How Coen Brothers Choose Their Feature Projects

Ethan (left) and Joel Coen
Ethan (left) and Joel Coen
 Andrew Eccles/JBG Photo

In the Dec. 1 issue of The Hollywood Reporter, I questioned whether Paramount’s last-minute Dec. 22 release of True Grit was a smart move. Now the Western remake has made more in 13 days than the siblings’ first seven legendary movies did in 13 years — including the 1996 double-Oscar breakthrough Fargo.

The Hollywood Reporter: How did you suddenly get such mass success?

Joel Coen: Not by conscious design. We’ve actually been very consistently moderately successful, and we’ll take it.

Ethan Coen: With Barton Fink or A Serious Man, there’s an awareness it’s never gonna be a mainstream movie. With this one, there’s an awareness that it may cross over. Other times, we’ve tried it and it didn’t work.

THR: Like when?

Ethan: The Ladykillers, with Tom Hanks. You hope it’s gonna do better. But it did OK, $40 million. Hudsucker Proxy [$2.8 million]. Burn After Reading — it opened very strongly, certainly in relation to what we spent on it.

Joel: With Barton Fink or A Serious Man, $8 million, $15 million — let’s be real responsible about what we’re spending and what we get back.

THR: You razzed THR’s Todd McCarthy for saying 2009’s A Serious Man “is the kind of picture you get to make after you’ve won an Oscar.” Are you saying that winning best picture for No Country for Old Men had no effect on your moviemaking?

Joel: Winning the Oscar had nothing to do with the two movies that followed. Before we’d rolled the first footage on No Country, we had a deal for A Serious Man and Burn After Reading.

THR: So what did you really want to do after the Oscar?

Ethan: True Grit. Paramount owned the rights.

Joel: We were in a kind of forced marriage with Paramount. It turned out to be a happy marriage. We’re usually not looking for much money.

THR: What can I get you for?

Ethan: We don’t do weddings or bar mitzvahs.

THR: Legend says that Joseph Stalin sent an assassin on a botched mission to kill John Wayne in 1943. If he’d been successful, there would have been no 1969 True Grit. Would your movie be any different?

Joel: Oh, it wouldn’t be. Our movie is from the Charles Portis novel. We haven’t seen the movie since it came out.

THR: So there’s no influence at all?

Joel: It’s been remarked that Dakin Matthews [who plays the horse trader] is reminiscent of Strother Martin, who played the role in 1969. I have a vague memory of Martin. It’s a chicken-or-egg thing — what comes from the book and whatever distant memory of the movie we have.

THR: Ethan, you said the movie originated when you read the book to your son. Sometimes I hear Portis’ voice in your work. Am I just imagining the influence?

Ethan: It’s more affinity than influence. When you’re adapting something, you’re looking for something you couldn’t have written, that’s more interesting. The only movie we ever wanted to do that we failed to get going was an adaptation of James Dickey’s novel To the White Sea. It had not a single laugh in it.

THR: That’s because it’s about a guy who crashes his B29 into the Tokyo firebombing in World War II
and escapes on foot to the icy north and dies.

Joel: It’s far from anything we ever did.

THR: Did some of your failed Dickey film go into the mix of your biggest pre-True Grit hit, No Country for Old Men?

Joel: That’s definitely true. It could be No Country is what White Sea could’ve been.

THR: But True Grit is the opposite of No Country.

Joel: Oh, it’s totally verbal.

Ethan: One hallmark of Portis’ books is they always have a gasbag.

Joel: We’re drawn to gasbags.

THR: The language of True Grit has been called artificial, but didn’t people really talk that way?

Ethan: Ron Howard said that to us. We were talking to him about wranglers and stunt people. According to research he’d done, that formal mode of speech is fairly accurate to the period, an era when people were more conversant with the Bible.

THR: What are you going to do with all that True Grit money?

Joel: What is Paramount gonna do with all that money? That’s the better question.             

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