Serious Man: Interview with Joel and Ethan Coen

Joel and Ethan Coen are the masterminds behind hits such as "Fargo," "No Country for Old Men," and "Burn After Reading." Their latest film, "A Serious Man," which is released by Focus Features on October 2, 2009, may be their most personal.

Write What You Know

Ethan Coen describes the context of "A Serious Man": "The picture takes place in 1967 among a Jewish community in an unnamed Midwestern suburb; Joel and I are from the Midwest and so it's reminiscent of our childhoods. The milieu, the whole setting is important to us and was a big part of what got us going on this story. Where you grew up is part of your identity. That doesn't go away, even if you've been away for a long time."

Brother Joel Coen adds, "The landscape of a place informs a story a great deal, although the genesis of the project dates back many years; we considered making a short movie about a bar mitzvah boy who goes to see an ancient rabbi. The rabbi character would be loosely based on a rabbi we knew when we were kids."?

Ethan remembers, "This rabbi we knew was a sage, a Yoda. He said nothing, but he had a lot of charisma."

As the script developed, Joel notes that "that element stayed in it, but the feature we now have is quite different and deals with other things as well.  Although Larry Gopnik is a made-up character, he is based on people who were familiar to us growing up because he's an academic and both our parents were academics. Through them we met lots of people who were professors at universities. Also, Larry is a middle-aged Jewish father in a community not unlike the one we grew up in, where there were lots of them."

"Everybody in the Gopnik family has an agenda," says Ethan. "The son, Danny, wants to get pot and LP records. His sister, Sarah, wants to get a nose job. The wife and mother, Judith, wants to run off with another man, Sy Ableman, whom she sees as 'a serious man,' unlike her husband."

Joel notes, "Larry is the head of the family, and he just wants to keep things going. At the beginning of the story, he's happy with the way things are, with the status quo. But misfortunes befall him – and he can't believe that the apple cart is being upset."

Shifting Emphasis

The screenplay was initially equally about Larry and his son Danny, but the emphasis shifted as the script developed. Ethan admits, "The fun of the story for us was inventing new ways to torture Larry. His life just progressively gets worse.

"Two key experiences for Danny remain at the climax of the movie, yet Larry's fate became more of what the story was about – maybe because there are more ways to beleaguer an adult."

Drawing From Ancestral Past: The Introduction

Though the majority of A Serious Man is set in the suburban Midwest of 1967, the movie opens with a prologue set a century earlier – in a Polish shtetl (small Jewish village), where an unsettling folk tale plays out completely in Yiddish.

Ethan explains, ""We thought a little self-contained story would be an appropriate introduction for this movie. Since we didn't know any suitable Yiddish folk tales, we made one up." Joel adds, "It doesn't have any relationship to what follows, but it helped us get started thinking about the movie."