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Joel and Ethan Coen Spill Their Screenwriting Secrets

Ethan Coen and Joel Coen
Courtesy of Paramount Pictures

The True Grit filmmakers explain their creative process, the usefulness of lunatic screenwriters and  why nurse sex can make good cinematic sense. Read Q&As with all 10 Oscar nominees in The Hollywood Reporter's "Year of the Screenwriter" special issue.

The Hollywood Reporter: What’s your favorite screenplay of all time?

Joel Coen: You don’t think of them as screenplays. You think of them as movies.

THR: It’s like asking, “What’s your favorite piece of sheet music?”

JC: Exactly. Can we make that our answer? 'Cause that’s better than what we said.

THR: OK, what’s your favorite piece of sheet music?

JC: I think it's “Wait Till The Sun Shines, Nellie.”

THR: You said True Grit was perhaps influenced by Rio Bravo.

JC: Yeah, but I have no idea even who wrote that screenplay.

JC: I like the screenplay to Husbands, the John Cassavetes movie [almost entirely improvised]. [Laughs]

THR: You never say what your work process is like. It’s a black box.

JC: We’re not in a black box. It’s a very social – other people are all around us when we’re working. Not when we’re writing.

THR: Tim Blake Nelson says you’re always passing books around your circle, your heads are always in stew of books and movies, an idea arises out of that, then you write it pretty fast.

JC: I don’t know. Head being in a stew of movies and books. I guess so, but not more than a lot of other people who have nothing to do with the movie business.

Ethan Coen: Actually, a lot of lay people probably see more movies than we do.

THR: What’s your daily work routine?

JC: We have a daily work routine in the sense that we come into the office, but I would call it a daily routine as opposed to a daily work routine. We don’t necessarily do any work when we get here.

THR: How do you deal with notes?The King’s Speech writer David Seidler told me a producer’s dumb idea to have a character in prison have sex with a nurse made him come up with a different, good sex idea that fit the script’s characters.

JC: I don’t think that’s a dumb idea, by the way.

EC: In the silent films, they had a story conference where they actually brought in a guy called the “Wildie,” which was a lunatic, not a figurative lunatic but a guy --

JC: Someone from the insane asylum who’d sit at the story table.

EC: He’d interrupt with just insane eruptions that had nothing to do with anything, and the writers would go, “Oh, yes, right. We could, y’know…”

THR: Where was this?

EC: This was at the Max Roach Studio.

JC: No, Hal Roach. Max Roach didn’t need a Wildie.

EC: You can sometimes treat studio notes that way too. Although sometimes you get studio notes where you go, “OK.” Sometimes – well, a good idea is a good idea. You don’t want to be snobby about where you take them from.

JC: Even if it comes from the studio.

EC: Even if they’re bad ideas, that doesn’t mean they’re not useful. That’s very true.

THR: You do your own editing. Isn’t that why you don’t win editing Oscars [despite two Oscar nominations, plus multiple editing noms and wins from other groups]? Because editors voting for you are like turkeys voting for Thanksgiving? Directors taking their jobs?

JC: Oh, no, we’ve been nominated. We’ve cut under a pseudonym.

THR: I think your secret is out.

JC: Yes, people know. But I like your analogy though.

THR: Wouldn’t you do the same thing if you were in their shoes?

JC: I am in the editor’s shoes!

THR: I know, but you know what I mean.

JC: I do get a vote there, by the way. Yeah, I guess you’re right, sure. No, we shouldn’t get editing nominations, true. I agree with you there actually.

THR: While making True Grit, were you like Paul McCartney, reading about the decline of the Beatles while taking months making Sgt. Pepper, gloating, well, wait 'til they see what we've made?

JC: We were not like that.

THR: You were expecting $45 million.

JC: Right. Yeah.

EC: We assumed Roger [Deakins, nine-time-Oscar nominated cinematographer] would get a nomination because he does every year.

THR: It’s like Finland in the ‘60s when a schoolgirl wrote an essay: “Finland is a democracy. The president is elected every six years. His name is Kekkonen.” True Grit was thought a shoo-in nom before anybody saw it. Also, it’s a good damn movie.

EC: Well, I don’t know about that, and even if it were true, I don’t know if that would have anything to do with it.

THR: That’s true. Excellence is no defense.

EC: Yes. [Laughs]

To read more about how the Coens made True Grit, how its $150 million success made them feel and which other Oscar nominated movie they really most wish they’d written, get THR's "Year of the Screenwriter" special issue.