After their multi-Oscar winning No Country for Old Men, the Coen brothers are back directing some famous idiots in Burn After Reading. HELEN BARLOW reports
When No Country for Old Men won four Academy Awards including best picture, nobody was more surprised than Joel and Ethan Coen. Well, that's what they say anyway.
"It's weird; it was such a strange artificial experience," says Ethan.
"Oh", counters Joel, "Ethan was so heavily medicated I don't think he even heard them announce the award."
As for what "medication" Ethan was on, we may never know, because as with so many answers in a Coen Brothers interview, a lot is left unexplained. Still, this coming from the ever-sniggering Joel is a bit ripe. The lanky long-haired, laconic co-director arrives for his first interview of the day wearing large sunglasses, presumably to shield his eyes from the glare after a night of shenanigans with his illustrious cast. The Coens' film, Burn After Reading, had opened the Venice Festival the evening before and one imagines that sometime Italian resident and Venice regular, George Clooney, had been keen to show the brothers a good time.
Burn After Reading marks their third film with Clooney after O Brother Where Art Thou and Intolerable Cruelty - making it the third chapter of their so-called "trilogy of idiots".
The film stemmed out of Joel devising a story around five specific actors: Clooney, Joel's wife Frances McDormand (who appeared in Blood Simple, Raising Arizona, The Man Who Wasn't There, Miller's Crossing, Barton Fink and who won the best actress Oscar for Fargo) and newcomers Tilda Swinton, John Malkovich and Brad Pitt.
"When we started thinking what the story might be, it occurred to us to do a pseudo-spy movie and it just evolved from there," explains Ethan. "But it's hard to be specific about that kind of thing because it's not exactly a linear or orderly process."
Since they had never been to Washington, where the story is set, nor do they know anybody there, they just made the story up. "We wanted it to be a thriller of the kind that Tony Scott would make but without the explosions, just a shaky camera," muses Ethan.
Did they draw on the certain ticks of the stars? "Not really," Joel drawls. "What they've done as actors just leads you to think along the lines of, 'Oh, what would be fun to see that person doing?' It's not a comment on what they are like in life."
So they have Clooney's CIA agent and Swinton's doctor into bed together, while Pitt and McDormand are vacuous gym workers trying to sell what they believe are top secrets on a disk containing the memoirs of John Malkovich, former CIA analyst and Swinton's husband. Clooney's agent is on their tail. He has one hilarious scene with Pitt, which creates a crucial turning point in the plot.
"George and Brad weren't actually ever together on the set except that one day," explains a smug Joel, "and we did that deliberately. For some reason it was appealing to us that that would be the extent of their meeting."
How was it working with them? "They both extended themselves to the roles in very unexpected and fantastic ways. I just think they both let it all hang out for this, which was great."
Probably because of Pitt's heart-throb status the film has become the Coen's biggest US box office success, and while this light-hearted romp is hardly an awards contender, Pitt's hair in the film is worthy of one in itself.
As personal trainer Chad Feldheimer, he wears lots of spandex and has his streaked hair teased into a quiff - another notable haircut after Javier Bardem's alarming page boy 'do in No Country.
"I think Javier would have been perfectly happy to do it," sniggers Joel, "but no! Brad sports his own interesting hair-do here. Hair is like wardrobe for us. It's a character-defining thing. We did make a movie about a barber, after all."
Pitt may well have been trying to out-rival his buddy Clooney in terms of his character's quirks. Still he has a long way to go to catch up to king idiot Clooney.
Says Joel, "We like working with George because he's somebody we like personally, he's got a great sense of humour about himself and he's also very versatile as an actor. He's like Fran or John Turturro or Steve Buscemi, actors for whom we constantly enjoy trying to find new things. We managed to give him a hairnet and teeth in O Brother, Where Art Thou and he's hiked up his pants in this movie. I think George likes playing with these things as much as audiences enjoy seeing him do it."
The Coens have worked like a family firm for 25 years and it's a very precious fold indeed. "We've worked with some of the crew for all that time and we've made 10 movies with [DP] Roger Deakins and 14 with [composer] Carter Burwell."
Now, as a new cinematographer, Emmanuel Lubezki, emerges for Burn After Reading, are there changes afoot? "Different DPs have different styles," Joel responds. "But A Serious Man, the movie we're about to start, we're doing with Roger again. We like both of them."
Set in a Jewish community in the midwest in 1967, A Serious Man is again their own story. Drama or comedy?
"I don't know," replies Ethan. "Was this one a comedy? Well, if it is then I suppose A Serious Man is a comedy too." Is it a black comedy perhaps? "Not so much, but it's not Tropic Thunder either. Our movies are hard to describe. It's about a family. Not much happens. There are a few laughs. We have a few actors in mind but there's nobody in it you've ever heard of."
Was that deliberate after the star-studded Burn After Reading?
"Only in the sense that with some movies you want that movie star thing and some you don't."
Are the characters losers again? "Not exactly. They're very typical. It's not a kind of numbnuts movie exactly. It draws on the context, the setting where we grew up, but it's not biographical."
A bit like Fargo? "Well yeah. We didn't ever kidnap anybody either, ha ha ha!"
While they have also been hired to do two screenplay adaptations for producer Scott Rudin - who put them on to No Country for Old Men - they are unsure whether they will direct either of them. Yet the big surprise comes, in typical nonchalant style, as they are about to leave.
"Yes we have plans to do films separately starting next year," Joel announces. Yet, as with most things, they are not explaining any more, and are soon out the door.
Who: Joel and Ethan Coen, America's greatest fraternal movie makers Films: Blood Simple (1984), Raising Arizona (1987), Miller's Crossing (1990), Barton Fink (1991), The Hudsucker Proxy (1994), Fargo (1996), The Big Lebowski (1998), O Brother Where Art Thou (2000), The Man Who Wasn't There (2001), Intolerable Cruelty (2003), The Ladykillers (2004), No Country for Old Men (2007)
Latest: Burn After Reading opens October 16