The Coen Brothers: How to Start Your First Indie Film?

Many film lovers believe that the legendary directors stick to a “signature style, look or genre.” When looking a true auteur’s film, we must immediately be able to recognize it as being Scorsesian, Tarantinoian, or Godardian. We must feel the director’s unmistakable touch in the dialogue, notice typical approaches to framing and editing, or identify a unifying style throughout their work.

Watching Mulholland Drive without any prior context, we should be able to identify it as a David Lynch film. Certain elements of the mystery genre are so linked with Hitchcock, we view them as parody or pastiche in other films. This way of looking at directors holds up in some cases and erodes in others. In the case of the Coen Brothers, it does both.

Perhaps no other contemporary filmmaker (or fraternal filmmaking duo, to be precise) weaves in and out of typically-rigid film genres as artfully as the Coen Brothers.

Download ALL of the Coen Brother’s Screenplays in PDF!

Upon first glance, a film like Hail, Caesar may appear completely incongruous with a film like A Serious Man. Even within the generic conventions of the Western, the Coen Brothers offer up entirely different films, from a musical reworking of the Odyssey in the whimsical O Brother Where Art Thou, to the relentlessly cruel thriller No Country for Old Men, both faithful additions to the Western genre.

And yet even in their darkest works (including No Country, which is multiple shades darker than any other) a unifying thread runs through the Coen Brothers’ work: a dark, clever comedy that works its way into the most unlikely moments. The black humor of the accidental crime is perhaps the most potent: the botched kidnapping in Fargo or the closet scene in Burn After Reading are so simultaneously absurd and tragic we can only laugh.

Steve Buscemi, down to his role in the ridiculous short film in Paris, je t’aime, is the perfect muse for this delicate comedic moment that plays over and over again in the Coen Brothers’ work.

Indeed, while the Coen Brothers shift between genres with ease, there are a number of narrative motifs they carry with them. Even their most dissimilar films share recurrent themes of disillusionment, criminality, subjective codes of morality, accidental violence, a striving for purpose and the nobility of the epic -if misguided- quest.

No matter what the genre, the Coen Brothers return to variations on the comedy of errors, each time in a new and innovative way, and with a touch of dark humor rarely found elsewhere.

The below video, courtesy of the Film Society of the Lincoln Center, features an in-depth interview with these two idiosyncratic filmmakers, and provides further insight into their shared creative process.

When working back through the Coen Brothers’ filmography, teasing out the themes of their films and listening to their own reflections on their work, that old commonly-held belief about “signature” directors rings both true and untrue. For from Fargo to The Big Lebowski to O Brother Where Art Thou to True Grit to The Man Who Wasn’t There to Burn after Reading and beyond, each of the Coen Brothers’ films is at once recognizable and unrecognizable, unique and akin, characteristic and chameleonic.

Check out this remarkable video with four-time Oscar-winning filmmakers Joel and Ethan Coen for a rare, career-spanning discussion of their work, moderated by Noah Baumbach.


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