By SOREN ANDERSEN
When it comes to filmmaking, the Coen brothers – Joel and Ethan – do practically everything together: Write screenplays, produce, direct, even edit their features (the latter function under the pseudonym Roderick Jaynes).
That goes for doing interviews as well – which can be something of a problem when they’re talking to an interviewer over a speakerphone from Los Angeles.
The sound quality isn’t that great, and good luck trying to differentiate between their very similar-sounding voices. How does one tell who is saying what under those conditions?
“It doesn’t matter in the least,” Ethan – or was it Joel? – said. They’re a unit. Interchangeable. Whichever one is speaking, he’s speaking for both. So for the purposes of this call, let’s lump them together and simply think of them as: Coen.
Coen’s latest movie, Hail, Caesar!, is a comic homage to old-time Hollywood moviemaking. Set in the early 1950s, when the studio system was still going strong but was beginning to perceive a threat from that upstart, television, it gave the brothers the opportunity to dip into a wide variety of genres as it takes the audience from film set to film set on the lot of Caesar’s fictitious Capitol Pictures. (Think: MGM. Or maybe Paramount.)
“We have an enormous amount of fondness and respectfor Hollywood’s golden age,” Coen said, and they did everything they could think of to connect their movie to that long-ago time. They shot a great deal of it on the historic Warner Bros. back lot in Hollywood.
For a segment in which Scarlett Johansson performs in an aquatic ballet patterned after the extravagant Busby Berkeley-choreographed routines featuring Esther Williams in Million Dollar Mermaid, they filmed it in the very same water tank on the one-time MGM lot where Williams and Berkeley worked their splashy magic.
In addition to Johansson’s aquatic extravaganza, the movies-within-their-movie included a cowboy picture, a sophisticated drawing-room comedy and a musical with a dancing-sailors number in which Channing Tatum’s energetic footwork evokes Gene Kelly.
Above all, there’s the movie-within that gives Hail, Caesar! its name. That one is a sword-and-sandals epic starring George Clooney as a Roman general. Clooney’s off-screen character is one of Capitol Pictures’ biggest and most glamorous stars. He’s also not very bright.
Caesar is Clooney’s fourth collaboration with the Coens – Intolerable Cruelty, Burn After Reading and O Brother, Where Art Thou? are the others – and they seem to have a genius helping the actor tap into his inner idiot. His O Brother character is a classic dim bulb’s dim bulb.
What made them think such a glamorous leading man could be convincing as a dolt? Coen laughed. “We have so much fun working with Clooney. He’s very adept at playing an idiot, and you have to be a very good actor to play an idiot.”
“He has very little movie-star vanity and great comic timing.”
Do the brothers ever chafe at their joined-at-the-hip filmmaking identity? Do they maybe wish to do solo projects? Nope. They like doing what they’re doing just fine. – The Seattle Times/Tribune News Service