, there are bad things about it, but it’s part of what keeps us stimulated, as well.
Q: What do you think is the most annoying misapprehension people have about you?
Joel: There are things that have dogged us for 25 years and you think that. ...
Ethan: The film geek thing. ...
Joel: Everything we do was copying other movies, but the movies we supposedly were influenced by or were copying were things we’d never seen. The reviewer had, but we didn’t.
Ethan: Yeah, that got repeated from reviewer to reviewer but then it faded away. We don’t get that much anymore.
Joel: The misanthropic, “you hate your characters” thing has always been a little bit bizarre. And then there are other things that dog you in interview situations. You know, “Do you guys fight a lot?” and that kind of stuff. You kind of go, ‘It seems to me we’ve been answering that for at least two decades. The answer must be somewhere that these people can find it!’
Q: How do you think coming from Minnesota is connected with your identity?
Ethan: We’re not self-analytical or self-reflective people, but yeah, it’s totally part of our identity. Part of this movie is not about us, per se, as individuals but about this business that seems a little strange to us, the combination of being Jewish and Midwestern. And specifically Minnesotan. That’s a little of what this movie is about. So it’s big and important; it is our identity.
Joel: Right. It’s there, but it’s a little bit hard to analyze. It’s just like an actor’s body and their voice are their instruments, that’s your identity, that’s what you have to work with. If you grew up in Minnesota, that’s what you have to work with. It’s what we have to work with. We’re so intimately connected with this place.
Q: What was it like to revisit your old haunts? Was shooting here more emotionally resonant for you than filming in another location, like West Texas on “No Country for Old Men”?
Ethan: Oh, yeah. It’s strange, weird, coming home after 35 years. Not that we’ve been away all that time. We still have family here, so we visit back and forth. But not having lived here for a long time. That’s always strange. Always a jolt.
Joel: There were spaces that we remembered that we were trying to re-create. That was true of “Fargo,” too. We were combining things and pulling stuff out of what we remembered from being here.
Q: How did you create the character of Marge Gunderson, the naive, chipper chief of police in “Fargo”?
Joel: We may have thought of some of the story before we thought of that character. It was also colored by the fact that we were thinking of Fran (Joel’s wife, actress Frances McDormand, who played the role) early on. But certainly as it was for many of the characters in the movie, thinking about the region informed very much who we thought the character should be.
Q: Were you surprised by the state’s reaction? It was sharply divided; some people thought you were being condescending to the hicks. Other people loved it.
Ethan: Surprised? No. Whenever you get specific. Like “Barton Fink,” a movie about a Jewish character, whenever you get specific ethnically or geographically and touch people’s identities, some people love it and some people don’t.
Joel: Same with “Raising Arizona.” There’s always a certain number of people who for some reason are offended or think you are winding them up somehow.
Ethan: And others that are tickled.