Joel and Ethan Coen, commonly called The Coen Brothers, are Jewish-American film directors best known for their quirky comedies such as Raising Arizona and The Big Lebowski, as well as for darker film noir dramas such as Fargo and Blood Simple. The brothers write, direct and produce their films jointly, alternating top billing for the screenplay. Until recently, Joel received sole credit for directing the films, and Ethan for producing, but the two brothers work so closely together and share such a strong vision of what their films are to be that actors report that they can approach either brother with a question and get the same answer. The brothers are known in the film business as "the two-headed director."
Joel Coen was born November 29, 1954, and has been married to actress Frances McDormand since 1984; they have an adopted baby named Pedro. Ethan Coen was born September 21, 1957, and is married to film editor Tricia Cooke. Both are frequently credited in their own films as editor under the name "Roderick Jaynes". The Coen brothers grew up in St. Louis Park, Minnesota, a suburb of Minneapolis. Their parents were both professors, with their father's specialty in economics at the University of Minnesota, and their mother's in art history at St. Cloud University.
When they were kids, Joel saved up enough money from mowing lawns to buy a Vivitar Super-8 camera and together they remade movies they saw on television with a neighborhood kid, Mark Zimering (a.k.a. Zeimers), as the star. For example, Cornel Wilde's The Naked Prey (1966) became Zeimers in Zambia, which also featured Ethan as a native with a spear.
Both of the Coen brothers attended Simon's Rock Early College (now Simon's Rock College of Bard), in Great Barrington, Massachusetts. Simon's Rock is designed for bright students seeking to start their undergraduate education earlier than is normal. After graduating from Simon's Rock, Joel spent four years in the undergraduate film program at New York University where he made a 30-minute thesis film called, Soundings. The film depicted a woman engaged in sex with her deaf boyfriend while verbally fantasizing about having sex with her boyfriend's best friend who is listening in the next room. After also graduating from Simon's Rock, Ethan went to school at Princeton University and earned an undergraduate degree in philosophy. His senior thesis was a 39-page essay entitled, “Two Views of Wittgenstein’s Later Philosophy.”
After graduating from NYU, Joel worked as a production assistant on a variety of industrial films and music videos. He developed a talent for film editing and met Sam Raimi, who was looking for an assistant editor on his first feature film, The Evil Dead (1981).
Owing a heavy debt to film noir and other film styles of the past, the Coen brothers' films combine dry humor with sharp irony and shocking visuals, most often in moving camera shots. The Coens prefer not to put the opening credits at the very beginning of the film.
In all of the Coen's films, dialogue is the most important element. The films typically feature a combination of dry wit, exaggerated language, and glaring irony. The brothers frequently use dialogue to develop characters and advance plot. Dialogue is so important in the film that many of the action scenes are driven by characters' lines rather than the physical actions. A good example of this is in ‘The Big Lebowski’ when the Nihilists confront the group, demanding money. The majority of the scene is based around the witty dialog of Walter Sobchak and his outrageous response to their demands. ("No, without a hostage, there is no ransom. That's what ransom is. Those are the rules.") The exaggerated language is sometimes erudite (as in Tom's "if I'd known we were going to cast our feelings into words, I'd have memorized the Song of Solomon") but more often failed erudition ("Jesus, Tom, I was just speculatin' about a hypothesis" (Miller's Crossing), "You know, it's proven that second-hand smoke is, uh, carcin- ... uh, you know, cancer related." (Fargo), and the Dude's imitation of Maude's "in the parlance of our times," appending it with "You know?... Man?" (The Big Lebowski).)
Blood and guts
The Coens also show a fascination with blood and vomit; Miller's Crossing, Barton Fink, and Blood Simple all show elaborate puddles of blood, whereas in Fargo it's a wide spray in the snow coming from a wood chipper; Tom vomits in Miller's Crossing once off-screen at his house and once on-screen in the crossing itself; Marty vomits in Ray's yard in Blood Simple, and then vomits again on the floor later (but this time it's a torrent of blood); Charlie vomits off-screen in Barton Fink; and Marge bends over to vomit but doesn't in Fargo.
Film noir and misunderstanding
Stylistically, Coen brothers movies show a heavy debt to film noir, featuring stark contrast in lighting (most notably in Blood Simple, Miller's Crossing, and Fargo) and the typical theme of people being in over their heads in a scheme. Their movies often deal with kidnapping. A near universal plot device is misunderstanding: misunderstanding over who killed Rug Daniels and who took his hair causes friction between different mobs in Miller's Crossing; misunderstanding of Norville's blueprint causes him some grief later in The Hudsucker Proxy; everyone except for the nihilists in The Big Lebowski misunderstands Bunny's kidnapping; and in Blood Simple, misunderstanding is the driving force behind the entire plot past the thirty-minute mark. The Coen brothers' film The Man Who Wasn't There pays homage to film noir, with a plot that seems an update/twist of The Postman Always Rings Twice. The film is in black and white and has been lauded by various critics for both its cinematography and its sharply drawn, fairly sympathetic characters, though many critics take issue with the sharp turn in plot towards the end.
Depictions of various cities, states, and regions of America
The various aspects that make the character of a city, state or region of America are an integral component in several Coen brothers films. Raising Arizona strongly features the distinct Arizona landscape, and some of the movie's characters are stereotypes of typical Arizonans. Similarly, in Fargo the landscape and accents of North Dakota and Minnesota are an essential component of the film. The Big Lebowski is the Coens' Los Angeles film, with the Dude and other characters as emblematic of the city's eclectic population. O Brother, Where Art Thou? is distinctly Southern, as it was filmed in rural Mississippi, most of the characters speak with pronounced Southern accents, and the soundtrack is a mix of old country and folk songs. Barton Fink is in some respects a satire on another famous area of Los Angeles, Hollywood. There are several scenes in the movie that in the Coen brothers' distinctly farcical way, paint the movie industry, and movie executives in particular, in a very unflattering light.
The Coens also often set their movies in times of American crisis: Miller's Crossing during prohibition, Barton Fink in the time around the attack on Pearl Harbor, The Big Lebowski during the 1991 Gulf War, and O Brother Where Art Thou? during the Great Depression.
The majority of the Coens' films are extremely violent. In every one of their films there is at least one death and in many cases, multiple deaths. In their lighter films, e.g. The Hudsucker Proxy the plot is unleashed by the suicide of Waring Hudsucker or in The Ladykillers all of the main characters die in an attempt to dispose of a body. In some of their more graphic films, e.g. Fargo, most of the main characters die or are assaulted, with all of this being portrayed. In Fargo, during a particularly graphic scene one character's body is processed by a wood chipper.
The majority of the violence in their films would fall under the category of dark humor. One of the most comic scenes in The Big Lebowski is the sceneo where Walter, The Dude and Donny fight the Nihilists. The Coens always use violence to drive the plot forward, for example, in Fargo, when Carl Showalter is assaulted by Shep Proudfoot this makes Carl call Jerry to tell him to deliver the money.
Overall, acts of violence are never wasted in a Coen Brothers film, and often these scenes are written into the script for comic effect or to progress the script.
Visually, the Coens favor moving camera shots, especially tracking shots and crane shots; when the camera is "static" it is often still drifting slightly. Their films are also distinguished by cinematic visual flourishes that mark turning points in their films.
The "Raimi cam" rush
Occasionally in their tracking shots they "rush" the camera forward, as in the scene in Raising Arizona where Nathan Jr. is discovered missing; the Coen brothers dubbed the rush forward the "Raimi cam" in tribute to their longtime friend and director Sam Raimi, who used rushes extensively in Evil Dead (which Joel Coen helped edit). The Hudsucker Proxy features not one, but two, consecutive rushes when Norville shows Mussburger's secretary the Blue Letter: first on the mouth of the lady screaming on the ladder, and then on Norville reacting to the scream.
The Coen brothers' earlier films (with the exception of Miller's Crossing) made extensive use of wide-angle lenses, which are the preferred lenses of their regular cinematographer, Barry Sonnenfeld. Roger Deakins, who replaced Sonnenfeld when he left to pursue a directing career, has been trying to wean the Coens off these lenses since he started working with them (wide angle lenses allow great depth of field but cause considerable distortion in the apparent size of objects based on how far they are from the camera). Deakins has been working towards longer lenses, which appear to shorten the distance between objects, but have shallower depth of field.
The Coen brothers use camera angles which sometimes hide rather than reveal information, as in Fargo when Jean Lundegaard is hiding in the shower, in Miller's Crossing when Tom goes into his room after Leo leaves, (Verna is on the bed behind him), and in Blood Simple when Abby is sitting up in bed with Ray and the Volkswagen pulls up outside her window.
They also frequently "hide" their cuts in a close-up on an object, in the style of Alfred Hitchcock's Rope: one occurrence of this is obvious in Fargo, when Carl is banging on the television to get it to work (when the picture finally comes in clearly it is in fact a cut to Marge's television as seen from her bed). The brothers make a similar cut in Miller's Crossing when the close up of the window at Vernie's house pans away to show a man dead on the floor at another; in The Hudsucker Proxy when Amy Archer is cheering "Go Eagles!" after Norville hires her (the film cuts to her showing the same cheer to her coworker at the newspaper); and in Blood Simple when the "close-up" of the ceiling fan over Marty's head at the bar turns out to be from Abby's point of view on the couch at Ray's house.
The Coen brothers storyboard their films completely before filming (unlike most directors, who only storyboard complex shots such as action sequences). They state that it helps them get the budget they want as they can show where most of the money will be going.
O Brother, Where Art Thou? was the first film fully color corrected from start to finish with digital techniques. The reasoning behind this was that the brothers wanted the scenery to reflect the "dust-bowl" atmosphere of the Depression. Since the actual landscape for many of the scenes was much lusher and greener than the desired effect massive color correction was required. This, in turn, required extensive color correction throughout the film, thus the use of graphic computers to perform the correction.
The Coen brothers' circle
The Coens used Barry Sonnenfeld as cinematographer through Miller's Crossing, then Sonnenfeld left to direct his own films and has had great success at it with The Addams Family, Get Shorty, and, most notably, Men in Black. Roger A. Deakins has been the Coen brothers' cinematographer since Sonnenfeld's departure.
Sam Raimi also helped write The Hudsucker Proxy, which the Coen brothers directed; and the Coen brothers helped write Crimewave, which Raimi directed; Raimi took tips about filming A Simple Plan from the Coen brothers, who had recently finished Fargo (both films are set in blindingly white snow, which reflects a lot of light and can make metering for a correct exposure tricky).
William Preston Robertson is an old friend of the Coens who helped them with re-shoots on Blood Simple and provided the voice of the radio evangelist. He is listed in the credits as the "Rev. William Preston Robertson." He has provided vocal talents on most of the Coens' films up to and including The Big Lebowski. He also wrote the excellent The Making of The Big Lebowski book with Tricia Cooke.
The Coen brothers frequently cast actors John Turturro, Michael Badalucco, Steve Buscemi, Frances McDormand, John Goodman, M. Emmet Walsh, and Jon Polito, all of whom have appeared in at least three Coen productions. They are planning a third film with George Clooney following O Brother, Where Art Thou? (2000) and Intolerable Cruelty (2003), which will complete their Idiot Trilogy.
- Blood Simple (1985)
- Raising Arizona (1987)
- Miller's Crossing (1990)
- Barton Fink (1991)
- The Hudsucker Proxy (1994)
- Fargo (1996)
- The Big Lebowski (1998)
- O Brother, Where Art Thou? (2000)
- The Man Who Wasn't There (2001)
- Intolerable Cruelty (2003)
- The Ladykillers (2004)
- Hail Caesar (2006)
- No Country For Old Men (2007)
- Joel Coen at the Internet Movie Database
- Ethan Coen at the Internet Movie Database
- You Know, For Kids, Coen brothers fan site
- Coenesque: The Films of the Coen Brothers
- It's a movie-making trend: Brothers share directing duties, by James Hebert (San Diego Union-Tribune)
- Senses of Cinema, essay on the brothers (with film stills)
- The Big Lebowski: The Making of a Coen Brothers movie, this is a funny, entertaining even informative book by one of their good friends, William Preston Robertson.de:Ethan und Joel Coen