Ethan Coen on Why He Stepped Back From Filmmaking: “It Was Just Getting a Little Old and Difficult”
Ethan Coen says that his return to directing was prompted in part by the pandemic.
Speaking to the Associated Press ahead of the Cannes premiere of Jerry Lee Lewis: Trouble in Mind, a doc about the rock and country legend that’s being distributed by A24, Coen opened up about working on his first film without brother Joel, stepping back from directing and why he isn’t done with filmmaking just yet.
“What changed is I started getting bored,” he said when asked about his doc return and the previous reports that the Coen brother was done with directing. “I was with Trish in New York at the beginning of the lockdown. So, you know, it was all a little scary and claustrophobic.”
Coen says it was during this time that T-Bone Burnett, a “friend of many years,” approached him and wife, creative partner and editor Tricia Cooke about making a movie driven by archival footage, which was something they could do at home. “Honestly, T-Bone came to us like two weeks into the pandemic, so it was a lifesaver,” Cooke said.
As for why Coen’s desire to make films may have dwindled, he disputed that anything, in particular, was the culprit.
“Nothing happened, certainly nothing dramatic,” he began. “You start out when you’re a kid and you want to make a movie. Everything’s enthusiasm and gung-ho, let’s go make a movie. And the first movie is just loads of fun. And then the second movie is loads of fun, almost as much fun as the first. And after 30 years, not that it’s no fun, but it’s more of a job than it had been.”
Coen went on to note that his brother Joel “kind of felt the same way” but not to the same extent that he had. “It’s an inevitable by-product of aging,” Coen continued. “And the last two movies we made, me and Joel together, were really difficult in terms of production. I mean, really difficult. So if you don’t have to do it, you go at a certain point: Why am I doing this?”
As for what made them difficult, Coen spoke to the larger process of making a movie, which he described as increasingly like a “grind.”
“It was just getting a little old and difficult,” he explained. “It was the production experience and having been doing it for — I don’t know how many years, maybe 35 years. It was the experience of making a movie. More of a grind and less fun.”
Cooke also offered her own perspective, pointing to how their personal lives had changed outside of the movie-making industry and how, once again, the tide was turning — sparking a renewed interest in not just the Jerry Lee Lewis doc (his first movie directing without Joel), but their upcoming lesbian road-trip sex comedy.
“I don’t want to speak for Ethan, but I know for myself, at some point, I stopped cutting, pretty much, because my priorities changed,” she told the outlet. “And now our kids are grown and we still get along and have fun making things together. Joel and Ethan, we had written a few of these things, and they were always like, ‘We’ll put them in a drawer. The kids will find them one day.’ Now we’re here like, OK, let’s do that. Let’s open up that drawer and see if someone wants to make this movie.”
As for whether he’d return to work again with his brother, Coen says that “nothing’s definitive.”
“Going our own separate ways sounds like it suggests it might be final,” he said. “But none of this stuff happened definitively. None of the decisions are definitive. We might make another movie. I don’t know what my next movie is going to be after this. The pandemic happened. I turned into a big baby and got bored and quit, and then the pandemic happened. Then other stuff happens and who knows?”