Joel and Ethan Coen are in almost constant motion. Three days after completing photography in New York City on their upcoming spy comedy “Burn After Reading,” in the lull before beginning preproduction on their spring feature “A Serious Man,” they were in Los Angeles to discuss “No Country for Old Men,” their working methods and the importance of movie stars’ haircuts.
Critics are saying this is the best movie of the year, the best movie you’ve ever made, but it’s extremely violent.
No Country for Old Men
Ethan Coen, Joel Coen
Tommy Lee Jones, Javier Bardem, Josh Brolin, Kelly Macdonald, Woody Harrelson
US theatrical: 9 Nov 2007 (Limited release)
UK theatrical: 18 Jan 2008 (General release)
JC: We don’t agree with any of that. (Laughs.) Violence is an important element in many of the books (Cormac McCarthy) writes, and it seems to us completely misguided to try to soften that in the adaptation. It became just a directorial problem to figure out how to do it, what to show, how much to show, to find a reasonable, appropriate approach to it.
This is the least mannered of the films you have made. Was that dictated by the source material, or did you make a conscious decision?
EC: To knock it off? No. We never make those overall abstract decisions or calculations. It was an adaptation of the book. We liked the story so we tried to serve the story. You try to treat it the way it feels to you how it wants to be treated.
JC: This was not a story about buffoons, so they weren’t treated that way or portrayed that way.
This is your first adaptation, and you’re working with a book by a well-respected author. What challenges did that present?
JC: The initial challenge was what to do in those alternating chapters in the book. You get monologues from the sheriff essentially unrelated to the story. We didn’t want to eliminate it entirely.
EC: Cormac visited the set a couple of times, living as it happened not far from where we were shooting a lot of the movie in New Mexico. They were social visits, not working visits.
JC: He’s seen the film. He didn’t complain.
It’s being categorized as a crime drama but it doesn’t build to a tidy resolution.
JC: That’s very much a reflection of the way the book works. It had to be modified from the book in service of the drama, but those particular things didn’t bother us. That was part of the reason we thought the novel was interesting and interesting to adapt into a movie. It’s a crime story, but it doesn’t resolve itself like a conventional crime story. We’re aware when we’re making a movie that we might not be making a movie for everybody. But we’re convinced we’re making it for enough people who can see it as an interesting thing that we don’t worry about it.
Do you think of this as a crime movie or one with something more philosophical to say?
EC: The fact that it was both was appealing.
JC: It’s a big soup. You can’t parse the soup.
How did you decide that Javier Bardem was the actor to portray the story’s antagonist, an embodiment of pure evil?
EC: I don’t even know that I’d describe the character as evil. He’s a little more complicated than that, a little more elusive than that. He’s mysterious, he’s withheld, so that was a casting challenge in a way. I have no idea why we thought about Javier except we thought that whatever Javier supplies, he’s a great actor and it’ll be interesting.
JC: Whatever he would do we were convinced he wouldn’t do the cliche of the implacable Terminator. We were confident even if we didn’t know exactly what he was going to do with it.
What was the inspiration for his weird pageboy haircut?
JC: Javier’s haircut was inspired by a photograph of a man sitting in a bar or a brothel in a Texas border town in 1979. This is a haircut that says hello.
EC: It’s an alarming haircut. Javier embraced it, and it makes him look like a sociopath.
Was it difficult to cast a film with three more or less equally important protagonists?
EC: Tommy Lee Jones and Javier having been cast, the third person had to be able to hold his weight with those two actors. That’s setting the bar pretty high. We saw everybody and we hadn’t met anybody we liked and that we felt wouldn’t be something of a letdown coming from Tommy to Javier to person X. You don’t want the audience to think `OK, now I have to sit through the dull guy before I get back to the two other guys.’ Josh (Brolin) was the only person we met who put our mind at ease and we met him quite late, just a couple weeks before we were supposed to start shooting. I don’t know what we could have done if we hadn’t met Josh. It was a very last-minute thing.
JC: After reading a couple of scenes, we both heaved a sigh of relief and asked him to do the movie and that was the end of it.
I understand that Brolin’s expressions of pain are genuine, since he broke his collarbone just prior to filming.
JC: He had a motorcycle accident a week or two before we started shooting and then lied to us brazenly about the implications of the accident. So we felt completely at liberty to ignore the fact that he was in pain.
Was it difficult shooting so much of the film in desert country?
JC: One challenge was that we had a lot of extras who had to lie around in baking sun covered in blood on the desert floor for hours at a time. I found out from the makeup department that there was this thing like the Pentagon charging $3,000 for a hammer: The makeup department was buying this special blood that was made in England, makeup blood that was like $800 a gallon. I wanted to know why they were doing that rather than mixing food coloring with Karo syrup as they usually do and I was told that this blood had no sugar in it, as the mixtures usually do. It was rather important, given the fact that they would be lying there for hours and didn’t want to be attacked by all kinds of creepy bugs and animals that might be attracted to the sugar.
Were you attracted to this story because of the parallel between the sheriff here and Marge Gunderson in “Fargo”: good, homey characters who encounter gruesome violence?
JC: That’s the first time I’ve heard Tommy described as homey. They’re both intensely focused on a particular region and have to do with small-town law enforcement officers - both of them confronting crimes that baffle them. We noticed it late in a kind of “Duh” kind of way.
EC: We don’t really compare them. There’s just really nothing in it for us doing a movie and, you know what I mean? There’s some pleasure in problem-solving on a specific movie, you know, getting a movie made, but once they’re done we don’t look at them again, much less relate one to another. It’s kind of paradoxical. We’re never going to enjoy watching the movie. I don’t know why we do it. The process is pleasurable. On good days, it’s fun. I guess that’s why we do it.
There are very long stretches in this film with no music and almost no dialogue.
JC: We figured without dialogue there’d be more room for music. It was something Ethan suggested early on and we became increasingly convinced it was the way to go as the movie got cut. It didn’t need it.
One of your unproduced projects was `To the White Sea,’ an adaptation of James Dickey’s World War II novel about a U.S. flier downed in Japan. It was to be told almost entirely without dialogue. Was that on your mind while you were making this?
EC: Our getting to do this one made up for our not getting to do that one.
What’s the benefit of working together as brothers?
JC: I haven’t detected any benefit yet.
EC: We didn’t do it on purpose.
Have you ever thought of making a movie without the other one?
JC: Oh, we think about it all the time.
You’ve been described as almost Siamese-twin collaborators.
JC: Obviously we collaborate, but obviously making a movie is a collaboration with scores of people that you interact with intimately every day. I don’t think you have disagreements with any of those people. There are issues that arise and we’re not always in sync, but we discuss them until we have some kind of consensus between Ethan and I or us and Roger Deakins or whoever it happens to be.
EC: There’s not a lot of head-butting. By the time we’re on the set we’ve gone through the process of writing the script together, and if we weren’t in sync we wouldn’t have succeeded in writing the script together.
What’s “Burn After Reading” about?
JC: The new film is about the culture of the Central Intelligence Agency and the culture of physical fitness in Washington, D.C., and what happens when those two worlds collide. And it’s also about Internet dating.
What was it like working with George Clooney for the third time and Brad Pitt for the first time?
JC: George loves to play idiots for us. We always have a really good time with him, and with Brad, too. It’s a dueling idiots movie.
EC: George is interesting. The last two movies we’ve done with him, our discussion of the character would take place in the hallway about five minutes before we started shooting.
JC: (doing Clooney): OK, this guy, yeah yeah yeah. OK, fine, let’s go. That’s it. Brad, kind of the same. I think he struggled a little more in terms of trying to understand the character and find the right place where he was going to pitch it in terms of what everyone else was doing.
EC: Actually, Brad, I think the character all came from a botched dye job he had on his hair for a commercial and we all looked, us and Brad, and said, `OK, that’s the guy.’
How do you feel about the fact that lines from your scripts enter the culture, that there are guys driving around with bumper stickers quoting the Big Lebowski: “This Aggression Will Not Stand, Man”?
EC: It’s great. Really odd and really gratifying.
JC: Until that guy turns out to be the person who assassinates Ethan in five years.