In conversation, as in their work, sibling filmmakers Joel and Ethan Coen are known for a kind of uncanny symbiosis. Their sentences run together as effortlessly as they divide the writing, directing and producing duties they have shared over the course of 17 feature films. So it seemed reasonable to ask, as they began a recent interview on a conference call from Los Angeles, that each brother identify himself before speaking.
“This is Joel talking,” a disembodied voice says with an sigh. “But we don’t care if you misinterpret. We really don’t. It’s not an issue. You can say whoever you want is saying it.”
“You can say you’re saying it,” chimes in Ethan, amid what sounds like cackling laughter. Back to Joel: “You can make stuff up if you want. We don’t care. It’s fine.”
During the interview, silliness gave way to seriousness (and back again) as the brothers discussed — at times defensively — their love-hate relationship with Hollywood today. Their new movie, “Hail, Caesar!,” revolves around the kidnapping of movie star Baird Whitlock (George Clooney) by a cabal of communist screenwriters. Leading the effort to find him is no-nonsense studio executive Eddie Mannix (Josh Brolin), who must juggle babysitting duties for several troubled productions, including one directed by a pretentious filmmaker named Laurence Laurentz (Ralph Fiennes), who, it should be noted, is nothing like either of the Coens.
You were working on “Hail, Caesar!” a little over a year ago when I tried to reach you for comment about “The Big Lebowski” being selected by the Library of Congress for inclusion in the National Film Registry. Belated congratulations.
Joel: We’re not even sure what it means. Seriously, I don’t even know what that means. I mean, I kind of do. The Library of Congress? Does that mean that congressmen can watch the movie?
It means that “Lebowski” has been judged to be of “cultural, historic or aesthetic significance.” There will be a print stored in some climate-controlled vault somewhere, for all perpetuity.
Joel: I thought it meant that tourists could get it out and watch it. You know, Mitt Romney really likes “O Brother, Where Art Thou?” We’re hoping they’re going to draft him as the Republican presidential candidate.
Ethan: And Dick Cheney liked our “True Grit.”
I find it fascinating that you know that.
Joel: They all happen to be Republicans, for some reason.
Ethan: That is concerning to us. We need to talk to the other side of the aisle.
Joel: We were invited to the White House to screen “The Hudsucker Proxy” when [Bill] Clinton was president, and we just died there. It did not play well there at all.
Ethan: It’s a very, very tough room.
Several political issues have surfaced around Hollywood of late: the Oscars So White controversy; the question of gender pay disparity; the lack of women directors. “Hail, Caesar!” satirizes Hollywood’s Golden Age, but it also seems to get in a few digs about the Hollywood of today. Were you thinking about any of these current themes when you were writing it?
Ethan: Not in the least. Nobody was thinking about those things back then.
Joel: What they were thinking about was how to get communist content into motion pictures.
There’s a similar subversiveness to your film, though. Aren’t you biting the hand that feeds you, if ever so gently?
Ethan: That’s some confusion that we don’t suffer from. Like I say, the world then was very different from the real one now, in which we operate.
Yet there are ways in which the world of “Hail, Caesar!” does touch on the world of today. It’s surely no accident that the group of communist screenwriters who kidnap Clooney’s character call themselves The Future.
Joel: They didn’t turn out to be the future.
No, but the conflict between art and commerce, which the movie addresses, hasn’t exactly gone away. Arguably, it’s gotten worse.
Joel: Well, yeah, look, if you’re talking about that explicitly, that was actually more of a subtext in our last movie [“Inside Llewyn Davis”]. If you’re talking about the idea of politics in mass entertainment, then, in a very tangential, almost jokey way, there’s that element in “Hail, Caesar!” The commercialization of art was one of the underlying things going on in “Inside Llewyn Davis.” “Hail, Caesar!” is not really about that.
Your star, George Clooney, recently told Variety that Hollywood was moving in the wrong direction with regard to diversity. He cited four films deserving of nomination — “Creed,” “Concussion,” “Beasts of No Nation” and “Straight Outta Compton” — while arguing that the problem was not the fact that these films weren’t nominated. Rather, he suggested, there should be 30 or 40 black films “of the quality that people would consider for the Oscars,” instead of only three or four.
Joel: Oh, I agree with that, yes, that’s very true. The awards are not the problem.
Clooney’s comments led to a backlash from some quarters. It was noted that his films — and yours, for that matter — aren’t particularly diverse.
Joel: Take any particular actor or writer or filmmaker, and you go, “Your movies should be more this or more that or more the other thing.” The only sane response is that you can only write what you can write. You can’t sit down and say, “I’m going to write something that follows the dictates of what the culture thinks should be happening, in terms of cultural diversity in storytelling.” To be honest with you, that’s completely lunatic.
Ethan: We actually write movies in which the characters are Jews or Minnesotans.
Joel: And people accuse us of all kinds of things for making those things specific. You can’t win. You say, “Look at the work.” And then they go, “Well, this character is Jewish and is a bad guy.” Somehow in their minds, that’s implying that in our minds the Jewish characters stand in for all Jews. Like I say, you can only write what you can write. If the question is whether or not there should be more people involved in the process, with more diverse backgrounds, so that what they write reflects a greater amount of diversity — that the business itself should be more open to people of different backgrounds, so that those stories come in — that’s a legitimate thing to talk about. The other thing is crazy.
How does one facilitate the change you’re talking about?
Ethan: That will be facilitated when people want to see those movies. But nobody wants to blame the public.
Joel: In this respect, I agree with what Ethan just said. But it’s not quite that simple. Sometimes you don’t know what the public is going to like until you make it available. How you do that, of course, is complicated. As far as movie executives are concerned, the bottom line is just the dollar. I mean, they’ll do anything. They don’t care who you are, what color you are, what gender you are, if you’re making enough money. They’d be perfectly happy if a Martian came in and made a blockbuster.
How do you not get caught up in — or crushed by — the studio machine?
Joel: I’m not a studio executive. I was talking about people who run the business. I’m a person who makes movies. Money isn’t the bottom line for me. I want to make money, just like everyone else, but I have other concerns as well.
Duly noted. I was asking if you related to someone like the film’s Laurence Laurentz, the auteur who chafes under the constraints of the studio system.
Ethan: Well sure, we’re Laurence Laurentz, yes.
Joel: The answer is yes, we do relate.
How about the communist screenwriters?
Ethan: Sure. Yeah, we do.
Joel: We relate to them. We also relate to Eddie Mannix.
In what way?
Joel: In the way that you can feel like you’re the only sane person in an insane universe in Hollywood. You have to do your job and manage a lot of personalities.
Ethan: It’s not important that he’s a movie executive. What’s important is that he’s somebody that takes pride in his work, and wants to do his job well.
How has filmmaking changed, for better and for worse, not just since the two of you started making movies, but since the time of “Hail, Caesar!”?
Joel: It’s a little bit difficult when you’re in the middle of it to identify exactly what is going on. There are a lot more players coming into the business now, looking for “content,” as they call it. Content wasn’t a word when we started. That’s a change. But companies like Netflix and Amazon and all these companies with a fair amount of money, that’s a fundamentally good thing because that’s competition, and competition fosters more voices. On the other hand, I personally am a little bit depressed by the way that movies are delivered now. You make these things that are meant to be seen on a huge screen, in big movie houses, as a communal experience, and the more people watch them on their iPads and iPhones, it’s a little depressing.
You’re old school, and prefer to shoot on film. But you said, not long ago, that you were afraid you wouldn’t ever be able to shoot that way again. Is “Hail Caesar!” digital?
Joel: No, it’s film. We were pleasantly surprised.
Ethan: We suspect it might not be an option for much longer.
Hail, Caesar! (PG-13, 106 minutes). Opening Friday at area theaters.