Tracy Letts and Carrie Coon hardly need introductions, but just in case, here they are: He’s one of America’s best living playwrights, the Pulitzer-winning author of August: Osage County, Killer Joe, and Bug, as well as the play Superior Donuts (the basis for the excellent but short-lived CBS series). He’s also acted in everything from Homeland to Lady Bird, as well as recent films like Ford V. Ferrari and Little Women. Carrie Coon has quickly amassed a great deal of acclaim as an actor, appearing in award-winning film and television favorites from Gone Girl to The Leftovers. To top it off, last year The A.V. Club named her our actor of the decade.
The two of them are also married, and they’re currently socially isolating like the rest of us to try and slow the spread of the coronavirus. So we reached out to see if they’d be willing to program one of our 24-hour movie marathons for those cooped up inside, and they were more than happy to oblige: Letts assembled the films and chose the start time, and the two of them got on the phone to talk to us about watching movies together, how great it is to be on earth at the same time as John Waters, and how Letts might have a small problem when it comes to collecting Blu-rays.
The A.V. Club: This is one of Ingmar Bergman’s more accessible films. What made you want to start with this one?
Tracy Letts: Well, I think you’re at 11 o’clock in the morning. You’ve had your coffee. You’re awake. You’re ready to start your day. And you’ve got all of your faculties. You can pay attention—and it helps to pay attention when you’re watching Bergman. And you know, Max von Sydow just died. He’s so great in that movie. I’m a big Bergman fan, and this is a serious movie, but it’s not overpowering. It’s not, “Oh, I have to go take my medicine.”
Carrie Coon: Yeah, it’s not vegetables.
AVC: I think a lot of Bergman fans would agree it’s one of his more “entertaining”—was that how you first encountered it?
TL: I think so, and even though it has some weight to it—as all Bergman does—there’s also a fun mystery element to it. So both metaphysics and mystery. I don’t know, it’s more fun than some others.
TL: I’m a big W.C. Fields fan. I think it’s maybe the best feature-length Fields movie. It has great set pieces in it, and you know, you’re not going to follow Bergman up with something else serious—or even an attempt of seriousness—so you need a little something to cleanse the palate. And it’s short. It’s only, like, an hour and eight minutes long, so it doesn’t overstay its welcome. Now, I have to tell you that we’ve watched a few W.C. Fields movies. My wife and I sit there, and I laugh my ass off.
CC: He laughs so hard.
TL: And she just sits there, stone-faced. And I finally got to the point where I was like, “Enough. I can’t do it anymore. It’s too depressing for me to put this on and have you not laugh at it.” So I guess we’ll have to wait until my son is old enough to appreciate it.
CC: I’m a tough laugh!
AVC: Is it just you’re not as big a fan of old-school vaudeville comedy, or...?
CC: I find the physical comedy that’s repetitive, less entertaining than a good intellectual joke.
TL: She doesn’t laugh at anything.
CC: Hey, that’s a good quality in a playwright’s wife!
TL: She also doesn’t cry. I have to say, I sit and laugh and weep during all these movies, and my wife just sits there.
CC: I save it for my work. I have to cry all the time at work.
TL: Contempt, oh, it’s just so great. It’s so engaging. I think when people hear the name Godard, they think it’s gonna be impenetrable. There’s nothing impenetrable about Contempt. It’s very accessible and very watchable. [Brigitte] Bardot and Jack Palance, the acting is fantastic, and it’s really not like any other movie that I could dig up. That long scene between the couple at the beginning, which is essentially the end of their relationship, it’s just one of the best end-of-relationship scenes I’ve ever seen in a movie. It’s upsetting, but it’s real. I can identify.
AVC: Were you a big French New Wave guy in your youth?
TL: Yes. Still am. I love all that stuff. [Claude] Chabrol is considered one of the lesser lights of that movement. But we will watch some Chabrol in this house.
CC: There’s no Chabrol on this list.
TL: Well, it’s not a best-of list. I think if anything, we were trying to just capture, like, “Here’s a very eclectic way of approaching it.” You know, when I pick out a movie for me and Carrie to watch—and I do pick out the movies, she completely abdicates that responsibility—that’s the chief concern of mine. How do I mix it up from the thing we watched before? How do I just keep it interesting for the next night.
CC: He’s so conscious of when we haven’t had a leading lady in a film for a long time. [Laughs.]
TL: Well, you know, we’ve got a lot of movies in the collection, and you start looking over them and you realize just how many of them are male-centric and how many of the movies I grew up watching are male-centric. And as soon as you become conscious of that and you’re picking out movies for your wife to watch, you just can’t choose The Wild Bunch every night. It’s not going to work out. [Laughs.].
CC: And Tracy’s selection, it’s so diversified that just about any topic we can think of, we have downstairs.
AVC: Are you an obsessive collector type?
TL: I am. I—
CC: Oh, Alex.
TL: [Laughs.] I’m a bit obsessive. It’s a bit of a guilty pleasure, because it’s gotten so—I mean, we’ll never watch them all in my lifetime.
CC: They arrive at the house every day.
TL: Well, not every day.
CC: Almost every day.
AVC: Speaking of very male-centric stories. But it’s also Elaine May at the top of her game.
TL: It is Elaine May at the top of her game. And It’s written by Neil Simon. People don’t think of it as a Simon piece, because it’s so... It’s just acid. It’s so dark. It’s such a dark little tale. But Elaine May’s a goddamn genius, and she really gets that guy. And that’s one of the things that makes it painful and excruciating to watch because, like, yeah—unfortunately, I get it.
AVC: It was also critically acclaimed, even at the time, which is so rare for a comedy.
TL: And yet at the same time kind of overlooked in a lot of ways. When you talk about the great comedies, you don’t often hear Heartbreak Kid thrown out there. But I think it’s... I think [Charles] Grodin is fantastic. And Jeannie Berlin is fantastic in it. And it’s just a great, horrible movie.
AVC: I like that you chose this right after Contempt, because it gives this great leap from a very Euro mood to a very deeply, weirdly American vibe.
TL: When we’re curating our 24-hour movie marathon, these are the kinds of things you have to keep in mind.
TL: We just watched that the other night.
CC: I had not seen it before.
TL: Gosh, what a great movie.
CC: Another deeply American film.
TL: It’s just a really great movie. I really love the the way it... There’s a mystical element to that, too. There’s a little bit of an element of supernatural to that as well.
CC: There’s a lightheartedness about the film that I appreciated.
TL: It’s a portrait of people in a time and place that, frankly, is not a world we [as white people] often get to look into. So often when we see work from Black artists, what gets commodified for white audiences are stories of trauma. And [Charles] Burnett is great at showing the lives of these people in all its middle-class banality. It’s a great window into his world. I love it.
AVC: As soon as I saw it on your list, I wondered if Burnett was actually an influence on your own work.
TL: Probably everything is an influence on my own work, but I consider that a great compliment, because he’s a great artist.
CC: So good.
TL: For my money, it’s one of the best movies ever made.
CC: The acting is phenomenal. Aesthetically...
TL: This is a Derek Jarman production design, and the performances—Oliver Reed, Vanessa Redgrave. And it’s so rare for anything to hit all of its targets. But in terms of what it’s saying about the way we conduct our politics in the world today... For a movie that’s set hundreds of years ago, I think it just hits every target it goes for. It’s a terrifying movie.
CC: And it’s your main feature.
TL: Yeah. I put it in my prime-time slot.
AVC: It’s one of those films where you couldn’t get a quality copy of it for so long. How did you first see it?
TL: I had seen it on television years before—but you know, we are region-free down in our viewing space, meaning we’re able to play discs not only from the U.S., but also from the U.K. And there’s actually a very good BFI disc of The Devils. I think recently Criterion Channel had it in their rotation. I don’t know if it’s still in their rotation, but I would assume that the Criterion Channel had a pretty good-looking copy of it.
AVC: Vanessa Redgrave’s performance is one of the most memorable onscreen performances I think I’ve ever seen.
CC: I think about her physicality in that film every time I’m doing something poorly. [All laugh.] I mean acting—
TL: You mean as opposed to when you’re cooking beans or something.
CC: Right. [Laughs.] Yeah, so unspecific.
TL: You’ll note [the 8:30 and 10:30 p.m.] movies—both from the U.K. and both 1971. So, yes, we stay in the same country in the same year. Well, after The Devils—which let’s face it, is ultimately a pretty serious film—you’ve got to mix it up a little. And Abominable Doctor Phibes... I’m a big Vincent Price fan. I love him. I have such affection for him. I find him a very generous performer in that the kinds of parts he’s asked to play, he does it in a way that scares the kids, but also has a wink to the adults. And he completely throws himself into it but also doesn’t take himself too seriously. When I see guys like this, or Peter Cushing in movies, there’s something about the generosity of spirit in the way they approach the movie that I really love. And The Abominable Dr. Phibes is so weird! [Laughs.] It’s so weird and hilarious. And in fact, for a while when we were pregnant with Haskell—well, I wasn’t pregnant, my wife was pregnant—when she was pregnant with Haskell, and we were kicking around baby names, if the baby had been a girl, Vulnavia [the name of Price’s character’s assistant —Ed.] was under consideration.
CC: For you. [Laughs.]
TL: [Laughs.] We talked about it. It was on the list.
CC: I’m sure I vetoed it immediately.
TL: I think it’s got a nice ring to it.
CC: That sounds like a body part.
AVC: Are you a fan of the sequel, Dr. Phibes Rises Again?
TL: It’s not as good. I mean, for me, it’s kind of a toss-up between Doctor Phibes and Theater Of Blood, which is a great Price movie. And especially for actors, Theater Of Blood—about an actor who’s killing off all the critics—has this special poignancy for me. I certainly cheer for the bad guy. Theater Of Blood—great fun.
CC: [Teasing.] Critics love me, so I can’t relate to this. [Laughs.]
TL: So but eventually I settled on Doctor Phibes just because of it’s weird—
CC: You were so excited to show me it.
AVC: Carrie, does he do the thing I do with my significant other when I’m excited to show them something where you look over and he’s continually watching your reaction and being like, “Eh? Eh?”
CC: In fact, when we were watching W.C. Fields the other night, he said he claims he wasn’t going to laugh. He was just going to be silent and wait until I laughed. And he lasted about 30 seconds.
TL: I lasted a bit longer than that. But it was a good experiment because I realized I’m not laughing to prompt her laughter. I really can’t help but laugh. I find it genuinely funny and I have to laugh.
CC: But yes, he is often facing me, at least the first time I see it.
AVC: This is your only selection from this century. Why did it make the cut?
TL: I like... what’s the word? Provocations. And Fat Girl is definitely a movie that provokes response and thoughtfulness. She’s such a personal filmmaker. It’s such a personal vision. And you never forget it after you’ve seen it. I mean, the ending of Fat Girl is so shocking.
CC: I did not see that coming.
TL: Upsetting. And yet also inevitable. I mean, that’s what you always look for as a writer. You always hope that you can both take people by surprise and at the same time they realize, “Oh, that was coming the whole way.” And I think that that’s the case with Fat Girl. It’s very, very carefully designed in that way. And again, very personal, so it’s not a movie that could be made by a man. And the point of view of Fat Girl is so distinctly feminine. So for me, it is again, a look in on somebody else. Somebody who’s not me. And so I value it for that reason. Carrie had not seen it before. We watched it just the other night, and I think you liked it.
CC: I loved it. I think it was so psychologically complex. And I think you’re right about the inevitability of that ending. As shocking as it is, as you say, it really couldn’t end any other way. She’s really fascinating, and I look forward to consuming more [Catherine] Breillat.
AVC: I can see why you didn’t start with this one, because that would be a hard way to start off a marathon.
TL: Yeah, that would be a bit of a punch in the stomach to start a movie marathon.
CC: How do we recover?
TL: I think at midnight it’ll keep you awake and interested in the next thing.
AVC: John Waters’ second film, and arguably his most grotesque.
TL: I love John Waters. I think he’s a great filmmaker. And I’m really glad that I have been on the planet at the same time as John Waters. And Multiple Maniacs is... It’s just hard to describe. Carrie hasn’t seen it. We’ve not watched Multiple Maniacs. We will. So without giving anything away, I’ll simply say that the appearance of the giant lobster in Multiple Maniacs is one of the most jaw-dropping, unexpected, hilarious moments I’ve ever seen in a movie. You’ve just never seen anything quite like it. My god. My hair stands on end thinking about the giant lobster in Multiple Maniacs.
AVC: Even for a John Waters fan, that’s a movie where if you’re going to sit and watch it, you really have to be on the right wavelength to enjoy it.
TL: I was about to say I wouldn’t recommend it to just anybody, but I would absolutely recommend it to anybody because I think everybody should have a little taste of Multiple Maniacs. I think everybody would benefit. Movies like that, they really have a way of shifting your whole perception. You can watch a film like Multiple Maniacs, and then when you leave the theater or you’re done watching it, things look a little different to you. Like, wow. Eraserhead had the same effect on me, where it altered my mood and my relationship to two other things in the world. But I mean, isn’t that what art is supposed to do? That’s why I think Waters is a great artist. I love it. That’s why I’m such a fan.
AVC: Like The Devils, this was one that was out of print in the States for a long time, until 2017 when it was finally reissued. Had you seen it prior?
TL: I first saw Multiple Maniacs in a midnight showing, but Criterion’s just come out with the pristine Blu-ray of it. And it’s fantastic.
TL: I have to say, there’s a cult of Light Sleeper fans. I mean, I love Paul Schrader. I’m a fan. I love that last movie with Ethan Hawke [First Reformed —Ed.] I love Blue Collar. I love, oh, what’s the one with Greg Kinnear? The Bob Crane story. The title is allusive to that film. [Autofocus —Ed.] Anyway, I love Paul Schrader, but the cult of Light Sleeper is about five people deep. [Laughs.] There’s only about five of us that I’ve found in the world to belong to this cult.
First of all, I like the idea of putting on a movie about an insomniac at 3 a.m. But there’s something so moody... You know, it is Taxi Driver. It’s kind of the same story. You could lay those movies on top of each other and find that they tell kind of the same story: the guy who’s disenfranchised. He’s keeping this journal, and he doesn’t like what he’s seeing in the world, and he doesn’t understand his relationship to the world, and he’s involved in this criminal activity, but he’s a hero of his own story. And yet I find it kind of quietly profound. And I watched it again recently. I think I showed it to Carrie. And I was delighted to see Sam Rockwell playing a small part in the movie. I know Sam a little bit from New York theater and stuff. And so I got a chance to see him shortly after we watched the movie. And I said, “I didn’t realize you were in Light Sleeper.” It was before Sam was any kind of a star, but he’s very proud of his appearance in that movie. And he’s very aware that Light Sleeper has a very, very small cult. And he was delighted to know I was part of it.
AVC: Is he part of the cult?
TL: I think he is. Yes.,I consider him one of the five members.
AVC: Also, if you’re putting together a list of best Willem Dafoe performances, I think that’s got to be one of the top.
TL: Oh, it’s at or near the top for me. I think it’s a great performance. He’s so believable. I just completely buy him, that guy that, you know, underneath the... Is that a real—I guess that’s a real profession. You know, just kind of drug dealer delivery service. I mean, of course, it’s a real profession, but I’ve been sober a long time [Laughs.], so I guess I haven’t had any contact, so those people lost my number.
TL: It’s one of the first movies I showed Carrie, and one of the things she’s liked best that I showed her.
CC: I love that film. I don’t know if I can say specifically why. I guess the quirkiness of Wong Kar-wai’s filmmaking I find really charming and profound. The people feel real in a way, because their behavior is unusual.
TL: But there is also that... certainly not strict realism. There’s a kind of magical realism to it or something. I’m not sure of the specific genre, but it’s fun. It’s transporting.
CC: And it has a sense of humor, and I love that about it. Things feel so unrealistic when they don’t have a sense of humor, so even the most magical realism film feels more grounded in reality to me when it has a sense of humor.
AVC: I think there’s an entire generation of high school kids who were introduced to Wong Kar-wai through this film. I remember when it came out on video in America, it was the first movie at Blockbuster that had a “Quentin Tarantino presents” on the cover. And Tarantino was so iconic and influential at the time that just about every high school kid in America who fancied themselves into cool movies rented it because of his endorsement.
CC: Isn’t that funny? And [discussing it] now, in the year when Parasite won everything. When people finally found their way to Bong Joon-ho as a sort of mainstream filmmaker.
TL: And Tarantino, however you feel about him as a filmmaker—and god knows, there’s a whole range of reactions to him—the things he’s done for awareness of international cinema. A lot of cinema we wouldn’t have been aware of otherwise.
AVC: I find this is a really difficult movie to explain to people. I remember walking out of it feeling like it had been an outback fever dream.
TL: That’s the perfect way to describe it—it is an outback fever dream. And in fact, as you pointed out, a few of the movies coming into the homestretch here in the movie marathon are kind of a fever-dream plot, because if you’ve stayed awake 24 hours watching movies, you might be experiencing a fever dream. And Wake In Fright, for us, felt like a bit of a discovery. It was a blindside for me. I knew nothing about the movie. You know, there were certain movies that played at the repertory cinema—we used to have repertory cinemas—but they would play some of these movies. And there was a real rotation of films like King Of Hearts and John Waters movies, and a lot of them would play at those cinemas. Wake In Fright was not one of those movies. I don’t ever remember hearing anything about it until somebody dug it out of the archives a few years ago. And I guess it got a rerelease, probably at the Music Box [in Chicago—Ed.] or somewhere like that. And then it showed up on Blu-ray, and I bought a copy of it blind, and we watched it. And yeah, we were transported by it. It really stuck with us.
CC: Normally, I lack any kind of recall—which is what makes me the perfect wife, because we can watch movies over and over again for decades, and I won’t remember them. But I have distinct flashes of imagery from that film, which is very unusual for me. Tracy has amazing recall. In fact, you recognize all these older gentleman from your childhood who are directors or actors.
TL: When we were on the circuit for Lady Bird a few years ago, we were in a beautiful theater in Santa Barbara, and I recognized Anthony Zerbe, who was a character actor I knew very well as a kid. In fact, he scared the hell out of me in Omega Man when I was a kid. And so I struck up a conversation with him, and I think he was happy that somebody recognized him and remembered him from the old days. He was in a lot of great movies, that guy.
AVC: Between this and The Devils and Multiple Maniacs, you seem to have a fondness for out-of-print, or hard to find, or obscure films that aren’t always easy to access—or at least, didn’t used to be.
TL: I heard that guy—and he’s a guy I normally like, John Hodgman—and I saw a little clip on the internet of him passionately defending The Mandalorian. And he was defending it against, you know, snobs who don’t like that sort of thing. I mean, John Hodgman can like what he likes. I take nothing away from him. But I thought, “Boy, the poor downtrodden people of the Disney organization really need you out there championing their work.” I much prefer the idea that there is some great work out there that through the years kind of slipped through the cracks and it still holds up. It’s great stuff.
No Italian horror made my list, but I’m a big fan of Italian giallos. And one of the great things about it is, I’ve seen a lot of crappy bootleg copies of this stuff, and then eventually somebody rereleases it on Blu-ray, and you watch it and you go, “Oh, it’s really quite beautiful. Somebody worked really hard on this thing.” It may just seem like tossed-off exploitation in the moment it was made. But the truth is, Carrie and I have worked enough now in film and TV to know it takes a lot of people to make something. And when you see something kind of beautiful and unexpected in an Italian horror movie and somebody worked really hard to get the lighting just right, or who did amazing work in the production design, you’d come away from it going, “There were real artists working on that thing.” So, yeah, I love the idea that somebody who never heard of Wake In Fright is going to sit down and maybe watch it and give that thing a chance, because that movie holds up. That’s a strong film.
CC: Having two pop stars come together [David Bowie and Ryuichi Sakamoto —Ed.], but in such a serious film, it feels initially like a stunt, bringing those men together. And yet you have this beautiful, extraordinarily moving film, and they’re both so charismatic and compelling in that movie. That’s another one that I still have very distinctive flashes of the ending. And again, I don’t usually retain anything, especially now that I have a son.
TL: It’s funny, when you watch Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence, something about it at first glance looks very traditional and almost Western. You almost feel like you’re watching Bridge On The River Kwai or something like that. But the truth is it’s a Japanese film made by a great Japanese filmmaker, has a Japanese sensibility about it. And the story it tells, of men at war, it kind of doesn’t matter from whose side you tell that story. It’s a very poignant story, ultimately. The thing holds up beautifully. Bowie, for my money, was never better or more magnetic than he is in that film. I was saying that, after he died, so many of the remembrances of his acting life seem to be about The Man Who Fell To Earth or—I’m sorry, I keep forgetting the name of it.
CC: Love it.
TL: But Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence got short shrift. I don’t think he was ever better than he was—or not only better, but his physical beauty and his magnetism, I don’t know that it was ever used more evocatively than it was used in Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence. And the thing is, the end of the film, it just blows me away. I mean, every time I see it, I’m reduced to... You just have to throw a blanket over me and wheel me out of the theater.
CC: A perfect way to end a movie marathon.
TL: It is the perfect end to a 24-hour movie marathon: covered in a blanket, and reduced to a puddle.