Hail, Caesar! A chat with Directors, Joel and Ethan Coen

When did you come up with the idea for the film?

Joel Coen: About 15 years ago, around about the time we first started working with George Clooney, we had the idea for Hail, Ceasar! and we mentioned it to him. He loved it even though at that time it was little more than a pitch about a “knuckleheaded” matinee idol who is making a biblical epic with the tantalising working title, Hail, Caesar!

He then started sort of announcing it as the next movie we were going to make together, even though at that point we didn’t really have any intention of making it. It was sort of a thought experiment and then we decided a couple of years ago, let’s sit down and try and write it.

The result is an affectionate Coenesque tribute to the Golden Age of Hollywood with Clooney joining a stellar cast that includes Josh Brolin, Channing Tatum, Scarlett Johansson, Ralph Fiennes, Tilda Swinton and Alden Ehrenreich…

JC: Yeah, certainly Hail, Caesar! comes out of a love of movies that have come before. Part of the appeal of doing this story was being able to take little samples from bygone genres. It’s part of the fun of doing it.

What was is like filming the difference scenes?

JC: Filming the scenes for the films within the film was a huge logistical challenge. Every week it was a different movie. Usually what you can do is, with the art department or the wardrobe department or special effects, it’s all geared up to do the same thing over the course of one movie.

If it’s a western you have to have wranglers and horses, and the crew and the production facilities are geared towards taking care of the problems you need for that kind of a movie, but if you’re doing all of these different things where one week it’s the western and the next week it’s something else then we don’t need the wranglers anymore but we have to find a tank and synchronised swimmers and figure out how to light it.

Ethan Coen: These days we have more sophisticated technology; most obviously there’s computer-generated stuff to solve production problems, but then they had the studio system.

They had like an army of really skilled technicians and craftsmen, which is beyond what you can muster now in a practical way, on most movies.

JC: There’s the technical part and then the other part of it is, you think, ‘would you have thrived in a system like that?’ It’s impossible to actually think yourself into that because we’re a product of the age we grew up in and to think whether or not you could thrive in an age when you didn’t, it’s hard to know, but there are seductive things about it.

You know, the fact that there was this sort of beautiful machine to make movies, and also just the fact that these guys who were active then, directors that directed then, would make 40 or 50 movies in a career. That never happens anymore.

They’d go from one to the other to the other, so the amount of work you could do was always changing and stimulating, but on the other hand, it was very different in terms of the control of the studios then, and what we’re sort of used to. I don’t know, it’s an impossible question, but it’s an interesting one.

We didn’t live through that era so we can’t be nostalgic about it and the movie is, by design, a rather romanticised version of Hollywood in the 1950s but there’s an aspect of how movies were done there, the idea of a factory for making movies; the machine for making movies that was such a beautifully designed thing that there is an element of not nostalgia but affection and admiration for it, I think.

I’m not quite sure how we would have function in that kind of environment but it’s kind of impossible to put yourself, with a modern sensibility, back years into that kind of context. But certainly it’s a very affectionate look at that kind of filmmaking – it’s not what we do, but it’s a very affectionate look at it.



Did you write the film with specific actors in mind?

EC: George Clooney’s part was. Josh Brolin, even though we had done two movies with him, we weren’t particularly thinking of him until we finished and looked at that character and thought, ‘Okay, Josh could do this.’

JC: With Tilda Swinton we had the idea for that character and then we thought, ‘Okay, Tilda could play that,’ as opposed to thinking, ‘what do we write for Tilda?’

With Scarlett Johansson, no, but we do know Scarlett. Once we came up with the idea of doing the swimming thing, we very much wanted Scarlett to do it, because we thought she would be very funny in that. Same thing with Ralph Fiennes. Alden Ehrenreich, who is, I think, really fantastic in the movie, we just met in an audition. He came in and read that scene.They all had to have pretty specific skills. How did you know Channing Tatum can dance like Gene Kelly?

JC: We knew Channing could dance; he hadn’t tap-danced before, that’s true, but he’s done a lot of dancing. He’s a good dancer. We were fairly confident he would be able to learn how to tap.

Did Alden do the lasso during the audition?

JC: No, he auditioned doing the scene that he does with Ralph Fiennes during the movie – the scene where he can’t get the line out.

Is Hail, Caesar! your love letter to classic movies from the 1950s?

JC: Yeah, certainly Hail, Caesar! comes out of a love of movies that have come before. Part of the appeal of doing this story was being able to take little samples from bygone genres. It’s part of the fun of doing it.

But is there some commentary running through there? You show the studio system and touch on the communist witch-hunt in Hollywood. Is that always an aim, even with comedy?

EC: Well yes, in a way, it’s all a big stew of not entirely sorted out ideas about different things (laughs).

JC: Yeah, you may be crediting us with more logical and coherent calculation that actually goes into it.

EC: The political thing is not so much an interest in communism, per se. We established this premise: movie star kidnapped off a set for ransom, big studio that has a lot of money invested in it, so they’re on the hook for the ransom, and this guy who’s the sane person in this crazy studio world, who’s played by Josh Brolin, and okay, who are the bad guys? Who have kidnapped this person? It would naturally be the people with the ideology that’s totally opposed to this good, catholic, capitalist person. In 1951, that would be commies, so it comes out of a story imperative, as opposed to a political or philosophical imperative.

You write this script with all of these different films within your film – biblical epic, a western, a musical and you even have synchronised swimming – and then all of a sudden you’ve got to film it…

EC: (Laughs) and then you’ve got to film it.

JC: That’s always the problem (laughs). We write it and then we go, ‘Oh, God, now we have to film it.’ No, that’s true.But having to recreate scenes from so many different genres must have presented a challenge?

JC: Yes, in a way. Every week it was a different movie,” says Joel. “Usually what you can do is, with the art department or the wardrobe department or special effects, it’s all geared up to do the same thing over the course of one movie. If it’s a western you have to have wranglers and horses, and the crew and the production facilities are geared towards taking care of the problems you need for that kind of a movie, but if you’re doing all of these different things where one week it’s the western and the next week it’s something else then we don’t need the wranglers anymore but we have to find a tank and synchronised swimmers and figure out how to light it. There’s always a certain amount of that, but you’re right, it’s more difficult.

Which one of the films in Hail, Caesar! would you turn into a real film?

JC: Ethan was saying the singing cowboy flick.

EC: The singing cowboy. Definitely not the water ballet – we had enough of that (laughs).

Have you guys ever needed an Eddie Mannix style fixer on set?

JC: Not like Eddie Mannix is a fixer.

EC: Yeah, nothing that juicy. Nothing scandalous, no.

The studio system clearly had its drawbacks, especially for the actors under contract, but it was also a huge resource for filmmakers in the time this movie is set. Would you guys trade places with, say, Billy Wilder?

JC: That’s a good question! It is a weird trade-off, yeah.

EC: These days we have more sophisticated technology; most obviously there’s computer-generated stuff to solve production problems, but then they had the studio system. They had like an army of really skilled technicians and craftsmen, which is beyond what you can muster now in a practical way, on most movies.

JC: There’s the technical part and then the other part of it is, you think, ‘would you have thrived in a system like that?’ It’s impossible to actually think yourself into that because we’re a product of the age we grew up in and to think whether or not you could thrive in an age when you didn’t, it’s hard to know, but there are seductive things about it. You know, the fact that there was this sort of beautiful machine to make movies, and also just the fact that these guys who were active then, directors that directed then, would make 40 or 50 movies in a career. That never happens anymore. They’d go from one to the other to the other, so the amount of work you could do was always changing and stimulating, but on the other hand, it was very different in terms of the control of the studios then, and what we’re sort of used to. I don’t know, it’s an impossible question, but it’s an interesting one.



Do you shy away from the studio system as it exists today?

EC: Well, we’re part of it and we’re not. We don’t develop scripts at the studio, and we’re not subject to their input on basically pretty much anything. We present finished scripts and a budget and a cast to the studio, which is for us kind of a finance thing. Often it is a studio that finances our movies, but that’s not unusual. A lot of people work that way with studios. And sometimes our movies are financed outside the studios.

Is it true that this was one of your first scripts?

JC: No, but it is true that it’s something we looked at a long time ago, yes.

EC: The first time we talked with George [Clooney] was about…

JC: It was about 15 years ago

EC: But we didn’t actually write the script until right before we made the movie.

JC: Yeah, so about 15 years ago, around about the time we first started working with George, we had the idea for this and we mentioned it to him, and he then started sort of announcing it as the next movie we were going to make together, even though at that point we didn’t really have any intention of making it. It was sort of a thought experiment. And then we decided a couple of years ago, ‘let’s sit down and try and write it.’ But it wasn’t one of the first scripts.Are you drawn to characters like Eddie Mannix who have to take the burden of everyone else’s problems? You often have a character like that in your films…

EC: Do we?


JC: Yeah, well we were thinking about it a little bit that way, but kind of unique to this movie. One of the things that made this sort of appealing to us was the fact that the movie studio is making a movie about Jesus Christ, and what did Jesus do? He took the sins of other people on his shoulders. That was sort of an amusing parallel to us. But I don’t think characters in our other movies are exactly the same thing. Michael Stuhlbarg had a lot of problems (in A Serious Man) but they were his problems.

Is there a common thread running through all of your films?

EC: Not that we’re aware of. I mean, if we were aware of something we were repeating, we’d try to do something different, so to the extent that there is something in common in our movies, it’s in spite of our efforts.

You’ve been nominated for an Oscar for Bridge of Spies and you’ve given Clooney a script, too. Does your writing process differ when writing for other directors?

JC: Yes.

EC: Very much! Though those are two different things. The script that Clooney is going to do is something that we wrote literally …

JC: …thirty years ago.

EC: Yeah, it was a long time ago.

So that was one of your first screenplays?

EC: Yes. And with Bridge of Spies we were hired to rewrite something that already existed, which is more the norm. We have actually done several writing jobs, and usually they’re in that form. And the approach is that when we’re hired to do something, you have a mandate to do it a certain way, usually for a certain director, and that’s what you do. You’re not doing it for yourself. We’re not thinking about how we would do it.

JC: You’re trying to figure out what the director is looking to do, what he’s looking to get in the script and what he wants you to sort of accomplish in the story or in the writing, and serve that, whatever those ideas are. I mean it’s a lot of fun to sort of think about it that way, but it’s a little bit different.

Tell us about the kidnappers who happen to be writers and communists…

EC: It’s a story thing. They are idealists. They’re misguided, but they’re right – they are the ideal opposite, the polar ideal from the main character, yeah, but again it comes out of thinking about interesting characters that fit into a place in the story, as opposed to expressing a viewpoint of ours.

How much fun did you have with the film references in Hail, Caesar!? Did all that take a lot of research?

EC: There were certain things we knew, not from research per se, but from a sort of acquaintance with Hollywood history like one has, but no we didn’t do research. There was no research, not until the point when having written the script you want to do very specific research to kind of generally figure out production problems. You see how other movies did certain things, technically. On our part, research consists of that.

How long did it take to research how to rebuild the 50s film industry?

JC: Oh, well then there’s a lot of research done by every member of the department, in terms of the sort of texture of the movie, from an art department point of view and from all those different perspectives. You know, how do you create that world point of view on an actual movie set? That’s quite extensively done, but I think you were talking more about like, what were Eddie Mannix’s problems? Like, there’s one in particular in the movie that is taken from real life that we just happened to know about, which is that Loretta Young did manage to engineer the adoption of her own daughter. That’s true. The rest of it is almost just kind of generic movie star scandal stuff that he’s dealing with.

Does Hail, Caesar! show your nostalgia for that 1950s era in Hollywood?

JC: Well, we didn’t live through that era so we can’t be nostalgic about it and the movie is, by design, a rather romanticised version of Hollywood in the 1950s but there’s an aspect of how movies were done there, the idea of a factory for making movies; the machine for making movies that was such a beautifully designed thing that there is an element of not nostalgia but affection and admiration for it, I think. I’m not quite sure how we would have functioned in that kind of environment but it’s kind of impossible to put yourself, with a modern sensibility, back years into that kind of context. But certainly it’s a very affectionate look at that kind of filmmaking – it’s not what we do, but it’s a very affectionate look at it.



Hail, Caesar! is available on Digital HD from 27th June and Blu-ray™ & DVD from 11th July, courtesy of Universal Pictures (UK).

Order Hail, Caesar! on Blu-ray from one of these retailers:
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