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Interview with Joel and Ethan Coen, writers/directors of A Serious Man

Joel and Ethan Coen write and direct A Serious Man, a tragicomedy about Larry Gopnik (Michael Stuhlbarg), a physics professor from Minneapolis whose wife, Judith (Sari Lennick), asks for the religious divorce called a "ghet" when she falls in love with their neighbor, Sy (Fred Melamed). Larry has a daughter, Sarah (Jessica McManus), who steals money from him, and a son, Danny (Aaron Wolff) whose Bar Mitzvah is approaching and often smokes pot. As Larry's life continues to fall apart all around him in many different ways, he consults three different rabbis in hope of interpreting a meaning to all of the tragic chaos. Joel and Ethan Coen have previously writen/directed Burn After Reading, No Country for Old Men, Intolerable Cruelty, The Man Who Wasn't There, The Ladykillers, The Big Lebowski, O Brother, Where Art Thou?, Fargo, Miller's Crossing, Raising Arizona, Barton Fink and Blood Simple. It was a real privilege to interview them together.

Focus Features releases A Serious Man on October 2nd, 2009 at the Angelika Film Center, Clearview 1st and 62nd, and Lincoln Plaza Cinemas.

NYC MOVIE GURU: How did you find the right balance between entertaining the audience and provoking them intellectually?

EC: Itís kind of all about entertainment, really, but people are entertained by different things. I watch movies with my kid whoís really entertained by certain action movies that I find very dull and when we sit down to think about whatís going to entertaining to us, it just tends to go off in a different direction. I donít think itís so much a question of saying, ďHow are we going to be thought provoking for the audiences?Ē Itís about this character and this and this happens to him and itíll be funny or whatever.

JC: ďThisíll be good, thisíll get Ďum going, thisíll work, thisíll be interesting.Ē [We] never ever [thought], ďthis will be thought provoking.Ē

NYC MOVIE GURU: How have your childhood experiences living in Jewish community influenced the film?

EC: We grew up in a Jewish community in the suburban Midwest, so in that respect, itís where weíre from. Iím sure we wouldnít have made this movie in our twenties because the environment when and where we grew up than it was to us as people in their twenties and maybe even thirties. In terms of the narrative and what happens to the people in it, thatís not autobiographical [or] have to do with our experiences, but the context does.

JC: Distance not only gives you a certain perspective about it, but also the whole period nature of it as you get farther and farther away gives [something thatís], sort of, alien or exotic.

EC: Alienism is too strong [of a word to use]. Itís something we never would have said living there as kids. Getting some distance away from it makes you think, ďMan, Jews on the plains. Thatís odd.Ē

JC: You donít think that when youíre living in the middle of it. When youíre living in the middle of it, itís just your life.

NYC MOVIE GURU: Are you surprised that The Big Lebowski has such a strong following that thereís a Big Lebowski Convention?

EC: We donít really think about it much. The whole thing is as odd to us as it to other people probably, if not odder. Somebody was more surprised than we were.

NYC MOVIE GURU: How has your perspective on Judaism evolved throughout your life?

JC: I donít know if it evolved. When youíre a kid, all of that religious and language instruction is just a chore. You donít want to go to Hebrew school or shul on the weekend. Now neither of us is observant. I donít if as a religion itís that much of a live issue for us.

EC: Itís part of your identity inescapably and part of the culture that youíre from.

JC: It is what it is. Weíre Jews. That hasnít changed either.

EC: Whenever youíre telling a story, youíre always looking for a, sort of, specificity in terms of the context of the story. In this case, it was something that we have a lot of experience with. It doesnít need to be, but in this case it was. [We] put it in the context of a Jewish community and a man going to see rabbis, but, beyond that, weíre making up characters however they seem, sort of, appropriate, interesting or entertaining for the specific story. Itís not designed to say, ďI want to do this because itís going to say this about Jews or Judaism.Ē

JC: We have this character whoís beset by all these problems and going to his religious leaders for his relief, but itís just a story thing. No doubt, there are people whoíd make a story about a guy who goes to his religious leaders for his relief and gets enlightened. Thatís fine, but, God! We would never make that story.

NYC MOVIE GURU: How tricky was it for you to come up the unconventional ending?

EC: All the loose ends are tied up literally, but you want to have something that, to us, feels like a conclusion. Their endings are tricky. Theyíre not necessarily going to feel like a conclusion for everybody. They donít, in any context, unless theyíre very obvious. Those really obvious ones can be perfectly satisfying, but completely unmemorable and not very interesting endings in other ways. Take the ending of No Country for Old Men, which was the one that a lot of people had issues with. We ended it in exactly the way that the book ended. When I read that ending, I thought it was perfect. Theyíre not conventional endings, but, often, conventional endings are, in a different way, very, very unsatisfying.

NYC MOVIE GURU: Have you considered making a sequel to any your films?

EC: There is one sequel that we want to make and we talked to John Turturro about this. We told him that when he gets old enough we want to do a movie called Old Fink which is about Barton Fink decades later. We told John that we wonít do it until heís bout 25 years older.

NYC MOVIE GURU: What film are you working on next?

JC: Weíre working on an adaptation of [the novel] True Grit .

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