The Coen Brothers on Collaboration


If the film Fargo was a human being, it’d be able to walk into a bar and order a drink.

First opening in U.S. theaters on March 8, 1996 (twenty one years ago next week), Fargo has become a cult hit. The movie—which takes place in Minnesota and North Dakota—stars Frances McDormand, William H. Macy and Steve Buscemi. It was written, produced and directed by the famous Coen brothers, Joel and Ethan.

The Coen brothers, of course, are some of the most popular and successful filmmakers alive today. In addition to Fargo, they are the brains behind classics like The Big Lebowski, The Hudsucker Proxy, Miller’s Crossing, Barton Fink and O Brother, Where Art Thou?. They’ve also had success with Burn After Reading, Inside Llewyn Davis and No Country for Old Men, which won four Oscars, including the coveted Best Picture and Best Directors awards.

Following their many successes on the silver screen, the Coen brothers have lent their talents to the small screen. Though they didn’t do much work on it, they have producer credits on the FX series Fargo, which is based off the film of the same name and premiered in 2014. There’s a miniseries in the brothers’ future too; The Ballad of Buster Scruggs, an anthology set in the Old West, will be the first made-for-TV project they’ve directed.

Many people have a hard time being in the same room with their siblings for a few hours. Which begs the question: How have the Coen brothers collaborated so effectively over the last three-plus decades?

Mix it up as much as you can

Read down the Coen brother’s filmography and you’ll certainly be impressed by the diversity of the topics they’ve covered. While The Big Lebowski centers on a case of mistaken identity between a deadbeat and a millionaire, O Brother, Where Art Thou? tells the story of prisoners during the Great Depression who play music and run into the KKK—all the while being loosely based on Homer’s The Odyssey. While Fargo takes place in Minnesota and North Dakota, Raising Arizona takes place in Arizona (shocker). Then there’s True Grit, a film in the western genre, and Inside Llewyn Davis, which explores the Greenwich Village folk scene in the 1960’s.

Everyone gets tired of doing the same things over and over again. When you switch things up, work becomes more refreshing and more exciting.

Build depth into your work

Look at any of the Coen brothers’ films and you’ll see the same thing: intricate universes built upon an insane amount of attention to detail. There’s a reason why their films withstand the test of time: They were created with a thoroughness that engulfs the viewer. Every aspect of their films—from the actors to the wardrobes to the sets to the props to the sound effects—is considered a critical ingredient.

When you build depth into your work, each creation takes on a life of its own. Javier Bardem’s portrayal of Anton Chigurh in No Country for Old Men isn’t one you forget anytime soon. Neither is Julianne Moore’s take on Maude Lebowski or Michael Stuhlbarg’s portrayal of Larry Gopnik in A Serious Man.

Don’t take the easy way out

Despite the film having an incredibly devout cult following—there’s literally a festival that people attend every year to celebrate the movie—the Coen brothers never took the easy way out and made a sequel to The Big Lebowski. Instead, they moved on to more challenging products. (It’s true that John Turturro is directing a spinoff to the film, Going Places, that will follow his character in The Big Lebowski, Jesus Quintana.)

When you don’t take the easy way out and choose to consistently challenge yourself, your work becomes more engaging. You can stomach your annoying sibling indefinitely when the projects you’re working on genuinely excite you.

Work with the people who make you successful

Like many other directors (think Tim Burton and Johnny Depp), the Coen brothers have a habit of working with actors they like on a regular basis. George Clooney appeared in O Brother Where Art Thou?, Burn After Reading, Hail, Caesar! and Intolerable Cruelty. Buscemi has made appearances in The Big Lebowski, Fargo, Miller’s Crossing, The Hudsucker Proxy and Barton Fink. John Goodman has popped up in The Big Lebowski, The Hudsucker Proxy, O Brother Where Art Thou?, Raising Arizona, Inside Llewyn Davis, Barton Fink and Hail, Caesar! After appearing in their first movie, Blood Simple, McDormand has been cast in Raising Arizona, Miller’s Crossing, Hail, Caesar!, Fargo, Burn After Reading and The Man Who Wasn’t There.

And, of course, Joel and Ethan work with each other quite often.

The Coen brothers’ recipe for success is quite simple: Find people you love to work with and continue tackling projects with them. When you work with people who have made you successful in the past, there’s a good chance you’ll repeat those results going forward.

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