There’s a reason the Coens make a lot of comedies. They’re funny. Read one of their inimitable scripts or see “Burn After Reading,” “Raising Arizona,” or “The Big Lebowski,” and you’ll be howling with laughter. Even their “serious” movies are pretty funny. “Hail, Ceasar!” is an out-and-out comedy in the vein of such other period valentines as “The Hudsucker Proxy” or “O Brother, Where Art Thou?”
So it’s no surprise that hanging out with them in a relaxed way is a huge amount of fun, even if it doesn’t amount to much in the way of a ground-breaking 15-minute interview. The pattern is the same. Joel sits down and tends to lead the answers, while Ethan paces around and jumps in with additions, curlicues and comments. And they often laugh at each other. They crack each other up. And me.
Josh Brolin and George Clooney are front and center in this homage to 50s Hollywood. Brolin is straight man Eddie Mannix, the studio fixer at Capitol Pictures (shot on the Warner Bros. lot), who is constantly trouble-shooting productions, saving errant stars from the tabloids—or rival twin gossip columnists deliciously played by Tilda Swinton—and trying to be a better man. While he puts on a strong front in public, we see him constantly confessing his sins to a priest.
Mannix cares for his debauched children, from a pregnant swimming mermaid (Scarlett Johannson) who needs to get married and a hopalong cowboy trying to speak proper English in a drawing room comedy (Alden Ehrenreich) to his “Hail, Caesar!” movie star Baird Whitlock (Clooney) who has been kidnapped by a gang of disgruntled Communist writers. When Mannix finally gets Whitlock back, he earnestly spouts the Communist propaganda he has learned. That’s when Mannix slaps him silly. Yes, the Coens are in silly mode here, affectionately honoring their forebears as they struggle to do them proud, with varying success. Shooting the film turned out to be harder than they thought.
Anne Thompson: I’ve been asking you about this movie since “O Brother, Where Art Thou?” George always said he would do it.
Ethan Coen: That’s why we did it, so you would quit bugging us! Soon after we met, he said he would do it, and then we decided to call his bluff.
Joel Coen: You and George, who kept announcing we were making the movie. We got so sick of it we said, “all right let’s make it!”
But you hadn’t written the script! What did you start off with?
Joel: We didn’t write the script until we were done with “Inside Llewyn Davis” and then we thought, “OK!” We knew it was about a movie star who gets kidnapped, but we didn’t know who kidnapped him or why. At the time we mentioned it to George, we knew there was a Hobie Doyle character, a western actor who had to do a drawing room drama. That was an early idea before we wrote the script. Pretty much beyond that we knew it was the day in the life, 24 hours, of Eddie Mannix. We knew who he was, knew he wasn’t really going to be like the real Eddie Mannix, but a character named Eddie Mannix who had his job.
WATCH: Josh Brolin on His Christ-Like Character in the Coens’ ‘Hail, Cesar!’
Mannix is a great role for Josh Brolin, who shows his vulnerable side in the confessional.
Joel: Yah, you see him struggling, that’s true, those scenes were important. They set him up in the beginning as that person and see him in the end struggling with the right thing to do.
Ethan: Josh is fantastic; people underestimate his range. It’s hard: he has to ground the whole movie, every scene is with some great theatrical character. He has to keep it together in every respect.
Joel: He’s the straight man. It’s hard to be the straight man and still make a big impression.
I understand the slapping scene got out of hand?
Ethan: Is that what the actors saying?
Joel: It didn’t get out of hand, it was fine.
Ethan: The slapping scene was unremarkable. We’ve done that a lot, people taking punches and slaps, whatever.
In the period Hollywood Coen movies, where does this fall in terms of genre?
Joel: It’s closer to “Hudsucker” or “O Brother” than other ones we’ve done; it’s a broader comedy, but generically in the broader sense it doesn’t fit in anywhere, it’s a weird movie!
You wrote a lovely homage to Hollywood but it must have been a bear to execute.
Joel: Yeah, “this will be fun!” then we got on set and it was “this will an enormous pain in the ass and a huge amount of work.” The Busby Berkeley thing was really enormously complicated: 32 swimming women doing a kind of synchronized swimming that nobody does anymore— they didn’t know how to do it either. And how do you light it, where do you shoot it?
Ethan: In a weird way you look at Esther Williams movies because there’s no other information, because they only made them for that period of time. You find yourself having to address their problems and literally find yourself back where they were, in the tank at MGM/Sony, which is the only tank with ceiling heights so you can get the camera up there. Thank God it’s still there!
Logistically, you made a whole series of movies.
Ethan: It was very schizophrenic in terms of production: every week was a different movie, but you know, stimulating. Some people would say crazy. I’d say, stimulating.
Were you recreating the old ways of doing things?
Joel: It was a combination of that and using modern computer technology that didn’t exist then, but we tried to do as little of that as possible.
Ethan: To the extent we could figure out what they did!
Joel: Yes! What did they do? A lot of of it you don’t fucking know! Seriously. They made 17 [Esther Williams] movies over 20 years, the people are all dead, nobody seems to know anything, like what the opacity of the water should be, or how to light from above without reflections in the water.
You used huge fountains!
Joel: They had huge fountains.
Ethan: But I don’t remember them looking directly at the lens.
Was cinematographer Roger Deakins helpful? He’s a veteran.
Ethan: He wasn’t around then! He had to figure it out, it was a real challenge.
Do you still shoot in 35 mm? Have you ever shot digital?
We shoot in 35 mm, no, no digital.
Deakins could finally win the Oscar this year?
Joel: He could have won any of the years he’s been nominated, like 11, 12 times? Gee, I hope he just wins the fucking thing!
Ethan: Even Roger is over it now, who cares?
Joel: Is there any year Roger isn’t nominated?
Were you evoking noirish Hitchcock with the gorgeous big bay with a modern cliffside home in the moonlight?
Joel: We wanted it to look like “North by Northwest”; that’s a combination of a digital matte painting and some elements of vehicles and the water. The submarine was another huge thing, in a tank, with painted backdrops.
You borrowed the Russian choral music from “The Hunt for Red October”!
Ethan: Did they use the Red Army Choir? It’s some phenomenon of evolutionary theory, where different people converge on the same end point independently.
You went to town with your angry Communist writers, you indulged that scene.
Joel: That’s grazing in the high grass; everyone likes writers.
Ethan: The actors understood that “we’re writers, we’re pathetic.”
As writers you are far from the pathetic category, writing scripts for Spielberg and Angelina Jolie.
Ethan: A writer by definition is pathetic.
Joel (laughs): We like being writers; we’re not above poking fun at writers, it’s too easy.
Ethan: The “shut up” guy! The guy with a camera, Alex Karpovsky was fantastic, he was in “Inside Llewyn Davis.”
Joel: They all bonded in a funny way, they’d keep in touch after the movie was over. We created a little cabal that survived the actual production of the movie.
Did you use everything you wrote?
Joel: At the end of the movie we maybe thought we should show the Channing Tatum character in Moscow in a very long line for toilet paper.
Ethan: And we had Mannix walking by a soundstage as they were shooting a musical. Josh’s character, we draft him in the dance line, trying to teach Eddie Mannix how to dance, like Peter Boyle in “Young Frankenstein” doing “Putting on the Ritz.”
Mannix maintains a certain purity.
Joel: We never make a fool out of him. So maybe that was the right choice.