Wednesday, 29 January 2014

Interview: Ian Nathan, author of Masters of Cinema: Ethan and Joel Coen

With Joel and Ethan Coen’s latest – Inside Llewyn Davis – due out today, I’ve returned to the filmography of the two enigmatic brothers, and a Masters of Cinema book dedicated to them. The author of said book is Ian Nathan, executive editor of Empire Magazine, author of Terminator Vault (2013) and Alien Vault (2011), and a contributor to numerous publications including The Times and The Independent. Sharing his thoughts on the process of writing the book, and his own exploration of the tricksy Coen brothers, here is what Mr. Nathan had to say:

How easy was it to balance the research and writing of this book with your work at Empire Magazine?

This is always tricky in terms of sheer workload. Books are just hard work, and soak up your time. I had many late nights and early mornings (which were the most productive, so it turns out I am a morning person) and the odd lunch hour. My bosses at Empire were kind enough to turn a blind eye to the occasional paragraph written on work time.

Actually, the harder element was clearing the headspace for each part of your life. I became consumed with the Coens, so much so that I could think or talk of nothing else. My mother would call, and I would test her on The Big Lebowski's bowling rules, I would do a tea round at work and tell the kitchen on my new ideas for the subtextual significance of Freddy Riedenschneider's fruit cocktails. Keeping my head in the Empire game took concentration.

How did this differ from your work on your Alien and Terminator books?

This was quite different, and a little closer to how I like to write about film. Both of the Vaults represented journeys into history, a kind of thrilling and perilous movie archaeology, where I lived in fear of not saying anything new. But they were very concentrated stories, and very structured — biographies almost. The Masters of Cinema guide to the Coens was more analytical, more a marriage of history with interpretation. And the tapestry of riddles presented by the Coen filmography was too tempting not to get analytical on their ass. So to speak. They, of course, would laugh at my foolishness.

Who is the Ron Neter in your life? Did someone suggest you write the book or was it something you had in mind for a while?

I wish I could tell you about the moment or the person who made it all happen, but the truth is rather more prosaic I'm afraid. I had a few contacts at Phaidon, which at the time owned the famous French critical journal Cahiers Du Cinema, and were publishing books under its name. I met with the commissioning editor, and as we talked through the things she wondered if I was into the Coens… I swiftly bored her with a brief sketch of Barton Fink as a study in psychotic delusion brought on by extreme stress. She claimed to be impressed.

Did you have a lot of discussions with fellow film-writers about the Coens for the book?

I did, both in terms of talking to Empire writers and other critics afresh (and its not hard to nudge a critic into giving their opinion on the Coens) and having a history of talking over this stuff since I first got into this game. The book is now long past its creation, but I still happily engage my fellow Empirite in waxing lyrical over former Coen glories, and the arrival of Inside Llewyn Davis has sparked yet more yapping…

“Question God, the universe or the Coens and your invite trouble?” Did this idea haunt you at all during the preparation and writing of the book?

It kind of did. The book was overshadowed by the fact the brothers flatly refuse to engage with their films on any kind of meaningful level. And yet there is no missing how the films contend with notions of fate, justice, religion and what we deserve (or not) from the universe. They so often treat their characters as lab rats in some vast philosophical experiment. We shouldn't dare to question seems to be an abiding message. But to quote poor Larry Gopnik, "Why does he make us feel the questions if he's not gonna give us any answers?" The need for answers is something fundamentally human, but a risky business all the same.

Did you ever think of trying to interview the pair of them for this book?

Well, I have interviewed them five times (and they never remember me!), so I was well aware how unwilling a participant they each are in their own mystique. So it would be relatively futile to seek confirmations to my theories in person. Also, the structure of the book was very much an outside-in format — my search for where these films might come from, to what that elusive elixir Coenesque might be made of…

How did you go about quantifying the analysis of each film? Did you end up expanding on some films more than others (there’s less said on The Ladykillers and Intolerable Cruelty, understandably, for example) – was there much difficultly in editing it all?

There was obviously an overall structure and word count which dictated how much I could do on each film, and I weighted things to either the relative importance of the film in the Coen canon (Fargo being more important than The Ladykillers say) and how much I felt I had gleaned about the film in questions (The Big Lebowski kept revealing more and more things; Barton Fink seems to me almost the key film). I did end up overwriting horribly, there was just so much to say, and spent a painful last couple of months cutting away things I really liked. There is a director's cut version of the book no one will ever see!

Were there any elements of their films that involved heavier research (Jewish religion, Biblical references, their muses, etc)?

The childhood was important, tracing where the ideas might have been nurtured. But the interviews they do never reveal much. So it was a question of piecing things together, from all number of books, articles, interviews, and pre-existing analyses of their films. Patterns emerged that belied their flippancy toward their own style and content. But it is the films that are the true Rosetta Stone, and the more you look, the more you see.

Near the end of the book you discuss the “outward modulation” of the Coens’ sensibilities. Would you revisit that subject a few years and films down the line?

Christ did I? I must have had too much coffee that morning! But, yes, I would love to keep examining the growing arena of their world, which still remains unshakeably Coenesque. Llewyn Davis is both perfectly them, and a new flavour: melancholy, darkly romantic, and self-questioning (the futile quest of the artist). Ironically, you could say it has an inward modulation!

Have you got a favourite in the Cahiers du Cinema Masters series?

I did enjoy the Thierry Jousse book on David Lynch greatly.

[Can’t end the interview without asking] What’s your favourite Coen brothers film?

Ah, picking between the kids. If you put a gun to my head (and you must always "put one in the brain") I return to Miller's Crossing again and again to drink in its handsome style and listen to that pulsating script – not a second is misjudged. But Barton Fink is so important, and A Serious Man, and Fargo… God, what about The Big LebowskiHudsucker, I love Hudsucker! Don't make me do it.

Interview by Piers McCarthy

Huge thanks to Ian Nathan for taking the time to answer these questions. His Vault books are available on Amazon and his Coens book can be bought off Phaidon 

Also posted on

Additional essays (O Brother Where Art Thou? and A Serious Man) on the Coen brothers can be found through this website, from author Ryan Hogan.