Lately we have been less interested in doing roundtables here at CHUD. The idea of sharing the exact same content with a dozen other outlets and having to deal with plenty of crummy questions just doesn’t seem worth it, in the long run. But of course there are always exceptions, and one of the big ones is for genius. Like the Coen Brothers.
No Country For Old Men might be their masterpiece. A film that is at once an identifiable part of their thematic history and yet completely different from what they have done before, No Country is almost flawless. Every scene in the film works; the moments of suspense are almost unbearable, the character moments are nimble yet absolutely defining and the ending is a marvel. A lot of people will have major problems with the last twenty minutes of this film – there’s always The Game Plan playing somewhere else for them.
I met the Coen Brothers a long time before I started doing all this stuff, by the way, back when I was in high school. They were at a Fangoria Weekend of Horrors in the company of Sam Raimi, and nobody at the con cared who they were, except me. This must have been right around Raising Arizona, and you would have thought people would have been more interested. At any rate, I chatted with them briefly (about Crimewave and Blood Simple, of course), and they were kind of weird and off-putting dudes. Not much has changed in the ensuing twenty years, it turns out. Except that they’ve completely eclipsed old buddy Sam Raimi on every level… except popularity. I imagine that Sam would still be the one getting mobbed at a Fangoria Weekend of Horrors.
Q: This seems to be the least mannered of your films to date. Was that dictated by the source material or did you make a conscious attempt to-
Ethan Coen: Knock it off? (laughs)
Joel Coen: No, well we never make those kind of overall abstract decisions or calculations. It’s an adaptation of a book, and we like the story so we try to serve the story. But you know, it’s also what we do in movies that derive from our own stories; our attitude toward them is the same – you kind of want to treat it how it feels to you it wants to be treated.
Q: Does that extend to the characters as well? Because in some of your other films, you have characters who are maybe a little buffoonish, and in this film they all seem to get a fair shake.
Joel Coen: Again, it’s kind of like the answer to the last question. Yes, there’s no question that we’ve written some buffoonish characters. Their stories are about buffoons, but this was not a story about buffoons, so they’re not treated that way or portrayed that way. The concept of giving the characters a fair shake is one that I don’t understand, at least in the abstract.
Q: What was it about Cormac McCarthy’s book that you responded to? Do you see this as perhaps a distant cousin of Fargo?
Joel Coen: Honestly we didn’t think about it that way, although retrospectively at one point I sort of realized there are certain superficial resemblances to Fargo, like the very specific regionalism of the story, and the fact that they’re both about sheriffs in small towns confronting crimes. But no, to be quite honest we were presented with the book and just took it on as an interesting book that we had [read] that had another sensibility that comes from somebody else’s imagination, and it was our job to take that and adapt it into a movie.
Q: Can you talk about your fidelity to McCarthy’s novel? There are aspects to the story, especially the end and the fates of some of the characters, that are not very Hollywood.
Ethan Coen: Well, it’s unusual in that kind of book – it’s a surprise in the book… but you’re right, even moreso in a movie. The convention is even more ingrained that the good guy is going to meet the bad guy and they’re going to confront each other. We were aware of how unusual that is and we talked about it with Scott Rudin, the producer, [because] we didn’t want to do the movie if we got the idea that he was asking us to do a Hollywood-ized version of the [story], and he was very much not. He liked the book too, and he wanted to see the book made, as opposed to seeing it turned into something else. I mean, the story is very much about how unforgiving and capricious the world can be.
Joel Coen: I think if the novel had been more conventional in that respect, I think we wouldn’t have been much interested in making it into a movie, but that was one of the things about the novel, from a storytelling point of view was interesting to us. But from the point of view of it being a full appropriate and satisfying expression of what the author was trying to say what we thought the book was about, and therefore there would be no reason to change that from our point of view either in terms of making it into a movie. We didn’t feel that it was in conflict with some larger sort of dramatic idea that couldn’t be satisfied for an audience, although whenever you’re doing things you’re aware – as we’re sure Cormac McCarthy is aware when he writes a novel – that he might not be writing it for everybody. We’re aware when we make a movie that we might not be making the movie for everybody, but we’re convinced that we’re making it for enough people who sort of will see it as an interesting thing that we don’t worry about it.
Ethan Coen: Not just interesting, but satisfying, because in a way it’s frustrating but it also has to be satisfying. And as Joel says, for some people it never could be, but-
Joel Coen: We didn’t see it as being fundamentally as being so perverse dramatically that it couldn’t work as Ethan was say in a satisfying way. That we didn’t think.
Q: It seems like Tommy Lee Jones’ character carries that satisfying portion of the story as he holds the movie together until the end.
Joel Coen: Right.
Q: Well not to belabor the Fargo connection, but both Jones’ character and Marge are in a line of work that puts them in contact with this evil that mystifies and saddens them.
Joel Coen: That’s true.
Ethan Coen: Ehh, right. (laughs) Evil may not be the perfect right word, but yes, with the real, horrible world.
Joel Coen: What they share explicitly is a certain amount of bafflement, being baffled by what it is, by the world and how it manifests itself that way.
Ethan Coen: In the case of that character in Fargo, in kind of a naïve way, and in the case of Cormac’s character, sort of a more sophisticated way.
Q: Talk a little about how you cast Javier Bardem as Anton Chigurh.
Joel Coen: Javier is someone that we always wanted to work with, but there’s lots of actors we’ve wanted to work with, and it’s all about finding the right marriage of that person you want to work with in a part that’s going to be right for them. One of the things that was interesting about this character is that he is described so little in the book, but one of the things that you do get in the book is the sense that he’s the one character that’s not sort of “of the region,” that there’s something exotic or maybe foreign about him. That gave us a certain amount of license to think outside of American actors, and another thing that we needed which was extremely charismatic screen presence that we knew was necessary for that part. That’s how it happened: we didn’t know what Javier was going to do with the part, but we were utterly convinced that whatever he did, it wouldn’t be what we were most afraid of, which is to make the character into a cliché of the sort of implacable, terminator killer. We felt having satisfied that fear, having allayed that fear in our minds, we were perfectly confident with him and we just thought it’s going to be very interesting, whatever he does.
Q: Speaking of Chigurh, if he’s not evil then what is he?
Ethan Coen: Quite clearly in the book, he’s a personification of the world, which is an unforgiving and capricious [place]; the embodiment of that is the whole coin-tossing thing that gives the character place, and it doesn’t have to do with good and evil. The book is also about trackers, it’s about predation, which is a horrible thing in a way, but you know, it doesn’t have to do with good and evil.
Q: Have you ever thought of making a movie without one another?
Joel Coen: We think about it all of the time (laughs).
Q: How would you describe the balance of humor in this? Because there seems to be an undercurrent of humor, but there wasn’t much chuckling happening in the theater during the screening.
Ethan Coen: We weren’t trying at all, although he’s the best way of putting it: I think there’s a lot of humor in Cormac’s work and this book specifically, and we were alive to that and we tried to be faithful to Cormac’s spirit. I think if you’re alive to it, it’s there.
Joel Coen: But on the other hand, it’s one of those things where we don’t really have any feelings positive or negative about how anyone takes the movie, in terms of that. If people choose to see the movie completely clenched, you know, in terms of what the movie is – a chase movie or suspense movie or whatever it happens to be – that’s fine, and in fact from our point of view it means that a certain aspect of the movie is working well. And people also choose to laugh – for instance, people often laugh in places we don’t expect it, or never expected, and that doesn’t bother us either; so it’s not in any way bothersome to us if somebody takes it either more comically or not comically at all. The only thing that as Ethan was saying that we both thought that in the book there was a real sense of humor there as well, and as he said, that was part of the sensibility from our point of view that informed the movie.
Q: How does that mean you shape or direct the tone of the material on set? Tommy Lee Jones, for example, said that the way to play the character was to read the lines; how do you make sure that you’re getting what you need or want artistically?
Joel Coen: Just again it comes down to a scene and story thing. Even when we’re doing something which we’re very conscious is a comedy, we’re not asking the actors to sort of acknowledge the comedy in their performances. It’s kind of the same thing here. It’s like yes, there may be humor in this, but when it comes to sort of what you’re looking for in a performance, you wouldn’t want to be directing the actor towards a self-conscious awareness of that in a performance.
Q: So then are you just sort of dealing practically with what’s going on in a scene, or do you discuss at any level what the film or even just the scene is about?
Joel Coen: Well, yeah, it depends on the actor, I suppose. They’re all different, in terms of what they want to talk about, or whether they want to talk about it at all. It just runs the whole gamut.
Ethan Coen: Yeah, we do what the actor wants to do, and it does vary. We don’t have a position on that. In terms of discussing it in the abstract, discussing very specific things which some actors like to do as a way of getting at maybe deeper things, but you know – everybody’s got their own [process].
Joel Coen: There’s so many different ways that actors arrive at a performance and it’s just so idiosyncratic. Some do tons of research, some don’t look at the script until the night before they’re shooting the scene; [some get] everything down by heart weeks in advance, and other people are looking at the sides right before you start shooting the scene. Some people do lots of research, some people want to have very sort of subtextual discussions about motivation, and some wouldn’t go near that.
Q: How do George Clooney and Pitt work, given that you just worked with them on Burn After Reading?
Joel Coen: Where would they fit in that spectrum?
Ethan Coen: George is interesting because on the last two movies we’ve done with him, our whole discussion of the character took place about five minutes before we started shooting (laughs).
Joel Coen: Brad is kind of the same, although Brad struggled a little bit more in terms of trying to find the right [approach]. But George had worked with us before – this was the third movie we’d done with George – so sometimes it’s a little different in that respect too, and I think Brad was trying to find a place where he was going to both understand the character and find a place where he was going to pitch it that was going to be appropriate in terms of what everyone else was doing.
Ethan Coen: Sometimes this happens a lot with actors, they kind of don’t know where to jump off from, like where do you start: geographically where is he from, or ethnically, or could he be this or that. You kind of talk about those things, and you never arrive at any conclusion and you feel vaguely dissatisfied, but then everything’s fine – it takes care of itself.
Joel Coen: And they all start from different places. There are actors who if they get the right haircut, they’ll know exactly what to do. There are actors who in the costume fitting sill start to understand the character, because they may get directorial signals just in terms of what you’ve chosen to show them, or your conception of how the character dresses that they didn’t understand from the script. I mean, there are actors that can set up very externally like that and come to a really interesting understanding of their characters that helps them do the part that way, and others who that means nothing at all.
Ethan Coen: Actually with Brad, I think the character all came from a botched dye job that he had on his hair for a commercial, and we all looked at it, us and Brad, and thought, “oh, okay, that’s the guy.”
Q: What about Kelly MacDonald? She’s an unexpected choice to play a Texas wife.
Joel Coen: Yeah, it doesn’t work on paper (laughs). It’s true. On paper we weren’t even anxious to see her because we figured why would we see this actress with this thick Glaswegian accent for a gal from west Texas? But she came in and did this very convincing accent, just completely off the cuff, really, and so that went well.
Q: Did any of the material’s potential relevance resonate with you, with the current emphasis on the border?
Joel Coen: We never thought about it in terms of topicality.
Q: Why then was the location or setting so important to you?
Joel Coen: Well, in every story that we do it’s important, just in terms of how you think about story, that it be very specific from the point of view of a region or location. It’s hard to imagine stories for us sort of divorced from that aspect. I don’t know why – it’s something that we share with Cormac McCarthy and part of why we were drawn to this, is that sort of intense focus on the place informing the story., But beyond that, there were lots of reasons that we liked the book. The ideas in the book were also very interesting to us – the characters, all of those things. It’s a big soup; you go and you try to parse the soup, and it’s a little artificial; it was just kind of the whole package that just kind of appealed to us.
Q: After doing something serious like this is it natural to move to a comedy?
Joel Coen: That happened really because of availability of all of these actors at this time. That had more to do with that in relation to the other movies than anything else.
Q: Do you know what you’re doing after this?
Joel Coen: Yeah (laughs)