The Coen Brothers with Noah Baumbach: Where and How to Begin a Film?

Posted by Michael Gibbons on 6.13.2011

Photo courtesy of Godlis

Kicking off a weekend of free events to celebrate our new Film Center, the Oscar-winning directors Joel and Ethan Coen spoke with director Noah Baumbach on Friday night for a members-only full house at the Francesca Beale Theater. With the same dry humor that is evident in so much of their work, Baumbach and the Coen brothers talked about the openings of their films, starting with the Coens’ Blood Simple and No Country for Old Men and Baumbach’s Margot at the Wedding. It was a rare opportunity to hear the Coens look back on their iconic filmmaking, and although opening sequences were inspired material for discussion, the choice was made for practical reasons: “we didn’t want to hunt through the movies and find clips - that’s really, honestly, the reason,” the Coens admitted.


“One of the things you realize after making movies for 25 years is the horrifying realization of how much you repeat yourself,” Joel Coen said to audience laughter after watching No Country for Old Men and Blood Simple (the Coens’ first film) back-to-back. The films open in remarkably similar fashion, with their sparse western tableaus and voiceover narration (or “tedious monologue” as the Coens put it). As Ethan Coen pointed out, both are “diametrically opposed” to Baumbach’s opening of Margot at the Wedding, which takes place in a cramped train with no establishing shots. “You’re in the train and crushed right into the characters,” Joel Coen said, with Ethan Coen adding: “it’s kind of great getting plopped down and not expecting anything.”

The discussion then moved on to The Big Lebowski and Greenberg, which both take place in Los Angeles. “You’re always looking for tension between having your bearings and not having your bearings,” Joel Coen said. Baumbach’s approach is creating “a feeling of what’s in store for you instead of plot or story,” though “of course you have to keep dropping story points as you go or else you lose people.” At this point, an audience member wanted to know if the filmmakers consciously play with the expectations of audiences that are already very literate in the language of cinema. There’s a “balance between being different and people knowing you’re trying to be different,” Baumbach replied. For the Coen brothers, their example was Burn After Reading, which begins by identifying the location as the CIA headquarters - which isn’t really their style. “Because we’d never do it became a reason for doing it,” they said.

Wrapping up their informal survey, the last example the Coen Brothers showed was the opening sequence of A Serious Man, which begins with an episode of Jewish folklore before jumping forward to the film’s actual setting of 1960s America - “about as far as you can go in misdirection.” Its indirectness contrasts sharply with the efficient characterization of the dysfunctional family shown in the first two scenes of Baumbach’s The Squid and the Whale. As can be seen in the video below, the Coens also teased their new project, which will incorporate a lot of live, single-instrument music. Check out the recording of the full conversation between the three filmmakers.

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