Since making their feature-film debut in 1984 with Blood Simple, a whip-smart, masterfully shot film noir, the Coen Brothers (writer/director Joel and writer Ethan) have cemented their position as two of cinema's most original and consistent voices. They followed their auspicious debut with the 1987 cult classic Raising Arizona, an exhilarating live-action cartoon that revealed the pair's genius for quirky, deadpan physical comedy, a talent also evident in such winning films as The Hudsucker Proxy and The Big Lebowski. The duo won raves for 1990's Miller's Crossing, took the Palme D'Or at the 1991 Cannes Film Festival for Barton Fink, and picked up an Oscar for their Fargo screenplay in 1997. In connection with the oddly timed reissue of Blood Simple, The Onion A.V. Club recently spoke with both Coens about their film debut, working with mega-producer Joel Silver, Midwestern identity, and their unrealized dream of reviving the Ma And Pa Kettle series.
The Onion: Blood Simple is very much a film noir. What attracted you to the genre?
Ethan Coen: Well, we never really thought of it as film noir, although it is. It's plain, mean, ordinary people doing bad things to each other in the dark, so I guess that qualifies it as film noir. But we were really thinking, in a conscious way, about more of a... We both like James M. Cain stories, which sort of confuses the issue because a lot of his stories were subsequently made into film noir. To tell you the truth, we were thinking about what kind of thing we could do on a low budget. We knew we were going to be raising the money ourselves and that there wouldn't be much money. The sort of claustrophobic, heavily plotted murder melodrama seemed tailor-made for something you might be able to do successfully on a small budget, in real practical terms.
O: Fargo and The Big Lebowski both have elements of film noir in them, as well. Fargo, in particular, deals with nasty people doing nasty things.
EC: With The Big Lebowski, we were really consciously thinking about doing a Raymond Chandler story, as much as it's about L.A. And, again, Chandler's stories became film-noir fodder, but it was more thinking about that, specifically, than about the subsequent films that were made from the stories that got us going. With Fargo, we weren't thinking generically in any terms at all, except if you want to think about the true-crime story, which is kind of a genre.
O: How did winning the Oscar for Fargo affect your career?
Joel Coen: Not much, really.
O: You don't think it enabled you to get certain projects made?
EC: Let me see. We made The Big Lebowski after Fargo...
JC: We travel in limos now, go to fancy Hollywood parties.
EC: Other than that...
O: The film you made before that was The Hudsucker Proxy, which was a very big film [produced by] Joel Silver.
JC: Oh, we had a great time with Joel. We'd work with him again.
EC: Yeah, he's a lot of fun. He's the last movie mogul, in the old sense. The old sort of cigar-chomping...
JC: He doesn't literally chomp cigars.
EC: I mean in a Harry Cohn, Louis B. Mayer kind of sense.
O: Do you feel like you're at a point in your career now where you can basically make whatever kind of movie you want to make?
JC: No. It all has to do with the budget. We can make whatever we want to make as long as it's cheap, because our movies only make... They kind of reliably make so much money, so if the budget is so big and no bigger, we can do what we want.
EC: There are so many different factors involved in whether or not you can get something goinghow much competition there is in the business at one particular time, how well your last movie didbut mostly it all comes down to the price, how much you want to spend.
O: You both grew up in Minnesota. Were you at all self-conscious about filming Blood Simple in Texas?
EC: Oh, no. I'd lived in Texas for a little while. We actually went down there because we were familiar with it, having spent time down there and knowing people there. That was part of the reason for going. I went to UT for a semester and lived down there for about a year, so I knew people who I knew would work on the movie. I knew what the production climate was like down there. I think maybe part of the attraction of going was the fact that it was sort of... It's a very different place and somewhat exotic, having grown up in Minnesota. Beyond that, no. We were perfectly comfortable in terms of the production.
O: Being from Minnesota, but having obviously lived in different places for a long time, do you still feel like Midwesterners?
EC: Umm... We both lived in New Yorkwell, Joel longer than mefor about 20 years.
JC: Yeah, I've been in New York about 25 years.
EC: So not so much.
JC: After 25 years in New York, you're kind of...
O: It all sort of fades.
JC: It does a little bit. I've certainly... It doesn't fade entirely. It becomes more connected with your identity somehow.
O: Would you say you were more in touch with your Midwestern roots while you were filming Fargo in Minnesota?
EC: It was familiar, although it was also weird. We'd been back occasionally, and our parents still lived there, so it's not like we hadn't been back in the interim, but it still changed quite a bit from when we were kids. It was the same, but different.
O: I've read that Barry Sonnenfeld began his career directing porn films. Is that something you knew about when you hired him? [Sonnenfeld, director of such films as Men In Black, Get Shorty, and The Addams Family, served as cinematographer on the Coens' Blood Simple, Raising Arizona, and Miller's Crossing. ed.]
EC: Oh, yeah.
JC: That's not true. He didn't direct them; he shot them.
O: So somebody else was off screen screaming directions, and he was just the cinematographer?
EC: Yeah, he was the cinematographer.
O: Was that a factor at all in your hiring him?
EC: Oh, yeah. We were big admirers of his. [Laughs.]
O: Any particular film that stood out?
JC: I have to say, I don't think we saw any of those, but we certainly knew all about them. We'd heard the stories. We'd seen stuff that Barry had shot, but not the porn films.
O: The interesting thing about DVDs and restorations is that you can go back and change, however minutely, films that you've done. Are there any...
EC: Yeah, it feels like cheating, doesn't it?
O: It's like with George Lucas and the Star Wars movies: After a certain point, you should just be done with them.
EC: You've got to stand by it.
O: Do you feel like there's anything you'd want to redo about any of your other films?
JC: Yes, but it's cheating. We decided only to cheat on this first one.
O: As beginners, you could do that, right?
JC: Yeah, exactly.
EC: There were also practical reasons. We had to go back anyway, because it's our only movie that wasn't released by a studio, so physically, the elements for it weren't archived anywhere. They weren't housed anywhere, so we had to go back and find the print and sound elements. It was impossible to find a good print of the movie, a print that wasn't dirty and fading and worn out, and we were afraid that if any more time passed, we wouldn't be able to find the original elements to make new prints. That was part of the impetus of the whole thing.
JC: We were organizing all this material again anyway, and fixing up the sound for the DVD, so we figured we might as well cheat a little bit and fix up the picture, as well.
EC: It's not an issue with our other movies.
O: One of the interesting things about your films is that nearly every one is in a different genre. Are there any genres you'd like to work in that you haven't done yet?
EC: A farm comedy.
JC: Or a dog movie. We haven't done that. Like Old Yeller.
EC: We keep arguing. Joel wants to do a dog movie and I want to do a farm comedy like Ma And Pa Kettle.
O: Do you think there'd be an audience for a Ma And Pa Kettle update?
EC: Yeah, you know, we'd cast David Straithairn and Kathy Bates.
O: I could see that.
EC: Either that, or we've both talked about doing a remake of Guess Who's Coming To Dinner?
O: It'd be a little on the less timely side, I would imagine.
EC: Well, it'd be an interesting exercise in postmodern aesthetics.