Joel and Ethan Coen have never been personal filmmakers in an obvious sense, but A Serious Man is as close as they’re ever likely to get to autobiography. Set in a Minnesota town modeled on the Minneapolis suburb where they were raised, the film focuses on a physics teacher (Michael Stuhlbarg) whose faith in the moral order is shaken by a string of personal misfortunes. Desperate for reassurance, he turns to a series of rabbis for guidance, but their advice is so ambiguous as to be useless, sending him further into doubt and anguish. The film is staged as an antic, even absurd farce, but the underlying themes are profound disillusion and spiritual unease—themes that the Coens, for once, were willing to cop to when The A.V. Club caught up with them at the Toronto International Film Festival the day after its première.
The A.V. Club: The setting of A Serious Man is based on the Jewish community in the Minneapolis suburb where you grew up. How much of your own memories or experience informed the world of this movie, or inspired it in the first place?
Ethan Coen: Oh, a lot. I mean, it’s all about where we grew up, and the period is when we were kids. That was a big part of the appeal. It’s what got us going on doing the movie, doing this story. Feeling like, in terms of setting, you’re returning to your childhood gives you some kind of strange charge. In terms of what happens, there’s no autobiography in that sense. That’s all made up. But in terms of where it is and the feeling of the environment, that’s all where we grew up.
Joel Coen: And the kinds of people in the religious community and the academic community, because our parents were both teachers.
AVC: Being Jewish is unique in that it’s both a cultural identity and a religious tradition; you can be a secular Jew, but not a secular Christian. How much of a part did that tradition play in your upbringing? Was that present in your house?
JC: Well, yes, very much so. Our mother was a very religious and observant Jew, our father less so. She was kind of driving the religious education, so for us it was more a burden and an obligation when we were kids at that age.
EC: The religious part of it, and the language instruction, all of that, I mean the ethnicity part of it, is just… It’s just kind of the given of who you are. But Hebrew school is just what it was for all of our peers, just a huge boring pain in the ass.
AVC: Were you both bar mitzvahed?
JC: Yeah, yeah.
AVC: Was that just something you did because other kids in your class did?
JC: Oh, no, we were absolutely required to do it. There was no choice in the matter.
EC: And everyone did it.
JC: Just as there was no choice in attending Hebrew school five days a week. And going to synagogue every week.
EC: No choice in two respects, because of the family, because of our mother. But also because you didn’t even question it, because all our peers did it. Much more so than now. We have kids in New York, and—a lot of Jews, some of them are bar mitzvahed, and some not. There, it was universal.
AVC: The movie is something of a hybrid. On one level, it’s dealing with profound questions about religious faith and moral responsibility, and on the other it’s a farcical comedy. What was the first thing that fell into place for you? Was it the deeper questions, the characters, or the setting?
JC: To be honest, the setting was first in a way. Secondly, it was the character who’s a member of that community, and trying to make sense of his life in the midst of this crisis, in the context of that community. Someone who’s part of that community, so he’s trying to make sense within that context.
EC: But it’s an interestingly put question, because it’s the whole thing of—what you’re getting at is, there’s a story, there’s a guy. He visits three rabbis. Then it can either be a fable, or it can be some Borscht Belt joke. In the movie, it’s kind of both.
JC: Yeah, it’s both. We were just talking about that, actually, how “A guy goes to see three rabbis” is either the beginning of a joke or the spine of a folktale, you know what I mean?
AVC: The movie is embedded with little stories, like the opening vignette, that can be seen as an equivalent to Biblical parables, but it’s an open question as to whether they mean anything. Take the story the second rabbi tells, about the dentist who discovers a message written in Hebrew on his patient’s teeth. Is “The Story Of The Goy’s Teeth” an example of divine visitation, or is the moral that you should forget what you don’t understand and just live your life?
EC: [Laughs.] That’s so great. It’s just gratifying, I must say. It’s not even your question, it’s just gratifying to hear a complete stranger—or virtually a complete stranger—referring to the story of the goy’s teeth. It makes me feel like we accomplished something.
AVC: It’s your Grand Inquisitor.
JC: Yeah. We’ve got the parable of the goy’s teeth. We were sort of aware, while we were doing it, of it being an elaborate shaggy-dog story that fits into the story in an interesting way, you know? The beginning was more of a feeling thing. It relates only in the sense that it feels right. Retrospectively, you can sort of impose some analysis on it, and say “Here are the reasons,” or “This may have been partly what you were thinking at the time.” But we weren’t really thinking that at the time, we were just thinking it felt right.
AVC: And the shaggy-dog story is itself a venerable Midwestern tradition.
AVC: You seem to make tonal decisions based more on instinct than any conceptual framework, but was there a point at which you decided to play the farcical and philosophical qualities of the movie on top of each other?
JC: Honestly, I don’t think ever it comes up, even subtextually. It just goes where it goes. Sometimes, in certain stories, I think we know at the outset essentially what the tone is going to be, or it becomes important that we’re groping toward some kind of story with a certain kind of tone that we both get somehow. But I don’t think how that’s combined with other elements is ever in any way overtly discussed.
EC: We agree among ourselves, we go, “Okay, here’s this kind of folktaley-feeling thing at the beginning, and then a Jefferson Airplane song comes on, bangs in.” And you go, “Oh, right, right. That feels kind of good. That’s it.” We both get how that, in some way, feels good, and it helps us find the feeling of the piece.
JC: And sometimes, you know, it’s really right. The only thing you can compare it to in terms of how non-intellectual it is, is that sometimes when you’re doing movies with lots of music in them, you just know, this either has the vibe of the movie, or it doesn’t. On the surface, you would think they’re very similar kinds of music, but one does and one doesn’t, and it’s that kind of vague thing that you simply have the feeling for.
EC: When the movie’s done, you talk about either the score or source music over a particular scene, what might work. You just throw a piece of music over the scene, and we both listen to it. And it’s just…
JC: Patently wrong, or…
EC: Yeah. You feel. It immediately feels right or wrong. There aren’t reasons why you like this song or this piece of music, or don’t like it. It’s just, it’s either right or wrong, you know?
AVC: The actors you’ve worked with all say that you’re extremely precise about what you want on set. Javier Bardem said that when he was shooting No Country For Old Men, he gave up trying to understand what you were asking for and just did it, not knowing if he was giving a good performance or not.
EC: That’s funny. Our side of that is these long discussions with Javier where I had no idea what the fuck he was talking about. [Laughs.] But, you know, it works out.
JC: And you’re perfectly happy to have them. It varies so much from actor to actor. With John Malkovich, you couldn’t possibly say less to make him happy.
EC: Or Josh Brolin, who would listen to our discussions with Javier and just laugh his ass off, because he found it so funny: Javier’s talking on the one hand, and our reactions to him. It really, really amused Brolin. [Laughs.]
AVC: The time period of the movie may just be based on when you were growing up, but the use of “Someone To Love” puts it in the middle of a period of cultural upheaval, a time when a lot of certainties were being broken down.
EC: Right. It is a real specific moment. 1967 is a real specific thing. And, oh God, it seemed like the right time to put it. Joel was 13, and I was 10, I guess. I don’t know.
JC: It seemed like one of those little fulcrum points of time, one of those pivot points. But there were different things we were thinking about. The other thing that kind of coincided with it that was a little bit of an element at first but then fell by the wayside—we became less interested in that and more interested in other things—was that especially from a Jewish point of view, June ’67 was the Six Day War. That was originally a little bit of noise in the background of the whole thing as well, but that’s just to say the particular moment seemed very important for some reason to us.
EC: Somehow it seemed like the ultimate, the whole post-war suburban thing. The height of that. I don’t know. A young father.
AVC: And also a time where people like the main character were saying, “Okay, I’ve lived my life the way I was supposed to up until this point, and for what?”
EC: Yeah, right.
AVC: The performers you work with specialize in a kind of stylized acting that hearkens back to pre-World War II Hollywood. Do you have a sense of what about that style appeals to you collectively?
EC: You know, I kind of know what you mean. What does he mean? I kind of know what you mean. Yeah.
JC: I do too. But only kind of. Around the edges. And it has to do with the difference between, I think, the way we imagine characters and scenes, and also stories in general, that would prohibit us—and this is a real backward way of approaching your question—from doing a movie like, in a weird kind of a way, Michael Clayton. You know? There’s something about that completely naturalistic style within the current understanding of naturalism in Hollywood, you know what I mean, that we just don’t truck with for some reason, and I don’t fucking know why. [Laughs.] But in that respect, I kind of know what you mean. It’s like I can’t imagine our doing a movie which requires of an actor exactly that.
EC: Yeah, that’s somehow disconnected too. Yeah.
JC: And it goes to, I think, just the way we think about stories and actors, characters, and just scenes. You know?
EC: Right. If an actor tried to, you’d shake the actor and go, “No, you don’t understand. It’s a story.” [Laughs.]
JC: But I say that it’s naturalistic only, I think, within Hollywood’s current idea of what naturalism is, because there isn’t really that. That doesn’t exist in the abstract as a pure thing.
EC: It’s funny, because even Fargo, which was an exercise in naturalism…
JC: It was an attempt at naturalism.
EC: It was like, true story, but a “true story” in quotes because it wasn’t fucking true.
JC: Yeah. And it has what you’re talking about, the same thing in terms of acting, what we were after, or what was understood.
EC: It was more like, “Act like it’s a true story.”
JC: Yeah, act like it’s a true—but it doesn’t have that thing, it still has the stamp of that certain kind of acting or approach to character. So yeah, I do know what you mean, but it’s a hard thing to put your finger on.
AVC: It’s as if Hollywood’s conception of naturalism begins with The Godfather.
JC: In a weird kind of way, I think The Godfather might not be that. I would think more like The French Connection, you know? More like a ’70s movie about cops. Or Sidney Lumet. We wouldn’t do that.
JC: Sidney Lumet, we wouldn’t do. It’s not the way we think about it. But it’s an interesting question. It really is. It’s an interesting observation.
EC: It’s funny, yeah. We were talking about Malkovich being fired in Burn After Reading. The Sidney Lumet scene. Because kind of it is, and…
JC: Kind of it isn’t. And the ways in which it isn’t are the ways in which you’re talking about.
EC: That scene is as close as we get to naturalistic.
JC: And yet it isn’t that. And everyone sort of understood it wasn’t that.