The Coen Bros. On Writing, 'Lebowski' And Literally Herding Cats
If you ask the Coen brothers about how they write their films, you might not get a straight answer. "It's mostly napping," Ethan tells Fresh Air's Terry Gross.
"We go to the office, we're there, we're in a room together," Joel adds. "We take naps, but, you know, the important thing is that we're at the office, should we be inspired to actually write something."
The brothers don't split up writing responsibilities — they "talk through" the dialogue and "work it out together," Joel explains.
The process seems to be working for the brothers who wrote and directed Fargo, The Big Lebowski, O Brother Where Art Thou?, No Country for Old Men, A Serious Man and True Grit. Their latest film, Inside Llewyn Davis, just won the Grand Prix at this year's Cannes film festival, and it's nominated for a Golden Globe for Best Motion Picture, musical or comedy, and an Independent Spirit award for Best Feature.
Set in 1961, Inside Llewyn Davis stars Oscar Isaac in the title role, as a folksinger in Greenwich Village, just before Bob Dylan comes on the scene. He's known in the clubs but isn't particularly successful.
On basing the Llewyn Davis character on folksinger Dave Van Ronk
Ethan Coen: Dave Van Ronk, for those who don't know him — probably most don't know — is a folk singer, probably the biggest person on the scene in 1961 in the folk revival in Greenwich Village, biggest person on the scene until Bob Dylan showed up. But in our minds he was the folk singer, "the generic folk singer," until we kind of figured out who the main character of the movie actually was.
Joel Coen: We were never interested in doing a biopic. That was never the ambition, so the question was, "We want to make a movie about a folk singer — who was he?" And we did draw on certain aspects of both [Dave] Van Ronk and other people, like Jack Elliott, from the period.
On the roots of their interest in folk
Joel: It's a direct descendant from the music that's in O Brother Where Art Thou? It's the kid in 1961 discovering that music that's in that movie. So we've always been interested in those musical forms, and we've always been interested and grew up on the music that grew out of those forms — which is rock 'n' roll and Bob Dylan. When we were kids, Bob Dylan was a top 40 radio artist, we were listening to him on the radio like everyone else was.
On casting and filming the cat in Inside Llewyn Davis
Ethan: We used the advice of the cat trainer ... [to get] a kind of orange, marmalade tabby cat, just because they're common, so easy to double, triple, quadruple — there were many cats playing the one cat. It comes across pretty well in the movie, but the whole exercise of shooting a cat is pretty nightmarish because they don't care about anything. They don't want to do what you want them to do. As the animal trainer said to us, "A dog wants to please you. A cat only wants to please itself." It was just long, painstaking, frustrating days shooting the cat.
Joel: What you have to do is basically find the cat that's predisposed to doing whatever particular piece of action it is that you have to film. So you find the cat that isn't afraid to run down a fire escape or the cat that's very docile and will let the actor just hold them for extended periods of time without being fidgety. Then you want the fidgety cat, the squirrely cat, for when you want the cat to run away. And you keep just swapping them out depending on what the task at hand is.
Ethan: In True Grit we had a vulture, a trained vulture ... that was a pain and that was even — by vulture standards — probably a stupid vulture, and that was frustrating. But I would take a vulture over a cat. The cat was just horrible.
On The Big Lebowski's cult following
Joel: It developed the afterlife on home video. [When] it came out in movie theaters, it didn't do particularly outstanding business in the theatrical market, but it did in the home video market — and then it became some sort of cult thing. How do you explain that? I have no idea. It's one of the more bizarre afterlives, too, of any of the things we've done.
We were at a movie theater together with our families a year or two ago in San Francisco, coming down from a movie, and we saw there was a little booth set up with Big Lebowski posters on it and a young woman sitting on the other side of this table, maybe 17 or 18 years old, and Ethan stopped and said, "What is this?" And she said [without knowing who they were], "Well, we show The Big Lebowski every night and people come dressed up in costumes. You should come, you'll like it. It's fun."
On their editing pseudonym "Roderick Jaynes"
Ethan: We use the pseudonym cutting because our names are in the credits so many times already that adding one more just seemed like bad taste.
Joel: We sort of invented a whole persona for this guy.
Ethan: He's British, as it turns out. He's written introductions to a few of our screenplays. ... We actually had to come up with a bio for him — you need bios for the personnel of your movies, I don't even know why, for PR purposes. I can't remember what we had him doing. He started out minding the tea cart and shepherding the studios. He's very old, in his 80s, actually, when we first started working with him, which would make him probably over 100 now.
Joel: He lives in Haywards Heath, Sussex.
Copyright 2021 Fresh Air. To see more, visit Fresh Air.