Joel Coen: ‘As far as movie executives are concerned, the bottom line is just the dollar’

Ahead of the release of Hail, Caesar!, their affectionate satire of Hollywood’s Golden Age, the Coen brothers explain why diversity at the Oscars isn’t the awards’ responsibility, and how they can only write what they write

PUBLISHED : Friday, 04 March, 2016, 5:01am
UPDATED : Monday, 13 June, 2016, 12:45pm

In conversation, as in their work, sibling filmmakers Joel and Ethan Coen are known for a kind of uncanny symbiosis. Their sentences run together as effortlessly as they divide the writing, directing and producing duties they have shared over the course of 17 feature films. So it seems reasonable, at the start of a conference call interview, to ask that each brother identify himself before speaking.

“This is Joel talking,” a disembodied voice says with an sigh. “But we don’t care if you misinterpret. We really don’t. It’s not an issue. You can say whoever you want is saying it.”

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“You can say you’re saying it,” chimes in Ethan, amid what sounds like cackling laughter. Back to Joel: “You can make stuff up if you want. We don’t care. It’s fine.”

During the interview, silliness gives way to seriousness (and vice versa) as the brothers discuss their love-hate relationship with Hollywood today.

Their new movie, Hail, Caesar!, revolves around the kidnapping of movie star Baird Whitlock (George Clooney) by a cabal of communist screenwriters. Leading the effort to find him is no-nonsense studio executive Eddie Mannix (Josh Brolin), who must juggle babysitting duties for several troubled productions, including one directed by a pretentious filmmaker named Laurence Laurentz (Ralph Fiennes), who, it should be noted, is nothing like either of the Coens.

Several political issues have surfaced around Hollywood of late: the Oscars So White controversy; the question of gender pay disparity; the lack of women directors. Hail, Caesar! satirises Hollywood’s Golden Age, but it also seems to get in a few digs about the Hollywood of today. Were you thinking about any of these current themes when you were writing it?

Ethan: Not in the least. Nobody was thinking about those things back then.

Joel: What they were thinking about was how to get communist content into motion pictures.

There’s a similar subversiveness to your film, though. Aren’t you biting the hand that feeds you, if ever so gently?

Ethan: That’s some confusion that we don’t suffer from. Like I say, the world then was very different from the real one now, in which we operate.

Yet there are ways in which the world of Hail, Caesar! does touch on the world of today. It’s surely no accident that the group of communist screenwriters who kidnap Clooney’s character call themselves The Future.

Joel: They didn’t turn out to be the future.

No, but the conflict between art and commerce, which the movie addresses, hasn’t exactly gone away. Arguably, it’s got worse.

Joel: Well, yeah, look, if you’re talking about that explicitly, that was actually more of a subtext in our last movie (Inside Llewyn Davis). If you’re talking about the idea of politics in mass entertainment, then, in a very tangential, almost jokey way, there’s that element in Hail, Caesar!. The commercialisation of art was one of the underlying things going on in Inside Llewyn Davis. Hail, Caesar! is not really about that.

Your star, George Clooney, recently told Variety that Hollywood was moving in the wrong direction with regard to diversity. He cited four films deserving of nomination – Creed, Concussion, Beasts of No Nation and Straight Outta Compton – while arguing that the problem was not the fact that these films weren’t nominated. Rather, he suggested, there should be 30 or 40 black films “of the quality that people would consider for the Oscars”, instead of only three or four.

Joel: Oh, I agree with that, yes, that’s very true. The awards are not the problem.

Clooney’s comments led to a backlash from some quarters. It was noted that his films – and yours, for that matter – aren’t particularly diverse.

Joel: Take any particular actor or writer or filmmaker, and you go, “Your movies should be more this or more that or more the other thing.” The only sane response is that you can only write what you can write. You can’t sit down and say, “I’m going to write something that follows the dictates of what the culture thinks should be happening, in terms of cultural diversity in storytelling.” To be honest with you, that’s completely lunatic.

Ethan: We actually write movies in which the characters are Jews or Minnesotans.

Joel: And people accuse us of all kinds of things for making those things specific. You can’t win. You say, “Look at the work.” And then they go, “Well, this character is Jewish, and is a bad guy.” Somehow in their minds, that’s implying that in our minds the Jewish characters stand in for all Jews. Like I say, you can only write what you can write. If the question is whether or not there should be more people involved in the process, with more diverse backgrounds, so that what they write reflects a greater amount of diversity – that the business itself should be more open to people of different backgrounds, so that those stories come in – that’s a legitimate thing to talk about. The other thing is crazy.

How does one facilitate the change you’re talking about?

Ethan: That will be facilitated when people want to see those movies. But nobody wants to blame the public.

Joel: In this respect, I agree with what Ethan just said. But it’s not quite that simple. Sometimes you don’t know what the public is going to like until you make it available. How you do that, of course, is complicated. As far as movie executives are concerned, the bottom line is just the dollar. I mean, they’ll do anything. They don’t care who you are, what colour you are, what gender you are, if you’re making enough money. They’d be perfectly happy if a Martian came in and made a blockbuster.

How do you not get caught up in – or crushed by – the studio machine?

Joel: I’m not a studio executive. I was talking about people who run the business. I’m a person who makes movies. Money isn’t the bottom line for me. I want to make money, just like everyone else, but I have other concerns as well.

The Washington Post

Hail, Caesar! opens on Mar 10