The Coens Speak (Reluctantly)
by Doug Stone
The rascally Coen brothers have never been the best interview subjects, possibly because
they rankle at the constant questions about their relationship with each other. (When asked
by Elle magazine, “Do you guys ever fight?” Joel Coen replied, “That’s not an interesting
question.”) So it can be a somewhat painful experience to see the brilliant siblings in a
hotel hospitality suite being bombarded with questions from a dozen journalists about
everything except their movies. Awkward silences, long pauses, and a
couple of audible groans were among the responses to various questions.
But when the topic of conversation narrows to specific questions about their hilarious new film
“The Big Lebowski” starring Jeff Bridges (as “The Dude”, a doobie smoking burn-out who
gets mixed up in a wacky kidnapping scam), the boys open up (just a bit). The movie, which also
stars John Goodman, Julianne Moore and includes an hysterical cameo from John Turturro, returns
the Coens to the comic-genius territory of “Raising Arizona.”
indieWIRE: You majored in philosophy at Princeton.
What is your philosophy of filmmaking?
Ethan Coen: Oooh-I don’t have one. I wouldn’t even know how to begin. You’ve stumped
me there. None that I’ve noticed. Drawing a blank on this one.
iW: How much did “The Big Sleep” influence “The Big Lebowski”?
Joel Coen: We wanted to do a Chandler kind of story – how it moves episodically, and deals with
the characters trying to unravel a mystery. As well as having a hopelessly complex plot that’s ultimately
Ethan: And there was something attractive about having the main character not be a private eye,
but just some pothead intuitively figuring out the ins and outs of an elaborate intrigue. And then
there’s Walter, whose instincts are always wrong.
iW: Why is kidnapping a favorite theme of yours?
Ethan: It just turned out that way. I don’t know why kidnapping has figured into three of
our movies. Not because of any personal obsession.
iW: Did you ever run around with the kinds of Los Angeles
bowling-dope-smoking types that are depicted in the film?
Joel: To tell you the truth, we’re still tourists in LA. We have lived there for short periods
of time, but we’ve always really lived in New York. But the character of the Dude is based on a member
of an amateur softball league, but we changed it to bowling because it was more visually compelling,
and it’s the kind of sport you can do while you’re drinking and smoking. And it’s also very retro –
just as the characters are products with an earlier time, it seems that there’s so much associated
with bowling in terms of design, and specifically in LA.
iW: Is Jeff Dowd one of those types?
Joel: Yeah, Jeff Dowd [an indie producer’s rep and friend of the Coens]
is certainly one of those types that the Dude is based on…
iW: What’s the attraction of setting the film specifically in 1991?
Ethan: Well, setting the film during the Gulf War was an opportunity to have Walter gas about something-
Joel: That’s the main reason.
Ethan: And it’s more attractive to make something time specific than just present day, because-
Joel: -because just what is present day?
iW: What will you do if you ever win an Oscar for editing? [The
Coens edit their own films under the credited pseudonym Roderick Jaynes, a fictional British film editor
who supposedly hates their work.]
Ethan: We actually had a discussion with the Academy about that. Proxies can’t accept anymore
after Marlon Brando queered it for the rest of us.
iW: Did you set out on this movie to teach America what Nihilism means?
Ethan: (laughs) Nihilism strikes a terrible chord in Walter [John Goodman’s character] who is
particularly horrified by it.
Joel: (bitterly sarcastic) Everything’s a lesson for America.
[Doug Stone is a filmmaker, and singer in the dark polka band, “Pinataland”. He is also a segment producer for the
IFC’s flagship show, “Split Screen” and is currently working on a film about his brother’s vacation in Vietnam.]