Joel Coen: The plan that wasn't there

Have the Coen brothers sold their souls to Hollywood's mainstream? Joel Coen tells James Mottram why they never could
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The Independent Culture

Here's a rare sight. Joel without Ethan is like Jules without Jim. It just doesn't feel right. In the public eye, the seemingly symbiotic film-makers known as the Coen brothers come across as conjoined at the mouth, finishing each other's sentences as if playing a private game of verbal ping-pong. But today the bespectacled, Zappa-haired Joel is all alone, Ethan having been left behind in New York to recover from a bout of pneumonia. "The doctor didn't want him on an airplane," drawls Joel. While Ethan - at 47 the younger by three years - once went solo to publicise his wry collection of short stories, Gates of Eden, it's extremely unusual to find one quarantined from the other.

In my experience, Joel has always been the more recalcitrant of the two, playing sullen cop to Ethan's jovial one. Joel is the sort who will tell you his favourite book is Dr Seuss's The Pale Green Pants with Nobody in Them; a throwaway answer, it leaves you in doubt, but not enough to dismiss it outright. Unlike their solipsistic screenwriter Barton Fink, they are not prone to making grand statements about the power of art. Reluctant to analyse their work in detail, they prefer pithy remarks that only serve to frustrate rather than illuminate.

Ushered into the boardroom of a hotel in Cannes, the setting is at least a comfortable one for Joel. The film festival, where he and Ethan's latest - a remake of the 1955 Ealing comedy The Ladykillers - played last month in competition, has treated them well in the past. Barton Fink took three awards in 1991, including the Palme d'Or and best director, an award twice since bestowed for Fargo and The Man Who Wasn't There. While Fargo also won the brothers a best original screenplay Oscar, it is evident that Cannes - and not Hollywood - is their spiritual home.

Yet there have been grumblings that the Coens have gone mainstream, turning away from making the quirky and fresh-voiced fare with which they established their reputation. Ethan wasquoted as saying that making films was "like going to work at the bank now. It's all a routine." Rumours persist that they will remake the British heist classic Gambit with Hugh Grant, or direct a Tarzan movie - all very un-Coen-like. In these pages, David Thomson argued that in their last three films "the energy of, or desire for, film-making seems to be slipping away".

The last two films have been studio-financed comedies and meant for others to direct. In the case of Intolerable Cruelty, the Coens were hired to rewrite an existing script that came back to them when their $60m project To The White Sea fell apart in pre-production. Temporarily unemployed, the Coens took on Intolerable Cruelty. If it wasn't as personal as their preceding films, it was nevertheless plotted with their trademark clockwork-like precision and populated by their usual rogues' gallery of characters.

The same can be said for The Ladykillers, but Joel denies that the recent interest in comedy reflects a softening of mood in their advancing years. "That's just what they were. They're both flat-out comedies. That's what the exercise was. Not because it's a direction we're going in, but it's what the movie was generically. Moods are ephemeral and movies take years to make. So it's hard to pin them to movies."

The Ladykillers came about after the Men in Black director Barry Sonnenfeld asked them to rewrite it, for him to direct. This they did, relocating the story from King's Cross to Mississippi. When Sonnenfeld decided to pass, the Coens took it on - one suspects, to prove they could work with stars and turn a profit.

The star in question is Tom Hanks, who plays Professor Goldthwait Higginson Dorr, a cultured fellow steering a gang of crooks. The Coens often use a rep of actors such John Turturro, Steve Buscemi and John Goodman for their films, but Joel argues that using Hanks is no different: "He has become a huge movie star, but he's not Cary Grant. You know what I mean? He's come at it more from a character-actor point of view."

Hanks's character is closest to the equivalent in the 1955 film (played then by Alec Guinness), but the licence the Coens take with the rest of the gang varies wildly in its success. While Ethan has joked that "desecrating" a classic has some appeal, Joel is typically droll when asked what appealed to him about re-writing The Ladykillers. "In terms of re-writing it, nothing appealed to us - that's why we changed it!" he says. "It was an exercise in making it as different as possible. The challenge was simply, when we were originally given the job, to figure out what was going to be the fundamental thing that would make it interesting to us. That was the idea of changing the character that Katie Johnson played in the original from an English landlady to a Southern black Baptist churchlady. In the original, she's a dotty old dear, whereas with our character, we imagined her to be the rock that everyone breaks their heads against."

Admitting that they wanted to preserve the skeleton of the plot, Joel and Ethan have approached the task with some respect for the spirit of original. Their latest film may be their first direct re-working, but the ability to pilfer from others has always given the Coens their kicks. Joel points out that in a "bizarre coincidence" they stole a line from The Ladykillers for Blood Simple, when the private eye shoots his own client, and says: "Who looks stupid now?"

Their films are always exercises in style, language and the mechanics of plotting, and The Ladykillers is no exception. One of its finer pleasures is listening to Hanks get his tongue round some "good verbiage", as Joel puts it. Full of syllable-packed sentences, it is their most linguistically sharp effort since The Hudsucker Proxy.

As Joel points out: "We've made movies with studios since Raising Arizona, which was released by 20th Century Fox, although it was financed by a smaller company. So the process has never changed." With final cut on all their films, in studio terms they are untouchable.

"Part of it is that generally we work with our own material, so why would they want us to do it but then get their hands in it? I think they know. It's different when the studio is doing some teen film. It's a studio product, and maybe in that case the director is driven crazy. But we don't do those kinds of movies."

Such a protestation may, or may not, assuage fearful fans. But the signs are good. While Ethan has agreed to contribute a short film to the proposed portmanteau film Paris, je t'aime, alongside the likes of Woody Allen and Jean-Luc Godard, there will be no painful separation any time soon. They have projects in the drawer - a Roman "idiot" comedy for George Clooney called Hail, Caesar and a Cold War story entitled 62 Skidoo. Joel says they are currently "writing something", but he won't elaborate other than to add: "I don't know where it's going yet."

What he will say is that it will be undertaken "much more in the way we have approached our previous work". It's a pertinent comment. Popping by Hollywood to knock off two comedies which, by usual studio standards, would be considered impressive has in an odd way confirmed their long-held belief that their talents lie in working from material exclusively their own, aloof from everybody but themselves.

'The Ladykillers' opens on 25 June

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