There are many differences between the filmmaking Coen brothers. Joel, 47, is older than Ethan by three years. Ethan keeps his hair close-cropped, while Joel's is a messy mane. Ethan has a high voice, and when he laughs it comes out like a schoolgirl giggle. Joel's voice, like his laugh, is deep and hearty.
One big similarity, however, is their shared sensibility toward movies. They write them together (though Ethan spends a bit more time on the words) and they direct them together (though Joel spends a bit more time with the actors). Among the 10 feature films they're co-created, there's a slapstick comedy (Raising Arizona), a vision of darkness (Miller's Crossing) and even a skewed combination of history, mythology, music and flat-out goofiness (O Brother, Where Art Thou?). With their newest, Intolerable Cruelty -- the story of a smooth-talking divorce lawyer (George Clooney) who gets his comeuppance from a shrewd gold digger (Catherine Zeta-Jones), who meets her match in him -- the Coens dip into screwball territory, with nods toward snappy fast-talking films such as Twentieth Century and exercises in farce such as That Touch of Mink.
Not only do the Coens work well together, they also seem to know what each other is going to say, often interrupting or finishing one another's thoughts.
Why is the film called Intolerable Cruelty?
Ethan: It's a bad title. That's one thing we can disavow because we inherited it. It was a rewrite job we did seven or eight years ago, just for hire, with no idea of directing it ourselves. The title is a legacy from some damn place. I don't like it.
Joel: Neither of us likes it. It sounds like, you know, Extreme Measures, or Absolute Prejudice, or some Hollywood thing.
How did you go about casting George and Catherine?
Joel: The script was at the studio for a number of years, and at one point, George looked at it and expressed interest in doing the part if we were involved in the production. So he came first because we have a history with him (O Brother). His interest in the script was one of the reasons we decided to make the movie. And Catherine was someone who occurred to us right afterward. I'd seen her in Traffic and [laughs] Zorro. The combination of what she did in those two movies together convinced me that she could really knock this part out.
This is a romantic comedy, and the buzz on it is that it's your first mainstream movie.
Ethan: I don't really know where that comes from. Every movie we've done -- with the exception maybe of Barton Fink [laughs] -- we've sort of hoped would be mainstream. But who knows? It's not really our place to assign that label in advance of its release. But any movie you make, you hope the most number of people will watch it. We do what we think is interesting and funny, and hope people think the same thing.
Joel: Every movie is personal to us. We have yet to make a movie that's autobiographical. Everything we do is a made-up story. And we bring the same level of interest and commitment to each.
What do your actors think of your directing style?
Joel: We don't direct actors much. It's about the casting, and we cast people that we trust will understand the material, and that essentially aren't going to need to be directed much. George is someone who very quickly understands what needs to be brought to the material.
Ethan: George was still shooting Solaris when we started the movie, and literally, when he showed up on the set, we had like a five-minute discussion about his character. Anybody else would've shown up and talked about it for five minutes and done something completely ...
Joel: ...different, or maybe inappropriate.
Has the dynamic changed between you two over the years on who does what?
Joel and Ethan [simultaneously]: No.
Joel: There's never really been a breakdown. We're both on the set all the time. I don't know. [to Ethan] What is the breakdown?
Ethan: We write together, sitting in a room, and we like talking the scene through together. And working on the movie is pretty much just an extension of that. There's no formal division of labor, or informal division of labor. There's no division of labor.
You are two of the very few people in this business who get to do whatever you want. How did that happen?
Ethan: Well, that's almost true. It's true within limits. It's true if we're not spending too much money. It's partly because we're willing to make movies cheaper than the studio norm. There was one movie we tried to get made with Brad Pitt that was just too expensive and too weird, and we couldn't get it done. But within very broad limits, it's kind of true, and we're incredibly lucky.
What's your next project?
Joel: We're done filming a remake of The Ladykillers, with Tom Hanks and Irma P. Hall. It should be released in April.
Is it pretty close to the original British film?
Joel: The basic story is the same. A group of people who are plotting a heist rent a room from an old lady. And they enlist her in the robbery without her knowing it. She finds out about it and they decide they have to kill her. But none of them can bring themselves to kill this sweet little old lady.
Ethan: It takes place in present-day Mississippi.
Joel: And it's very different from the English one. People speak in Southern accents instead of English accents.