Rome Film Fest: Joel Coen Explains Why He’ll Never Do TV

joel coen and frances mcdormand - H 2015
Alessia Paradisi/Sipa USA

Yet his wife Frances McDormand has fallen in love with the medium.

Rome Film Fest kicked off on Friday with the first of its much touted celebrity conversations. Frances McDormand and Joel Coen came to Rome to discuss, among other things, the much-debated topic of TV vs. film as nearly everyone in Hollywood is questioning a move to the likes of Amazon or Netflix. It’s a timely topic as the Coen brother’s new film, Hail, Caesar!, in which McDormand also stars, takes us way back to the early days of filmmaking.

“It’s interestingly a movie about old technology and old forms of movie storytelling because it’s about a studio in Hollywood in 1951 and you see various movies that are being made in this fictitious studio as the film progresses,” said Coen about the new film in which George Clooney plays a classic star who goes missing. “So in a way the movie is about looking backwards at the old way of making movies as opposed to looking forwards.”

McDormand is riding high on the TV wave after executive producing and starring in last year’s Olive Kitteridge, for which she picked up two Emmy awards. She believes TV has opened up new roles for female actors. “Just from a storytelling point of view long format television is really great. It’s basically getting to make a four-hour movie and people watch it as they want to, over however long a period they want to,” she said of the experience. “Joel’s never worked in television, but would you want to?”

“I don’t watch television. I don’t even go to the movies that much anymore. So the short answer is no,” he told his wife in front of the gathered audience in Rome.

“I don’t have anything against television. I’m not very interested in the format being reduced to a very, very small size. As a filmmaker you labor over all of these details to the most minute degree, and the things that you’re laboring over are best appreciated in a movie theater, not on a computer, not even on a TV screen.”

However, McDormand was much more open to the trend of binge-watching. “Audiences are choosing to watch for six hours whole seasons of television shows in a weekend at home, so it’s not necessarily whether it’s television or film,” she countered. “I think it’s just about the quality of the filmmaking period, and how audiences watch it.”

Coen reflected and conceded: “To contradict completely what I said before, my earliest experience with watching movies was on television when I was a kid.” He said. “Most of the movies I saw until my teenage years I saw on a small black-and-white screen interrupted by commercials.”

“And those experiences of watching those movies are just as profound as the experiences I’ve had in movie theaters,” he continued. “So in a way you could make the argument that the format doesn’t matter. It could be that I’ve just become spoiled in terms of the experience in the theater.”

Hail, Caesar! will be released next February by Universal.