Burn After Reading: Joel and Ethan Coen’s Comedy

In “Burn After Reading,” the new comedy from Joel and Ethan Coen, the duo mix and match various strains of comedy, screwball, satire, sex farce, to weave a tale of an ousted CIA analyst, two D.C. gym employees, and a lost computer disc that may contain highly sensitive material. As events in the contemporary story spin blithely out of control, sinister forces are at work and the dark side of the material comes to the fore.

The fact that “Burn After Reading” follows last year’s “No Country for Old Men” in the Coens’ filmography speaks more to timing than to any storytelling avenue being pursued; although the characters in both suffer dire consequences, that has long been a constant in the Brothers’ films.

Joel Coen notes, “We actually wrote this script around the same time we were adapting ‘No Country for Old Men.'”

Writing Parts afor Actors

Ethan Coen adds, “We came up with the idea thinking about different parts we wanted to write for actors that we know, who we thought might be fun to throw together. George Clooney, Richard Jenkins, Frances McDormand, and Brad Pitt, each of whom we know and all of whom we have worked with before, except for Brad. We thought about a mix of characters, and a story, that might be interesting to see these actors play.”

Joel enumerates, “Having worked with both George and Richard twice before, and at least four times with Francis, they are among the actors that inspire us to write characters for them.

John Malkovich and Knuckleheads

“Like Brad, John Malkovich is someone we hadn’t worked with before but have wanted to for some time. So we wrote John’s part specifically for him, which was a lot of fun to do.”

The characters in Burn After Reading are, as the Coens clarify, “knuckleheads, but not unlovable ones. We asked the actors to embrace their inner knucklehead.”

Says Joel, “The story is about middle-aged people, all of whom are undergoing professional, personal, and sexual crises touching on matters of national security. That’s what makes it a Washington tale. The plot concerns the Central Intelligence Agency and the world of physical fitness, and what happens when those two worlds intersect and collide; Internet dating is also in the mix.”

“It’s a comedy, broadly speaking, and we’ve certainly done those before,”says Ethan. “But the world of Washington, D.C., the world of spies and intrigue, that, we haven’t done before.”

“Well, years and years ago, we did do an adaptation of Advise and Consent in Super 8,” reveals Joel. “That’s the last time we tried taking on ‘inside the Beltway’ subject matter.”

Ethan admits, “We didn’t get the rights to the original Allen Drury novel, so you can’t see that picture commercially. Like Advise and Consent, this new picture is about the personal meeting the political, with melodrama. Burn After Reading is also our version of a Tony Scott/Jason Bourne kind of movie, without the explosions.” “A Seven Days in May sort of thing,” adds Joel.

George Clooney

George Clooney, who has made and/or starred in several politically themed projects, offers, “Despite the Washington setting, this picture is really about shockingly dumb people doing dumb things involving sex and other situations. What makes it even more interesting is that they’re not politicians.

“As soon as they called me up, I knew I’d do it. What could be better After all, it’s the Coen Brothers. They make roles available to you that people don’t know you’re capable of doing as an actor. Then they told me they wrote the part for me, which worried me.”

Older but not Wiser

Ethan comments, “As George gets older, our characters for George are getting older, and not wiser.”

Clooney muses, “Harry’s not unlike the dopes I’ve played in my other films for the Coens. He’s this sort of sad, moronic character. But there’s a viciousness to this guy that doesn’t exist in, say, Everett in O, Brother Where Art Thou This script made me howl when I read it. It’s so insane, I just went with it. I grew the beard they thought the character should have and showed up to the set, where I finally had the chance to work with Fran.”

McDormand’s Pale, Bare Ass Close-Up

McDormand remembers, “In the first scene for my character in the script, the description said, ‘Close Up On A Woman’s Ass. Pale. Bare. Middle-Aged.’

“Why should one even read on Why should one even consider the job”

Ethan reveals, “It’s fun to write for Fran because you know she’s good. It’s not fun to show the script to her once it’s written, because she yells at you.”

“You’ve been scripting it for a number of months, and she’ll go, ‘This is it’ But we usually work through that,” assures Joel.

McDormand says, “You know, I’ve been working with Joel and Ethan for the last 25 years. Their first movie Blood Simple was my first movie. I don’t know why they make me do what they make me do. But it’s always worth it.”

Brad Pitt

Brad Pitt had been waiting a long time for a role in a Coen Brothers film, and at last the call came. The actor admits, “I didn’t think the guy would be a dumbbell, a gum-chewing, Gatorade-swilling, iPod-addicted bubble-brain. I said to Joel and Ethan, ‘He’s such an idiot.’ But, he does have a good heart. Basically, I see the role as a career-buster.”

Clooney shrugs this off, saying of his longtime friend and costar, “Brad is going to steal Burn After Reading.” Joel offers, “Brad grew to love playing a numbskull as much as George does, and he’s very funny in the role.” McDormand adds, “Brad was doing some things in our scenes together which made it very hard not for me to crack up.”

Like Pitt, John Malkovich had been hoping to work with the Coens for years. He states, “When they called and told me they’d written a role for me, well, I was delighted. The whole script centers on people’s quests to change themselves.

“Ozzie is a sarcastic man, and an unbelievable lush. When he gets canned, it throws him into a tizzy, and he writes his memoirs, very badly.”

As Cox’s wife Katie, Tilda Swinton reports, “I have great lines, like ‘Stop the foolishness!’ Katie feels she’s surrounded by bungling fools; she’s angry about everything, disappointed in her husband and disappointed in life.”

Richard Jenkins

Becoming nearly as disappointed is Richard Jenkins’ Ted Treffon, who, the actor says, “is described as ‘soulful.’ He’s desperately in love with Frances’ character, Linda. But she only thinks of him as a friend.

“I had previously made two other movies with Frances, neither of which we had any scenes together in. I finally got to actually work with her, and she’s as good as you think she is.”

To make Burn After Reading with these specific actors, scheduling became a key issue, another reason why No Country for Old Men went before the cameras first.

The Calendar Dictated

“Everything was contingent on the availability of this cast,” says Joel. “We found that sweet spot in terms of their calendars, so that dictated when we would shoot,” says Ethan.

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