TORONTO—The Coen brothers’ quirky espionage-caper comedy, Burn After Reading, wasn’t intended as the follow-up to their Academy Award–winning No Country for Old Men. Writer-directors Joel and Ethan Coen were developing their original script about U.S. national intelligence and irrational knuckleheads at the same time they were adapting Cormac McCarthy’s No Country. But thanks to the magic of production scheduling, they shot their best-picture winner first, and now the return to their twisted comic roots is being reviewed less as a comedy than a statement.
Burn After Reading—which stars George Clooney, Frances McDormand, John Malkovich, Tilda Swinton, and an astonishingly geeky Brad Pitt—had its North American premiere recently at the 2008 Toronto International Film Festival. Afterward, when asked at a news conference at the Park Hyatt ballroom if Burn After Reading is as meaningless as it seems and if No Country was really as meaningful, Ethan Coen said with a laugh: “You mean maybe having seen this you’d like to take back having liked the previous one?”
Although critics are looking for comparisons, the brothers—who have shared writing and directing duties on movies like this, No Country, Barton Fink, and Fargo—claim they are not.
“We don’t relate one movie to the other among our movies, because why would we? We’re thinking about whatever movie we’re working on,” Ethan said. “The meaningfulness or meaninglessness of each of those movies—I don’t know what to say.”¦The characters are probably leading lives that don’t have a whole lot of meaning, but they could still be interesting characters and actors in an interesting story.”
As any fan of The Big Lebowski knows, the Coens have big fun developing dudes who are only likely to show up at Mensa meetings to pour the coffee. Their plan for Burn After Reading wasn’t specifically to write about characters they refer to as “dolts and knuckleheads”, though it was to write about espionage. “We sort of wanted to do a spy movie,” Joel said of the plot that involves two gym employees trying to get money for a CIA agent’s computer disc they found. “I don’t really think it is a spy movie, but that was sort of one of the original ideas.”
Asked if they were playing with the idea that Washington is a company town and everyone is in the politics biz, Joel said they were aware of the city’s culture but the movie wasn’t intended as a statement on current politics any more than it was a statement about their filmmaking future. “Like most of our stuff, it’s not really meant to be a comment on Washington; it’s really about these particular characters,” he said. But although the movie wasn’t meant to be their take on the Bush government, Joel said they did have a few nonfiction figures in mind while writing. “We had sort of in our minds various people who we were thinking vaguely about as references for the characters, in a way, but, no, it wasn’t a specific kind of lampooning of everything.”
Naturally, a reporter asked who inspired them.
Joel laughed. “Oh, God, I knew I shouldn’t have said that.” Then he confessed: “When we first started thinking about Fran in the vaguest way, because of the plastic surgery and because it would be interesting to see Fran play something like that: Linda Tripp.” Fran would be Frances McDormand, Joel’s Oscar-winning wife (for Fargo).
As Joel mentioned Washington’s favourite white-trash wiretapper, Ethan cradled his head in his hands in apparent pain. Then Joel continued: “And, not to be spurious, Donald Rumsfeld.”
Ethan looked up from his hands and turned to his brother. “You really have to stop.”
The biggest inspiration for the Coen brothers’ work, though, seems to be the actors they want to work with.
“We like to write—and we always have written—parts for specific actors,” Joel said. “As we sit down to write, it helps us imagine the story. Most of the parts in this movie were written for the people who played them.” The only leading role that wasn’t scripted with a specific actor in mind was the one played by Swinton.
Asked what it’s like to work with the Coens, Swinton replied: “It’s so easy. Really short days. Lots of laughing. Uniquely, in my experience, laughing throughout the takes. All credit to Peter, your sound guy, who seems to wire the set in such a way that you honking like donkeys doesn’t feature on the soundtrack.”
Everyone on the podium laughed before Joel responded: “There is a scene in Fargo where Steve Buscemi is slogging through the snow, trying to bury his money in the snow, and he kept sinking up to his waist. And I think even in the finished movie you can hear me laughing.”
Said Ethan: “We did. We left it in. We thought it kind of sounds like Steve breathing.”
Or maybe they were making a statement”¦