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The road less traveled leads to 'No Country'

February 10, 2008|Michael Ordona | Special to The Times

"That is, he's interested in the natural history of that region," Joel says, "and the people who inhabit it are in a sense the flora and fauna and you have to understand them in the context of the region -- even though what I think the story's about in many ways is universal and not limited to that. So that was interesting," he says, adding, "and we knew that area a little bit, which was part of what drew us to the story."

"No Country" is not only the first of the brothers' efforts to cross the $50-million mark domestically; it's cleaning up on the awards circuit, especially for the Coens' writing and direction and Bardem's chilling turn as the cold-eyed, alarmingly coiffed hit man. Wins at the SAG and DGA awards and at the Golden Globes (for Bardem and the screenplay) make the film a front-runner in all three categories at the Oscars.

"It's very strange," says Ethan of the film's success. "You never know."

"I have to say that there were other people who saw early versions and predicted it," says Joel, corroborated by Ethan. "So the reasons may be transparent to some people but they're certainly not to us. We don't understand it."

This, from filmmakers who tried for some time to adapt James Dickey's World War II novel, "To the White Sea," into what they described to Time magazine as "this expensive movie about the firebombing of Tokyo in which there's no dialogue," and which would have starred Brad Pitt.

They're often called "The Two-Headed Director" because they work together so closely, although until 2004's "The Ladykillers" they were compelled by DGA rules to list only one brother (Joel) as director until they acquired a waiver permitting the dual credit. It took them only 20 years and 11 films to apply for it. They don't talk about how they work on set but by all accounts it is a pleasant experience. Clooney, who just completed the upcoming "Burn After Reading," his third film with the directors, says there is lots of laughter as filming progresses. "You can hear them . . . it'll actually screw takes up," the actor says.

Built from the actors up

If anyone needs further evidence that the brothers Coen continue to think outside the box (office), consider how they arrived at "Burn After Reading."

"We wrote down a bunch of actors we wanted to work with," says Ethan: " 'What kind of story would these people be in?' "

They wrote parts for Clooney, Pitt, McDormand and John Malkovich, all of whom are in the film along with Tilda Swinton. But those roles aren't exactly star turns.

"All the characters in 'Burn After Reading' are numskulls," says Joel, "which Malkovich had no problem with; Clooney has never had a problem with . . . " Both laugh. "Brad was initially taken aback. He's very funny in the movie. He grew to love it as much as George does. Each character is dumber than the next. But they're all lovable.

"The original idea was sort of a spy story and does still have the residue of that, in that Malkovich's character is an analyst at the CIA who is fired in the first scene and starts writing a memoir. His story intersects with Fran and Brad, who are, respectively, the assistant manager and trainer at a gym in suburban Washington. So it's about the CIA and physical fitness."

And what of the long-rumored but as-yet only mythical "Hail Caesar"? They allow it would star Clooney as a matinee idol making a biblical epic, then go on to poke at their supposed leading man.

" 'Hail Caesar' is a movie that George Clooney keeps announcing to the press every couple of years, and it doesn't even exist as a script; it's only an idea," says Joel. "We kind of teased George with the opportunity to play another numskull. He was totally up for it. Part of the 'Numskull Trilogy' with George [with 'O Brother, Where Art Thou?' and 'Intolerable Cruelty'].

"After we finished shooting 'Burn After Reading,' I think on the last day, George said, 'OK, that's it, I've played my last idiot.' So we said, 'I guess you won't be working with us again.' " They laugh for a while.

Putting the dimwits in the drawer for now, the Coens' next actual project, union unrest allowing, is expected to be "A Serious Man."

"That's about a Jewish community in the Midwest in 1967, which is sort of reflective of the place we grew up in," says Joel. ". . . That's a hard movie to kind of synopsize."

They laugh again, raising suspicion, and Joel pronounces, "It's a 'domestic drama.' "

The thought of what a Coen brothers domestic drama would look like might intrigue or worry fans, considering their history of bold genre-bending with mixed results. But that they continue to make pretty much whatever they want, wordless World War II epics notwithstanding, is heartening. They're buoyed by the current creative environment, in which unconventional movies they admire, such as "Margot at the Wedding," "The Diving Bell and the Butterfly" and "There Will Be Blood," receive significant support.

"Any time you see great stuff, it's heartening," says Joel. "It makes me feel much better about the state of the industry and the possibilities that exist out there both for seeing more stuff like that from other people, and being able to do interesting work yourself. I actually think it's an indication of how healthy the business is."

"In a totally selfish way," adds Ethan, "forgetting about them, that there's an audience for that -- that Julian [Schnabel] gets money for a blinking movie about a blinking guy's locked-in syndrome, that's kind of great, you know?"

"Because it can be very depressing," says Joel, "when you start to feel like the only things that get made are sequels to action pictures which have established a huge potential for box office, or adaptations of comic books or things like that. Not to say that some of those aren't really interesting, great movies too, but that's the stock-in-trade of Hollywood. And it's good that, despite that, the business is bigger than that."

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