Joel and Ethan Coen (known simply as the Coen brothers) may be two of the most recognizable names in contemporary American cinema, yet they are celebrated for their wholly non-commercial approach to filmmaking.
Their incredibly vast output of work spans a variety of genres, combining cultural and historical references, cinematic homages, dark humor, witty dialogue and various forms of irony. Both are equally known for their writing, directing and editing talents, making them a true filmmaking powerhouse.
In honor of their recently released feature Hail, Caesar!, we take a look at what makes the Coen brothers and their films so fascinating. From the quirky (Fargo, Burn After Reading) and eerie (Barton Fink, The Man Who Wasn't There), to action-packed (No Country For Old Men, True Grit) and everything in between (The Big Lebowski), here we break down Joel and Ethan Coen's cinematic style.
Early life and getting into film
“The movie people let us play in the corner of the sandbox and leave us alone. We're happy here.”
Born and raised in a predominantly Jewish suburb of Minneapolis, Minnesota, the Coen brothers lived a fairly simple and average childhood. Their parents were both professors at nearby universities, their mother an art historian and father an economist. As young kids they saved up money from various jobs in order to buy themselves a Super 8 camera.
They began their early film career remaking movies they’d seen on TV. Joel remarked about the experience, “In the late '60s, when Ethan was 11 or 12, he got a suit and a briefcase and we went to the Minneapolis International Airport with a Super 8 camera and made a movie about shuttle diplomacy called Henry Kissinger, Man on the Go. And, honestly, what we do now doesn't feel much different from what we were doing then.”
“There's no doubt that our Jewish heritage affects how we see things.”
Joel went on to earn a Bachelor’s degree in film at the prestigious New York University undergraduate program, while Ethan finished a degree in philosophy from Princeton. After university they both found themselves in the film scene in New York City, where Joel had a lucky break working as an assistant editor for Sam Raimi on his first feature film, The Evil Dead.
The Coen brothers would remain close friends and collaborators with Raimi, and by 1984 were already working on their first feature Blood Simple – taking on writing, directing and producing roles, which they would commonly do for most films to come.
“[Ethan Coen] once described the way we worked together as: one of us types into the computer while the other holds the spine of the book open flat. That's why there needs to be two of us – otherwise he's gotta type one-handed. That's how you "collaborate" with someone else.”
Visual & thematic trademarks
“We don’t give a shit about people’s sensitivities.”
It is impossible to fit the Coen brothers’ films into a conventional box – they love to redefine genres, mash them together, and produce wholly original stories and characters. Their films exude a certain bizarreness, from the zany characters to the unorthodox situations they find themselves in. They are steeped in a slightly embellished reality, yet full of wild imagination, containing dream sequences, fantasies and delusions.
Dialogue is witty and exaggerated, taking elements from early Hollywood screwball comedies to biblical passages. The Coen brothers are well versed in the history of literature, film and theater, often re-appropriating these American references and elements to fit their modern-day stories.
Camera-wise, the brothers love to mix it up, regularly employing a moving camera, longer lenses with a larger depth of field, accentuated perspective changes, and visual plays between light and darkness. Pre-production is the most important part of the process for the duo; they often storyboard the film entirely, preparing meticulously, yet still allowing for some improvisation and spontaneity while on set.
They have a group of frequent collaborators - most notably composer Carter Burwell and cinematographer Roger Deakins - in whom they place incredible amounts of trust in, allowing for creative liberty. The Coen brothers also prefer to edit their films themselves, yet because of production guild rules must use a pseudonym, always crediting their work as “Roderick Jaynes.”
Casting is essential to their films, which consist of very strong ensemble casts including the likes of Frances McDormand, Steve Buscemi, John Goodman, John Turturro, Jeff Bridges, Josh Brolin, Holly Hunter and George Clooney. They also tend to write roles for specific actors in mind.
“Frequently we are writing characters and we are thinking, 'Wouldn't it be interesting to see such and such play this kind of a person?', and the character starts to grow out of that as you are writing it. It's a combination of things that you are making up and what you know about the actor.”
The following films are not a complete filmography of the duo, yet are a good sampling of their most idiosyncratic, important and highest-achieving films to date. We recommend watching, or re-watching, everything they’ve made in order to better understand their filmmaking.
Blood Simple (1984)
The directorial debut of the Coen Brothers, Blood Simple, was written in the early '80s while Joel was working as an assistant for Sam Raimi and Ethan as a statistician for Macy’s Department Store. It is a neo-noir psychological horror that tells the story of a hired murderer, whose predicament becomes progressively more convoluted and out-of-hand.
The brothers had seen Raimi raise his own money for his first feature film The Evil Dead (an incredibly successful low-budget campy horror film) and decided to write their own script. Raimi served as their mentor on scriptwriting, fundraising and creative choices and the brothers were able to raise 1.5 million dollars from a variety of friends, family and private investors, mostly from the Minneapolis area. A majority of the money went into producing the film and not paying their actors, yet they discovered Frances McDormand, who would go on to earn an Oscar for Fargo, as well as marry Joel the following year.
At the time, they chose to shoot in Texas because of the excellent tax rebates, low wages and burgeoning independent film scene (think Wim Wenders’ Paris, Texas made in the same year, or Robert Rodriguez’s work in the early '90s). It would also be the start of a very long-term collaboration with composer Carter Burwell.
Raising Arizona (1987)
H.I. (Nicolas Cage)
“Biology and the prejudices of others conspired to keep us childless.”
A wild and raucous black comedy, Raising Arizona follows Nicolas Cage as an ex-convict and Holly Hunter as a police officer. After taking his mug shot, they fall in love and plot to steal a famous couple’s newborn baby.
The Coen brothers wanted to follow up their earlier film with a more eccentric and cheerful film. To create a more superfluous dialogue, the brothers used excerpts from the bible and wrote passages in the style of American authors from the South, such as John Steinbeck, William Faulkner, Flannery O’Connor, and Hollywood director Preston Sturges.
Sturges acts as a sort of godfather figure to the Coen brothers, having once sold a script to a studio in the 1930s for a mere $10 in order to direct it. He insisted on creative control – something the Coen brothers take very much to heart.
Complete with offbeat characters and bizarre situations, Raising Arizona was a critical success and confirmed the Coen brothers’ place in the 1980s independent filmmaking scene.
Barton Fink (1991)
"Daylight is a dream if you've lived with your eyes closed."
Barton Fink was the Coen brothers’ surrealist post-modern ode to writers in Hollywood, written while on a break from their previous film, Miller’s Crossing. The film follows Barton Fink (John Turturro), a New York playwright hired to write a Hollywood B-movie script, as he moves to L.A. and lives in the Hotel California. Charlie (John Goodman), an insurance salesman, moves in next-door and everything slowly descends into hell, with the brothers’ characteristic fantasies, dream sequences and ambiguous, yet intellectual symbolism.
The film was actually a box office bust, but a huge critical success, being nominated for several Oscars and winning the Palme d'Or at the Cannes Film Festival. With this film the brothers began their long work relationship with cinematographer Roger Deakins, who would go on to shoot a majority of their films over the next 25 years (despite his agent telling him it would be a bad career choice).
This must-see genre-bending film is imbued with literary, religious and cinematic allusions, and owes much of its style and story to the works of Stanley Kubrick, Preston Sturges, Roman Polanski, John Keats, William Faulkner and Dante Alighieri.
It happened to be pure luck that the Coen brothers shot Fargo before The Big Lebowski, as they had both scripts finished and ready to shoot but had to wait for Jeff Bridges while he was busy on another shoot. Frances McDormand (having had the role written specifically for her) plays Marge Gunderson, a pregnant Minnesota police chief hero, who's investigating the inept crimes of Jerry Lundegaard (William H. Macy) and his bumbling henchman (Steve Buscemi).
An instant cult classic, the film mixes a beautiful Norwegian score by Carter Burwell with vast, snowy landscapes (unfortunately they couldn’t film in Fargo due to the mild winter, yet the Coens love its simple and pleasant name). Characters express themselves in typical local dialect and behavior (known colloquially as “Minnesota Nice”) and the film came to be seen as the Coen brothers’ first mainstream success, spawning a recent TV series executive produced by the brothers.
The Big Lebowski (1998)
Probably the most well known Coen brothers’ film, The Big Lebowski, has attained cult status over the years since its release, even giving rise to a religious movement called Dudeism, or The Church of the Latter-Day Dude, with some 220,000 members. It's described as a “philosophy that preaches non-preachiness, practices as little as possible and above all, uh … lost my train of thought there.”
The story and characters are based off an amalgamation of people the Coen brothers have met, with influences in style and dialogue from Raymond Chandler’s novels and Robert Altman’s films. John Goodman, John Turturro and Steve Buscemi had roles written directly for them, while it was Jeff Bridges’ natural chemistry with the other characters that persuaded the Coen brothers that he was perfect for the role.
To style the Dude, Bridges even chose clothes from his own wardrobe. On set, he would often ask the Coen brothers, “Did the Dude burn one on the way over?”, then proceed to rub his eyes to make them bloodshot. With a strong ensemble cast, eclectic Carter Burwell soundtrack, stylized dream sequences, anachronistic production design, and witty, rambling dialogue full of curses (260 F bombs!), the film itself was a commercial and critical success, tripling its 15 million USD budget in profit.
O Brother, Where Art Thou? (2000)
This adventure comedy follows a group of convicts on an epic journey, that's loosely based off Homer’s Odyssey (which incidentally neither of the Coen brothers had fully read) and Preston Sturges’ Sullivan’s Travels. The film has become most famous for its beautiful country and folk soundtrack - selected and partially produced by folk musician T-Bone Burnett - and also went on to win 2001’s Grammy Album of the Year.
This film was also significant in that it was the first time any feature film had been entirely digitally color corrected; the reason being that cinematographer Deakins couldn’t find the perfect hues while shooting in the Mississippi woods, so he worked tirelessly in post-production for the ideal sepia-tinted feel.
No Country for Old Men (2007)
Based off Cormac McCarthy’s dark novel of the same name, this film was an unusually precise adaptation of the book, set in a vast desert landscape reminiscent of Western classics, specifically Sam Peckinpah’s films. The style and mood the brothers were able to create is a beautifully accurate rendition of McCarthy’s savage and somber literary world.
Cinematographer Roger Deakins has said about the film, “There's maybe only a dozen shots that are not in the final film. It's that order of planning. And we only shot 250,000 feet, whereas most productions of that size might shoot 700,000 or a million feet of film. It's quite precise, the way they approach everything."
Touching upon themes of violence, conscience, greed and fate, the film is considered the brothers’ most refined work, earning them their first Oscar for Best Picture and Best Director(s) and officially sealing their names in cinematic history.
On whether or not Cormac appreciated the adaptation, Ethan has said, “He didn't yell at us. We were actually sitting in a movie theater/screening room with him when he saw it... and I heard him chuckle a couple of times, so I took that as a seal of approval, I don't know, maybe presumptuously."