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Nashville Scene Brothers in Arms

Talking with Joel and Ethan Coen about 'O Brother, Where Art Thou?'

By Jim Ridley

MAY 22, 2000:  Last summer, filmmakers Joel and Ethan Coen (Raising Arizona, Fargo) were in Nashville to find musicians for their latest film, O Brother, Where Art Thou? An episodic yarn that borrows from Homer's Odyssey, it stars George Clooney, John Turturro, and Tim Blake Nelson as escaped convicts on a seriocomic journey through 1930s Mississippi, a flight that includes brushes with bluesmen, bigots, gangsters, crooked politicians, and seductive sirens. (The title comes from Preston Sturges' Sullivan's Travels It's the name of the movie Sturges' comedy-director hero Sullivan intends as his "serious" picture about the struggles of the Depression.)

Before filming began, the Coens took the unusual step of recording the music first. For the movie's mix of blues, gospel, and bluegrass, the filmmakers and music producer T-Bone Burnett assembled a stellar lineup that includes Ralph Stanley, Norman Blake, Alison Krauss, Emmylou Harris, Gillian Welch, the Cox Family, and the Whites, and they recorded the music here last year. All those artists and more--plus the Coens themselves--will appear at a benefit show next Wednesday at the Ryman Auditorium, which will be recorded by documentarian D.A. Pennebaker for a concert film.

Soon, the Coens may have even more reason to celebrate. O Brother, Where Art Thou? screened last weekend to strong notices at the Cannes Film Festival, some of which mentioned the movie as a contender for the top prize, the Palme d'Or. If the Coens win, it would be their second Golden Palm (after 1991's Barton Fink). The movie itself will be released this fall. The Scene spoke to Joel and Ethan Coen last week from their home base of New York, where they're practicing their sibling harmonies for the Ryman stage.

How did you choose the music for the movie?

Joel Coen: Well, actually, in the movie we used a sort of mixture of period recordings and rerecorded music. But the stuff that was redone and produced by T-Bone is all featured essentially live--it's music you see performed in the movie itself.

Ethan Coen: It's not background, it's not working as underscoring, it's actually happening on camera.

JC: In other words, it's in the context of the story. At one point, George Clooney sings and records a record that becomes a big hit, a song called "I Am a Man of Constant Sorrow." That's all part of the story, so it had to be a combination of prerecorded background instrumentals that the actors or musicians would sing live to on set, or prerecorded with the vocals and then lipsynched.

Which musicians actually appear in the movie?

JC: The Cox Family, the Whites, Chris Thomas King...[John] Hartford was gonna be in it, but he was ill at the time we wanted to shoot his scene. The Fairfield Four are in the movie; they play gravediggers. They do a great version of "You've Got to Walk That Lonesome Valley." Most of Alison's band is in the movie.

Were there any artists you wanted specifically?

JC: A lot of them were people that we knew and like and are fans of, like Alison and Emmylou and Gillian, and obviously we knew Ralph Stanley and John Hartford and all these guys. But they were actually brought in by T-Bone. At an early stage we sort of decided what music we wanted. Then T-Bone brought in a lot of different musicians and sort of collectively decided who was going to do what.

What was the selection process like?

JC: Well, that was great, actually. At one point T-Bone basically had two days where he brought in lots of different people who all sort of played and sang together. And we got kind of a feeling for who was right. But it was a great experience, meeting all these people and hearing 'em play. It was unbelievable.

EC: Ralph [Stanley] coming in was kind of funny. You know, everyone's sort of hanging out and playing, picking, whatever, and then Ralph walked in. It was like they'd wheeled in one of the heads from Mount Rushmore. The whole room just kind of fell silent for a moment.

What are some of the most memorable songs in the finished film?

EC: There are a number of set-piece songs that are almost...not production numbers, because it isn't literally a musical, but have that kind of feel to them. One of the most notable ones is the Ralph Stanley thing, "O Death." Chris Thomas King [who plays a blues musician modeled on Robert Johnson] did a Skip James song, "Hard Time Killing Floor Blues." And there's the Jimmie Rodgers song...

JC: ...that Tim Nelson sings. It's really interesting, because he sings that live himself. He's not a trained singer, he's not a recording artist, he's an actor. But he's got this great country-western voice. He's going to sing in the concert, actually.

EC: It's this weird fantasy come true for Tim--he gets to stand on the stage of the Ryman and perform.

We heard something about a sirens' song....

JC: Oh, that's interesting! [The convicts] come upon these three women washing clothes in the river. That's Gillian, Alison, and Emmylou as the three voices. And they're singing this song which is from this old kind of black, bluesy lullaby from the period. Gillian wrote like four or five other verses for it.

She's actually in the movie, right?

JC: Yeah, she is. She's trying to buy the hit record that Clooney has recorded, without any success.

If you have sirens involved, the Odyssey parallels must hold pretty close.

JC & EC: (chortling) Yeah, well...

EC: We avail ourselves of it very selectively. There's the sirens; and the cyclops, John Goodman, a one-eyed Bible salesman....

JC: Whenever it's convenient we trot out the Odyssey.

EC: But I don't want any of those Odyssey fans to go to the movie expecting, y'know...

JC: "Where's Laertes?" (laughter)

EC: "Where's his dog?" (more laughter)

How seriously do you intend the reference to Sullivan's Travels? Your movie sounds more like Sturges than the symbolic movie-within-a-movie that gives O Brother its title.

JC: In a way, that's true. There are things in it that are very reminiscent of Sullivan's Travels, but in a sense I would say "reminiscent of" instead of rip-off. (laughs) In our minds, it was presumably the movie he would've made if he'd had the chance. The important movie. The one that takes on the big, important themes.

EC: And if he'd been steeped in Homeric literature and early country music (laughter).

Aren't they the same thing?

JC: Yeah, that's what T-Bone likes to say. They're both verbal traditions. Oral traditions.

EC: That's about as far as it goes, though.

What are you working on next?

JC: We're doing a movie about a barber in Northern California in the early 1940s. (Pause, then accusingly:) I think I heard a little snicker there. I was in Texas a while ago, and I told that to Ann Richards, the former governor. She looked at me for about 20 seconds and said, "I'm trying real hard to get excited about this."

EC: There's more to it than Joel lets on. He actually is a barber, but he's interested in getting into dry cleaning.

While you're on stage at the Ryman, are you going to favor us with a tune? "The Coen Brothers" does sound like an old-time hillbilly act.

JC: Oh, yeah.

EC: Yeah, I'm bringing my washboard, and Joel's bringing his spoons. (Issues a laugh like a car alarm going off.) Wait for us, we're coming on last!

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