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No Country For Old Men - Joel & Ethan Coen interview

The Coen brothers direct No Country For Old Men

Interview by Rob Carnevale

JOEL and Ethan Coen talk about their new film No Country For Old Men and how they went about creating the look of Javier Bardem’s terrifying hitman.

They also discuss how they go about adapting a screenplay and why George Clooney is no longer prepared to play the idiot for them…

At what point did you become aware of the Cormac McCarthy novel and feel that you wanted to adapt it?
Ethan Coen: It was sent to us before it was even published by the producer, Scott Rudin. He sent it to us and asked us if we’d be interested. And we were; we’d read other of Cormac’s books, we knew well who he was and I think we both like him immensely. But none of the other ones were movie material in the kind of obvious way that this one is.

How easy was it to adapt?
Joel Coen: Well, Ethan pointed out that it’s really not that difficult but it takes two people – I hold the book open while he types the text into the computer. It’s almost not an exaggeration in this case to say that we took much of the dialogue directly from the book [laughs]. It’s more a process of editing, condensing and then having to find a solution to a specific problem in terms of how you handle something in the novel that may be more literary than cinematic and finding a way to either include it in the movie or get rid of it and move without it. So it’s that kind of problem solving really more than the invention or the plot or the characters like we do with our own stories. The characters are usually the major element but here they’re given.

Was it always your intention to stay so close to the source material right through to the end?
Ethan Coen: Well yes. It wasn’t even so much an intention more than it was just clear to us that, yes, we could. We have actually done other work for hire as writers adapting a couple of other books where we had to supply a lot because the source material didn’t offer what this did. But it was clear to us from reading this that the adaptation was going to be mostly what Joel was saying, a process of kind of editing as opposed to inventing, supplying and adding things.

How did you arrive at the casting of Javier Bardem, who is absolutely brilliant in the film?
Joel Coen: Javier is somebody we’ve always wanted to work with but being a Spanish-speaking actor, most of the parts that we write, when we write our own stories are American characters. So this was an opportunity because the character in the novel, while not specifically Spanish, there’s certainly an indication that he is or could be foreign. We sort of took that as licence to give this part to Javier. And honestly, that was it – it’s not like there’s something of Javier in this character.

Actually, Javier agonised over the character a little bit himself and whether or not to do it. But we certainly knew that he’s such a strong actor and a charismatic screen presence that he would supply something here, which would specifically keep from being a cliché. And that’s about as hard as we thought about it honestly.

And the hairstyle? Is it true that it came from a photo you saw of a brothel owner?
Ethan Coen: Well, it was a guy in a bar… it might have been a brothel/bar in west Texas in 1979. It was just from research. The wardrobe department generally does a lot of research to see how things looked in the period. It was just a picture of a guy that really intrigued us and [Cormac’s] story said that he looked like he was of the place and yet weirdly not quite of the place because there was something quite obviously odd about the look. And that’s what appealed to us.

Q. Javier has mentioned that the film crew had quite a bit of fun with him because of the look of the character?
Ethan Coen: [Laughs] Well, to complete the picture on the set, Javier not only had the hairnet and the make-up but to protect his skin he also had a little pink parasol over his head. He looked like a fugitive from Madame Butterfly or something!
Joel Coen: To me, he looked like some strange thing from a Goya tapestry or something, especially with that parasol. He was very, very peculiar looking off-camera on the set [laughs].

But I gather that he got on well with Josh Brolin even though they don’t actually get to share much screen-time in the film?
Ethan Coen: They were inseparable! It’s funny, in the movie they have really no scenes together – one is pursuing the other but they never actually meet. But they became best friends…

Q. And fence burners [in reference to Brolin’s claim that they had cut down a fence to keep up a supply of firewood while they drank]?
Joel Coen: Oh yeah, but we weren’t there. We go to sleep at night when we’re making the movie. But it’s surprising how many people don’t!

Q. You decided to take a break after The Ladykillers to concentrate on writing. Do you think that helped you to come back as strong as you have with No Country For Old Men?
Joel Coen: Did it help us come back as strong? Ethan not only took a break and concentrated on writing but I think he also took steroids [laughs], which might lead to his disqualification from the Golden Globes!

Q. Your working with George Clooney for a third time on your next film, Burn After Reading, so what makes him so special in your eyes?
Ethan Coen: George Clooney is special because he’s always ready to play an idiot!

Joel Coen: It’s funny, on the last day of shooting on the movie we just did, Ethan said: “That’s a wrap!” And George said: “OK, I’ve played my last idiot!” So I guess he won’t be working with us again [laughs].

b>Read our review of No Country For Old Men

b>Read our interview with Javier Bardem