Growing up in Minnesota the Coen brothers, Joel and Ethan, saved up money mowing lawns to buy a Super 8 camera. They’ve been making movies together ever since – a catalogue of eccentric, often hilarious and yet sometimes pretty dark films.
Their latest, Hail, Caesar!, takes us back to the early 1950s and the Golden Age of Hollywood. Josh Brolin is Eddie Mannix, a studio Mr Fix It who’s in a panic after one of his big stars (played by George Clooney) goes missing from the set of his swords-and-sandals epic. As Eddie searches high and low for his missing A-lister, we meet Channing Tatum as a tap-dancing actor and Scarlett Johansson playing a high-diving beauty starring in a “water ballet”.
Is it true that George Clooney spent years trying to talk you into making Hail, Caesar!?
Joel: Yes! We told George the idea for the film many, many years ago, probably on the first ever movie we did with him, O Brother, Where Art Thou?. George was taken with it and he did this thing over the years where whenever he was asked what he was doing next, he’d say: Hail, Caesar! After a while, we thought maybe we should just write it.
What makes Clooney perfect to play Baird Whitlock, a big-name star, but not the smartest cookie in the jar?
Joel: George is like an old-style movie star in many respects. We love it when he’s playing an idiot for us, which George is so great at. First of all, it’s difficult to do that unless you’re good, and George lets it all hang out there. He’s got no vanity when it comes to that stuff. But then we need you to believe he’s a movie star, too. Not everyone can do that.
Hail, Caesar! is set at a specific time and place, with recognisable characters. But it’s not based on real events, is it? You’re not historians?
Ethan: Oh goodness, no.
Joel: There are historical models for some of the characters, but they’re fictional. For instance, for the Scarlett Johansson character, we were thinking about Esther Williams [the swimmer-turned-actress who appeared in “aqua musicals”]. But we’re not trying to do Esther. It’s an Esther Williams-like character.
Hail, Caesar! celebrates the genius and craziness of moviemaking in the early ’50s. Did it ever make you think: Why have we spent more than 30 years doing this ourselves?
Joel: Why have we spent our entire lives in that place? Yeah. If you spend your life as a plumber or an academic or a politician, at the end of many decades of doing it, you’re going to look at it in a different way.
Hail, Caesar! is out now in cinemas across Dubai.
Three top Coen Films
The Big Lebowski (1998)
A fully baked LA detective story featuring a tubby hero (the immortal Jeff Bridges), a howling Vietnam vet (John Goodman) and a ’70s kinship like no other.
No Country for Old Men (2007)
Josh Brolin is chased by hitman Javier Bardem after finding US$2m – and several executed Mexicans. It won four Oscars, including Best Director.
Inside Llewyn Davis (2013)
The Coens at their most sombre and moving: an uncompromising, wise reflection on talent, success, disappointment and living as an artist (Oscar Isaac).