The Quotable Coen Brothers

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Filmmakers Joel and Ethan Coen are not given to extensive introspection. Ask why they created The Dude character in The Big Lebowski, and they’ll reveal that it simply amused them to envision a detective whose “mind is so befogged by dope” that he can’t put basic clues together. Ask why they set Blood Simple in West Texas, and they’ll explain that they knew people in the area who could help them make the film. Ask why the main character in Miller’s Crossing listens to a phonograph recording of “Danny Boy,” which then becomes the soundtrack for a brutal shootout, and they’ll just say, “Well, he’s Irish.”

Given this lack of self-analysis, it’s easy to understand why there were few instances of deep, sustained insight in the Coens’ two-and-a-half-hour conversation with journalist Elvis Mitchell before an audience at Walker Art Center in Minneapolis, where their work is being feted in a retrospective. Anyone expecting pearls of wisdom came away with pebbles of knowledge–but fascinating pebbles nonetheless, especially for fans of the Coens’ work. Here are a few of them:

Joel on their artistic inspirations: “Many people think we’re always referencing movies, but it’s the books those movies are based on that are more influential to us.”

Joel on the tortuous writing process behind O Brother Where Art Thou: “Sometimes you just figure out where to go . . . It took us a while to figure out we were writing The Odyssey.”

Ethan on their films’ tendency to have a strong regional flavor: “It’s hard to develop a story without seeing where it starts.”

Ethan on his son’s reaction to his films: “He says, ‘Is this going to be another one of your depressing movies where everyone dies at the end?’ “

Joel on moviemaking: “One of the pleasures of movies is creating a world . . . it gives you a license to do certain things.” And: “Every movie ever made is an attempt to remake The Wizard of Oz.”

Ethan on “motormouth” characters who won’t shut up: “Whenever we write for George Clooney, he’s that guy.” Joel says that after wrapping up shooting on Burn After Reading, Clooney turned to them and said, “All right, boys, I’ve played my last idiot.”

Joel on the inspiration behind A Serious Man, which is set in a Midwestern Jewish community: “A lot of it was thinking about and reading Isaac Bashevis Singer stories.”

Joel on the operatic feel of some of their musical scenes: “It’s a direction we sometimes go even with subjects that don’t seem to call for that kind of treatment.”

Ethan on why there’s no soundtrack in No Country for Old Men: “It suffered with whatever [music] we put against it.”

Ethan on their films’ treatment of race and other sensitive topics: “We don’t give a shit about people’s sensitivities.”

Joel on movies with a message: “It wouldn’t be interesting us to make a movie to make a specific social comment.”

Joel on their early filmmaking attempts, which comprised single takes shot in linear order on a cheap movie camera: “The big advantage of that is that when you get it back from the drugstore, the movie is finished.”

Image by Wilson Webb, courtesy of Walker Art Center.

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