Joel & Ethan Coen: The Brothers From Another Planet – Rolling Stone
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Joel & Ethan Coen: The Brothers From Another Planet

The spacey saga of the two-headed director who raised ‘Arizona’

Joel Coen, Ethan Coen

Joel and Ethan Coen

Ron Galella, Ltd./WireImage

Pacing and smoking, pacing and smoking, in their rented house, Joel and Ethan Coen are waiting for the phone to ring. Every time Ethan finishes a cigarette, he mutters, “Butt me, butt me.” Joel occasionally stops at the window to scream at Los Angeles, a visceral but controlled scream of rage. It is 1984; after writing the film-noir-like Blood Simple in 1980, raising funds for it in 1981, directing it in 1982 and editing it in 1983, the Coen brothers were broke. They flew from New York to Los Angeles with the reels of Blood Simple, fairly confident that the artful thriller would find a distributor.

“We brought the film around to all these different studios and had’ em bone us,” Joel says today. “Sat there and listened to their garbage.” During one meeting, a studio chief kept spitting sunflower-seed shells into a cuspidor behind his desk. He suddenly interrupted his barrage to ask, apropos of nothing, “Why is Revenge of the Nerds making so much money?” The brothers exchanged a quizzical look. On the way out, Ethan said, “If there’s anything else you want to know about the movie business, feel free to call me.” The executive stared at Ethan, then threw his head back and screamed with laughter, slapping Ethan on the back so hard that he knocked over a chair and slammed into the wall.

This sort of encounter was typical. Hollywood was hot for the Coens — maybe they’d like to direct Psycho III? — but nobody wanted to distribute Blood Simple. The word was it was too gory to be an art film, too arty to be an exploitation film, funny but not quite a comedy.

So the brothers just hung out. They killed time concocting “thought experiments” — high-concept movies they’d have liked to see but didn’t want to bother making. The most telling remnant from their stay in L.A. is a thought experiment they hatched there called Adolf “Teny” Hitler, which rewrites history thusly: Hitler’s parents emigrate to America at the turn of the century and head west. Young Adolf grows up and becomes a big Hollywood agent nicknamed Terry, running the Adolf Hitler Agency (AHA); he wears baggy suits and takes lunches at Mortons, waving to everyone and reading People magazine.

Unsurprisingly, when Blood Simple finally found a distributor, it was Circle Releasing, a small company based in Washington, D.C., not in the Coens’ beloved Los Angeles. The studios missed out on a prestigious project that had the critics gushing and won a Grand Jury Prize at the United States Film Festival, the independent filmmakers’ equivalent of the Oscars.

These days, the Coens and Hollywood seem to have figured each other out. As soon as the studios saw the script for the brothers’ second movie, Raising Arizona, they scrambled to buy distribution rights from Circle, and Twentieth Century Fox won out. Arizona reached the screen an ingeniously executed gonzo caper, starring Nicolas Cage as the petty thief H.I. McDonnough and Holly Hunter as his policewoman sweetheart, Ed. After they marry, Ed learns that she’s barren, and they kidnap a quintuplet named Nathan Arizona Jr., reasoning that his parents have “more than they can handle.” \

Full of the same showy camera work and slightly dim characters as Blood Simple, Raising Arizona also tosses in slam-bang mass-appeal elements like car chases, a biker from hell and cute babies. Most critics were bowled over, calling it a “deranged fable of the New West” (New York) and “exuberantly original” (Time). Vanity Fair said, “The brothers seem to be having a ball, and inviting crashers.”

The biggest fear shared by Fox, Circle and the Coens was that Arizona — stylized, difficult to classify and lacking big-name stars — would perform like Blood Simple, filling a few art houses and little more. But as Arizona opened gradually around the country (“platformed,” in movie-business lingo), the box-office returns quashed those fears. Joel, 32, and his little brother, Ethan, 29, didn’t go Hollywood: they made Hollywood come to them.

The Coen brothers could be a deadpan vaudeville act performed by a two-headed creature from some low-budget sci-fi flick. Both are pencil skinny, shave only every four or five days and wear glasses and Levi’s. Joel is taller, a little more sociable; he recounts tales with exuberant sound effects. Ethan is quieter, more the “word man” — a Scrabble fiend who has been known to bring paperback books to parties. They don’t take drugs; in bars they usually order Cokes. They don’t always agree, but their disagreements are never personal. A favorite pastime is testing each other on arcane trivia, like the ingredients on a ketchup bottle. When working, they often take phone calls together, finishing each other’s sentences, prompting each other’s anecdotes or just wallowing in protracted, nicotine-fueled pauses.

If it’s a shtick, it’s a twenty-four-hour-a-day one; the Coens both border on being space cadets. When Joel drives, says their cinematographer, Barry Sonnenfeld, “he literally stops at green lights and finally, for no apparent reason, sees the light turn red and steps on the gas.” They live as cheaply as they work, taking the subway and subsisting on coffee-shop chow. Until recently, only Joel had a checking account, and neither one had a credit card. Joel still doesn’t: “American Express rejected me.”

The Coens grew up in Minneapolis, which has a lot to do with their off-center, slowed-down sensibility. (Their parents, Ed and Rena, are college professors; their older sister, Debbie, is a doctor in Israel.) Forced to amuse themselves in America’s Arctic, they warmed themselves by the TV, developing a shared taste for kitsch as they sat through hours of wooden epics on Mel Jass’ Matinee Movie. They filmed a Super 8 remake of Advise and Consent and originals like Lumberjacks of the North. “We owned a couple of plaid shirts,” explains Ethan.

But Minnesota’s grayness closed in. “I wanted to get as far away as possible as fast as possible,” says Joel. He left for Simon’s Rock College, in Massachusetts, and then studied film at New York University; Ethan went to Princeton and majored in philosophy. They hadn’t hung out together much since they were kids, but around 1980 Ethan moved to an apartment in New York near his brother.

Joel had already been married and divorced (“There was no ugliness and no money,” he says) and was assistant-editing slasher movies like The Evil Dead and Fear No Evil. Ethan was temping as a statistical typist at Macy’s. “It was a long road that had no end,” he says. So they began writing scripts nights and weekends, selling one, a black comedy called Suburbicon. Seeing other directors lose creative control of even low-budget movies, Joel decided to finance his first directorial effort, Blood Simple, himself; he returned to Minnesota, scraping up pledges of $550,0 from sixty-eight investors in bits as small as $5000. (The final budget was $855,0 plus $187,0 in deferred costs.) To get by, the boys bummed endless loans from friends.

In Austin, Texas, on October 4th, 1982, they started shooting a feature film, an understandably surreal experience for two guys whose last joint effort was in Super 8. “Joel still had this film-school view,” says Barry Sonnenfeld, “that he and Ethan would be up late at night making peanut-butter sandwiches for the crew.” But they had something other directors didn’t: a second head. Though Joel was nominally the director and Ethan the producer, it was more a tag-team effort. They defied the adage about being in two places at once; if one wandered off, the other could be on the set checking a camera angle.

After filming, the Coens ran out of money, and during reshoots they were forced to stand in for the actors; then, too broke to hire anyone, they edited the movie themselves, taking pseudonymous credit in the titles as Roderick Jaynes. Joel says, “We still feel a strange, juvenile thrill when that name comes on the screen, like we pulled something off.”

It’s the spring of 1985, and the Coens are writing Raising Arizona, holed up in the musty ground-floor Upper West Side apartment that Joel has inhabited since college.

“You wanna doughnut?” asks Ethan, offering Joel an open box of chocolate glazed. His shirt still has its Salvation Army price tag stapled to the collar.

Singing, “Papa-oom-mow-mow,” Ethan pads in his stocking feet over the dusty floor to the kitchen, where the coffee water is boiling in a tin pan. Tacked to the bulletin board are a HOW TO HELP A CHOKING VICTIM poster, an autographed picture of Wink Martindale and some Polaroids a friend took of the TV when the Coens were on the Today show promoting Blood Simple. They sat slumped, smoking, making comments like “Ooh, that was exciting” during film clips. Off camera, Jane Pauley told Ethan he ought to be spanked.

Ethan starts his pace pattern, walking brisk laps through the kitchen into the spacious living room and out again and making occasional raspberry noises.

Joel sits, his Reebok-shod feet up on the metal desk, smoking.

Ethan, continuing to pace, asks, “Cut to the car?”

Joel says, “They’re taking their car, right?”

Ethan says, “Why not his?” He halts and sits at the desk, leafing through what they’ve written so far: twenty-seven pages. The Coens write scripts without an outline, painting themselves in and out of corners “Wildy style.” According to Joel, Mack Sennett’s silent-film studio employed certified lunatics called Wildies, who would come to script meetings and blurt out crazy, non sequitur plot ideas, which Sennett would often use.

Ethan turns on the Smith-Corona portable, which buzzes. He folds his arms across the top and buries his head, as if trying to feel the words emanating from the machine.

Buzz, goes the typewriter.

Slowly, Ethan begins laughing to himself. It starts as a hiccup, grows to a wheezing heehaw and explodes into snorts.

“What?” Joel asks. “What? What?”

“As soon as he realizes they’re not gonna go with him, he starts screaming… .”

Joel chews this over. Ethan turns off the typewriter, noodles on its plastic keys, stands up and starts pacing. Joel says, “What do you think, Eeth? We barking up the wrong tree here?”

“Ah, I dunno.” Ethan hiccups, cartoon style. Joel absent-mindedly opens a desk drawer. Ethan shuts it and says, “We could have him run away; he puts his head down and runs around the corner of the building, presses himself up against the wall, close-up of him like …” He breathes heavily. “He says, ‘I won’t ever run away again.’ “

“You mean make him sort of a retard?” asks Joel.

“Yeah,” says Ethan.

Silence.

Joel starts singing, “I ain’t gonna work on Maggie’s faaarm no more….” Ethan starts pacing. The floor creaks. Outside on the street, cars pass.

“To me,” Joel says, “that just wastes time.”

Ethan returns from the kitchen, carrying a box of toothpicks. “You don’t like it ’cause it’s kind of senseless?”

“Yeah,” says Joel. “When are we gonna shed some blood?”

Ethan grunts a small laugh. He reads the toothpick box. “You know what these toothpicks are made of?”

Joel gives it some consideration. “Pine? Oak? Mahogany? I dunno.”

“White birch.”

“Really?”

“Yeah,” says Ethan, picking up a small rubber ball and bouncing it. “What if the state trooper takes off after them?”

“Well, the chase scene I really want is where the baby gets thrown around in the car. I don’t see that coming here.”

Pause.

“Let’s just figure out what they’re doing,” says Ethan.

“Yeah,” says Joel, “that’s what I’m trying to figure out.” He stands up, jingling his key chain, and wanders over to the stereo cabinet. He picks up something lying on it. “Hey, Eeth, you know whose glove is this?”

After handing in the ‘Arizona’ script to Circle, the brothers finally got some money, which they used to upgrade their lifestyles somewhat. Ethan moved downtown to a big sublet — more pacing space — with his girlfriend, Hilary, and traded in his tilted granny glasses for round wire rims. Joel had been dating Blood Simple star Frances McDormand, and she moved in with him. She redecorated the apartment in nouveau diner, disposing of Ethan’s Blood Simple “souvenir” — a huge, bloodied wall used for the excruciating hand-stab scene.

The Coens also rented a share in a Chelsea office to force themselves to get some work done. One day in December of 1985, just before filming began on Raising Arizona, Ethan asked Joel, “Is it okay if I cut out early today?” Joel said, “Sure. What for?” Ethan said, “Hilary and I were thinking of going down to City Hall and getting married. Wanna come?”

“Sure,” Joel said. He served as best man. Friends found out about the wedding later, on a need-to-know basis.

Vroom! Vroom! “You Wanna move that muthafucka?” growls leatherclad giant Randall “Tex” Cobb from his motorcycle, leveling two prop sawed-off shotguns at a pickup truck full of spectators. The truck pulls away fast, and Tex, a former pro boxer who is playing the biker-from-hell character, Lenny Smalls, laughs uproariously. He turns to Joel and bellows, “You’re working with a professional athlete. Try and keep your instructions simple.”

It’s February 1986, and the Coens are filming Raising Arizona in balmy Scottsdale. A waterworks is serving as a prison exterior, and Cobb is supposed to ride the motorcycle up to the edge of the hole from which H.I.’s prison buddies Evelle and Gale Snopes (William Forsythe and John Goodman) have escaped. But the scene has been dragging on forever, because tough guy Cobb is actually lousy on a bike and often misses his mark or stalls out.

Then, on the next take, the bike keeps rolling, falls in the hole and throws Cobb face down in the dirt. There’s an ominous pause: if Cobb is injured, he’s irreplaceable. Finally, the prostrate actor yells a muffled “Cut!” Joel grins and says, “Print that take. I liked it.”

The Coens seem to care most about amusing each other. After watching the rehearsal for a stunt in which Cage catches a knife with a plank, Joel calmly says, “My guess is that it won’t work.” Ethan replies, “That’s what they said about the shuttle.”

Beyond the gags, they remain inscrutable on the set. They rarely say hello to anyone, and for all the ambling, mumbling, smoking and joking, the Coens are as self-confident and focused as ace poker players. “Those boys are absorbed,” says Holly Hunter.

They’re also tense, because even before any film was shot, they’d already spent more than the entire Blood Simple budget. The friends whose careers they’d launched — coproducer Mark Silverman, cinematographer Sonnenfeld, production designer Jane Musky and associate producer and assistant director Deborah Reinisch — returned, but at substantially higher rates. The stunts, the larger cast and the better-equipped offices will eventually push costs over $5 million.

Yet the brothers’ anxiety comes out in weirdly calm, wacky ways. The most demonstrative they get is when Joel remarks, “See what an incredible pain in the ass this is?” or Ethan addresses a problem by asking, “Is that, like, un-dealable-with?” Ethan keeps quitting and restarting smoking, endlessly chewing sticks of gum; Joel gets migraines, for which he pops an occasional prescription pill, and relaxes by pulling a yellow yo-yo from his pocket and “walking the dog.”

During filming, they maintain their telepathic rapport. “Joel and Ethan have their own language,” says Hunter. “It goes with the level of concentration. Sometimes it’s hard to penetrate; if I didn’t know ’em, I might find it intimidating.”

But they’re not ego tripping; when someone can’t start a prop car, Joel helps to push it. When Joel worries that a rubber stunt knife might hurt Cage, he tests it by sending Ethan a few yards away and winging it at him. Ethan plays a willing target, much like a kid obeying his big brother.

They do have their weaknesses. Although each shot has been carefully planned, Joel’s instructions to actors are often as oblique as “This is an epic-romantic scene, y’know?” Fran McDormand, who plays Ed’s overbearing friend Dot, says, “I can’t imagine Joel ever making a movie that was actor oriented, like a Sophie’s Choice, where you set up the camera and two actors just work together. He sets up a mood and talks about rhythm.” Cage will later complain that he feels stymied — the Coens aren’t taking his suggestions and at first didn’t let him see the daily rushes.

Yet he plays along with every Looney Tune prank. Rehearsing the climactic fight with Tex Cobb, Cage falls on gravel and gashes his hand. He stumbles to his feet, looks around and drawls, “Can I get a Band-Aid — or at least a Curad?” Joel and Ethan double up with laughter: they’ve created another brother.

Although ‘Blood Simple’ is generally perceived as a hit and the Coens hawked it on a grueling tour, it actually made only $5 million, less than the amount a blockbuster like Lethal Weapon makes its first weekend. So the brothers are understandably reluctant about hyping (or analyzing) Arizona. “It’s always an ambition,” says Joel, “no matter who you are, John Sayles or Steven Spielberg, that you want a lot of people to see your movie. I can’t believe that Sayles wouldn’t be happy if Lianna had grossed $400 million, right? But obviously his ambition isn’t to go to Hollywood and make $25 million movies in a quest for that kind of gross. And I don’t think our ambition is, either.”

Big box office may not be their goal, but Arizona is making a bundle anyway and is an official entry (not in competition) at this year’s Cannes Film Festival. The Coens, nonplused, are already pacing through their next script. When asked about it, Joel says, deadpan, “It’s a hot, hot project.”

One afternoon in April, a few weeks after the premiere of Raising Arizona, Ethan Coen is in Times Square to see a movie. Emerging into daylight, he’s nearly run down by a tremendous, wailing cavalcade of Secret Service limousines, police cars and ambulances. He cocks his head and watches as sedan after sedan whizzes past. “Maybe Barry Diller is in town,” he says.

Actually, it isn’t the president of Fox — just the vice-president of the U.S. Ethan is happy to be outside of the limos looking in. He wanders to the subway stop and heads underground to meet up with Joel, eager to continue the private conversation that has been going on for twenty-nine years.

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