In a DVD commentary for their snowbound thriller "Fargo," Joel Coen affectionately calls Minnesota, "Siberia with family restaurants."
Still, the tundra keeps drawing the four-time Oscar winners back.
"Everybody's interested in where they grew up," said Ethan, 52, the filmmaking team's co-writer and producer. "As you get older, you get more interested in it as opposed to fading away."
"It's hard for us to imagine a story unless we have a real specific sense of where it's taking place," said Joel, 54, the writer/director.
And there's no place they know better. Minnesota is "totally part of our identity," Ethan said. "The combination of being Jewish -- specifically Minnesotan -- is big and important."
"An actor's body and voice are what they have to work with," Joel added. "Being from Minnesota is what we have to work with."
So after more than 30 years living in New York they returned this weekend to preview their 14th and most personal effort yet, "A Serious Man." Filmed in the Twin Cities last fall, it evokes the Coens' teenage years in heavily Jewish St. Louis Park, once again turning a funhouse lens on their home turf.
The crowded receptions and two-hour onstage interview were rare public outings for the Coens, who prefer to let their work speak for itself.
"We don't do a lot of this, but it was nice to come back here because we had a great time making the movie here," Joel said. "Even the out-of-town crew loved it. It's a very congenial place to work."
Making a film in the schools and synagogues they knew from decades ago was an emotionally resonant experience, they said, and that warm feeling carried over into their public appearances. On Friday night, they mingled with more than 300 fans at the Walker Art Center following a sold-out Regis Dialogue interview covering their 25-year career. On Saturday night, they returned to the museum, joining 600 local players, tradesmen and well-wishers for two preview screenings of the film.
In keeping with the film's 1967 setting, the crowd munched deviled eggs, bacon-wrapped water chestnuts and other period delicacies.
Their return was a "totally cool" experience for Minneapolis visual artist Beth Barron, who attended Friday's event. Joel's locker was next to hers in Westwood Junior High School. For two years she cleaned the Coens' childhood home, dusting the "boring landscapes" on the wall. Her ex-husband, a close friend of the brothers for 20 years, starred in their backyard African adventure "Zeimers in Zambezi."
"It's great that they're able to make St. Louis Park seem interesting," she said with a chuckle. "I don't think of my childhood as interesting. My childhood was in my imagination ... We watched 'Andy Griffith.' Our external world was so boring. They created an alternative world. I get it, because I lived in that same alternative world."
"A Serious Man" follows hapless Jewish physics professor Larry Gopnik through his comedically dreadful midlife crisis. Both the Coens' parents were academics, but their longtime producer, Minneapolis native Bob Graf, cautions against mistaking the film for autobiography. Still, said Graf, who joined them on "Fargo," "It certainly is inspired by the place and time in which they grew up."
The film drops a veritable phone book worth of local names, from the Coens' old Hebrew school teacher Mar King to Jewish cultural arts supporter Ruth Brin. Trial attorney Ron Meshbesher is recommended to represent a character, with the caveat, "Ron is not cheap."
"It's a source of personal amusement for them," Graf said. "They may not live there anymore, but they carry the references around."
The Coens drop Minnesota allusions even into films set elsewhere, Graf said. "Their company is Mike Zoss Productions. Some might remember him as the owner of a St. Louis Park drug store back in the day. In 'No Country for Old Men,' we named a drugstore Zoss. Then we blew it up." The Coens went to high school with Jeff Lebowski, namesake of the main character in "The Big Lebowski," who is now a Minnesota assistant attorney general. The hotheaded home improvement tycoon in "Raising Arizona" was modeled on Plywood Minnesota mogul Rudy Boschwitz, the Coens said Saturday.
To some degree, growing up here contributed to the brothers' sharp sense of the absurd. "The next-door neighbor who goes hunting and comes home with a deer on top of his car, that's definitely not Jewish," Joel said.
Minnesotans' reactions to "Fargo" were sharply divided at the time of its release, with some viewers convinced that the Coens were condescending to the hicks. Joel said he found the charge that they disliked the characters "bizarre."
"Whenever you get specific, ethnically or geographically, and touch people's identities, some people like it and some people don't," Ethan said.
With a budget of $15 million, "A Serious Man" is a home movie in Hollywood terms. But a dark comedy with a 10-minute Yiddish prologue has modest commercial prospects, Graf conceded.
"This may not blow the doors off 'Transformers 2,'" he said.
While they have never made a blockbuster, the Coens enjoy a cult-like fan base and critical acclaim.
Their films have earned 21 Oscar nominations, winning six, including best screenplay for "Fargo," and 2008's best picture, directing and adapted screenplay awards for their gritty "No Country for Old Men." Film observers consider "A Serious Man" a lock for another best picture Oscar nomination.
Everyone involved, the Coens included, earned less for this labor of love than they would have on a typical studio film, Graf said.
"There are a couple of really good practical reasons we came back here again," Joel said. "There's good local crew and a really great local acting community." And classic tract houses in Bloomington had the right look for the era.
The Coens re-created their childhood environment with exacting attention to detail, said Katherine Tane, executive director of St. Louis Park's Jewish Historical Society of the Upper Midwest. The Coens' staff spent a year scouring her organization's photos of '60s teenagers, housewives, hairstyles and living rooms. The casting directors saw hundreds of Jewish children in open auditions; several won the lead children's roles. Many more locals, including a rabbi and a cantor, play small parts.
Among the guests at Saturday's reception was 15-year-old Aaron Wolff, a Minneapolis native who plays Larry's goof-off son Danny.
The Coens gave Wolff great creative latitude in his acting, but tutored him on how to smoke a joint. His only complaint: they squeezed lemon juice into his eyes to make them red-rimmed.
"It's not like I'm playing one of them, but a lot of aspects of their life is reflected in Danny," Wolff said. "I don't think either of them was high at their bar mitzvah, but I'm sure there was a lot of pot smoking going on around them."
Colin Covert • 612-673-7186