Ethan Coen on streaming, Drive-Away Dolls and his split with Joel

Ethan without Joel is like fish without chips. But that’s been the situation for the Coen Brothers these past years. One of the greatest filmmaking partnerships ever – the Minnesotan sibling duo behind such off-kilter classics as Blood Simple, Raising Arizona, and Oscar-winners Fargo and No Country For Old Men – haven’t collaborated on anything since 2018’s Western-themed anthology The Ballad Of Buster Scruggs. Their last full-length film was 2016’s Hail, Caesar! – the George Clooney-starring comedy set in 1950s Hollywood.

Then the pandemic happened and the movie business was thrown into crisis. “I don’t really know,” sighs Ethan Coen, over Zoom. “It’s not just the pandemic, it’s this whole streaming thing which has just changed the economics of the movie business so much. I really feel like an old timer. I kind of don’t know what to make of it. I don’t know where I am anymore in the movie business.” The bespectacled filmmaker is 66 years-old now – the right age to make ‘Old Fink’, the oft-touted, never-materialised sequel to the Coens’ Barton Fink, you might think.

During this unsettling time, Joel – three years older than Ethan – went off to make The Tragedy Of Macbeth with his wife Frances McDormand and Denzel Washington, conjuring a masterful monochrome take on Shakespeare’s Scottish play. Meanwhile, Ethan wrote A Play Is A Poem for the stage as movies slipped further to the back of his to-do list. Gradually, though, he got sucked back in, initially working on Jerry Lee Lewis: Trouble In Mind, an archival documentary about ‘The Killer’ – the legendary rock and roll singer that brought us ‘Great Balls of Fire’ and ‘Whole Lotta Shakin’ Goin’ On’.

“Streaming has changed the economics of the movie business so much”

Now he’s back with his first solo-directed feature film – the bawdy comedy Drive-Away Dolls, co-written 20 years ago with his wife and longtime editor Tricia Cooke. A queer B-movie, about two roommates being pursued by a pair of violent schlubs, it stars Margaret Qualley (Once Upon A Time… In Hollywood) as the free-spirited, sexually promiscuous Jamie and Geraldine Viswanathan as the uptight, buttoned-down Marian. So why did they dust this one off? “I’m trying to remember,” says Coen, rubbing his sleepy eyes. “I think I just assumed this would be easier to get made. I don’t even know why.”

He’s more practised about why the Jamie and Marian pairing works. “Well, one answer is the kind of classic Odd Couple thing that you have in a romantic comedy,” he notes, alluding to the famous movie from the 1960s – based on the Neil Simon play – that starred Jack Lemmon and Walter Matthau as two incompatible flatmates. “You have to have the opposite types, the Felix and Oscar.” Only this time, there’s dildos, lesbian bars (the title was originally Drive-Away Dykes, until it got toned down) and Miley Cyrus cameoing as Cynthia Plaster Caster, a real-life artist who specialised in moulding celebrity penises.

The film is set in 1999, testament to the fact Cooke and Coen wrote the script around that time, initially intending for it to be directed by their friend Allison Anders (1992 trailer park romance Gas Food Lodging). “There’s also something a little more transgressive, a little naughtier about, ‘Oh, we’re lesbians in 1999’ then there is now when everyone knows everything, and everything is icky because nothing is forbidden,” says Coen. At this point, Cooke – sitting next to her husband – interjects. “Well, it’s not icky,” she scolds, “but I mean, there was more of a naïveté back then than there is now.” Coen nods. “Yeah, the naïveté, the naughtiness, would be missing now.”

Drive-Away Dolls
Ethan Coen on set with his ‘Drive-Away Dolls’ leads. CREDIT: Universal

Cooke – who first worked with the Coens as an apprentice editor on their 1990 gangster classic Miller’s Crossing, before graduating to full-time editor – is a lesbian and has been out since she was 21. But when she met Ethan, she realised she loved him. They married and somehow made it work. “I mean, we are still married. And we still do share a home. But we both have other partners,” she explains, matter-of-factly. They also remain tight collaborators. “You enjoy spending time with a person you have a close personal connection [to],” admits Coen. “It’s all easier. Work is more of a pleasure.”

As the violent, vivid plot of Drive-Away Dolls unfolds, the bickering Jamie and Marian take on a ‘drive-away’ – where they’re given a car to deliver to a location in Tallahassee, Florida. Except that in the boot, without their knowledge, is a briefcase containing a precious cargo. Chasing them are two hapless goons, Arliss (Joey Slotnick) and Flint (C.J. Wilson), who spend even more time bickering. Along the way, the girls drop into a plethora of lesbian bars with names like Sugar ‘n’ Spice and The Butter Churn. “It’s a world that Trish knows, the kind of lesbian bars of that era, the scene of that era,” says Coen.

The film also feels like it’s from the period when Queer cinema was marginalised – when films like Rose Troche’s groundbreaking Go Fish and even Kevin Smith’s Chasing Amy were the rare examples that showed lesbians on screen. “I mean, those movies were important to me, growing up and coming out as a lesbian,” says Cooke. “You see so few lesbians represented on screen, but they’re usually so heavy and often very tragic. And it was important to represent Queer women… that was almost beside the point. They [Jamie and Marian] are just part of this caper and their being Queer is something to be celebrated.”

Drive-Away Dolls
Ethan Coen with his longtime collaborator, ‘Drive-Away Dolls’ co-writer and wife, Tricia Cooke. CREDIT: Universal

The ever-horny Jamie’s promiscuous behaviour, however, is unusual even for a contemporary lesbian movie. “[That] was something that I thought we don’t see a lot of, and it would be fun to represent that on screen,” says Cooke. “Usually when you see lesbian sex or lesbians in movies it’s really intense and can be very serious and doesn’t usually have a happy ending. And that’s changing. But when we wrote it, that wasn’t the case. There weren’t as many. [1999’s] But I’m a Cheerleader was one of the few that was very fun to watch. We just wanted to make something that [felt] different to us at that time, to write something different.”

Cooke, 58, is certainly more effusive than Coen, who is well known for his reticence in interviews. Take the moment I ask about comparing working with his brother to his wife. “Boy, it’s hard to…” he says, stammering. “I think it’s just wrong to separate out and try to analyse out who adds what to which, you know what I mean? Because it’s all either between Joel and myself or Trish and myself. [It’s not] that when I write scripts with Joel, I’m the funny one. And he’s the serious one. That’s just wrong. I mean, the fun and the comedies that we’ve done together is a product of both of us talking, not of one of us trying to jolly the other one.”

Does he see any similarities between Drive-Away Dolls and the films he and Joel made?

“I don’t really know. I can’t compare. Every movie is so different. This is just different in a different way than the others have been different. That is so confusing, but it’s weirdly true. It’s just another different movie for me. I mean, by virtue of working with Trish, not with Joel.” Despite the lashings of sex – something the Coens never really got a grip on – with its myriad pop culture references, it still feels like a Coen Brothers film in many ways.

“Work is easier [with Trish]. It’s more of a pleasure”

“There’s some similarities,” adds Cooke, jumping in. “I mean, there are dumb men in cars. That’s a common theme – Fargo and The Big Lebowski. Not that they’re dumb… but it’s a lot of people talking at each other in cars. And that happens with Arliss and Flynn, Joey and C.J. in this movie. And the crazy, wacky kind of situations that they get themselves into.” Right from the beginning, when they confront Jamie’s angry ex-girlfriend, a cop played by Beanie Feldstein, it really is a case of smashing the patriarchy – often in the nuts.

While the film features Coen alumni Matt Damon (seen in their western remake True Grit), current Oscar nominee Colman Domingo and The Mandalorian’s Pedro Pascal, it’s the females that drive the film. “I mean, each of those people, Geraldine and Margaret and Beanie, they came in and did the scenes and you go, ‘Wow, great! The character comes alive. That doesn’t always happen,” says Coen. “As a matter of fact, that seldom happens. And when it does, it’s as fun to watch in the audition room – or the tape they send you or whatever – as it is to watch, well, hopefully, for the audience when they do it on screen.”

Drive-Away Dolls
Margaret Qualley and Geraldine Viswanathan in ‘Drive-Away Dolls’. CREDIT: Universal

Whether Drive-Away Dolls will click with audiences is another matter; it’ll certainly need to go great guns to out-muscle the Coens’ biggest ever numbers – the $252million worldwide that True Grit notched up. But the experience of making it has clearly energised Coen, with plans afoot for two more lesbian-centric B-movies. So a trilogy? “That’s exactly right. If you’ve done two, there’s gotta be a third,” he says, dryly. So will Jamie and Marian re-appear? He shakes his head. “It is not Balzacian in that regard,” he says even more drily, referring to a characteristic of the French novelist Honoré de Balzac’s work. “The characters don’t overlap.”

He’s also just spent a few months writing something with his brother, who may also go on and direct a separate solo project. Everything remains up in the air for now, he adds, but for those who pray that he and Joel have one more film in them, there’s hope yet. In the meantime, Ethan Coen is simply happy to be back with a film as breezy and as brisk – just 84 snappy minutes – as Drive-Away Dolls. “I think that’s how they’re advertising the movie,” he chuckles. “It may not be good, but it’s short!”

‘Drive-Away Dolls’ opens in UK cinemas on March 15

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