The places, people, and language of the Coens


At the beginning of "Fargo," a story of kidnapping, murder, and an infamous incident with a woodchipper, a title splashed across the screen claims it is a true story. Many people still believe it.

"I'm surprised that lasted so long," Joel Coen said at the Walker Art Center last night.

However Ethan Coen went on to say the claim of truth was very important for their main purpose - to tell a good story. He said if audiences believe a story is true, it gives them as film makers much more latitude .

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"They (the audience) allow you to do things they won't let you do if they think you made it up," he said.

This was just one of the many insights the Coen Brothers provided during almost two and a half hours in conversation with broadcaster and film critic Elvis Mitchell at the Walker. The event was the 50th Regis Dialog at the Walker, and the central event of "Raising Cain," a month long retrospective celebrating the 25th anniversary of the release of the Coen Brothers first feature "Blood Simple."

A great deal of the conversation focused on the Coens attention to the specificity of a story. Their scripts often grow out of a sense of place, such as the West Texas of "Blood Simple" and the Minnesota of "Fargo." In fact Joel Coen said the "Fargo" story grew out of wanting to tell a story about Minnesota in winter. That desire for specificity has also led to them doing what might be described as period pieces, set in the recent past.

Ethan Coen said setting a movie in the present is like an off switch to them as writers, because it makes a story more generic for an audience. Joel Coen followed up by saying one of the pleasures of film making is creating a world, and none of their movies are exercises in naturalism.

Elvis Mitchell's questions and choice of film clips drew some surprises from the Coens. They laughed out loud at some of the scenes, saying they hadn't seen some of the work since completing the film in question. Ethan Coen particularly enjoyed a sight gag from "The Big Lebowski" where Jeff Bridges in the title role gets a shock when he discovers what has just been drawn on a notepad.

They also talked about the challenges of writers block, admitting that they were stuck for months on how to proceed with the "Fargo" script after a scene where one of the characters has sex with an escort. Ethan says they would switch on the computer every morning to see the same somewhat lurid line, and couldn't find a way to go forward.

A similar block in writing "Millers Crossing" led to them setting the movie aside and they wrote most of "Barton Fink" before breaking the block on the "Miller" script.

Joel Coen also said "It took us a while to realize we were writing "The Odyssey," while they were scripting "O Brother Where Art Thou?"

Ethan continued saying they had been writing what he described as a 'three-dopes-chained-together' script and it was only later it came to them that their plot line was echoing the classical tale.

The conversation returned repeatedly to the brothers voluminous reading habits and the works of great writers.

Joel Coen said when they think of storytelling its often in terms of the depth of a novel rather than the simplified plots of movies. While they write, they have to pare out a lot more, but they can find that specificity of story they always seek.

There were also clearly surprises for the Coens themselves during the evening, particularly when Elvis Mitchell posed to them that all their films, with the exception of "A Serious Man" are basically chase movies.

The brothers didn't exactly endorse the idea, but it prompted Joel to quote his son who once asked "Is this going to be another one of your depressing movies where everyone dies in the end?"

There were no clips from "A Serious Man," which will be released in theaters next week. However the Coens talked about seeking to recreate an environment that they render from their own experience. They said though that while they grew up in the 1960s in St Louis Park as the children of two academics, and the central character is a physics prof in the same time and place, that is as autobiographical as the new film gets.

They talked about getting their first Super 8 camera in their early teens and making films inspired by things they experienced. There was their three minute remake of "The Naked Prey" which they did the day after seeing the Cornel Wilde vehicle on TV. They remade the political drama "Advise and Consent" again just a few minutes long, and complicated by the fact it was silent.

They also created original stories including "Henry Kissinger:Man on the Go" with Ethan in the title role, which they shot around the terminals of the Minneapolis St Paul International Airport, which Ethan Coen pointed out would be impossible today.

"It was about shuttle diplomacy in between the flights," Joel Coen deadpanned.

There was also "Lumberjacks of the North" which produced the comment "We had flannel shirts. You use what you have," from Ethan.

Returning to "The Naked Prey," Joel described how they used a parallel shooting technique where they did all the scenes in sequence. It meant they had to keep moving back and forth between two different locations. "The big advantage was when you got it back from the drugstore the movie was finished," he said to laughter from the audience.

The Coens talked a great deal about how they read a lot as children, and how they see many of their films as being in the style of certain writers. The acknowledged the echoes of Isaac Bashevis Singer in "A Serious Man" and after Mitchell brought him up Philip Roth.

They talked about the challenges of capturing the St Louis Park of their youth for "A Serious Man." The suburban architecture is still there, but there are now a lot more trees. They ended up shooting in as many treeless spots as they could, actually removing a few real trees in some cases, but also using a lot of special effects techniques to paint out the trees in other scenes.

Next up for the Coens/ They said it looks as though they will be doing an adaptation of the Charles Portis novel "True Grit."

"Raising Cain" continues at the Walker through October 17th.