Joel and Ethan Coen on how they turned Hollywood history into the hysterical ‘Hail, Caesar!’

I still get nervous about certain interviews.

It's human. I love movies dearly, and have since I was young, and when I talk to filmmakers who I respect enormously, I tend to either talk waaaaaaay too fast or just overcomplicate my questions. Once things start, though, a good conversation is a good conversation, and I relax into things. That's particularly easy when you're talking to someone who give back as good as they get, and that's the Coen Brothers in spades.

Three quick points before we dig in. First, enjoy Backstory, a new video series we're doing here at HitFix in which I pull back the curtain a bit on the stories that went unreported or untold over the last 25 years while I've been working here in LA. While I spoke to the Coens about To The White Sea during our interview, we didn't get into the impact that the film's implosion had on them, something that I heard repeatedly from people close to them at the time. I go into that in further detail in the video.

Second, there was a firestorm of online controversy last week over an interview between Jen Yamato and the Coens, and I think the entire controversy was ridiculous. I sometimes feel like I read a piece, then read the way people react, and I can't connect the response to the thing I read in any way. She asked a question, she got an answer, she wrote it up. Some people attacked Yamato for asking the question, and others attacked the Coens for their answer.

Go read the actual piece. It's not diversity that the Coens have an issue with; it's the Oscars. It's the entire system of treating awards like they are the finish line in art. And you know what? Good for them. There's a reason my deal with HitFix when I joined was that I would not be writing about any of the awards, and it's a simple one: I don't care, and I hate any emphasis on them. I've explained why in print before, and I've heard some very reasonable explanations from the other end of things.

However, when Yamato (a good reporter who I like and respect) pushed the issue further with them, the Coens clearly wanted to focus on the story they did tell and the film they made, not hypotheticals about filmmaking in general, and their responses to her have been taken wildly out of context to make it sound like they don't care about diversity in film at all. I think people need to take a step back and realize that real diversity in film comes when people get to tell the stories that are important to them, and in the way they choose to tell them. The key to seeing better representations of minority voices in film is to create space for those voices to tell their own stories, not to tell other filmmakers to tell their stories for them. It's not about telling the Coen Brothers what stories to tell; it's about creating room for there to be a black Coen Brothers or an Arab Coen Brothers or the lesbian Coen Sisters or whoever. It's about finding and encouraging more voices, and that's something that has to be addressed with the people writing the checks and making the choices at the studios or the financing companies. The Coen Brothers aren't holding anyone back by telling the stories they're telling. They started in independent cinema, and they've been working for 30 years now as writers and directors to tell the stories they want to in the way they choose.

The final point goes out to people who want to play “gotcha” instead of actually understanding what someone says. I recently stepped in it myself when I wrote about why I won't be doing on-camera junkets anymore, and I meant everything I said in that piece. I've been very clear with the publicists who reach out to us that we're interested in doing things in a different way now, and I think there are some exciting things coming together this year. When we were contacted about the Hail, Caesar! press day, I put in a single request: Joel and Ethan Coen together, and not just for five minutes. Universal gave me 20 minutes with them. When I showed up on time, things were running early, and Universal put me right into the room. I mentioned the interview in my review of the film last week, and Lt. Columbo popped up in the comments to point out that I had obviously interviewed them at a junket. Oh, boy. You blew the lid off the case. Yes. I did exactly what I said in the junket piece, and I conducted a longer, more conversational interview. J'accuse, indeed.

Joel was seated across from me while Ethan was up and pacing the entire time. You need to have seen the film to get anything out of the interview, though, because the Coens will dig in and give you a real answer about process or performance or theme if you want to have that conversation with them. You can see the dance number we're discussing as things began embedded at the bottom of this story.

DREW MCWEENY: I wanted to start by talking about the Channing Tatum musical number. It is beautifully staged, and as a fan of classic musicals, I love the choices you make and the gags you build. The tablecloths, the bottles on the bar. It's built as well as any of the classic musical numbers.

JOEL COEN: Oh, thanks! Yeah, it was fun to do, and tough, because the ideas for it and the choreography didn't really develop until after we had started shooting the movie. It was kind of a black hole in the production, but…

ETHAN COEN: We knew we were shooting it last because of Channing's schedule, and we didn't quite know… I mean, it was a hole in the script. “There's a production number.”

JC: Right. “He dances, and then he walks over.” So what are we going to do? So it kind of came together as the movie was in production, and Chris [Gattelli, the film's choreographer] came in while the movie was in production to talk about the idea of what it was going to be, and…

EC: Frankly, it was kind of conceived in semi-panic, because we had a stage reserved and [production designer] Jess Gonchor kept saying, “I've got to start building something.”

DM: (laughs)

JC: No, really. Literally. “What am I building?” We finally told him, and he built that set very quickly. And it's a beautiful set.

EC: Oh, it's great.

JC: He built it so we could pull the floor apart, and we told him we would need that as an element in it, and essentially where we needed to look and where we didn't need to look. And all of that came together as we were shooting and, as Ethan said, a little bit conceived in panic, but we're happy with the way it came out. Even the shooting plan for it wasn't until… remember when they had rehearsed it?

EC: Yeah.

JC: They rehearsed it fairly rigorously, and then we came in to figure out what the shots were going to be only a few days before. Roger [Deakins, the cinematographer] only had a few days to figure it out.

EC: And the norm for us is that we storyboard the movie before we start the first day of shooting, so this was definitely different.

DM: I always think shooting dance is a sort of test of a filmmaker. Do you shoot the dancer, or do you shoot around him? And you guys really let Channing fill the frame. You shoot him the way they shot Gene Kelly, head to toe.

JC: Yeah, that's true about the full frame, actually. That's really true.

EC: So true. You look at the shitty modern versions of that, and it's chopped up body parts.

JC: We're gonna cut to the feet. We'll cut to the head. We'll cut to the hands. That's definitely not what we wanted to do. We wanted to shoot that old style where you're really seeing the dance by seeing the whole dancer.

DM: There's a cheeky affection to all of the Hollywood stuff in the film, from Channing's introduction to the singing cowboy stuff in the film within the film, and it feels like you've worked in quite a bit of real Hollywood lore. Like the… is it Loretta Young?

[This is in reference to the storyline involving DeeAna Moran, Scarlett Johansson's character, who finds herself pregnant and unmarried, which leads the studio to suggest that she give the child up, then adopt it in public to cover up the scandal, something which actually happened to Loretta Young.]

JC: (laughs) Yes.
EC: (same time) Yes.

DM: I love how you solved it different here, but I love the real story as well. It's a crazy story.

JC: It's completely nuts. To take something like that, which is true and kind of completely nuts and one of the only true stories in the movie… to take that story and drop it into the everyday business of Eddie's world was fun.

DM: Lots of people have tried to make fixer movies, and I've read a lot of scripts that are sort of darker dramas about this. I love that Josh is so decent in this. He's normally cast in a certain way, and Eddie Mannix is really decent in this. He's just trying to make sure they make good pictures and everyone's okay.

JC: Yes.
EC: (same time) Yes.

JC: Yes. Unlike the real Eddie Mannix, he is as pure as the driven snow, and he's meant to be a sympathetic guy who's struggling with his own spiritual and life issues.

EC: And trying to do a good job.

JC: And trying to be a good person.

DM: I love your work with Roger and the specific look of this film. It's not as pushed a reality as some of your work with him, like O Brother or Lebowski, but it feels very much like it's of the era, like something Eddie Mannix would release.

EC: This harkens back to a period when they couldn't do any of the sort of extreme DI that we do with Roger sometimes. They just couldn't do it.

JC: It was a photochemical time. There was a certain kind of lighting, some of which we tried to imitate or replicate or…

DM: Your matte paintings are beautiful. Like the one of the studio.

JC: I think actually one of the drops in the film is a real one from the era, the one in the courtyard, and then we made some other drops that were more like tributes. Oh, wait, I think when Clooney does his speech at the end, I think that's a period drop as well. All the skies in the submarine scene are painted backdrops.

DM: That's beautiful stuff. That scene… I love that “shot on a tank” look.

JC: It's really is. It's true. It's a very particular thing.

DM: With Clooney, I think there was a moment where Hollywood wanted to put him in the “action star” lane, and I know he's got that JFK back so that was never fully an option. But you guys… you unleashed his inner goofball.

JC: (starts laughing)

DM: When you get hold of him, there's something crazy about what you do with him. You use his gravitas to deflate him at every turn.

JC: (still laughing) That's definitely true. George really enjoys that, because George is a.. he's a really great actor, but he doesn't have a movie star's vanity. He's totally game to play the goofball, or if we tell him, George, you're going to play another idiot here, he's fine with that.

EC: And remember… he's got to have that gravitas so he can pull off that speech at the end.

JC: He did that so well. He knew that in that speech, he had to show the audience why he was a movie star as opposed to just being the goofball character he is in the rest of the film. We had to see that there's something he can do when the camera's on that most people can't do.

DM: It's interesting. When you're making a film, you're not thinking about what anyone else is making or what's coming out at the same time that you're coming out, I would guess… but your film coming out just on the heels of Trumbo is sort of delightful.

JC: Because of the blacklist, you mean?

DM: Certainly, and everything you're playing with. Once you reveal who The Future is and what they're doing, and you see how willing Clooney is to be flipped as soon as he starts talking to them… (starts laughing) It's just a great crazy answer to their film by accident.

JC: There was something amusing to us about saying that the writers of the era who were suspected of infiltrating the system by disguising Communist content sub rosa in their pictures… wouldn't it be amusing if we see them and they say, “Oh, yes, that's what we've been trying to do”…

[At this point, the three of us sort of dissolved into laughter for a moment, and I was in particular rolling. It really is my favorite thing about the movie.]

JC: … “and we're really good at it!”

[More helpless laughter from me, and more of them laughing, no doubt, at how hard I was laughing.]

JC: And each time we come back, he's just more relaxed in that house.

DM: Can I ask you about a film of yours that did not happen? It remains one of my favorite scripts, and that's To The White Sea.

JC: Yeah.

DM: Is there any chance you'd ever get back to it? Dickey's work was already such a clean piece of writing, and that opening speech felt like he wrote it for you guys. It's like the opening scene of Miller's, a sort of perfect mini-movie monologue.

EC: “Fire.” The one about putting it in his pockets and in his hair.

JC: Yeah. That's a good speech. Look, we were doing it with a very interesting producer named Jeremy Thomas, who had worked with some filmmakers we loved, and we came close. The whole thing was a little benighted in the first place because it was an attempt to do something that was, by virtue of the story, very large, but it was an art film. Or it felt like that. You never know with these things. You never know if that's how it will come together or if it'll be commercial or anything else. Anyway, Jeremy came close to raising the  money, but we just couldn't quite get there. I mean, it's set during the firebombing of Tokyo. It was massively expensive.

DM: There's one scene in your script, where the plane is sort of playing peekaboo in the clouds with Muldoon, and then they get shot down, and on the page, it felt a lot like the way the script for Bridge of Spies handles the shooting-down of the U2 spy plane. Or at least the way Spielberg shot that…

JC: Oh, that was a really well-shot sequence in Bridge of Spies.

EC: Yeah.

JC: I love that fact that the plane sort of explodes through the oculus of the parachute. He's great at that stuff. Yeah, aerial combat scenes… that's something that would be big fun as a director. That would have been fun. We're very lucky, though. Out of all of the films we've tried to make over the last 30 years, that's the one that got away. Everything else got made.

DM: Is it just a matter of timing on some of the scripts? Do you have things that linger and then snap into focus at a certain moment?

JC: Sometimes. Sometimes, it's about getting the right cast and waiting for everyone to be available and getting schedules to work.

DM: It feels like everybody came to play in this one.

JC: This was so much easier because this one… first, we were shooting in Los Angeles where a lot of these people live, and we were only asking, with the exception of Josh and George, we were only asking these people to fly in for a week or two between other time commitments. So we were able to put together a cast and arrange their schedules in a way that, in another world, might have been much more difficult.

EC: Channing rehearsed for a few weeks before he shot, but he was the exception.

DM: That dance sequence is so precise. That moment where he's trying to get out of the bar and the guys stop him, and he's so good now at selling comedy…

JC: Well, he's always been a great dancer. He came up through those Step Up movies, which are a very different kind of number and dancing. I think the tap thing was intriguing to him and challenging because it's not what he does. He's just a natural dancer. And Chris from the beginning said he wanted to push Channing to learn something new.

DM: Scarlett's also someone who seems like they're getting more and more sure of their own range as they get older.

JC: She's a riot.

EC: Like the other people you mentioned, she's just naturally good.

JC: She knew exactly what that role needed. Even with the swimming stuff, when we were first talking to her about it, she was like, “Yeah, yeah, I know. I go up to the ceiling and I do the dive of death.” Like it was nothing. “Yeah, I know. I'll be fine.”

DM: And with all of these names in the cast, right in the middle of it, you have Alden, who is so good and so charming.

JC: Alden is fantastic. That was just casting. We saw lots of people for the part. He was one of many, many young actors who came in and auditioned. He had to read that scene with Ralph [Fiennes], where he can't say the line, and that's a really, really hard thing to do. It's hard to play someone who isn't able to be a good enough actor to play that difficult line the right way. He's got a great fish out of water thing in that scene, and he was great with Ralph.

DM: Ralph seems underused as a comic actor until recently.

JC: I think in a lot of what he does, there's an underrated comic quality. He was very funny in God Of Carnage. It's not exactly a comedy, but he did it in London, and he was very, very funny in that part, even if it's not a comedy.

DM: When did you decide to have Tilda play both of the sisters?

EC: I don't know. It just seemed like the funnest things to do. I'm sure influencing it was that Abigail Van Buren and Ann Landers, the famous gossip columnists, were identical twins.

JC: Were they? Were they identical?

EC: Yeah.

JC: I know they were sisters.

EC: They were twins. At least, I think they were twins.

JC: They were twins?

As the Coens debated this point, Universal's publicists let me know that our time was up. There were at least ten other things I wanted to discuss with the guys, like their extreme fondness for using kidnapping as a plot device, but there's never enough time when you're talking to filmmakers like these.

Hail, Caesar! is in theaters now.