With Hail, Caesar! about to hit theatres, we give you a comprehensive guide to one of the most creative teams in cinema
Minnesota’s favourite filmmaking sons – the Coen brothers – have been at the forefront of American and world cinema since making their film debut with Blood Simple in 1984. The beloved duo have a style that is all their own, filled with distinctive visuals and storytelling techniques, quick wit, irony, dark comedy and memorable characters. They have managed to attain critical acclaim while also generating box office success, no mean feat. Joel and Ethan live and breathe cinema, from chairing juries at Cannes to working on major Hollywood screenplays. They love films and filmmaking, and film lovers love them. With Hail, Caesar!, their new comedy released this week, the time seemed right to deliver an A-Z guide for everything Coen.
A IS FOR AWARDS
Since 1991’s Barton Fink, the Coens have been nominated for and won a slew of awards including Oscars, Baftas and trophies at a number of prestigious festivals. Fargo’s double at the 1996 Oscars and No Country for Old Men’s quadruple success at the 2007 ceremony remain career highlights.
B IS FOR BLOOD SIMPLE
The Coens’ brooding 1984 debut is a neo-noir crime thriller that set the stylistic ball rolling on their iconic career. Many of their long-running collaborations first began in this dark tale of sex, deceit and murder. The brothers were broke at the time, and to finance the film they made a promo trailer to entice and excite potential financiers. Their tactic worked and the required $1.5m was raised.
C IS FOR CARTER BURWELL
Of all the Coens’ collaborators, composer Carter Burwell is the most prolific, having scored 17 of their films. Burwell’s scores, like the Coens’ films, are varied, versatile and subtle. Most importantly, Burwell’s style compliments the films without being obtrusive, accompanying what is on screen without dominating and detracting. His scores for Blood Simple and Fargo are particularly special.
D IS FOR THE DUDE
Is any character more synonymous with the Coens’ world than the Dude? Jeff Bridges’ ageing Thai stick-smoking slacker from cult classic The Big Lebowski made such an impression on filmgoers, a quasi-religion called Dudeism was created in 2005. The Dude smokes weed in the bath, goes bowling most nights and pays for cartons of milk via cheque.
E IS FOR EVIL DEAD, THE
To assist with the editing of his first Evil Dead film, Sam Raimi approached a Detroit editing association, whose staff members at the time happened to include one Joel Coen. Joel worked as an assistant editor on The Evil Dead and was inspired by Raimi’s decision to shoot a prototype version of the film to attract financiers, doing the same for Blood Simple.
F IS FOR FARGO
Fargo is the truly great film it is because everything is perfectly judged. It traverses the line between dark crime thriller and black comedy without ever feeling imbalanced or implausible. The bleak snowy wastes of North Dakota, act as a perfect blank canvas for an array of desperates, lowlifes and police officers to tell their tales. William H Macy’s turn as used car salesman Jerry Lundergard stands out for its simmering rage concealed (at least for a while) under an cheery exterior, until it explodes in a torrent of frustration during a windscreen ice-chipping session.
G IS FOR GENRE CROSSOVER
Like Stanley Kubrick, the Coens have been fearless at covering different genres, often combining them within the same film. They have covered neo-noir in Blood Simple, black comedy gangster in Miller’s Crossing, black comedy crime in Fargo, Western thriller in No Country for Old Men and comedy-drama in Inside Llewyn Davis.
H IS FOR HULA-HOOP
“You know, for kids!” declared the marketing line for Norville Barnes’ seemingly doomed invention – the hula-hoop. Turns out the toy proved to be popular. Who knew? The Hudsucker Proxy was a box-office bomb, failing to come even slightly close to recouping its $25m and making only a $2.8m profit. Still, the film remains one of the Coens’ most visually stylish.
I IS FOR INSIDE LLEWYN DAVIS
Oscar Isaac who plays the titular folk singer dislikes cats, despite holding one throughout the film. Turns out Isaac received a bite from a cat some years before, which went on to become infected. Cats aside, as with the vast majority of the Coens’ work, Inside Llewyn Davis proved to be a critical and financial success.
J IS FOR JOHN GOODMAN
He’s appeared in six of their films – but if you’re talking John Goodman and the Coens, you’ve got to go straight to Walter Sobchak in The Big Lebowski. Sobchak is a mentally unstable Vietnam vet who loves nothing more than bowling, Judaism and pulling out his shooter at the bowling alley. Walter was reportedly inspired by the famously bonkers screenwriter and director of the original Conan the Barbarian, John Milius.
K IS FOR RICHARD KIND
With an expression resembling an upset, big-faced sea lion, Richard Kind drains the cyst on his neck throughout A Serious Man but we don’t mind. Somehow, despite how actually revolting it is, we don’t mind. But with a face that is as clearly kind as Richard’s, how could we?
L IS FOR LADYKILLERS
It is the best and most loved film made by the Coens? Probably not, although it manages to comfortably rise above the majority of comedy garbage in multiplexes. It’s worth watching, if only to see how things would pan out for the duo attempting their first remake and sharing both producing and directing credits for the first time.
M IS FOR MCDORMAND, FRANCES
The wonderfully talented wife of Joel Coen made her film debut in Blood Simple, and has gone on to appear in eight of the Coens’ films. McDormand’s crowning glory must surely be her Oscar-winning role as pregnant police trooper Marge Gunderson in Fargo. The genius of McDormand’s performance lies in its combination of vulnerability, fierce independence and toughness. This is a character you care about. When her kindly husband Norm insists she “needs to have a good breakfast”, you agree and hope she’ll eat her eggs – and when she pulls her gun on a man disposing of a corpse in a wood-chipper, you pray she’ll survive.
N IS FOR NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN
A tale that unfolds on the endless Texas plains, this adaptation of Cormac McCarthy’s novel of the same name remains remarkably true to its source material, as the novel and screenplay almost mirror each other. Weirdly, the heroes and villains of the piece never meet in the same frame, and the opening scenes of Llewelyn Moss coming across a drug deal gone very badly wrong in the desert linger long in the memory.
O IS FOR O BROTHER, WHERE ART THOU?
Even more successful than the film itself was the folk soundtrack to O Brother Where Art Thou?, which had sold five million copies by 2001, won five Grammys, spawned a documentary film, three follow-up albums and two concert tours. It also marked one of only two Coens films so far not to have been scored by Carter Burwell, the other being Inside Llewyn Davis.
P IS FOR PLEASURE CHAIR
Just what is Burn After Reading’s treasury analyst and US marshall Harry Pfarrer working on in his basement workshop? It could be anything. This is a man of power and influence, after all. Carter Burwell’s score raises itself to a crescendo, only for all the suspense to be deflated as the centrepiece of Harry’s creation, a rocking chair with a dildo attached, wobbles with a whimper and not a bang.
Q IS FOR QUINTUPLETS
Raising Arizona’s quintuplets were: Harry, Barry, Larry, Garry and Nathan Jr. Fifteen babies were used to portray the quints in the film, one of whom was fired when he learned how to walk.
R IS FOR ROGER DEAKINS
English cinematographer Roger Deakins has worked on 12 films with the Coens. He is a master of light and recognises its importance in the overall mood and emotional context of the films he works on: “You need to light a space so you can see the actors – but, more than that, you are creating a mood, you are creating a world for those actors to inhabit and for the audience to get submersed in.”
S IS FOR SERIOUS MAN, A
The Coens’ returned to their middle-class Jewish upbringing in Minnesota for A Serious Man. Teacher Larry Gopnik is a model of restraint concealing simmering anger and frustration. How he manages not to lose the plot entirely in the face of seemingly endless obstacles from his disagreeable adulterous wife, the vile Sy Ableman (with whom she shacks up), and amoral students like Clive is something to be admired.
T IS FOR TURTURRO, JOHN
John Turturro is another of the Coens’ regular collaborators, having appeared in four films. His hip-thrusting, tongue-twiddling Hispanic bowling maestro (and pederast), Jesus, makes bowling banter akin to the gunfight at The OK Corral. Meanwhile, The Gypsy Kings’ version of Hotel California provides the soundtrack to a scene that encapsulates the Coens’ comedic talents.
U IS FOR U-2 INCIDENT
The Coens, along with Matt Charman, co-wrote the screenplay for Steven Spielberg’s Cold War thriller, Bridge of Spies, charting the story of Francis Gary Powers, whose U-2 spy plane was shot down over the Soviet Union. The brothers were nominated for best original screenplay at the Academy Awards for their work.
V IS FOR VIVITAR SUPER 8 CAMERA
As kids, the Coens saved up enough money from mowing neighbourhood lawns to buy a Vivitar Super 8 camera and make a number of experimental short films and short remakes of films on television. It was, in fact, Joel who fronted the money to buy the camera and started as director, perhaps explaining why he has assumed directorial duties during the brothers’ partnership.
W IS FOR WRITERS
As writers the Coens’ have penned all of their own films, occasionally bringing in other writers to assist them. They have also written screenplays for a number of other directors’ films, including Bridge of Spies, Gambit, Crimewave and Unbroken.
X IS FOR X-RATED VIOLENCE
The Coens’ work is studded with moments of shocking – but often poetic, and always virtuosic – violence, presented in a context of dark humour that lends the brutality an almost farcical quality. Think of characters being disposed of in wood-chippers in Fargo, Javier Bardem and murdering people with captive bolt pistols in No Country for Old Men, and hands being impaled in Blood Simple.
Y IS FOR MIKE YANAGITA
Has there ever been a screen character quite as pathetic as Fargo’s Mike Yanagita? When he meets Marge Gunderson at a hotel bar, it’s as funny as it is awkward. Mike lies about having a wife that died from leukemia and doesn’t take kindly to being asked to move back to his seat when he sidles up next to Marge in the booth.
Z IS FOR ZERO
2010’s True Grit was nominated for ten Academy Awards. It won precisely zero.