Joel and Ethan Coen have a ton of Oscars and other awards on their shelves, but the duo is fairly elusive when it comes to touting themselves and their work. So it isn’t exactly surprising that they’d never agreed to a Telluride Film Festival tribute, until this year. And the only way — a smart and entertaining one as it turns out — to lure them here was to wrap it around the use of music in their films and in particular the remarkable work they do with T Bone Burnett, who is getting equal treatment with the Coens here at the tribute shows on Friday night and this morning. The trio received the Festival’s much-prized Silver Medallion last night from their friend Barry Sonnenfeld right after a lively musical performance of Coenesque tunes by a group called The Americans and a half-hour of superbly-chosen clips from the T Bone-infused films The Big Lebowski, O Brother, Where Art Thou, The Ladykillers and their latest, Inside Llewyn Davis, a grand prize winner at Cannes and set to open in December via CBS Films. It is also playing here this weekend.
A 35-minute onstage conversation followed the Medallion presentation which was placed on a chain around their necks. “I’m feeling like Mark Spitz,” joked Ethan about the latest award they have received. As I said in Cannes, this film, set in the folk singing scene of the early ’60s, is one of their best. Needless to say, it has great music in addition to a terrific cast including star Oscar Isaac, who should be a contender for awards (along with a scene-stealing cat). In fact one of those “stolen scenes” was an extended sequence with Isaac forced to carry the cat through New York City after he dashes out the door of his apartment. As with the other clips shown, it really demonstrates the power of music in the films of these iconic filmmakers.
The conversation that followed basically revolved around the subject matter of the evening: the influence of music in many of their films. The Coens actually sat in the audience watching the clips, with Ethan observing: “We don’t ever watch our stuff after we’re through. But it was kind of fun, especially seeing Big Lebowski.” The fun thing about seeing the Coens in this kind of onstage event is that they are truly themselves. It almost felt like they had never heard questions like these in their life. Asked by moderator Todd McCarthy if either could remember the first time they had ever collaborated on anything that could be called “creative,” Joel replied, “I’m not sure we have.” Finally, Ethan offered that they made Super 8 films as kids. “We would watch movies on TV and then remake them the next day on Super 8. We remade The Naked Prey because we were really into that. And then, this was probably too ambitious at the time, we tried to adapt Advise & Consent,” he said. Asked if music was a big part of their lives growing up at home, Ethan indicated not much. “Our parents had two records. One was The Mikado and the other was the soundtrack of Fiddler On The Roof.” Added Joel, “They listened to so little music that when I went to college I took the entire stereo system and they didn’t notice”.
Ethan admitted they did listen to folk singers like Pete Seeger and in a way that informed much of the use of music in their films. In fact they met T Bone after he saw an early Coens film, Raising Arizona and inquired about one piece of Seeger music in the film. Then, with Burnett explaining the methods, the trio discussed specifics of each of their collaborations, leading to a hilarious discussion about Inside Llewyn Davis. In its own way it was a remarkable peek into the collaboration process of director and musician, such a key part of so many movies. Of Davis they said their goal was to find an actor who was also a real musician, and Joel offered that until they met Isaac their ambition of having songs sung straight through in a realistic manner (rather than snippets) could not have been realized. In many ways they wanted the film to seem more like a documentary. “There was no manipulation in that respect,” said Joel.
As for working with cats — not only in Llewyn Davis but also The Ladykillers — they had to use multiple cats. “You can’t train cats,” Joel explained. “You have the cat that’s limp, the cat that’s surly, the cat that can run down the fire escape, and you use that moment because you can’t ask a cat to do anything.” Ethan said a second unit director spent all day just waiting for one of the cats to turn its head.
The Coen brothers in Telluride is a unique experience. In an unusual email sent out after Friday night’s tribute, fest co-director Gary Meyer, noting the competition from the two competing sneaks of Prisoners and 12 Years A Slave, urged those who may have missed it to make it to the Saturday morning tribute (where I am told they were even funnier and received a standing ovation). “If you were at tonight’s tribute, you know how much fun it was. Ethan, Joel and T Bone told both very funny stories and offered insight into their process of collaboration. It was a unique 90 minutes,” it read.
The first-ever visit to Telluride for this trio obviously meant a lot not just to the festival but to those lucky enough to have gotten a rare glimpse into their creative mojo.