Native sons back for a dose of home

  • Article by: COLIN COVERT , Star Tribune
  • Updated: November 8, 2007 - 8:20 PM

The Coen brothers talk about the importance of place as they prepare to make a film in Minnesota.

Ethan and Joel Coen
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Filmakers and homeboys Ethan Coen, left, and Joel Coen posed for a portrait while promoting their new movie, “No Country For Old Men.”

Photo: Stefano Paltera, Associated Press

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BEVERLY HILLS, CALIF. -- Although filmmakers Joel and Ethan Coen have lived in New York City for more than 30 years, they're fine with being categorized as Minnesota's native sons.

In fact, they're nostalgic enough that they were dismayed to learn that a totem of their youth in St. Louis Park, the area's last Red Owl grocery store, was recently demolished.

"We were disappointed," said Joel, the older, taller and more stationary of the pair.

"The one out in Knollwood," Ethan said with a frown. "It actually figures in the script of the movie."

That would be their upcoming film "A Serious Man," which they will shoot in the suburban Twin Cities from April through June. Losing the grocery's iconic signage means that their low-budget, no-star film will have to pay for a replica. Ethan, an agitated, almost silent figure, threatened to pace a donut in the carpet of their suite at the Four Seasons Hotel as he pondered the dilemma.

While promoting their latest film, the acclaimed crime thriller "No Country for Old Men," which opens Friday, the Coens took time to discuss their enduring ties to their home state and the comedy-drama they will make here.

The brothers, who share directing, producing, writing and editing responsibilities, are often described as a single entity with two heads. In conversation they never contradict one another, but pass ideas back and forth in a sort of relay race to the conclusion of a sentence. Often they say "yes" or "no" in tandem.

Their new Minnesota film won't exist in the same offbeat imaginary universe as "Fargo," Ethan said. "For one thing, the period is 1967 and it also takes place in a Jewish family in a Jewish community. We grew up in St. Louis Park, which was and is a heavily Jewish suburb. It's more that than the Scandinavian ethnic thing that was in 'Fargo.'"It's summer," added Joel, "so we're not dealing with one of the hallmarks, at least in people's minds, of Minnesota life, which is the cold."

But in some ways it promises to be a similar upper Midwestern comedy of manners. This is a Minnesota story, the Coens insisted, born out of specific memories of their youth.

"We're like anybody," Ethan said. "Where you grew up is part of your identity. That doesn't go away, even if you've been away for a long time. And we go back occasionally."We spent our childhood there," said Joel, "and we do have a very real connection to it still, through our dad," retired University of Minnesota economics professor Edward Coen.

Hwy. 12 revisited

Their film concerns a university professor in midlife crisis seeking answers from a succession of rabbis. "He's going through problems with his kids, his wife and his marital relations" as a sunbathing neighbor attracts his eye, Joel said. "The character and the story are completely made up, but it's drawn directly from experience" from the local Hebrew school the brothers attended as kids to the mid-century office buildings and neighborhoods along Hwy. 12.

"We were taking these settings we were very familiar with, and we went, 'We think we could write a character somewhat authentically who is a professor at a university there,' even though this character bears no resemblance to my father," Joel said.

Wisconsin and Connecticut offered sizable financing incentives to lure the production, but personal history and the production advantage of working in familiar locations won out.

"It's set in a Jewish community but it's a Midwestern Jewish community," Ethan said. "There's this kind of Midwestern postwar tract housing, suburban development. It's shocking when you find preserved pockets of it because it's something you remember directly from your childhood. It's very familiar, you know?"

The production is looking for suburbs landscaped with saplings appropriate to the era, rather than 40-year-old trees, and suburban strip malls that haven't changed their architecture since the 1960s. "I think we also have something in some of the parks near the lakes, but that's more Minneapolis tourist kind of stuff," Joel said.

Although stars often waive their usual fee to work with the Coens, "A Serious Man" is probably going to be cast entirely with unknowns, or at least not-so-well knowns (such as Frances McDormand, a then-unfamiliar face who won a best-actress Oscar for "Fargo" and is married to Joel Coen).

"It's a very low-budget movie, given the fact that it isn't a star movie, and that was one of the reasons for the necessity of trying to make it where we got the most for our money. That was a big issue" for the 50-day shoot, Joel said.

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Ethan and Joel Coen