The Coens go out on junket Interview: Movie-making renegades stick their toes into the mighty Hollywood publicity machine. Will they be forever changed?

March 01, 1998|By Ann Hornaday | Ann Hornaday,SUN FILM CRITIC

Topping the list of oxymorons created by the entertainment-industrial complex is a Coen brothers junket.

Consider the Coen brothers: Ethan and Joel, a quirky filmmaking team that burst on the scene with their Texas-noir masterpiece, "Blood Simple," in 1985, then proceeded to charm, befuddle and sometimes enrage audiences with "Raising Arizona," "Miller's Crossing," "Barton Fink" and "The Hudsucker Proxy."

Even when their 1996 film "Fargo" garnered seven Oscar nominations, they remained resolutely above-and-beyond Hollywood. (The Coens won an Oscar for the "Fargo" screenplay, and the film's star, Frances McDormand, won for best actress.) "Hudsucker" aside, their films never cost a lot of money. Thus they are beholden to no one. That makes the film industry salivate with desire and recoil in fear.

Now consider the junket: a studio-produced feeding frenzy wherein filmmakers and stars are trotted past tables of journalists in a series of hotel rooms, to talk about their latest movie in an environment as synthetic and hermetically controlled as Biosphere II (albeit with better coffee).

The Coen brothers, Hollywood's most famed and respected renegades, jumping headfirst into the publicity machine? This we gotta see.

Considering that the Coens probably equate junkets with Dante's scorchingest circle of Hell, they're remarkably forthcoming about their new movie, "The Big Lebowski," which opens Friday. In fact, this film -- a comedy about a pot-smoking bowler who becomes embroiled in a kidnapping case against the backdrop of the Persian Gulf war in 1993 -- is such a numskulled departure from the morally aware dark humor of "Fargo" that it seems to have made the brothers positively giddy.

On bowling -- Joel: "We were in the bowling alley for three weeks, and I don't think I bowled a single frame. Ethan bowled a little." Ethan: "Yeah, I did. I actually got a ball drilled for myself." Joel: "I don't like bowling, but I like all the stuff connected with bowling. The design, [the 1950s-style] architecture that's associated with lot of lanes in L.A., it's all reminiscent of the period the characters come from, as well. And it's a buddy movie, and it seemed like a convenient thing to have them all interested in."

Joel and Ethan, on comparisons of "The Big Lebowski" to Cheech and Chong -- Joel: "That's the way we looked at it, too!" Ethan: "He's not kidding."

On winning the Oscar -- Joel: "It was interesting, but, you know. It was interesting " Ethan: " For me, it was like watching it on TV. It was kind of fun at first, then it got, it gets kind of boring." Joel: "It's long."

On whether the Oscar changed anything -- Joel: "Nothing's changed. We do our own material, and we've been doing it for a long time now, and people know that."

On whether or not it's ironic that they've been accepted by the Hollywood establishment, even while remaining on its margins -- Ethan: "Yeah, especially in the context of 'Fargo,' which we thought was a really " Joel: " marginal movie." Ethan: "The commercial success surprised us, and certainly everything else associated with it in terms of awards and things."

On their writing process -- Ethan: "We just sit in a room together, we don't divide it up in any sense, we just sit in a room and talk the script through, starting with the first scene, and just sort of see where it leads." Joel: "We may write 30 or 40 pages of it and then we may go on to something else, or we may hit a part of it that we don't quite know what to do with, and we put it aside for a while. And this one wasn't that different. We wrote a certain amount of it a few years ago, and we went back to it before Fargo' and then we went back to it after 'Fargo.' "

On the recurring character of big-older-guy-behind-a-desk in their films and its Oedipal overtones -- Joel: "Our father's very slim and never sits behind a desk. We've noticed it, but it's not like we've analyzed it intellectually and figured out why we keep putting that character in."

On the recurring theme of kidnapping in their films -- Joel: "Uh, it's kind of a convenient plot device and we're pretty lazy, so we keep using it over and over again. You know, the high stakes, and it involves disparate people who wouldn't necessarily come in contact with each other otherwise. And it's an ongoing crime, as opposed to a discrete occurrence. People have asked us this before, so these are all reasons that maybe have been imposed ex post facto."

On the source of their vision -- Joel: "To tell you the truth, I don't know where it comes from. We just don't spend any energy thinking about that. We sit around in a room and we come up with these stories, but in terms of thinking, 'Why this story as opposed to that story,' I understand why you're interested in it, it's a perfectly legitimate thing to be interested in, it's just not something that we can help you with."

On whether they know what their next project will be -- Together: "No."

On whether they write with specific actors in mind -- Ethan: "Some of the parts in probably all of our movies were written for the specific actors who ended up playing them." Joel: "Even 'Blood Simple,' we wrote that specifically for M. Emmett Walsh. He kept calling it 'a student film.' "

On the explicit, sometimes obscure, concern with morality that permeates their movies, and whether it's something they're aware of while they write -- Together: "No."

Pub Date: 3/01/98

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