A word of advice: Don't try to get too serious with Joel and Ethan Coen or you'll risk looking stupid.
After watching their new film, A Serious Man , I suggested to them that the film initially seemed emotionally devastating, but after a while, the tone seemed more ironic.
"You mean at first you found it devastating, until you realized it was a piece of crap?" suggests Joel.
Press interviews are always a less-than-sombre occasion with the Coens. Joel, 54, and Ethan, 52, are known in Hollywood as "the director with two heads" because of their seamless working method, creating such modern American classics as Blood Simple, Fargo, The Big Lebowski and No Country for Old Men . These may be movies that say a great deal about American greed, violence and the legacy of rugged individualism, but just don't ask them to generalize about those subjects outside of their films. As a former producer once explained, "Joel and Ethan talk about tone, not topic."
A Serious Man would seem to cry out for explanations. The story reflects their own upbringing in St. Louis Park, the largely Jewish suburb of Minneapolis. The film, set in the late 1960s, is about a math and physics professor, Larry Gopnik (played by Broadway actor Michael Stuhlbarg), who, like a modern-day Job, is beset with afflictions. His children are insolent, his brother is mentally ill, and his wife is about to leave him for a pompous widower she considers more "serious" than Larry.
In a recent New York Times article, Rabbi Dan Skar - who worked as a consultant on A Serious Man - says the film is about an attempt to reconcile the absurd and the mystical. It's also about Larry's "hubris of humility," in short, the foolish conceit that God gives a flying knish about our day-to-day miseries.
Not that the Coens would put it that exactly way. As Joel has said: "The fun was in inventing new ways to torment Larry."
Joel, it turns out, is doing most of the talking. He's cordial but his tone always seems to suggest: "Don't get carried away - it's just a movie." Ethan listens, and sometimes laughs and adds a qualifying comment.
Did they conceive of Larry as a Job figure?
Joel leans back on his chair and stretches his neck while he thinks about it. "That came up with someone else we were talking to," he says. "We weren't thinking about it that way."
Ethan adds: "When it came up, I was thinking, 'I can kind of see that,' but then, no, Job is about a guy who's faith is being tested. I'm not quite sure what Larry is, but he's not a servant of God who's faith is being tested."
Actor Michael Stuhlbarg, who plays Larry, says that he understood that A Serious Man was largely autobiographical, that the characters are composites of people the Coen brothers knew when they were growing up. The Coens say nothing in the story was that specific.
"Some are," says Joel. "Our parents were academics and we set the story partially in an academic world."
"Composites would be overstating it," says Ethan. "Some characters bear some resemblance to people we knew."
Nor do they put much stock in the idea that they grew up with any particular sense of being socially ostracized. The community where they grew up was large and they lived in a cosmopolitan university town. "We weren't isolated Midwestern Jews in a sea of gentiles," says Ethan.
Joel mentions that the basis of A Serious Man was a short film he and Ethan planned to make years ago. It was about a charismatic rabbi they knew. They had the idea for a film about how, after their bar mitzvahs, some boys go to see the rabbi in his office expecting words of wisdom from him.
"It was a Wizard of Oz kind of thing," says Joel. "We forgot about it for years, but it kind of worked its way back into the story."
Didn't they use The Wizard of Oz as a source in O Brother, Where Aren't Thou?
"We have The Wizard of Oz in every movie we do," says Joel, "but O Brother was a full-blown Wizard of Oz movie."
Ethan giggles: "That one was a remake. I'm surprised we weren't sued."
The story of A Serious Man was written between 2006 and 2008, while the Coens were shooting No Country for Old Men and Burn After Reading . Though all the scripts deal with characters who feel they've been given a raw deal, the three films are demonstrative of the brothers' pure versatility. Typically, they write the scenes to their movies in order, but without a specific outline, and A Serious Man was no exception.
"At one point," says Joel, " I think we kinda thought: 'Let's have three rabbis as a kind of stretcher to hang the story on.' And then, but honestly I don't remember, Larry's dream sequences sort of evolved as lead-ins to accompany the rabbi scenes."
After finishing the script, lining up mostly local actors and giving Stuhlbarg the role just six weeks before shooting, their main concern was finding a Minnesota suburb that looked as though it were in the late sixties. The problem was trees, planted post-War, that are now 40 years older and bigger than they were then. They were helped by finding a suburb where many of the trees had been blown over by a bad storm, but Joel says they also "erased a lot of trees with the computer."
The idea of erasing trees suggests the parallel between a film director and God, which is how actor Michael Stuhlbarg thought about the Coens: Rather than identifying with Larry, he thinks the Coens identify with the capricious Creator. They're the "unseen hand" in the story - but they're benevolent gods who give their actors lots of freedom.
"Sure," says Joel. "We have enough work to do. We tell them, 'You go ahead and figure it out.'"
Then Ethan giggles again. "We're not all that busy," he says. "A few movies ago, we had a journalist on the set and he couldn't figure out what we did. An actor does something good in a take and we laugh. We're like Roger's friends (cinematographer Roger Deakins) who have conversations with him occasionally. Occasionally, we'll look through the viewfinder - well, the monitor nowadays. It's getting worse."
"What Ethan's saying is true," says Joel. "Because Roger also is the cinematographer and operates the camera, we pretty much trust him completely. The truth is, we barely need to be there."