Ethan Coen's movies are kind of hard to describe. And
god bless 'em for that.
The brothers' first feature, 1984's Blood
Simple, can fairly be tagged as a noir-ish thriller -- but that doesn't adequately
convey the movie's absurdist tone or its morbid sense of humor.
And 1987's Raising Arizona is
definitely a comedy, but there's a screwball sense of dread and hysteria running through
it that isn't just funny ha-ha.
Crossing can be accurately labeled a gangster picture, but that doesn't begin to
describe the uniquely stylized netherworld in which it takes place.
And then came Barton Fink, fresh from an
unprecedented sweep of the major awards (picture, director, actor) at the Cannes Film
Festival. And this creepy-funny tale of an ambitious New York playwright who comes to
Hollywood in the early '40s to write a screenplay is the Coen brothers' most deliciously,
provocatively indescribable picture yet.
Click to buy that 'Barton Fink feeling'
"Well, the danger of
describing it as a comedy," says director/co-writer Joel, 36,"is in setting up
an expectation that it's going to be..."
"It's a buddy movie," interjects
producer/co-writer Ethan, 33.
Joel: "Yeah, Ethan likes to call it a
buddy movie for the '90s. I'm not sure what you would call it. John Turturro (who plays
the title character) thinks it's a sort of coming-of-age story. It's like a sort of black
comedy, I guess.
"Well, there is a certain sort of
somber quality to it that you wouldn't associate with a comedy. And people might be sort
of put off by it if they think they're going to see a straight comedy. Yeah, it's hard to
Well, whatever. Let it
suffice to say that Barton Fink does a tantalizing job of confounding an
audience's expectations. On one level it's a pungent satire of Hollywood in the '40s; on
another it's a comic character study of a callow and arrogant intellectual; on yet another
it's a sort of allegorical horror film...
And when Barton is alone in his seedy room
at the Hotel Earle, it resembles nothing so much as Roman Polanski's moody and demented
1976 psychological shocker, The Tenant.
Ethan: "Yeah, it's kind of ironic that
Joel: "...the head of the jury at
Cannes" (where Barton
Fink walked away with so many prizes).
Ethan: "Well, wait. I mean, if you had
to describe (Barton
Fink) generically, you couldn't do better -- not that this is a genre -- but it's
kind of a Polanski movie. It's closer to that than anything else."
Joel: "It's true. And The Tenant
is a movie that we're both familiar with and like."
Ethan: "It's also like the 'Person
Alone in the Room' genre."
Joel: "Yeah, (Polanski's) Repulsion
is sort of like that. There are definitely influences from Polanski, I'm sure."
Ethan: "That was kind of cool, meeting
him at Cannes."
Joel: "He's got his own sense of humor
and it's present in all of his movies, even though you wouldn't call his movies comedies,
Exactly. Not unlike
the films of the Brothers Coen. Although Joel is credited as director and Ethan as
producer on all Coen movies, their collaboration -- like their conversation -- involves
much more give and take than the separate titles would imply.
Joel: "In Cannes, we took a
co-directing credit, because it more accurately reflects what actually happens. For us,
here, the fact that we separate the two credits is fairly arbitrary to a certain
Ethan: "Well, not totally arbitrary. I
mean, Joel talks to the actors more than I do and I probably do production stuff a little
more than he does. But it's largely overlapping."
Joel: "It also sort of stakes out the
territory we want to keep exclusively ours by, in a sense, assigning it to each of us
individually. Psychologically, it's sort of important to us to realize that Ethan produces
the movie and I direct, so, in a sense, we don't want another producer -- or another
director. That's sort of why we keep it separate that way, but it doesn't really reflect
what happens on the set."
Although there are a number of idiosyncratic
filmmakers out there, few get to have their visions released intact by major studios. Even
David Lynch has made Blue Velvet and Wild at Heart (and in 1997, Lost
Highway) for smaller independent companies.
But 20th Century Fox
(under studio president Joe Roth) released Raising Arizona, Miller's Crossing,
and Barton Fink,
through an arrangement with the Washington, D.C., company Circle Films. Circle has
financed all of the Coens' pictures ever since releasing their independently made first
feature, Blood Simple.
Ethan: "We don't have to convince
everybody that the story should go like this and not like that. We haven't had to defend
anything to anybody. We have a really good relationship with Circle Films, who've produced
the last three movies. We just give them the finished script and the budget and they go,
`Yeah, OK. Fine.' "
Joel: "We've been remarkably lucky in
that we've been free to make the movies we've wanted to make the way we've wanted to make
them. They've all been made for a price.
They've all been low-budget
by Hollywood standards. "But that's part of why we've been able to do it that way --
or mostly why. Miller's
Crossing was the most expensive one: about $11 million. Barton Fink was
Some critics and audiences have found the
uncategorizable weirdness of Barton Fink frustratingly off-putting and insular,
as if the Coens were attempting to be strange and obscure just for the sake of being
strange and obscure. But the brothers say it isn't so.
Joel: "It's not a conscious decision to
Ethan: "I think the movie's really
entertaining. We tried to make it that way..." He laughs. "Was there any whining
Joel: "Well, to be fair, we knew that
it wasn't... What's the best way to say this? It's like, we knew that it wasn't going to
be Terminator 2,
you know? So, we weren't surprised that we're not in 2200 theaters.
"But I also don't think it's as
difficult as some people think it is. I mean, some people come out going, `I don't get
it.' And I don't quite know what they're trying to 'get,' what they're struggling
Ethan: "It's a weird story, but it's a
fairly straightforward story that I think can be enjoyed on its own terms... Barton Fink does
end up telling you what's going on to the extent that it's important to know --you know
what I mean? What isn't crystal clear isn't intended to become crystal clear, and it's
fine to leave it at that."
Joel: "But we have had the reaction
where people leave the movie sort of uncomfortable and befuddled because of that. Although
that wasn't our intention to do that. I was going to say that maybe our telling of the
story wasn't as clear as it should have been, but I don't think that's true. In terms of
understanding the story, it comes across.
"The question is: Where would it get
you if something that's a little bit ambiguous in the movie is made clear? It doesn't get
Like The Box, for example? Most filmmakers
would feel they had to reveal what's in the box that Charlie leaves with Barton.
But, of course, this is a movie about how much Barton does not understand
("Empathy requires understanding," Judy Davis drawls to him), so it's much more
fun to leave the box unopened. Indeed, the fact that Barton doesn't open it may be
seen as a sign of a slight maturation on his part.
Joel: "It's almost like a genre rule:
Don't Open The Box."
The ending may be enigmatic,
but it's undeniably right. Barton sits by the sea when suddenly a pelican dives into
the frame and drops into the water in front of him: Plop! The screen goes black.
It's a moment that makes you laugh with delight and gives you shivers, for reasons it may
not be possible (or desirable) to describe. The Coens say it's just part of the way they
Joel: We have an uncanny ability to make
birds do what we want them to do. In Blood Simple there's a shot from the bumper
of a car and it's going up this road and a huge flock of birds takes off at the perfect
moment and crosses (the car's trajectory). And then a second later, their shadows sweep
across the road.
So, once again, the birds cooperated with
the Coens -- and so did the mosquitos that inhabit Barton's hot and sticky room at the
Hotel Earle. And if you think the movie flirts with absurdity, well...
Joel: "We got a letter from the ASPCA
on this movie, or some animal thing. They'd gotten ahold of a copy of the script and
wanted to know how we were going to treat the mosquitoes. I'm not kidding. It's
Fink, which deals with the subject of Barton's writer's block as he's
attempting to write awrestling picture for Wallace Beery, was written when the Coens
themselves were stymied during the writing of the intricately plotted Miller's Crossing.
Ethan: "It was just going really
slowly. It took us areally long time. I guess because the plot was so involved, we just
got sick of it at a certain point. And we decided to take a vacation from it in the form
of writing something else, which turned out to be this."
Joel: "We were about halfway through
and... It's not exactly writer's block, but sometimes you hit a wall in terms of thinking
about the plot or something and it just becomes easier, when we'd get together to write,
to think about something else. That's how Barton Fink happened. And it actually got written
very quickly, in about three weeks. I don't know what that means.
"It's not an enormously complicated
movie from the point of view of, like, the sequence of the plot, the sequence of events or
anything like that....
Ethan: "Miller's Crossing got
sort of intricate and this one, for whatever reason, we just never got hung up."
So, did they know
Fink was headed when they started writing?
Joel: "Roughly, but not exactly."
Ethan: "We sort of knew about the turn
that happens two-thirds of the way through."
Joel: "We had a fairly good idea, early
on in the writing, what the resolution of the main part of the story -- the Charlie and
Barton part -- would be.
Did they steep themselves in
Hollywood lore to come up with the hilarious scenes at the mythical studio, Captiol
Ethan: "We didn't do any research,
actually, at all. Maybe one of the things that contributed to the writing of the script
was that we'd previously read some stuff. There's a really good book called City of Nets,
about German expatriates here (in Los Angeles in the '40s)."
Joel: "It's a book not exclusively
about the movie colony. It's also about the musicians and the writers who came here. It
was a sort of interesting picture of Hollywood in that period. It was one of the things
that started us thinking about Hollywood as a setting. But we didn't go out and do
research beyond it."
Click cover to net this book
The Coens describe
their writing technique as, well, fairly non-structured.
Joel: "He does most of the
Ethan: "Yeah, I usually type, because I
type better. It's incredibly informal. I mean, us writing is basically just us sitting
around in a room, moping for hours.
Joel: "With an occasional burping out
of some pages."
Ethan: "Sort of like our
Each of the Coens'
films has created a world of its own, only tangentially related to reality as most of us
are familiar with it.
And although certain characters in Barton Fink appear
to be modelled after historical figures -- studio boss Jack Lipnick (Michael Lerner) after
Louis B. Mayer; Southern novelist/screenwriter W.P. Mayhew (John Mahoney) after William
Faulkner; and Barton Fink himself after playwright Clifford Odets -- the similarities are
"(John Mahoney) really does resemble
Faulkner, physically," Joel says. "Although, the character in Barton Fink,
obviously -- outside of the physical resemblence and the fact that he's an alcoholic -- he
really doesn't resemble Faulkner very much in any other respect.
"Barton is based on
Clifford Odets (Awake and Sing!) from the point of view of his background, but
it's not really supposed to be... Odets had a much more successful career in Hollywood
The two main roles, of Barton and his
intrusive next-door neighbor Charlie Meadows, were written with John Turturro and John
Goodman in mind. Both actors had worked with the Coens previously -- Turturro on Miller's Crossing
and Goodman on Raising Arizona. (And both actors later appeared in The Big
Lebowski, in parts written for them.)
The Coens say they
came up the idea of Barton's Wallace Beery wrestling picture because they thought it was
funny -- only to find that Beery had indeed made such a movie for director John Ford in
1932, called Flesh.
"We thought it was like a
joke," says Ethan. "It kind of goes past people: 'Oh yeah, wrestling picture.'
We were sort of disappointed that there actually was such a thing. It makes it a little
more pedestrian that it really exists."