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PopEntertainment.com > Oscar Nominees > Feature Interviews - Directors and Screenwriters > Feature Interviews A to E > Joel and Ethan Coen (2009 interview)

 

Joel and Ethan Coen on the set of 'A Serious Man.'

Joel and Ethan Coen

Two Serious Men Gaze Into Their Past

by Jay S. Jacobs
 
Copyright ©2009 PopEntertainment.com.  All rights reserved.  Posted: October 2, 2009.

Brothers and auteurs Joel and Ethan Coen grew up in a sparse, ticky-tack, rustic early suburb of Minneapolis in the late 60s. 

Now, after 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. 

The Coens 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. 

Fittingly for 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. 

Starring 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. 

Soon before 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.

Ethan and Joel Coen on the set of 'A Serious Man.'I’m 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 research? 

Ethan Coen: 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.

Joel Coen: 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.

Ethan Coen: The main technical guy was this Cantor – and now a Rabbi as well, named Dan Sklar.

Joel Coen: He gave us a good suggestion.

What were your Bar Mitzvahs like?

Joel Coen: What were they like?

Do you remember the passage you had to read?

Joel Coen: No, I don’t.

Ethan Coen: No. (laughs)

Did you help each other? Did you read the whole portion, or you read just one Torah?

Joel Coen: No, we read the whole Torah.

Ethan Coen: I didn’t read all the Torah portions. Just one or two.

Joel Coen: 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.

Ethan and Joel Coen on the set of 'A Serious Man.'Did you feel a competition with the other kids about who got more presents?

Ethan Coen: Oh yeah, you and your peers compare what the haul was.

And did you do that with each other?

Joel Coen: Well there was the three years difference so not so much.

Ethan Coen: As in the movie, we each got a Kiddush cup that was a gift of the Sisterhood.

Do you still have them?

Ethan Coen: Joel still has his. I don't have mine.

What was your inspiration in doing this film?

Joel Coen: 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?"

Ethan Coen: 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 useful.

Were you big Jefferson Airplane fans?

Joel Coen: Not particularly. I mean, we listened to them. I’m not saying we were big Jefferson Airplane fans, though.

Ethan Coen: 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…

Joel Coen: … from our bar mitzvahs…

Ethan Coen: Yeah. The guy had the same thing every Saturday. 

Michael Stuhlbarg in 'A Serious Man.'Michael Stuhlbarg is mostly unknown in film. Why did you feel he was right for the role? 

Ethan Coen: Joel knew him slightly. We had both seen him in a few plays. But you know him from the project, right? 

Joel Coen: 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 Project. 

Are you involved in that? 

Joel Coen: Well, I’m not, but my wife has been involved with it for seven years. 

They go up to your place in the country? 

Joel Coen: Yeah. You know about that? 

I did interview Michael before. 

Joel Coen: All right. 

You used a lot of local actors. How do you think that added to the movie?

Ethan Coen: 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.

Joel Coen: 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 aesthetic reason.

Ethan Coen: 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 hunting?

Joel Coen: 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.

Ethan Coen: The next door neighbor is just hunting as a goyish activity.

Ethan Coen with Aaron Wolff on the set of 'A Serious Man.'Much 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?

Joel Coen: 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)?

Joel Coen: 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.

Ethan Coen: 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?

Joel Coen: (laughs) I can’t remember where I first saw that.

Any more theater coming up for you? I loved your one-acts.

Ethan Coen: Yeah, maybe. I don’t know. Yes, hopefully, but nothing definite.

Joel Coen with Richard Kind on the set of 'A Serious Man.'You guys portray the Hebrew school experience as torture. Anything from your Hebrew school that you were engaged by?

Ethan Coen: I left Hebrew school just once and that’s it for us. You go there after secular school. 

Joel Coen: 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 Chabon novel)?

Ethan Coen: 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?

Joel Coen: 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.

CLICK HERE TO SEE WHAT THE COEN BROTHERS HAD TO SAY TO US IN 2013!

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