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Feature: Burn After Reading
Film-makers Joel and Ethan Coen join stars Brad Pitt, Tilda Swinton and John Malkovich on their enthusiastically received new film
"I guess we wanted to a spy movie [but] it didn’t exactly turn out that way. I don’t really think it is a spy movie!”
Film-maker Ethan Coen may seem slightly confused about his latest movie – made, as always, with brother Joel – when we meet them at the Toronto Film Festival, but that hasn’t stopped American audiences from receiving Burn After Reading as enthusiastically as they did last year’s No Country For Old Men. Yet the difference between the two films couldn’t be more marked; whereas No Country was an epic, violent look at the hard edges of life in the modern West, Burn After Reading is a no-holds-barred comedy with a cast of goofball characters energetically personified by an A-list cast. At the centre of the colourful narrative is John Malkovich, as ex-CIA agent Osborne Cox who is currently writing his memoirs and attempting to ignore his troubled marriage to wife Katie (Tilda Swinton). Unbeknownst to him, Katie is indulging in a tumultuous affair with Federal Marshal Harry Pfarrer (George Clooney), while trying to empty her husband’s bank account. When Osborne’s manuscript accidentally finds its way into the hands of clueless personal trainers Chad Feldheimer (Brad Pitt) and Linda Litzke (Frances McDormand), they attempt to extort it for their own aims.
It may sounds like a screwball comedy, which in many ways it is, but by setting it in America’s centre of power, Washington DC, are the Coens deliberately inviting theories about political and social subtexts? “It’s not really meant to be a comment on Washington,” continues Ethan. “It’s really about these particular characters. Whenever you do these things, you want to be specific about the place that your story is set. In that respect, you want it to be about not just the people who are in government in Washington, but also the people who live in that community. We had an idea of people that we were thinking vaguely about as references for the characters [but] it wasn’t a specific lampoon of anybody.”
Whether it has a satirical heart or not, there’s no doubt that Burn After Reading is a hugely successful return to the dark comedy that tinged the brothers’ early works like Fargo (1996) and The Big Lebowski (1998). The fact that it comes so soon after the straight, intense thrills of No Country is impressive, even for film-makers so accomplished and versatile as the Coens. But do they find it difficult to make such a massive switch between genres so quickly, and do they see any similarities between the two? “You know, we don’t relate one movie to the other among any of our movies,” explains Ethan with a bemused smile. “Why would we? We’re thinking about whatever we’re working on. They are different movies. They feel different.
“Certainly it’s an ambition that you change from movie to movie,” he continues, perhaps reflecting on a 25-year career that has encompassed everything from modern noir (Blood Simple, 1984) to pastiche (Barton Fink, 1991) and classic remake (The Ladykillers, 2004). ”You don’t want to repeat yourself.”
They may strive to be different with every project, but one skill that stays at the core of the Coen brothers’ success is their skill in picking just the right cast. They’ve become known for picking dramatic actors for comedic roles, the most famous being Jeff Bridges’ now iconic turn in The Big Lebowski and George Clooney in Oh Brother, Where Art Thou? Now that they’re adding Brad Pitt – who turns in a hilarious performance in Burn After Reading – to that roster, Joel Coen admits that this isn’t a deliberate tactic. “We don’t necessarily make the distinction between actors and comedians, dramatic acting and comic acting in that way,” he explains. “If we put actors in comedies that aren’t normally associated with comedies, it’s just simply a reflection of our interest in them as actors. We are confident in their ability to inhabit the material the way it’s written. We wouldn’t necessarily think, ‘Well it’s a funny movie so we have to cast comedians’.
“We like to write, and we have always have written parts for specific actors,” Joel continues, giving an insight into the brothers’ hugely successful screenwriting partnership. “As we sit down to write, it helps us to imagine the story. Many of the parts in this movie were written for the people who played them. That’s often the way it works with us. We know an actor and want to work with them. Or we don’t know who is going to play it, that happens too, and we simply cast the part. That was the case, for instance, with Tilda [Swinton]. We hadn’t worked with Tilda before. It’s all over the place!”
by Jane Lyman
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