auteurs Joel and Ethan Coen grew up in a sparse, ticky-tack,
rustic early suburb of Minneapolis in the late 60s.
over two decades in filmmaking in which they have turned their
incisive pens (okay, more likely computers) onto areas such as North
Dakota (Fargo), Texas (No Country for Old Men),
Hollywood (Barton Fink) and Washington (Burn After Reading),
the Coens have finally made a film based upon their own home ground.
insist that A Serious Man is not an autobiographical piece,
however it is obvious that they know the world of suburban Minnesota
Judaism in the late 60s. Their obvious love and occasional disdain
for that universe fuels this small but
intimately funny film.
such a personal film, the Coens have downsized, using a mostly
unknown cast to populate this world of mystical rabbis, intellectual
theorems, the Jefferson Airplane, gambling, tenure, record clubs,
the new freedoms and cosmic uncertainty.
Broadway vet Michael Stuhlbarg
in a breakout performance as Larry Gopnik, a science
professor who has suddenly been hit by life with a never-ending
series of indignities and problems.
the films’ release date, the Coen Brothers met up with a small group
of journalists in New York to discuss their latest work. The
brothers spoke casually and passionately together about this obvious
labor of love – periodically interrupting and talking over each
other in an organic way of people who have been speaking together
for all their lives. Joel even joked that
any point either one made could be attributed to the other if it was
unsure who was talking at any given point – it really didn’t matter
who said what, most facts were agreed upon.
going to try to get the Jewish issues resolved. I saw a lot of
cultural Judiasm in the movie – growing up Jewish. You also had a
lot of authentic religious Judiasm in the movie. How much of that
was from your educational experience and how much did you have to
We didn’t do any research, per se. Once the script was written, when
we actually started making the movie, there were a couple of people
who kind of were our Jew advisors – Jew technical advisers –
helping us just with language and the liturgical stuff for the
service and whatever. Of course, we got a raft of translators for
the Yiddish beginning of the movie. A raft of dueling Yiddishists.
Everyone had an opinion about what form of Yiddish we should use.
We actually did have one problem we brought to a fluent
Hebrew-speaker. We had a specific problem – wanting to have a Hebrew
expression for the translation of “Help me” that was exactly seven
letters long. We wanted it to be a phone number.
The main technical guy was this Cantor – and now a Rabbi as well,
named Dan Sklar.
He gave us a good suggestion.
What were your
Bar Mitzvahs like?
Do you remember
the passage you had to read?
No, I don’t.
Did you help each
other? Did you read the whole portion, or you read just one Torah?
No, we read the whole Torah.
I didn’t read all the Torah portions. Just one or two.
It was pretty typical conservative congregation bar mitzvah circa
1967. I don’t know what they are doing now, to be honest with you.
Out there – I mean I’ve been to a few in New York. (laughs)
They’re not intricate, you know. There wasn’t anything out of the
ordinary, to be quite honest with you. I wish I could tell you
something more interesting than that, but that’s the truth.
you feel a competition with the other kids about who got more
Oh yeah, you and your peers compare what the haul was.
And did you do
that with each other?
Well there was the three years difference so not so much.
As in the movie, we each got a Kiddush cup that was a gift of the
Do you still have
Joel still has his. I don't have mine.
What was your
inspiration in doing this film?
Well, it’s always really hard to say. Personally we don’t really
know. The truth of it is you start to think back on it and you
impose more order and rationality on it than actually occurred when
you were thinking it out. I think we were just thinking about… we
had an idea long ago that maybe we would do something. We were
thinking about short films years ago and there was a particular
rabbi in our town – not our rabbi – who used to meet the kids after
the bar mitzvah. He was sort of a sphinx-like, Wizard of Oz
kind of character. We thought that might make a good short years and
years ago. Somehow that idea finally became this story. We started
thinking about doing something set in 1967 in that community,
because that was such an interesting point in our own childhood.
Part of it came from thinking about the music from that period – the
combination of music. Jewish liturgical music and cantorial music
and the Jefferson Airplane – just a bunch of different things.
Out of all the
songs of the period, why "Somebody to Love?"
Oh, it could have been any of a number of songs, I guess. We just
kind of focused on that early, lit on that early, because it's so
much of that time. That time really specifically, not even just 60s,
but ‘67. Spring of ‘67. Surrealistic Pillow. It’s so much of
that. It smacks of the time. Also, we used the lyrics. They pay off
in the end in a way that it became clear to us that they would be
Were you big
Jefferson Airplane fans?
Not particularly. I mean, we listened to them. I’m not saying we
were big Jefferson Airplane fans, though.
But, obviously, they were big. There was also – just a thing about
the synagogue. Actually, the rabbi’s rap at the end at the Kiddush
cup was almost verbatim from…
… from our bar mitzvahs…
Yeah. The guy had the same thing every Saturday.
Stuhlbarg is mostly unknown in film. Why did you feel he was right
for the role?
Joel knew him slightly. We had both seen him in a few plays. But you
know him from the project, right?
I knew him from stuff he’s done in theater. Some of the stuff he’s
done in New York. He’s done a lot. And from the 52nd Street
Are you involved
Well, I’m not, but my wife has been involved with it for seven
They go up to
your place in the country?
Yeah. You know about that?
I did interview
You used a lot of
local actors. How do you think that added to the movie?
We knew we really wanted it to be about Midwestern Jews. It's a
different community. It's a different thing than New York Jews, LA
Jews. It’s just different, the whole Midwestern thing. It isn't just
about a Jewish community. The geographic thing is kind of specific,
so that was important to us.
That area happens to be a place where… it’s not true everywhere… but
you can find lots of very, very good local actors there. There is a
big advantage to it. There's a practical reason as well as an
Yeah, they are all really [talented]. It’s a largely local cast,
Sari Lennock, who played the wife, she was great. She lives there.
Ari Hoptman, who plays the head of the department – is very much
Minnesota. All the kids were local.
You see Larry’s
neighbor hunting with his son. In
No Country for Old Men, Josh Brolin goes hunting in the
beginning of the film. Is that a coincidence or you guys into
No, it’s just… Josh hunting the antelope in the beginning of No
Country for Old Men – we didn’t write that. That’s in the book.
The next door neighbor is just hunting as a goyish activity.
of the film seems to be contrasting this Jewish neighborhood with
the cultural shift of the 60s. What did you feel was important to
say about that shift, particularly in the Midwest?
In the community we lived in, the Jewish community was centered in
part of the downtown area for many years. It sort of shifted out to
the suburbs. It wasn’t that there Jewish communities in the suburbs,
it became less Jewish. It was these new developments which were
populated by Jews. It's also a mistake to say that the Jews were in
any way a majority of even that community. We grew up in a community
that was predominantly not Jewish. It's just that the Jews were a
big and significant section of it. The community itself was a
direct, correlated, cohesive thing. You felt like the Jewish
community was part of what was your experience. And yeah, you’re
right. There was that idea of the post-war thing, where the
populations in terms of minorities in cities were shifting, and
culturally things were shifting. I don't think we thought a lot
about it, but we liked that period generally for that reason.
Sort of like
Levittown (an early suburb in New York)?
I guess a
little bit. There were big developments that were being put up that
were suburban tracts, which were [on a] drained swamp or prairie. It
was kind of like that.
It was a little bit post-Levittown, but the same thing, yeah.
You start the
movie with a quote from Rashi. Really nobody uses quotes from Rashi,
he’s not that kind of guy. How did you come across the quote?
I can’t remember where I first saw that.
Any more theater
coming up for you? I loved your one-acts.
maybe. I don’t know. Yes, hopefully, but nothing definite.
guys portray the Hebrew school experience as torture. Anything from
your Hebrew school that you were engaged by?
I left Hebrew school just once and that’s it for us. You go there
after secular school.
Those were two hours that you desperately tried to get out of for
many years and years and years.
Is there a
connection between this and the fact that you are doing
The Yiddish Policemen’s Union (based on the Michael
No, that’s kind of a coincidence, too. The producer, Scott Rudin,
acquired that novel and then just hired us to write the script. I
guess we know the effect that movie had on Scott to make us the
obvious choices to him. No, it wasn’t designed on our part.
Do you think
you'll help people better understand the Jewish experience, or just
confuse them further?
It wasn't really our intent to have people understand the Jewish
experience exactly. That’s because it's just a context for a story
that we found very interesting because of our own direct experience
with so much of where the story takes place and the kind of
community and family that it takes place in. But you're always
trying to be specific, whether it's about your own experience or
whether it's in a context that you don't have any experience in
whatsoever. That specificity is important for the story. It becomes
part of what the story is about, absolutely.
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