Film Scouts Interviews

Ethan Coen, and Joel Coen on "The Big Lebowski"

by Karen Jaehne

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Other brothers make films together, but Joel and Ethan Coen stand out as the young hipsters. Only a decade ago, they embarked on a subversive path from independent filmmaking to low-budget Hollywood fare with a distinct intellectual edge. Beginning with Blood Simple, they helped launch the White Trash aesthetic, that was picked up by others and continued with their own film, Raising Arizona. Their ironic experiments in genre have produced not only a smashing debut in Blood Simple, but also their gangster love story, Miller's Crossing, and their inside-Hollywood drama, Barton Fink. Fargo was their sweetest, truest and most straightforward film in its portrayal of ordinary people capable of surprising us with extraordinary acts.

Interviewing them makes you feel like a bicycle built for two. One will start a sentence. Sometimes, the other will finish it - or not. They don't always finish sentences. In the following transcript, I've used the dots of an ellipsis ("...") to denote a change of speaker from Jeff to Ethan or back. It's hard to break out from a tape recording, but it should give you an idea of the way they think and express themselves.

Q: When did you conceive of The Big Lebowski?

The Coens: These things are hard to pin down. We work on a script a bit, then work on a different one. We went back to this after making Fargo, but....well, it had been there for a long time.

Q: Why do you keep putting kidnapping episodes in your movies?

Coens: Well, kidnapping is a good device. ....It presents a kind of urgency to the plot, a high-stakes kind of crime....but we don't really think, gee, how can we put kidnapping into this movie?, we don't have an obsession with kidnapping, it's of those things....It's our attempt to do one of those Chandler stories about L.A., y'know, with the kidnapped heiress or.... those are all reasons we came up with after the fact...but when we're writing, we just follow the story wherever it leads us, and if it leads us to kidnapping, well there we are!

Q: The Big Lebowski strikes me as a rather brilliant, daring and brave defense of a certain state of consciousness.

Coens: Yes...yeah, right-on. Well, we thought there was something appealing about this complicated and weird plot being unravelled by a pot-head.

Q: Do you think marijuana should be legalized?

Coens: Uh...well...uh, you mean it's not? ...Actually, the point of view is built into the character of the Dude. It's in the core, the core of the....Yeah, it's about L.A., man.

Q: You couldn't make a pothead movie about a New Yorker?

Coens: It'd be a different thing....Yeah, a really different thing., probably more violent...or not!

Q: What exactly is the relationship between Bunny Lebowski and the German gang?

Coens: Just the pornographic film they made....yeah, just pornography.

Q: They're not in cahoots on the kidnapping?

Coens: Uh, are they?...uh, no, I don't think so...maybe?...No, I don't think so.

Q: The production design in The Big Lebowski is highly original in adapting kitch and very, very funny, which is due, I guess, to Rick Heinrichs. How do you work together?

Coens: Very well, he's great. He loves to take design as far as it will go. He worked on Fargo, and that was really an unsung accomplishment, because we wanted no design. Absolutely nothing. We told him to find the most soul-deadening, flattened locations, and he'd find some dumpy cafe, and we'd say, no, it's too good....Less color, less design, less kitch. Now that can be hard. But one thing he actually made in Fargo was the big Paul Bunyan. For The Big Lebowski, he had lots to do. Everything was made over, the bowling alley....everything!

Q: What's it like working with Roderick Jaynes?

Coens: (they finally laugh out loud - yuk-yuk-yuk) He's getting harder and harder to deal with! Roderick Jaynes is a pseudonym we use for doing the editing ourselves, because we cut our own movies...When we got an editing nomination, we were going to have a friend of Roderick Jaynes accept the award, but the Academy wouldn't let us do that, because of Brando.

Q: You mean they don't allow acceptances to be designated ever since Brando sent a Native American to accept his Oscar and give a political speech.

Coens: Something like that....I guess...

Q: How much input do the actors have into the characters in your films?

Coens: Well, the characters are always the focus of the movie, and we develop them over months and months of talking about them and writing them....We get them down on paper and then turn them over to the actors who are sometimes exactly the people we had in mind when we were working on them....Let's just say, the characters are the result of two things - first, we elaborate them into fairly well-defined people through their dialogue, then they happen all over again, when the actor interprets them.

Q: Roughly how long does it take you to get the script to the point you like it?

Coens: That's really hard to say....It depends on so many things, you never really stop working on it until you start shooting...And even then we do things as we think they're necessary....We tried to do this a few years ago, but people weren't available and....Then they were available and the script was virtually finished, so...Y'know that's how it works with availability and why you have to have several things going on all the time...We're like everybody else in being kind of lazy and taking the path of least resistance and just making the movie that can be made. But you always want to do something basically different from the last thing you did.

Q: Your other movies seem to have a moral or a message at the end. What do you see as the message of The Big Lebowski?

Coens: None....None of them have messages....You see a moral in them? Do we have morals?

It wasn't really over, but that's all for now, folks!

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