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THE LADYKILLERS - Q&A with Joel Coen

It's a "weird" situation for Joel Coen - he's all alone at the Cannes Film Festival. Joel and his brother Ethan have enjoyed some of their greatest triumphs on the Cote D'Azur where they are regular visitors and where they have waltzed away with a host of prizes including the highly coveted Palme d'Or.

But this time Joel has had to leave younger brother Ethan back home in New York where he was recovering from a nasty bout of pneumonia. "He's OK," says Joel. "He got sick right before I came over and wanted to fly and couldn't. But now he is doing much better. He's going to be fine."

Joel without Ethan is a bit like Laurel without Hardy or bread without jam. It's a little unsettling, not least for Joel. "Very weird actually," he smiles. "It's been strange. We've done things by ourselves, press things, but over the years we've never come here to Cannes separately."

When it comes to movies they work as a pair. Usually, Ethan is credited as a producer and Joel as a director although on their latest, THE LADYKILLERS, they are both credited as both directors and producers. "Yeah, this time we decided that it would be both of us as directors," says Joel. "It was like 'why not?' We do most things together anyway."

THE LADYKILLERS wasn't originally intended to be a Coen Brothers film. Their friend and occasional collaborator Barry Sonnenfeld asked them to look at the original 1955 Ealing classic, which starred Alec Guinness and Peter Sellers, and write a new script that he would direct.

Eventually, Barry was side tracked on to other projects and Joel and Ethan decided they wanted to make the film themselves and that's when they approached Tom Hanks to play the gloriously named Professor Goldthwait Higginson Dorr, PhD, who is a man with a plan. A criminal plan - he wants to rob a casino.

When Professor Dorr finds a house within tunneling distance of the casino in question, he rents a room from the formidable widow Mrs Marva Munson, a good Christian lady of upstanding morals. And the Professor persuades her that he needs to use her basement for practicing "church music" with his rather strange collection of friends, whilst in reality the gang furiously dig towards a bonanza haul of casino cash. But when Mrs Munson discovers just what they have been up to, she is far from impressed and the gang have no choice but to bump her off. Or at least try to...

The Coens have claimed a unique place in modern cinema and are recognised as filmmakers with an extraordinary vision. They first came to prominence some 20 years ago with their dark noir thriller BLOOD SIMPLE. Their other films include RAISING ARIZONA, MILLER'S CROSSING, BARTON FINK, which won the Palme d'Or, FARGO, for which the brothers won an Oscar for Best Original Screenplay, THE BIG LEBOWSKI, THE MAN WHO WASN'T THERE, O BROTHER WHERE ART THOU? and INTOLERABLE CRUELTY.

THE LADYKILLERS is a remake. Are there any other films you'd remake?

Well, THE LADYKILLERS is a remake but INTOLERABLE CRUELTY was not a remake but it wasn't from a story that we originated. THE LADYKILLERS is one we wrote for Barry Sonnenfeld to direct and for various reasons he decided to produce it instead and we ended up directing it, so they both started as writing jobs. The next one we do will probably be from our own story and approaching it much more in the way we have approached our previous work.

Does it make it very different, adapting a screenplay when you are going to direct?

Well, frankly it's easier because you have a template you are working from. It's different because there is an element you are not making up and then the other aspect is that when we are writing for other people, as we did initially on these other movies. We don't usually write with specific actors in mind for specific characters because we don't know who they are going to cast in the part. It's just a little different if we are writing knowing that we will direct. Frequently we are writing characters and we are thinking 'well wouldn't it be interesting to see such and such play this kind of a person.' And the character starts to grow out of that as you are writing it and it's a combination of things that you are making up and what you know about the actor.

What made you choose THE LADYKILLERS?

Well, we didn't really choose it. It came to us as a writing assignment and Barry said 'you know the movie is owned by Disney, I want to direct it, will you guys write a screenplay?' We watched the movie again and we'd seen it before and liked it and we thought 'well you know we could do something with this.' It's about a group of misfit criminals who come down and perpetrate a heist, it has a central irony at the end of the movie about who survives, it's got this sort of dark comedy feel, but we saw a way we could change the Katie Johnson character from the original into something that we would be interested in writing about. So we saw all of those things and said 'yeah, OK, we'll write it...'

Do you like the Ealing comedies?

Very much so. I like THE LADYKILLERS, KIND HEARTS AND CORONETS, lots of them. I think we probably first saw them on the television when we were kids. They stayed with us.

Was Tom Hanks involved in the project from the start?


Did you have Tom in mind?

No. Only when we decided to direct it and we started thinking about who might play that part.

Was he your first choice?

Yeah because he is somebody that we had been interested in for a while for other reasons. We had talked to him about doing something at some point and we thought that THE LADYKILLERS was an interesting opportunity and not something we had really seen before in terms of what he does.

Did he work for a usual Tom Hanks type fee?

(Laughs) No.

How easy or difficult to work with Disney?

It was no different for us. We worked no differently with Disney than we did with other companies - we've made films with Working Title, Polygram, lots of other companies. It was absolutely fine and they left us alone. We made O BROTHER with Disney and it was the same people, Nina Jacobson and Dick Cook. And when we do a movie with the studios, they kind of know, the studios wouldn't be asking us to do it I don't think if it was a movie they kind of wanted to get into themselves. What you see is what you get with us so they kind of let us do what we want to do.

You said before that the film cost nearly $40 million. How easy or difficult is it to work in that budget range?

Well it wasn't a particularly complicated movie from a production point of view. We built most of the sets and the only thing that was complicated was the bridge because it doesn't exist anywhere, it's all done on a set or miniatures or CGI. That was the only complicated thing from a production point of view.

Did you have to change anything when Tom came on board?


He has a very distinctive laugh in this, was the laugh his own invention?

Oh definitely. It's a great laugh.

Tom was saying that he still hasn't seen the original. How did you treat the original?

I was surprised he hadn't seen it when we brought him the project and I was sort of expecting him to watch it and it became clear he wasn't going to and then I kind of realised 'well, that's very smart actually..' Because there is absolutely nothing to be gained once you have committed to doing that part and so it was interesting. As far as we were concerned we took from the original what we were interested in and didn't have any problem changing everything else.

Do you think you have changed now you are working with big stars like Tom Hanks and George Clooney?

I don't know, the distinction between working with big stars or not is kind of an artificial one for us. I mean with Tom, the reason we were really interested in working with him was not because he is a big star because frankly it was not that kind of movie that we needed a big star to get it financed, for instance. We are always looking for actors who can carry a movie as a leading role but who are also essentially character actors you know whether they are stars or it's John Turturro, whether it's George Clooney or Billy Bob Thornton. If they are essentially character actors but they also have the ability to be the centre of a film then we are interested in them and we kind of don't care whether they are stars or not. And there are only certain kinds of stars who can do that. Other kinds of movie stars, it's a different thing, they bring their personna to the part and that's what people like to see and they are not really transforming in terms of their character.

What is the advantage of working with the same actors many times as you often do?

Well we work with not only the same actors many times but you know, the creative people and technicians over and over again, we have worked with Roger Deakins (director of photography) for 13 years and Dennis Gassner our designer for you know, 15 years. You find collaborators that you are particularly comfortable with and you have a very productive relationship and we like that. We have always worked with the same people.

Do you know what you are making next?

No, we're just writing now and we'll see.

Do you ever test screen films?

We've test screened only a couple of things we've made. I mean, generally speaking it's not particularly helpful with our movies. You know some movies it's more so than others, and that includes the stuff we do. If you are doing a flat out comedy it can be useful to see what is coming across to an audience. In other kinds of movies there is just no point in test screening it. There's no point in test screening BARTON FINK or THE MAN WHO WASN'T THERE. What are you going to find out? Other ones that are a little bit more overtly comedies then you can. And I think maybe the studios may screen the movies just to see in terms of a marketing thing but we don't test them and then go back and tinker with them.

Irma P Hall as Mrs Munson is a crucial piece of casting...

Oh yeah. We kind of saw her and then thought 'she's great, but we can't hire the very first person who comes through the door.' But it was a kind of empty exercise because she was clearly and always the right person.

And how about Marlon Wayans who plays one of the gang?

Marlon was funny as hell and he improvised a lot of that stuff. We were telling Marlon we should really be giving him a writing credit because of what he does in some of those scenes (laughs). He was great.

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