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By Kevin Nelson · June 21, 2022
Most formidable filmmaking duos find themself through kinetic happenstance.
Others are born into it.
Perhaps the most egregious example of nepotism this industry has ever seen (that’s a joke), Ethan and Joel Coen were born three years apart in St. Louis Park, Minnesota to parents with no industry ties.
The brothers fell in love with storytelling — so much so that Joel saved up money to buy a Super 8 camera so he and Ethan could remake movies they saw on TV with their neighborhood friends. After high school, Ethan went to Princeton University to study philosophy while Joel went on to study film in the undergraduate program at NYU. After a brief stint at the University of Texas at Austin, Joel then began working in a supporting role as a production assistant on music videos and experimental films. He had a knack for editing and met Sam Raimi while assisting on The Evil Dead (1981).
The brothers have become known for flouting genre conventions and exploring quirky characters clumsily navigating very serious situations. They’re able to dive into the criminal underworld with a sly smirk as if relishing in their ability to keep audiences off guard.
Let’s take a look at the incredible filmography of two of the greatest brothers to ever collaborate in film.
When Joel and Ethan wrote Blood Simple in 1984, they had no experience directing or writing feature films, so they knew it would be a hard sell to investors and producers. They decided to shoot a trailer to garner interest.
The trailer consisted of two simple shots. A man dragging a shovel, a bloody man in the street, the implication of murder, and a backdrop with bullet holes in it.
With a projector and the trailer in stow, they’d visit local businessmen and dentists to make their pitches in a grassroots, boots-on-the-ground form of crowdfunding before the likes of Kickstarter, IndieGoGo and GoFundMe. The scheme worked, and they raised $1.5 million to make their film. Joel and Ethan wrote the film and Joel directed it.Download the script
Blood Simple was a neo-noir crime film with a bleak undertone, so the Coen brothers decided to switch it up on their next film by layering in more comedy and heart. The characters were written sympathetically and the script displays the Coen brother’s penchant for a comedic lens to view serious conflicts and situations.
The filmmakers would lean into this approach in later years to massive cult success.Download the script
Miller’s Crossing is a neo-noir gangster film centered around a power struggle between rival gangs and the protagonists’ ability to play both sides. Since the story had so many moving parts, Ethan and Joel struggled with it. They stayed with a friend in St. Paul, Minnesota to try and get a change of scenery, but slowed down four months in.
Instead, they watched Baby Boom, returned to New York, and wrote Barton Fink.
They eventually picked the script for Miller’s Crossing backup and were able to toe the line between gritty crime drama and levity in their humor. The characters all have their signature Coen quirks, and the film has been named on Time’s Top 100 films list.Download the script
While suffering from writer’s block in attempting to write Miller’s Crossing, the Coen brothers wrote Barton Fink in a matter of three weeks. Perhaps because it is about a topic they had come to know well — writing for films.
Barton Fink is a gumbo of genres, it’s a period piece with loads of dark comedy with a psychological thriller underpinning. They often finish each other’s sentences when discussing their films. This quote from Ronald Bergan’s biography: The Coen Brothers, attributes this quote to both of them:
Download the script
“Certain films come entirely in one’s head; we just sort of burped out Barton Fink.”
The opening credits for Fargo read:
This is a true story. The events depicted in this film took place in Minnesota in 1987. At the request of the survivors, the names have been changed. Out of respect for the dead, the rest has been told exactly as it occurred.
In fact, the brothers were inspired by several small-town crimes, many of which took place outside of Minnesota. They weren’t interested in telling a straightforward true crime story and instead decided to fictionalize the characters and situations that led to the infamous wood chipper.
The script is great at capturing regional accents while still giving each character their own voice. The brother fully leaned into the dark comedy of this harrowing crime tale, and the juxtaposition of light and dark won over audiences. The film won two Oscars, including Best Original Screenplay at the 69th Academy Awards.Download the script
If Fargo was the tale of the big-time crimes committed by small-town individuals, then The Big Lebowski was the tale of a small-time crime with larger-than-life personalities. Each character in The Big Lebowski has risen to the level of iconic, whether Walter’s hairpin anger or Donny’s simple innocence. These characters were inspired by real-life people who the Coen brothers worked with on previous films.
The brothers wrote The Big Lebowski around the time they wrote Barton Fink and Miller’s Crossing, and the relationship between The Dude and Walter was inspired by the scenes with Fink and the character Charlie Meadows. The structure is inspired by the detective novels of Raymon Chandler. Joel wanted the narrative to flow through different parts of town and social classes. The dude abides, man.Download the script
This is a great example of how writers can take material from the public domain and turn an old story into something truly fresh and original. O Brother, Where Art Thou? is loosely based on Homer’s Odyssey set in Depression-Era America. When I say loosely, I mean very loosely.
Neither Joel nor Ethan had actually read the epic. They were only familiar with the narrative through adaptations and references in popular culture. Actor Tim Blake Nelson was the only person who actually read it.Download the script
I’m a little biased here because this one is in my top 5. The western crime thriller is an adaptation of Cormac McCarthy’s book of the same name and features one of the most ruthless villains in cinematic history.
The script is very faithful to the book. Various plot elements needed to be reduced in order to streamline the narrative. In that sense, there are long sequences of actions with little to no dialogue. This is a must-read if you want to see how to keep the reader intrigued without dialogue.Download the script
Burn After Reading is the Coen brothers’ version of James Bond, without the explosions and martial arts. It was the first script they wrote since 2001’s The Man Who Wasn’t There. Instead of the plot driving the characters forward, the Coens focused on the characters, and their horrible decisions to hit the plot points.
Burn After Reading is a silly spy movie about inept characters struggling to control their own lives, let alone with an intricate plot to blackmail a CIA Analyst for plastic surgery. The shock value in the plot twist alone is worth it.Download the script
True Grit is an adaptation of the 1968 novel written by Charles Portis. The book was first adapted into a film in 1969 starring John Wayne. So this project was certainly outside of the Coen brothers’ comfort zone in being an already established IP. Keeping it to a PG-13 rating was an even further stretch for them.
The brothers sought to be more faithful to the original source material and it paid off, becoming the second highest-grossing western outside of Dances with Wolves.Download the script
Inside Llewyn Davis is an ode to all the artists who influenced their respective crafts without ever earning the acclaim they deserve. It’s a film for all those who pass the torch to younger generations. The protagonist is a struggling folk singer, giving the Coen brothers a chance to play in the world of music again.
And like they’ve masterfully done many times before, the fictional character is loosely based on Dave Van Ronk’s autobiography, The Mayor of MacDougal Street. Joel Coen has remarked that the brothers were a little worried because the story doesn’t really have a standard plot… that’s why they threw in the cat.Download the script
The Coen brothers, whether working together or solo, continue to be two of the greatest living filmmakers with each production. Although they haven’t made a film together since The Ballad of Buster Scruggs in 2018, their brotherly love was on full display when Ethan Coen hilariously reviewed Joel’s interpretation of Shakespeare’s Macbeth.
I think it’s safe to say that we’ll continue to see great work from the brothers in the future, but like each of their films — we will never be quite sure what we’ll see when the lights dim.