Compiled by: Martyn Palmer
THE Ladykillers wasnt originally intended to be a Coen
Brothers film. Their friend and occasional collaborator, Barry
Sonnenfeld, asked them to look at the original 1955 Ealing classic,
which starred Alec Guinness and Peter Sellers, and write a new
script that he would direct.
Eventually, Barry was side-tracked on to other projects, and
Joel and Ethan decided they wanted to make the film themselves,
and thats when they approached Tom Hanks, to play the gloriously
named Professor Goldthwait Higginson Dorr, PhD, who is a man with
a plan. A criminal plan - he wants to rob a casino.
The Coens have claimed a unique place in modern cinema and are
recognised as film makers with an extraordinary vision. They first
came to prominence some 20 years ago, with their dark noir thriller,
Their other films include Raising Arizona, Millers Crossing,
Barton Fink, which won the Palme dOr, Fargo, for which the
brothers won an Oscar for Best Original Screenplay, The Big Lebowski,
The Man Who Wasnt There,
O Brother Where Art Thou? and Intolerable
Here, Joel Coen answers questions about The Ladykillers...
Q The Ladykillers is a remake. Are there any other films youd
A. Well, The Ladykillers is a remake but Intolerable Cruelty
was not a remake, but it wasnt from a story that we originated.
The Ladykillers is one we wrote for Barry Sonnenfeld to direct
and, for various reasons, he decided to produce it instead, and
we ended up directing it, so they both started as writing jobs.
The next one we do will probably be from our own story, and approaching
it much more in the way we have approached our previous work.
Q Does it make it very different, adapting a screenplay when
you are going to direct?
A. Well, frankly its easier because you have a template
you are working from. Its different because there is an
element you are not making up, and then the other aspect is that
when we are writing for other people, as we did initially on these
other movies, we dont usually write with specific actors
in mind, for specific characters, because we dont know who
they are going to cast in the part.
Its just a little different if we are writing knowing that
we will direct. Frequently, we are writing characters and we are
thinking well wouldnt it be interesting to see such
and such play this kind of a person..
And the character starts to grow out of that, as you are writing
it, and its a combination of things that you are making
up and what you know about the actor.
Q. What made you choose The Ladykillers?
A. Well, we didnt really choose it. It came to us as
a writing assignment and Barry said you know the movie is
owned by Disney, I want to direct it, will you guys write a screenplay?
We watched the movie again, and wed seen it before and liked
it, and we thought well, you know we could do something
with this.. Its about a group of misfit criminals,
who come down and perpetrate a heist, it has a central irony at
the end of the movie about who survives. Its got this sort
of dark comedy feel, but we saw a way we could change the Katie
Johnson character, from the original, into something that we would
be interested in writing about. So we saw all of those things
and said yeah, OK, well write it...
Q. Do you like the Ealing comedies?
A. Very much so. I like The Ladykillers, Kind Hearts and Coronets,
lots of them. I think we probably first saw them on the television
when we were kids. They stayed with us.
Q. Was Tom Hanks involved in the project from the start?
Q. Did you have Tom in mind?
A. No. Only when we decided to direct it and we started thinking
about who might play that part.
Q. Was he your first choice?
A. Yeah, because he is somebody that we had been interested
in for a while for other reasons. We had talked to him about doing
something at some point, and we thought that The ladykillers was
an interesting opportunity, and not something we had really seen
before, in terms of what he does.
Q. Did he work for a usual Tom Hanks-type fee?
A. (laughs) No.
Q. How easy or difficult to work with Disney?
A. It was no different for us. We worked no differently with
Disney than we did with other companies - weve made films
with Working Title, Polygram, lots of other companies. It was
absolutely fine and they left us alone.
We made O Brother with Disney, and it was the same people, Nina
Jacobson and Dick Cook. And when we do a movie with the studios,
they kind of know, the studios wouldnt be asking us to do
it, I dont think, if it was a movie they kind of wanted
to get into themselves. What you see is what you get with us,
so they kind of let us do what we want to do.
Q. You said before that the film cost nearly $40 million.
How easy or difficult is it to work in that budget range?
A. Well, it wasnt a particularly complicated movie,
from a production point of view. We built most of the sets and
the only thing that was complicated was the bridge, because it
doesnt exist anywhere; its all done on a set, or miniatures,
or CGI. That was the only complicated thing from a production
point of view.
Q. Did you have to change anything when Tom came on board?
Q. He has a very distinctive laugh in this, was the laugh
his own invention?
A. Oh definitely. Its a great laugh.
Q. Tom was saying that he still hasnt seen the original.
How did you treat the original?
A. I was surprised he hadnt seen it when we brought
him the project, and I was sort of expecting him to watch it,
and it became clear he wasnt going to. And then I kind of
realised well, thats very smart, actually..
Because there is absolutely nothing to be gained once you have
committed to doing that part, and so it was interesting. As far
as we were concerned, we took from the original what we were interested
in and didnt have any problem changing everything else.
Q. Do you think you have changed now you are working with
big stars like Tom Hanks and George Clooney?
A. I dont know, the distinction between working with
big stars or not is kind of an artificial one for us. I mean,
with Tom, the reason we were really interested in working with
him was not because he is a big star, because, frankly, it was
not that kind of movie that we needed a big star to get it financed,
We are always looking for actors who can carry a movie, as a leading
role, but who are also essentially character actors, you know,
whether they are stars, or its John Turturro, whether its
George Clooney or Billy Bob Thornton.
If they are essentially character actors, but they also have the
ability to be the centre of a film, then we are interested in
them and we kind of dont care whether they are stars or
And there are only certain kinds of stars who can do that. Other
kinds of movie stars, its a different thing, they bring
their persona to the part and thats what people like to
see, and they are not really transforming in terms of their character.
Q. What is the advantage of working with the same actors many
times, as you often do?
A. Well, we work with not only the same actors many times
but, you know, the creative people and technicians over and over
again. We have worked with Roger Deakins (director of photography),
for 13 years, and Dennis Gassner, our designer, for, you know,
You find collaborators that you are particularly comfortable with,
and you have a very productive relationship and we like that.
We have always worked with the same people..
Q. Do you know what you are making next?
A. No, were just writing now and well see.
Q. Do you ever test screen films?
A. Weve test screened only a couple of things weve
made. I mean, generally speaking, its not particularly helpful
with our movies. You know some movies, its more so than
others, and that includes the stuff we do. If you are doing a
flat-out comedy, it can be useful to see what is coming across
to an audience.
In other kinds of movies, there is just no point in test screening
it. Theres no point in test screening Barton Fink or The
Man Who Wasnt There. What are you going to find out? Other
ones, that are a little bit more overtly comedies, then you can.
And I think maybe the studios may screen the movies, just to see
in terms of a marketing thing, but we dont test them and
then go back and tinker with them.
Q. Irma P Hall, as Mrs Munson, is a crucial piece of casting...
A. Oh yeah. We kind of saw her and then thought, shes
great, but we cant hire the very first person who comes
through the door.. But it was a kind of empty exercise,
because she was clearly and always the right person.
Q. And how about Marlon Wayans, who plays one of the gang?
A. Marlon was funny as hell, and he improvised a lot of that
stuff. We were telling Marlon, we should really be giving him
a writing credit because of what he does in some of those scenes
(laughs). He was great.