Joel and Ethan Coen rarely watch their own films after they’ve been released, but they couldn’t help themselves Tuesday evening as the New York Film Festival honored the 15th anniversary of their folk-infused adventure comedy, “O Brother, Where Art Thou?” Accompanied by stars George Clooney, Tim Blake Nelson and John Turturro, plus cinematographer and longtime collaborator Roger Deakins, the Coen Brothers joined the audience for every belly laugh and toe-tapping musical number. Over a decade later, “O Brother” and its cast and crew remain just as magical as ever.
“Usually, looking at these things after the fact, especially so long after the fact, most of what you notice is editing [mistakes] I think — editing things you would do just a little differently,” said Joel about re-watching the film. “I just can’t help myself. But I really enjoyed it this time. I hand’t seen it in a long time.”
Taking the stage at Lincoln Center’s Alice Tully Hall to rapturous applause, the group sat down for a wickedly funny Q&A and had no shortage of insights and anecdotes to share. Check out the best highlights from NYFF’s 15th Anniversary of “O Brother, Where Art Thou?” below.
The film is an adaptation of “The Odyssey,” but it didn’t start that way.
Introducing the screening, Film Society of Lincoln Center director Kent Jones jokingly remarked the movie was “the funniest adaptation of Homer’s ‘The Odyssey’ ever made.” The film has its abundance of winning Homer homages — most memorably a seductive trio of creek-bathing sirens and a Cyclops by way of John Goodman wearing an eye patch — but the directors revealed the origins of the movie didn’t begin with Homer’s legendary text.
“It didn’t start with that idea,” said Joel. “It started as a ‘three saps on the run’ kind of movie, and then at a certain point we looked at each other and said, ‘You know, they’re trying to get home — let’s just say this is ‘The Odyssey.’ We were thinking of it more as ‘The Wizard of Oz.’ We wanted the tag on the movie to be: ‘There’s No Place Like Home.'”
By the time it was ready to cast, however, the directors were in full Homer mode. Nelson recalled meeting the brothers at Joel’s house before he even knew about the project. He eyed a copy of “The Odyssey” on his bookshelf. “I guess they were writing it because there was a copy of the fable’s translation — which was the new translation — and there was a Post-it on top of it and it said: Soon to be a motion picture by Joel and Ethan Coen,” the actor said.
Roger Deakins’ digital intermediate work remains revolutionary.
As fans and critics took note of during the film’s initial release, Roger Deakins’ stunning digital intermediate (DI) work on the film sets a high bar for cinematography. The trio decided to go the route of DI because the Mississippi location where they were filming was “greener than Ireland,” as Joel put it.
“We went through the [DI] processes in testing and we tried to do it with film, and it ended up being like six different chemical processes and we never got anywhere close,” said Deakins about his landmark contribution. “The film ‘Pleasantville’ had done some DI work, we got word that people were starting to use the technique on little sections of their film, so we did a test and it worked out quite nice. It took days and days just to do a single shot when we were testing, but we all agreed that the film wouldn’t be in post-production until about six to eight months, so we went ahead and took the chance with it.”
“Eventually, when we did the DI, it took over 11 weeks, so it still wasn’t quick,” Deakins continued. “It was all digitized — what we didn’t want was a traditional sepia — the guys had told me they wanted the feel of an old, faded postcard and particularly to get rid of the greens. Digitally, you can select different colors, and basically there were a number of selections where you could change any color in the image.”
Deakins was rewarded with an Oscar nomination for Best Cinematography, and in a career full of notable loses, his snub for “O Brother” remains the most painful.
Folk music made the set unusually fun for a Coen Brothers movie.
Joel admitted that not all of their productions are fun to be on, but that “O Brother” has always been the rare exception. The reason: Folk music.
“It was great because of the music,” he said. “A lot of the musicians you see in the movie were the musicians that were playing on the soundtrack and working with T. Bone [Burnett]. We had worked with T. Bone before on ‘The Big Lebowski,’ but in a different way. Most of the music was recorded before we started and that part was really fun.”
Featuring music from Alison Krause, Norman Blake, Ralph Stanley and Chris Thomas King, among many others, the film’s original soundtrack won the 2002 Grammy for Best Album of the Year and sold over 7 million copies.
Clooney’s Uncle Jack rewrote the Coen Brothers.
In the night’s most amusing anecdote, Clooney recalled being intimidated by working with the Coen Brothers and unsure of how to play his character. To help guide him with the script, the actor turned to his Southern uncle. “When they sent the script they said, ‘He’s kind of a hick.” I’m from Kentucky, so I sent the script and a tape recorder to my Uncle Jack in Kentucky, and I told him to read all the lines in the tape recorder and send me back the tape recorder,” said Clooney. “He did, and I got it back and he was like, ‘Well, George, I don’t think people talk like that!'”
“The worst part of that is, that after a month or so, I threw the script away and just used the tape recorder. After about two months of shooting, Joel and Ethan come over to me and are like, ‘Let me ask you something, you say every word exactly as written, except you don’t say hell and you don’t say damn. Why do you do that?’ I listened to the tape recorder, and my Uncle Jack is a Baptist from Kentucky and when he told me folks don’t talk like that, he meant they don’t say hell and they don’t damn. He rewrote the Coen Brothers!”
The cast agrees: No directors make movies like the Coen Brothers.
Asked how they would describe their directing style, Ethan hilariously responded, “I think if you visit the set, I think this is how it appears: There’s a guy who is working and making the movie named Roger Deakins, and Roger has two friends who sit around and read the newspaper.”
Speaking seriously, Nelson proudly added, “They write an extraordinary script…and nothing really changes from the script, it’s kind of perfect when you get it. It’s all storyboarded, so they have planned every single shot and it rarely deviates, and that’s the result of meticulous work with Roger and a storyboard artist, amazing production design, which is also meticulously worked through, and an environment on set that is kind of like a perpetual rehearsal. You feel like you cannot fail. It’s so relaxed because so many decisions have been made ahead of time by really diligent, intelligent, careful, no-nonsense people, that it just is this tabula rasa — it’s a blank slate in which you have this incredible script and you can take the kind of chances that actors live to be able to take and we rarely can. But we can with them because of the atmosphere they create.”
“I’ve never worked with any other directors who hold a movie so tightly in their head,” added Deakins. “These guys have their vision of the film right there, all the way through. You can try and trip them up and ask a question about them, but it’s not possible. It’s laid out in their minds. I wouldn’t want to be in their heads sometimes based on what comes out! [laughs]”
The river baptism was the hardest scene to shoot, while the Klan rally was the funniest.
For Deakins, the magical river baptism proved most challenging due to the logistics of pulling off the moment’s rising crane shot. “We had this crane and had to put railway tracks on the ground because it was a very heavy crane, and by the time you got all the timing down — because it starts low and tracks all the way up — all of the actors were up in mud and getting bit by crawfish. It was disgusting!”
“We hired this guy and he came to set with a golf club and what he would do is he would look around for snakes,” added Joel. “If he saw one he would rope it with the golf club and put it in this bag. I asked him what you called somebody with this profession, and he said, ‘An idiot.'”
Switching gears, Clooney and Joel ended the discussion by talking about filming the movie’s infamous Ku Klux Klan rally. “There was a funny moment when we were shooting the Klan scene at night in Los Angeles right below Van Nuys airport. We were trying to picture what the people in the planes flying over would be thinking.”
“What we did was we hired a formation troupe — they were military guys who march,” said Joel. “A lot of those guys were black and they said, ‘This is the freakiest thing!’ The lines to the porta potties had just a bunch of guys holding Klan hoods.”
“By the craft services, table there would be a bunch of black guys with Klan hoods in their hands!” said George, who erupted into laughter and sent the audience home on a high note.