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Interview: Oscar Alumni Joel & Ethan Coen Make A Serious Man No Laughing Matter

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Oscar alumni Joel and Ethan Coen... Oy, those two, oy. What an elusive duo they can be. Like it was surprising they even sat down with us, at a roundtable no less, to talk about their latest pic, A Serious Man. But at the end they allowed no photo...? They don't want us to show their shana punim? Perhaps they are stacking Oscars like so many Torah that they want something to remain elusive about them.

After having riddled their films with the snarky sort of Jewish humor -- a bit sardonic, something unforgiving yet with a heart and soul beneath the hardened crust -- the Coen boys strip away the goyish drapings (witness The Big Lebowski or Fargo) and reveal their Yiddishe kop through this decidedly Hebraic film.

However tribal, it got this directing and writing sibling team yet another Oscar nom for Best Picture, and a whole slew of other trophies to boot. But ain't that the Coens! They did it in 2008 for No Country For Old Men and virtually shaped a new genre. Though called auteurs, the brothers make films that actually sell tickets and draw huge followings. No less a talent than Jeff Bridges was rallied by the Coens' directorial embrace, and he's been quite the dude ever since.

Balancing a love for black comedy with a skill for telling homage-laden crime tales, the 50-something-year-old Coens' catalog undulates between the two genres. As for this year, A Serious Man appears to be their most autobiographical comic turn, yet one that draws on their dark vision-making as well.

Opening with a sequence entirely spoken in 19th century Russian shtetl, Yiddish, the film shifts to mid-20th century America and to physics professor Larry Gopnik (Tony Award nominee Michael Stuhlbarg) who has just been told by his wife Judith (Sari Lennick) that she is leaving him for the pompous older neighbor Sy Ableman (Fred Melamed). With a household full mishegosh -- there's Larry's unemployable brother nebbish Arthur (Richard Kind), pot-smoking pisher son Danny (Aaron Wolff) who's screwing up his bar mitvah lessons, and nudnick daughter Sarah (Jessica McManus) kvetching about her nose more than her family's trauma -- this schmendrick fantasizes abut screwing his sexy goyish neighbor while schvitizing about his pending tenure hearing and ever-growing complications.

Q: What were your bar mitzvahs like? Do you remember the passage you had to read?

EC: God no.

JC: No.

Q: So what was the experience like for you guys? Did you read just the [Haftorah]? Or did you read from the Torah too?

EC: You didn't read all the Torah portions. One or two; I can't remember.

JC: But it was pretty typical, conservative congregation, circa 1967. I don't know what they do now, to be honest with you. I mean I've been to a few in New York; they're not that different. There wasn't anything out of the ordinary...I with I could say something interesting happened.

Q: You didn't feel the competition to see if you got more presents than the other kids?

EC: Yeah, with your peers you compare what the haul was.

Q: And between the brothers as well?

EC: No because there are three years' difference, so not so much. As in the movie, we each got a kiddush cup from the Gift of the Sisterhood.

Q: Do you still have them?

EC: Joel has his. I don't know what happened to mine.

Q: You love using local actors rather than the better known New York/LA ones. How do you think that added to the feel of the movie?

EC: Midwestern Jews is a different community, is a different thing than New York Jews, LA Jews. It's just different. It's the whole Midwestern thing. It isn't just about a Jewish community. The geographic thing is kind of specific, so that was important to us.

JC: That area happens to be a place where you can find lots of good local...it's not true everywhere. But you can find lots of very, very good local actors there. So there's a practical reason as well as an aesthetic reason.

EC: Yeah, it's a largely local cast. Sari Lennick, who plays the wife, she's great, she lives there. Ari Hoptman, who plays the head of the department, all the kids were local.

Q: What about Michael Stuhlbarg -- he's like a local New York actor known in theater, but another unknown in general.

EC: Well Joel knew him, slightly. We'd both seen him in a few plays, and you knew him from the project, right?

JC: Yeah, I knew him from stuff he's done in theater and from the Second Street Project.

Q: Are you involved in that as well?

JC: Well I'm not but my wife [actress Frances McDormand who has starred in several of the Coen's films] has been involved with it for 20-something years.

Q: They went up to your place in the country?

JC: Yeah. How did you know that?

Q: He's one of the Second Street Project guys. Do you have any more theater projects coming up [for example, Ethan had a set of three one act plays, Offices, directed by Neil Pepe and produced by the Atlantic Theater Company]?

EC: Yeah maybe; I don't know. Yes, hopefully. But nothing definite.

Q: From growing up Jewish, and having friends and family who are Jewish, you learn a lot of cultural Judaism . But you also had a lot of authentic religious Judaism in the movie, really hardcore Jewish, insider information. How much of that is from your educational experience or did you have to research a lot of it?

EC: We didn't do any research per say. Once the script was written, when we started actually making the movie, there were a couple of people who kind of were our Jewish technical advisors, helping us with language and liturgical stuff with the service and whatever. And of course a raft of translators for the Yiddish at the beginning of the movie. A raft of dueling Yiddishists; everybody had an opinion about what form of Yiddish we should use.

JC: We actually did have one problem we brought to a fluent Hebrew speaker, which was we had the specific problem of wanting to have a Hebrew expression, or translation of, "help me" that was exactly seven letters long. So that's something that we came up with ourselves. We wanted it to be a phone number. That was the main thing really.

EC: There was a cantor and a rabbi as well, Dan Sklar, who helped us with that, and with a lot of stuff.

Q: So where did this fractured story come from?

JC: It's always a really hard question to answer because you don't really know, is the truth of it. You start to think back on it and you impose more order and rationality on it than actually occurred when you were thinking it up. I think it just came from, we had an idea a long time ago that maybe we would do something.

We were thinking about short films years ago and there was a particular rabbi in our town, not our rabbi, who used to meet with bar mitzvah kids after the bar mitzvah and he was sort of a sphinx-like Wizard of Oz type character, and we thought that might make an interesting short movie. This was years and years ago.

Somehow that idea found its way into this story. And there was another part where we were thinking it would be interesting to do something set in 1967 in that community. Then part of it came from thinking about the music of that period, and the combination of Jewish liturgical music and cantorial music and the Jefferson Airplane, we thought that was sort of interesting. Just a bunch of different thinks.

Q: Out of all their songs, why "Somebody to Love"?

EC: It could have been any of a number of songs I guess, we just kind of focused on that early because it's so much of that time. I mean that time really specifically, not even just '60s but spring of '67, it's just so much of that, so smacks of the time. And also we use the lyrics, they kind of pay off in the end in a way that it became clear it was useful.

Q: Were you big Jefferson Airplane fans?

JC: Not particularly. I mean we listened to them. I wouldn't say we were big Jefferson Airplane fans though.

EC: But obviously they were a big Top 40.

JC: Yeah we did listen to them on the radio.

EC: There was also, the rabbi's rap at the ending with the kiddush cup, that was verbatim from our bar mitzvahs. It was the same thing every Saturday. Rabbi Arnold Goodman.

Q: One thing that underlies the film is this feeling of cultural shift. Like the Jewish neighborhood with the goyim moving in there was a shift. And as you pair the liturgical music to the Jefferson Airplane. there's the cultural shift of the '60s. What did you feel was important to say about that, particularly in a Midwest city like your hometown of Minneapolis, Minnesota.

EC: It was sort of the opposite in the Midwest. In the community that we lived in, the Jewish community was sort of centered in part of the downtown area for many years, and then it shifted out to the suburbs. So it wasn't that there was a Jewish community in the suburbs and it became less Jewish, these new developments were sort of populated by Jews.

It's also a mistake to say that the Jews were in any way a majority of even that community. I mean, we grew up in a community that was predominantly non-Jewish, it's just that the Jews were a big and significant minority, and the community itself is one that is fairly cohesive.

The Jewish community was part of what was sort of bounding your experience. But yeah, you're right, that idea of, well the way we had sort of talked about it is sort of the idea of the post war thing where populations, in terms of minorities in the cities, were shifting, and also culturally things were shifting, and that was sort of interesting. I don't think we thought a lot about it but we liked that period in a general way for that reason.

Q: Was it like a Levittown situation which is widely regarded as the archetype for the explosion of postwar suburbs throughout the USA?

EC: I guess a little bit. There were big developments that were being put up out in the suburban tracts of drained swampland or prairie. That's kind of how it was.

JC: Yeah, it was a little bit post-Levittown, but the same thing.

Q: You portray the Hebrew school as obviously a torturous experience of learning Hebrew. I don't know if either of you went to Hebrew school, but were you engaged by anything from your Hebrew school or Jewish educational experience?

EC: Yeah that Hebrew school, that was it for us. After regular school you go to Hebrew school.

JC: Hebrew school was something we desperately tried to get out of for years and years and years, but it was a requirement.

Q: Your film moves Jewish issues to the center of the story. Is there a connection between this and the Yiddish Policemen's Union, the 2007 detective novel by author Michael Chabon?

EC: That's kind of a coincidence too that the producer Scott Rudin acquired that novel and then just hired us to write the script. Since we know and had done a movie with Scott I think we were the obvious choices for him. No, it wasn't design on our part.

Q: Do you think you're going to help people better understand the Jewish experience or do you think you're going to confuse them further?

JC: Well it wasn't really our intent to have people understand the Jewish experience exactly. It's just a context for a story that we found very interesting because of our own direct experience with so much of where the story takes place and the kind of community and family that it takes place in. But you're always trying to being specific, whether it's about your own experience or whether it's a context that you don't have any experience in whatsoever. That kind of specificity is important for the story, and it becomes part of what the story is about, absolutely.

Q: In this film, Larry's neighbor is seen hunting with his son. In No Country for Old Men, Josh Brolin is seen hunting at the beginning of the film. Is this a coincidence or do you guys have a love for hunting that you like to put into your films?

JC: No, it's just a coincidence. Josh hunting antelope at the beginning of No Country for Old Men, we didn't write that story; that's in the book.

EC: The next door neighbor is just, hunting is a goyish activity.

JC: In the Midwest in that period; a lot of hunting.