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Apr 22, 2008

O Brother, indeed

(Editor's note: The guys over at Movie Zeal have devoted the month of April to the works of the Coen brothers. I was fortunate enough to have been asked to help participate in this celebration. The only topic off-limits was reviews of the films themselves. I decided to go fraternal. Below is the article I wrote, which ran earlier this week. I highly suggest catching up on the films by reading the reviews they've been posting in chronological order and the other commentaries - there's some great writing to be found.)

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"If me and my brother had to work together it wouldn’t be happy days. They’ve got an amazing amount of respect for each other and they’re both making the same film. There were never any decisions that had to be made one way or another. It was just easy. Before you actually start a film that’s going to be directed by two people you think, “well that’s going to be weird…” But after about five minutes you forget and you don’t even notice." - Kelly McDonald on her experience working with the Coen brothers.

Much is made of the fact that Joel and Ethan Coen are brothers. It's understandable - people are curious how any two people, much less siblings, can work as equals on a film, when doing so could easily become a nightmare. The slightest decision that one filmmaker must make now becomes a collaborative process. Does this make it easier to create a film or harder? Is hair pulled out? Who "owns" the ideas, and is the dynamic changed when one does?

Though the Coens aren't the first directing team to win the Best Director prize at the Academy Awards (that would be Jerome Robbins and Robert Wise for West Side Story), they are the first pair of siblings to do so. However, they're hardly the first pair of successful directing brothers, nor the last (I can find no record of any "known" sisters team). I wondered: how do all these pairs get along? What trends are there, if any? Here are my findings:

If you didn't know better, you might think that Peter and Bobby Farrelly (There's Something About Mary, Kingpin) were twins. In an interview with Random House, Peter stated "It's half as difficult. Everything's a lot easier when you work with someone you know just about as well as you know yourself. We take a lot of the load from each other. When in doubt, we can just look at each other and the other guy either has a quizzical look like "I'm wondering about this too," in which case we have to look further, or he just kind of gives a nod like "It's okay.""

Relative newcomers to the scene, Mark and Michael Polish broke out with their film Twin Falls, Idaho and followed it up with the Billy Bob Thornton-starring The Astronaut Farmer. They are in fact twins, and identical ones at that, though they don't seem to be quite as in tune as you might expect from a couple guys that were born at the same time. Says Mark, "I mean, it’s give and take. We’re not really competitive where we’re saying like that’s mine or that’s yours. It’s always for the better of the movie, or the truth of the movie. If he has an idea I think is good or just an idea that he’ll throw out sometimes I won’t go with it."

The notoriously shy Wachowski brothers have been making films together since 1996's Bound, and have been pretty much out of the public eye ever since. However, Movie Poop Shoot managed to get them to open up a bit at the time Bound was released, as Larry had this to say about working with his brother: "Well, we’re both very very lazy and having someone else do half the work is very convenient."

Chris and Paul Weitz of American Pie fame started out as a directing team, and though they seem to help each other out on their own recent films, they haven't directed together since 2001's About a Boy. Says Paul about working together again, " I'd love to but it basically would require us to be equally excited about a project and, and that doesn't seem to happen all that often. I mean basically the reason I did In Good Company was that Chris didn't particularly want to do it. We don't have any kind of rules about what we will or won't do together or not, and I really hope that we will. But to do that it would kind of have to be something that, that he really wanted to do."

The anomaly in all this has to be the Scotts. Ridley and younger brother Tony have each been making movies for decades, but the two have not directed a feature together (not counting childhood work). However, in 1995, they did form a production company together (Scott Free Productions), and both have produced their subsequent films under that banner. Also, they both produce the CBS drama Num3ers. I can only imagine that their age difference (Ridley is seven years Tony's senior) is the leading factor for their lack of collaboration, as Ridley was already established by the time Tony's first feature was released in 1983 (though he had made a pair of shorts earlier).

If anything is to be gleaned from all this, it might be that nothing is to be gleaned. No pair seems to be alike in terms of their work process, yet they are all alike in the mutual respect each gives the other. Joel and Ethan for their part, have this to add: "It's loose and informal. We don't split things up, like one person does a scene and the other reworks it. We sit in a room together and talk each scene through, and we work without an outline; we just start from the beginning."

Finally, my favorite quote, from a Hollywood.com interview with the Coens:

"HW: Did you always dream you would end up working together like this? Are there added benefits to working with a brother?

JC: I haven't detected any benefits yet. [Laughs] I don't think it was an intentional...

EC: We didn't do it on purpose.

JC: We didn't really. Sh*t happens, you know? And then you look back and go ""Oh, that's how it worked out.""

As the Chemical Brothers might say, Brothers Gonna Work It Out.


4 people have chosen wisely: on "O Brother, indeed"

Daniel G. said...

This was a great way to offer a new look at the Coens, Fletch. They've certainly set the bar insanely high for fraternal teams that may come after them.

Jim Abrahams said...

Thank God I'm not making any more movies with those goddamned Zucker brothers!

Fletch said...

Is that you, Adam (as jim)?

Okay, so I missed the Hughes and the Zucker brothers. Any others?