“We don’t usually revisit our stuff once it’s finished,” Joel Coen explained before last night’s 15th-anniversary New York Film Festival screening of the 2000 film O Brother, Where Art Thou? “Last time we did, we had to sit through a screening of Blood Simple about ten years ago. And the next week we went into the cutting room and shortened it by ten minutes. So don’t be surprised if the next time you see O Brother, it’s ten or 15 minutes shorter.”
Joel and his brother Ethan, who co-wrote O Brother (Ethan is credited as producer and Joel as director, though both do both jobs and began taking both credits in 2004), may not like to revisit older films, but the NYFF does. Their annual revival screening has become one of the most popular events of the festival, gathering alums from films like This is Spinal Tap and The Princess Bride to take a fresh look at a favorite film, and tell some stories after. Tuesday night, the Coens were joined by cinematographer Roger Deakins and stars George Clooney, John Turturro, and Tim Blake Nelson to recall how they made, in the words of festival director Kent Jones, “the funniest movie ever based on The Odyssey.”
Not that the Homeric origin was necessarily by design. The title, as classic movie fans know, came from Preston Sturges (it’s the fictional film-within-the-film in Sullivan’s Travels); Joel said he and Ethan initially envisioned it merely as a “three-saps-on-the-run movie, and then at a certain point we looked at each other and said, y’know, they’re trying to get home. Let’s just say it’s The Odyssey.” Ethan added, “At the point we realized what we were doing, we thought, ‘OK, we’ll tart it up with a one-eyed guy and some sirens, and it’ll be classier.’” (Tim Blake Nelson recalled going to Joel’s house when they were writing the script and finding a copy of The Odyssey, “and there was a Post-It on the top of it, and it said ‘Soon to be a major motion picture by Joel and Ethan Coen.’”)
At some point along the way, they decided to add in the bluegrass and folk music the film became synonymous with, resulting in a bestselling soundtrack album and tour, and a bit of a bluegrass revival. But Ethan said they didn’t have (or didn’t choose to share) any complex reason for the music choices, here or in other folk-tinged soundtracks like Inside Llewyn Davis or Raising Arizona; they just like that music. “It’s just, when you make movies, you get to do stuff that you’re enthusiastic about. So.”
That sense of enthusiasm and enjoyment carried over to the set, according to the actors; Turturro described the shoot as “a joy,” and Clooney agreed, “We had a real blast.” It was the first of Clooney’s three collaborations with the Coens to date, and the first time since becoming a star that he’d done anything so utterly silly (his eccentric dancing in the final Soggy Bottom Boys performance remains a delight). “The first day of shooting was when I get the corn knocked out of me by John Goodman,” he recalled. “And I was playing [Everett] like an idiot. And Joel and Ethan come over and said, ‘No, no, no, no, you’re the smartest guy in the room!” (“We were in real trouble!” Nelson added.)
To get the character down, Clooney said he enlisted the aid of family. “When they sent me the script, they said, y’now, he’s a hick. Well, I’m from Kentucky, so I sent the script and a tape recorder to my uncle Jack in Kentucky. And I said, read all the lines into a tape recorder and just send me back the tape. I got it back, I turned on the tape recorder, and he was like, ‘Well, George, I don’t think folks ‘round here talk quite like this but here ya go!’”
From there, the plot thickened. “I just threw the script away and used the tape recorder,” Clooney continued. “And after about three months of shooting, Joel and Ethan come over and say, ‘You say every word exactly as written, except you don’t say “hell,” and you don’t say “damn.” You say, “Where the heck are ya,” why do you do that?’ And I listened to the tape recorder, and my Uncle Jack — he’s a Baptist from Kentucky. When he said, ‘Folks ‘round here don’t talk like that,’ he meant they don’t say ‘hell’ and they don’t say ‘damn’! He rewrote the Coen Brothers!”
Interestingly, all three of the stars have gone on to direct several films themselves after fronting O Brother; when asked about the Coens’ process, which presumably influenced their own, Nelson was complimentary and precise. “They write an extraordinary script,” he explained. “Nothing really changes from the script — it’s kind of perfect when you get it. It’s all storyboarded, so they have planned every single shot and it rarely deviates. And that’s the result of meticulous work with Roger [Deakins] and a storyboard artist. Amazing production design that is also meticulously researched and worked through. And an environment on set that is like a perpetual rehearsal, so that you feel like you cannot fail. It’s so relaxed — because so many decisions have been made ahead of time by really diligent, intelligent, careful, no-nonsense people — that it just is this tabula rasa, it’s a blank slate in which you have this incredible script, and you can take the kinds of chances that actors live to be able to take, and you so rarely can, because of the atmosphere they create.”
And as far as their opening warning — would they like to change anything now? “Most of what you notice is editing, editing things you would do just a little bit differently,” Joel shrugged. “Minor in the scheme of things, but I just can’t help myself.”
“I could’ve made more big faces,” Nelson chimed in.
“There’s some serious subtle shit going on!” Clooney agreed.
“I think we were fined by SAG,” Turturro added.
O Brother, Where Art? Thou screened in the Revivals section of the New York Film Festival.