Burn After Reading: Clooney, McDormand and the Other Actors on their Director

When Joel and Ethan Coens signed a two-picture pact with Focus Features and Working Title Films, “Burn After Reading” was designated as the first of the two movies.

Working Title and its co-chairs Tim Bevan and Eric Fellner have had a long-term association with the Coens. Fargo won Oscars for McDormand as Best Actress and for the Coens in the Original Screenplay category. The Hudsucker Proxy, The Big Lebowski, O Brother, Where Art Thou (for which Clooney won a Golden Globe Award), and The Man Who Wasn’t There were all made by the Coens with Working Title.

Easy Style

George Clooney remarks, “I always try to operate the sets of the films I’m directing the way Ethan and Joel run theirs. Their style is just the easiest. They let you try out some ideas you might have on your own but, invariably, the way they see it is the way it should go because they have a very specific plan. I have yet to see them do any rehearsal on anything.

“I learned from them to put storyboards, the visualizations of the shots, on the ‘sides,’ which are those script pages that are being filmed on a particular day and are distributed to everyone on-set. Looking at the storyboards is a tremendous help to everyone. I’ve hired their storyboard artist, J. Todd Anderson, on the films I’ve directed.”

Not Control Freaks

The other cast member who has worked as a feature director, Malkovich, states, “First of all, the Coens know how to make movies. Secondly, they are not control freaks. They know what they want in each and every frame of film, how it will shoot, how it will cut together, so they don’t waste time, and everything goes along incredibly quickly.

“They let actors work, but they pay attention and retain an openness. It’s all a boon for an actor. You can really get into your characterization.”

It’s these details of character that inform their films with spirit and style.

Clooney remarks, “The Coens always give my character something to feverishly obsess over. On O Brother, it was hai. In Intolerable Cruelty, it was teeth. For Burn After Reading, it’s well, you’ll see.”

“What’s interesting about this movie is that it is all about middle-aged losers,” says Frances McDormand. “George Clooney and Brad Pitt as losers, that’s novel.

Combination of Comedy and Tragedy

“You see tragedies about middle-aged people, and comedies about them as well, but not often this combination. This movie is hilarious, but there is also a sadness to our characters.”

The actress further asserts, “There are a lot of middle-aged people out there who still go to the movies. People will be able to relate to my character and the way she sees the world. She’s set on full reconstructive surgery and finding a man, and she simply can’t think about anything else.”

Clooney says, “The men I’ve played for Ethan and Joel comprise what we call my ‘trilogy of idiots.’ When we were fitting clothes for the character, I asked Mary Zophres if I could wear a gold chain. With that, everything fell into place. I knew exactly what the guy had to look like. Pants high on his waist, kind of a nerd.

“I felt as if I was really out there with this character. It was a bit unnerving. But then when I would see Brad Pitt prancing around in tight Spandex shorts, I knew I was okay.”

Similarly, Malkovich muses, “Ozzie’s pretty foolish, so playing him was a lot of fun especially the scene where he gets fired. I then get to spend a lot of time screaming at people on the phone and playing incredibly drunk.”

Aside from character and characterization, the look and feel of a film are also crucial concerns to the Coens.

Gonchor notes, “”The Coens will say, ‘Tell us what you want to do, Jess, and we’ll make suggestions from there.’

“Burn After Reading takes place in today’s Washington, D.C. with not much flash and color, but lively enough. We went for an essentially natural look, yet a lot of the sets are slightly off-center, like the movie itself. While there’s nothing over-the-top, there are some things that are not exactly right and that are a little twisted.”

By way of example for the latter, Gonchor points to an interior of the Russian embassy, built on a Steiner Studios soundstage. “For one office at the embassy, we built a room with the ceiling at 14 feet. The walls are bare except for an 18-inch framed photograph of Russian president Vladimir Putin that hangs very high up. You have to crane your neck to look at it.”

Ethan comments, “What was productive about collaborating with Jess on this movie was how the real locations we looked at or shot at influenced set designs for soundstage work.”

One key location must remain confidential. “We shot some of the CIA connecting-hallway scenes in a secret location,” says Ethan. “That location informed Jess’ CIA office sets for those offices that are presumably off these hallways.”

“Inside one of those offices, the curtains are closed,” says Gonchor. “Yet the light seems to have a force all its own as it enters the room through the curtain edges. It’s definitely not normal.”

Zophres faced something else out of the ordinary, as she notes; “When I read one of Joel and Ethan’s scripts, exactly how everything should look is evoked for me without their saying ‘he/she has this/that on.’ Being hired by them over and over again, I’m the luckiest costume designer in Hollywood, for sure. But, getting George and Brad to look like ordinary guys

“How do you make George Clooney of Hollywood and Italy look like Harry Pfarrer of suburban D.C. The close-cropped beard George grew, coupled with the gold chain, was key. As for Harry’s ‘date look,’ we decided to put him in a plaid shirt with a sport coat and trousers, and it worked it took him down a couple of notches.”

Fair enough, but Clooney had, after all, previously dressed down for his Oscar-winning turn in Syriana. So he was used to such a transformation. What to do for Pitt

The costume designer admits, “Brad had to be turned into a dork. Lyn created a hairdo for Chad in which his hair stood up with a bad blond streak in it. That hairdo accomplished a lot. As for his gym uniform, I don’t think we’ve ever seen Brad in a movie wearing shorts, and for our first fitting he came in looking trim and fit, of course. But the shorts, combined with the crew socks and big white sneakers we gave him, managed to make him look a little goofy.

“Then there’s the suit Chad has to wear when told to by Linda. Even cheap suits look better on Brad, so we created one that was ill-fitting, an ‘executive cut’ which means it’s made for a portly man. We added an ugly wooly tie that we made from scratch, and it came together perfectly that is, he looked pretty bad.”

Zophres had, years earlier, costumed McDormand for a 1949 black-and-white setting in the Coens’ The Man Who Wasn’t There. This time, the garb would be contemporary and in color. She explains, “Like Chad, Linda spends a lot of time in the film in her gym uniform, a distinctive company-logo’d polo shirt with dark pants underneath. Those are like exercise pants, even though she’s not a trainer. Joel and Ethan talked about the gym outfit at length, and it was the two of them who worked out the color of the shirt, and its shade of dark red.

“Our approach was, let’s outfit Fran first with the uniform, and that will determine what Brad and Richard as her colleagues would also be wearing. As with Brad, though, I feel as if the entry point to Fran’s costume was her hair.”

Joel confirms, “We frequently give actors haircuts that they have to somehow disguise during their time away from the set for the duration of the shoot.

“But like Mary’s costumes it’s a big element in terms of defining characters in our movies. ”

Lyn Quiyou, whom Joel and Ethan praise as “fantastic,” created an individual hairstyle for each of the main characters. Linda’s blonde hairdo was achieved through a wig that Quiyou cut especially for McDormand, inspired by a bit of latter-day Washington; Linda Tripp’s hair specifically, when it was light blonde and bobbed as part of Tripp’s makeover in the wake of the Monica Lewinsky scandal.

Swinton sported a helmet-like cut to play Katie. Here too, the hair helped a performer get into character. The actress marvels, “Katie has a very rigid hairdo; straight, not a wisp of a curl, and a heart-stopping shade of iron-red, if there is such a natural color which I doubt. I was reminded of Edna Krabappel’s, from The Simpsons.”

As for the character’s wardrobe, “Katie comes from old money and dresses classically in proper attire, albeit with a bit of bling. She favors Ralph Lauren and Cartier,” says Zophres.

Swinton says, “I like working at the look of a character quite precisely. Mary came to my home in Scotland and we had a great time dressing up.”

Zophres adds, “It was nice to see that part of the world even for a day, and with so much luggage!”

As for Swinton’s on-screen husband, Zophres says that “Osborne is classically American, wearing Brooks Brothers and bowties until he gets fired. To me, he has the most interesting arc in the movie, the decline of a character through his wardrobe; he just really lets himself go.”

The background players were also carefully costumed. After all, Zophres clarifies, “This is a contemporary film, yet we still had to dress people from head to toe because people dress differently in D.C. from the rest of the country certainly different from New York, where we were shooting. It’s conservative, clothes-wise, probably more so than the rest of the Eastern seaboard. We dressed men in dark blue suits, and women in grays with a lot of pearls. It strongly contributes to the sense of place, since Burn After Reading is set in such specific areas of Washington.”

Gonchor adds, “Mary and I were constantly in touch. She’d say, ‘I was thinking about Linda wearing this,’ and I’d say, ‘Good, because I want to paint this color here.’ I’d send her pictures of locations.

“Chivo [Lubezki] spent a lot of time in NYC for pre-production, and we were able to go to places together and figure out where he would need to hide lights, where I would have to put in something architectural, and so on.”

After New York, the unit went to Washington, D.C. for a few days to capture locations that couldn’t be duplicated or re-created; this included a stint filming on the Washington Mall, near the reflecting pool in between the Lincoln Memorial and the Washington Monument, in the vicinity of the World War II Memorial. Scenes were also shot on the Key Bride over the Potomac River, and at the Tidal Basin.

When asked what audiences can look forward to with Burn After Reading, John Malkovich advises, “Expect an entertaining and original view of the world, with a way of looking at things that isn’t straightforward.”

Richard Jenkins adds, “It’s a Coen Brothers movie; expect a dark, good time.”