Joel and Ethan Coen, brothers and award-winning filmmakers of “The Big Lebowski,” “Fargo” and “O Brother, Where Art Thou?” fame, fielded questions from a crowded room of 120 students at a Calhoun College Master’s Tea on Tuesday afternoon.
Known for their collaboration as siblings, their innovative vision and their wry humor, the Minnesota-born Coen brothers spoke about the filmmaking process — from a film’s inception to their future plans — in a question-and-answer setting.
They said that they often start making a film without a finished script.
“We generally don’t know where we’re going in terms of plot until we’ve written it,” Ethan Coen said. “We go by a feeling.”
Joel Coen said they may not know which direction a plot might take, but they usually know how it’s going to end. Even with that kind of foresight, the brothers said, they are often surprised with the impact of their films.
“It never happens the way you think it will,” Joel Coen said, speaking of the sleeper success of “The Big Lebowski.” “We didn’t expect it to be a cult hit.”
When a student told Ethan Coen about the “Lebowski Challenge,” game stemming from the film in which the viewer mimics the drinking of the main character, “The Dude,” Ethan Coen responded, “It makes me feel proud.”
Although Joel Coen is often credited with directing and Ethan Coen with producing, both share the roles of directing, producing and screenwriting.
“Directing a movie is just answering questions,” Joel Coen said. “Whoever’s closest to the person asking answers.”
Ethan Coen agreed, noting that movie production is “social collaboration.”
When asked to name a genre they are looking forward to work on, Joel Coen said they would like to try a Western. Ethan Coen said they are not interested in doing a science fiction movie, or one “where people learn things and grow.”
Joel Coen attended film school at New York University and Ethan Coen went to Princeton University, but both said they had no idea what they wanted to do once they graduated.
“When Joel and I started writing together, we just stumbled into it,” Ethan Coen said. “None of it came about by desire.”
Joel Coen said they love their profession because they can “avoid real work.”
“We go in and make up stories and, once in a while, we go and make movies,” he said.
But when their movies are finished, the Coen brothers said they do not watch them.
The brothers, who have a reputation for rarely making public appearances, said they finally agreed to come to speak at Yale after repeated request from Calhoun Master William Sledge.
“We’ve had a correspondence with Master Sledge for the past year and we were sort of torturing him,” Joel Coen said jokingly. “At the end of the day, if you’re going to do that, you have to show up.”
“I thought the talk went great,” Sledge said. “For people so remarkably successful, they are without pretense.”
Often laughing at the brothers’ humor, attendees of the packed tea said they enjoyed the filmmakers’ insights.
“They were honest, easygoing and laid back,” Angel Hertslet ’08 said. “They have the same sense of humor that comes through in their movies.”
Austin Conroy ’05 called the Coen brothers the “coolest men alive.”
Following the tea, Sledge presented the Coen brothers with an achievement award. The Coen brothers also screened a new short film for an audience in Sudler Hall.