September 15, 2008 in Features

Coens love their characters dumb

By Bill Goodykoontz Gannett News
Associated Press photo

Associated Press Joel and Ethan Coen
(Full-size photo)

You can’t interview the Coen brothers without some trepidation.

Supposedly they don’t care much for interviews. They are of such like minds that they finish each other’s sentences. They don’t suffer fools gladly. Stories any movie fan has heard before.

Well, maybe. They were here for the Toronto International Film Festival with their latest movie, “Burn After Reading.” It’s a knucklehead comedy about CIA intrigue, sort of, and relationships, sort of, and mostly stupidity – something at which big-name stars such as Brad Pitt and George Clooney don’t hesitate to portray.

Q: You guys have no trouble getting actors to do really stupid things.

Joel: Yeah, that’s true. I think that we’re lucky that they let us abuse them that way.

Q: Does it ever go too far?

Joel: Well, no. Not in the sense that you’re second-guessing your own fundamental decisions. There’s always a point when you’re on the set or doing a scene or something where you try to keep everything in the same world, or just make sure that whatever anybody is doing … that you’re all trying to tell the same story the same way with the same tone.

Q: At the end of “Burn After Reading,” a character asks, “What do we learn?” So what do we learn?

Ethan: I … well, geez … I don’t think the movie’s a learning experience.

Joel: You learn what happens to the characters.

Q: Just how dumb are these characters, really?

Ethan: They’re all kind of deluded, even (John) Malkovich’s character, (a CIA analyst), in his own way. Yeah, they’re pretty dumb.

Joel: The one who’s the least in a way is Tilda (Swinton, who plays Malkovich’s wife), but she has to be a little bit (dumb) just for hanging around with Clooney (with whom she’s having an affair). Something’s definitely wrong. But she’s less sort of aggressively (dumb) – in fact, sort of calls some of the other characters on their idiotic behavior. She’s the most grounded, for sure.

Ethan: Most grounded, and the angriest, yeah.

Q: Your movies tend to have people spiraling out of control, but you’re both directors who revel in control. How do you resolve that?

Joel: It’s good for a story, you know? And it’s bad for a movie set, things spinning out of control. Because a movie set is a logistical campaign, involving lots of people and a lot of different elements that have to run smoothly. Although there are directors who thrive creatively on a certain amount of chaos, we are just temperamentally not that way, and tend to, I think, to whatever extent we can, keep the machine running smoothly.

Ethan: In a story, if everything’s running smoothly, there’s kind of no story.

The birthday bunch

Actor Jackie Cooper is 86. Actor Forrest Compton (“Gomer Pyle USMC”) is 83. Comedian Norm Crosby is 81. Actor-sportscaster Merlin Olsen is 68. Actor Tommy Lee Jones is 62. Movie director Oliver Stone is 62. Drummer Mitch Dorge of Crash Test Dummies is 48. DJ Kay Gee (Naughty By Nature) is 39. Drummer Allen Shellenberger of Lit is 39. Actor Josh Charles (“In Treatment”), actress Amy Davidson is 29.

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