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A Serious Man - Joel and Ethan Coen interview

Joel and Ethan Coen

Interview by Rob Carnevale

JOEL and Ethan Coen talk about going back home to Minnesota to make one of their most personal films to date, A Serious Man, the difficulty of casting Michael Stuhlbarg as their leading man and why their remake of True Grit is coming along nicely…

Q. Why did you feel the time was right to go back and write something that was so personal?
Joel Coen: Because we’d been away from it long enough. It’s not something that would have been interesting or easy to do in our 20s or 30s, but many years later you kind of go: “Well, it seems a little more interesting.” I’m not really sure why, but we decided to revisit that place in that time.

Q. Did it bring back a lot of fond memories for you?
Joel Coen: Yeah, it was interesting going back and just the act of trying to recreate it for a movie. All the period stuff was very interesting and a little weird.

Ethan Coen: Weird but not in an unpleasant way. Some of the places we went back to were specifically places we knew and hadn’t seen except as children. Actually, one of the synagogues that we scouted – although not the one that we ended up shooting in – was the one we’d attended. Indeed, the one we shot in was one we’d been in many times. It was all very odd going back to our childhood in that way.

Q. Did you get to catch up with old friends and people who maybe hadn’t seen you in years?
Joel Coen: We’ve been away so long. There were a few but not many. But we left there when we were still in our teens and we’re old now! So, it was a long time ago.

Q. How did the community react?
Joel Coen: It was nice. The community was very helpful in terms of the production of the movie. They were very warmly receptive to the production and the movie since it’s been released.

Q. Michael Stuhlbarg gives a great performance as Larry, your central character. But you kept him hanging a little bit when it came to casting because he originally auditioned for the Yiddish parable…
Ethan Coen: Yeah, at one point we thought we might shoot that parable much earlier since it was not connected to the production of the rest of the movie in any way. So, we saw him early on for that but he wasn’t especially suitable since he’s not a Yiddish speaker.

Joel Coen: But then he came in later and auditioned for both Uncle Arthur and Larry. He was so great in both that we actually didn’t know which way to cast him. He was so good. So, we decided to wait and see who else came in for either of those two categories and decide on the basis of what the other options were. We met Richard Kind probably only two months before we started shooting and it wasn’t until then – maybe four, five or six weeks before we started shooting – that we told Michael which part he was playing. We said: “You’re going to be in this movie in one part or the other… we’re just not telling you which yet!” It must have been a little unnerving for him.

Michael Stuhlbarg in A Serious Man

Ethan Coen: That’s very unusual for us and unprecedented for us… to have an actor that you like for two parts.

Joel Coen: But he gives a very interesting performance. He’s obviously an extremely talented actor but it also has to go beyond that sometimes. We saw lots of talented actors for the part but he also had the ability to carry the whole movie in a way that even if you’re very talented… as a character actor you don’t necessarily have that ability to draw the audience in and hold them for the whole thing. So, he’s pretty extraordinary.

Q. There’s a mantra at the top of the film, ‘receive with simplicity everything that happens to you’… is that something you try to take on as filmmakers? Or do you struggle with that yourself?
Joel Coen: I think we both just thought it was a very interesting observation in the context of this story – especially to begin the story. It seemed like an interesting thing to put in your head given what follows.

Ethan Coen: It promises somehow implicitly that interesting things are going to happen.

Q. How’s your True Grit remake coming along?
Ethan Coen: Good. It’s coming along. We plan to start shooting in mid-March, so it seems to be coming along.

Joel Coen: Yeah, we didn’t actually know until pretty recently that we were so close. It’s something that we’ve been planning on doing for a while but the actual deal to work it out and get the movie financed is pretty recent. So, short of writing the script we haven’t done much on it yet. We’ve written the script and cast some of the major parts. Jeff Bridges, Matt Damon and Josh Brolin are all signed on. But a bigger part than any of those is the little girl, who is sort of the central character in the movie… we’ve yet to cast her yet.

Read our review of A Serious Man

Read our interview with Michael Stuhlbarg