The Coen Brothers on No Country For Old Men

The current Oscar frontrunner, the Coen brothers' No Country For Old Men, first wowed audiences at the Cannes Film Festival in May, where The Skinny caught up with them and some of the cast....

Feature by Paul Greenwood | 06 Jan 2008

Set in West Texas in the early 1980s, and based on the novel by Cormac McCarthy, No Country For Old Men is the new film from Ethan and Joel Coen, the brothers responsible for some of the best American films of the last quarter century. What does their latest bring?

"Some people have characterised the film as a western but in our minds, in genre terms, it's closer to a crime story," says Joel. "That is a particularly rich vein as far as our movies are concerned. The book was fascinating because it was almost a pulp novel but it took the genre and did some very unexpected things with it. It didn't fulfil the usual expectations of those kinds of stories. The three main characters never really meet, they just circle each other, and that was unusual and interesting to us."

Audiences seem to be divided between those who think the film is a masterpiece and those who enjoy it but are a little disoriented by the ending. "That's how the book ends," argues Ethan. "That feeling of not having a resolution is how the story ends in the novel. We didn't want to be slavish to the book but we loved it and we wanted to be faithful to the spirit of it."

Joel continues: "Parts of the book are lifted verbatim but they appear in the book as first person ruminations by the sheriff in alternating chapters outside of the action. One of the interesting challenges of adapting the novel was how to preserve that voice. In certain cases we took his words but put them into the context of a scene usually involving the sheriff and the deputy."

As for the humour and the unique Coen style, Ethan says "The humour is what we saw in the book, it's there in the book. There wasn't an ambition to supply any of ourselves; I certainly hope we didn't. Maybe we're more alive to certain parts than other people might be but it all derives from the novel."

"All the decisions that have anything to do with the production in general and style in particular are subject to the ruling factor of the material. You don't look at it in any larger sense. Anything people bring away from the films are not products of conscious design, we look at the story and try to tailor the style to the material."

What were they looking for from the film? "It's refreshing for us to do different kinds of things," says Ethan. "We'd just done a couple of comedies and this being different in tone is part of the reason we did it. As for it being our best film in however many years, it's hard for us to think about it in those terms."

Joel: "One of the pleasures of dong an adaptation as opposed to our own story is that when we do our own story we frequently write for actors that we've worked with before but when you're doing an adaptation the characters are provided by the novel and it's an opportunity to meet and cast new people. There's no one really in it that we've worked with before and that's kind of unusual for us."

As Joel says, it doesn't feature any of the stock players who've been turning up in Coen brother movies for decades: John Turturro, Steve Buscemi, Frances McDormand, Jon Polito. Instead they opted for actors who were "of the region" in the shape of Tommy Lee Jones, Josh Brolin and Woody Harrelson, as well as the "exotic" Javier Bardem. So how did Bardem and Brolin get involved?

"I lied to them," laughs Bardem. "I told them I read it but they don't know that I can't read English. They sent me the script and I said I loved it. That's why I have this look in the movie; it's because I don't know what I'm saying."

Josh Brolin: "Sam Shepard told me that the Coens were making his book into a movie and he hoped they didn't screw it up. I read it in a couple of days but I didn't imagine I was gonna play Llewellyn or Chigurh or anybody. It was brought to my attention that I could audition for it so when I was working on Grindhouse my audition tape was filmed by Robert Rodriguez and Quentin Tarantino during lunch and when it was sent to Joel and Ethan their only comment was 'who lit it?'. So obviously I didn't make much of an impression. I have the greatest agent on earth and I got Ethan's cell-phone number and wouldn't leave him alone. They finally said OK to meeting me."

The most surprising bit of casting comes in the shape of Glasgow's Kelly Macdonald. So how did the Trainspotting star convince the Coens she was, in a manner of speaking, their man? "It took them a while," she says. "They searched high and low before they thought 'the Scottish girl will have to do'. I've got a very good friend who's a dialogue coach and I got a bit obsessive about it and I also really enjoy doing accents. I had a radio documentary that I listened to a lot where everyone was from Lubbock, Texas. They took two months to phone me back."

"It's true," agrees Joel. "We actually resisted meeting Kelly for a while. The casting director said 'there's this really great Scottish actress who wants to come in' and we went 'Scottish?!' I remember the first time she came in and we started talking and she had this Glaswegian accent and we went 'there's no fucking way that this is gonna work….' and it was shocking when she opened her mouth and started doing the Texas accent."

A change in the rules of the Director's Guild of America has meant that the brothers are now co-credited as director of their films, where in the past Joel was director and Ethan was producer. Has anything changed as a result of this? "In reality nothing has changed," says Ethan. "The Guild agreed that we could be credited as co-directors. The distinction was kind of artificial from the get-go so we just made what was unofficially the case officially the case."

Joel continues: "We've always co-directed the movies, but what's interesting, especially in the context of Cannes, is that in the past we've won the best director prize and it's always been the two of us. There's always been a recognition in Cannes that we've co-directed the movies and the fact that it's now reflected in the credits is really just a formal thing. Nothing has changed as far as the work on the set is concerned."

This is echoed by the actors' experience of working with the Coens. "It's kind of strange," says Brolin. "They're like one guy with two heads, but they have an understanding of their own sensibilities that allow them to do what they do. I can't imagine doing it with my brother. It's very subtle, they put a lot of work and a lot of trust in their casting so they don't have to do a lot of work on the set and they can focus on other aspects of making the film." Javier Bardem: "I was truly disappointed when I heard they sleep in separate beds. Did I enjoy working with the Coens? Yes, a lot. Did I enjoy my haircut? No."

Dir: Ethan Coen, Joel Coen
Stars: Josh Brolin, Javier Bardem, Tommy Lee Jones, Kelly Macdonald
Release Date: 18 Jan
Cert: 15