Who Are the Coen Brothers - Coen Brothers Bio - Coen Brothers Movies, Early Work and Film Style

One of the most, if not the most, iconic and influential directing duos of all time, the Coen Brothers have secured a place in the zeitgeist and in the annals of film history. From Blood Simple to The Ballad of Buster Scruggs, the Coen Brothers’ filmography has been both eclectic and distinctive. In this post, we’ll be providing a Coen Brothers bio, taking a look at how they got their start, and exploring the Coen Brothers’ film style as a whole. Join us as we answer the question: who are the Coen Brothers?

Watch: Coen Brothers Directing Style Explained

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Coen Brothers auteur

Dividing credit with the Coen Brothers

This brotherly directing duo consists of Joel Coen and Ethan Coen. Due to Directors Guild of America (or DGA) regulations specifying that only one person may be credited as the director of a film, the Coen Brothers did not share directorial credit on their movies for many years.

In abiding by this rule, the Coens decided to divide the credit with Joel receiving director credit, Ethan receiving producer credit, and the two sharing the writing credit. Despite this division of credit, every Coen Brothers film has been co-directed by both Joel and Ethan.

The brothers have joked that the reason why Joel was chosen to receive the director title was because he was three years older. Joel and Ethan have also edited the majority of their films together but neither of them received editing credit.

Instead, editing credit has always gone to Roderick Jaynes, a pseudonym made up by the Coens. This imaginary Roderick Jaynes had Hollywood fooled for a number of years and Mr. Jaynes was even nominated twice for the Best Film Editing Oscar at the Academy Awards.

Here's a glimpse at the Coen Brothers' editing process on their recent film, Hail, Caesar! What becomes instantly clear is that they work as a team through each stage of the filmmaking process.

Coen Brothers Editing Process

Eventually, the DGA made an exception for the Coens and other directing duos such as the Phil Lord & Christopher Miller and the Wachowskis. The first time the Coens shared directing credit was for The Ladykillers in 2004.

Coen Brothers bio

Roots of the Coen Brothers

The Coen Brothers were born in the 1950s in Minnesota, a state they would return to for the setting of their Academy Award-winning black comedy, thriller Fargo. The Coen Brothers’ first movie, Blood Simple, was made when the directors were 29 and 32 years old, though they had first played around with filmmaking as pre-teens, bringing a Super-8 camera into an airport and messing around with a suit and briefcase.

Only half of this directing duo received an official education in filmmaking. Joel studied at NYU, one of the country's best film schools, while Ethan went to Princeton to study philosophy. The two began writing screenplays together while Joel worked as an assistant editor where he began making connections with other filmmakers, most famously Sam Raimi.

Joel Coen served as assistant editor on Raimi’s low-budget horror film The Evil Dead. Raimi and the Coen’s shared some sensibilities when it came to filmmaking and shared a particular love of cartoony, Three-Stooges-esque humor infused into more dramatic stories.

A number of collaborations between the brothers and Raimi would follow, including a cameo from Raimi in the Coens’ Miller’s Crossing, Crimewave which Raimi directed and the three wrote together, and The Hudsucker Proxy, which the trio wrote together and the Coens directed.

As revealed in this interview: at one point the Coens even lived with Sam Raimi

A trademark of the Coens is that they frequently cast the same actors in different projects and often write with the specific actors in mind such as Steve Buscemi, John Goodman, John Turturro and more.

One of their most important actor collaborators is Frances McDormand who is also Joel Coen’s wife. They first met for the making of Blood Simple, which Frances McDormand starred in. They had made a couple of short films but it was the Coen Brothers first movie, Blood Simple, that really put them on the map.

Here's a full interview with Charlie Rose on Fargo and their careers up to that point.

The Coen Brothers interviewed with Frances McDormand

The Coen Brothers first movie was made independently with a small budget raised through private investors and it remains a gritty jewel of their filmography. While the majority of Coen Bros. films contain elements of dark or outright zany humor, Blood Simple does not.

It would remain their most serious in tone film until No Country For Old Men in 2007. This first Coen Brothers film drew heavily from Film Noir as inspiration and from a number of hard-boiled thrillers. This would be the first of many great Neo-Noirs they have made to date.

Few of the Coen Brothers’ trademarks are apparent in Blood Simple but their stylings were clearly developing and their fingerprints are all over the material.

Video essay from Thomas Flight

After their debut film proved to be a critical success, the Coens landed a production deal with an indie studio that saw them retaining complete creative control and final cut over their films. Their following films would showcase the diversity of the Coen Brothers’ film style.

What movies did the Coen Brothers do

The Coen Brothers' early work

The Coen Brothers’ film noir style was swiftly set aside for the next film. Following their dark, violent Neo-Noir debut, the Coen Brothers movies then jumped to a polar opposite style for their next film, Raising Arizona.

This sophomore effort immediately established the Coens as capable of bouncing between styles and genres while staying true to their distinctive voice as creatives. The somber tone of Blood Simple was swapped for the zany comedy of Raising Arizona, which plays out like a live-action cartoon at points.

Over time, the Coen Brothers trademarks began to develop as their filmography continued to grow. One of their most consistent and enduring trademarks is their use of desks.

Are the Coen Brothers obsessed with desks?  •  Subscribe on YouTube

The following two films, produced in close proximity, would further cement the Coens as a cinematic force to be reckoned with and a storytelling voice that could not be boxed in by traditional genre metrics. The goofy humor of Raising Arizona was followed up with the stylish period-gangster film Miller’s Crossing, somewhat of a return for the Coen Brothers movies to film noir, albeit less stylized.

The very next year would see the release of Barton Finkthe biggest critical success yet for the Coens. Barton Fink is a psychological film following a writer struggling to overcome writers’ block. The screenplay was born out of the writer’s block experienced by the Coen Brothers while penning Miller’s Crossing.

The Coen Brothers’ writing process was halted when they took a break from writing Miller’s Crossing and knocked out the script for Barton Fink in three weeks before returning to their gangster epic. You can even find a couple of little nods to Barton Fink within Miller’s Crossing.

Video Essay from JessFlix

Barton Fink was the Coen Brothers’ first brush with the Academy Awards as the film was nominated for three Oscars. More importantly, Barton Fink would go on to win Best Actor, Best Director, and the grand prize (the Palme d’Or) at the Cannes Film Festival, the equivalent of the Coen Brothers winning Best Picture at the Oscars. This was especially notable given that Barton Fink was the first film to ever win all three of these categories at Cannes.

Barton Fink was also the first Coen Brothers’ film to be shot by someone other than cinematographer Barry Sonnenfeld. For this film, the Coens would enlist the exquisite cinematography of Roger Deakins.  

Coen Brothers biography

The Coen Brothers' brush with failure

In 1994, the Coen Brothers would release The Hudsucker Proxy. This hapless-inventor comedy with a fairy-tale atmosphere would prove to be the Coen Brothers’ first brush with failure.

The Hudsucker Proxy was their highest-budgeted film yet and the first made in conjunction with a big studio and huge stars in all of the main roles. It contains most of the Coen Brothers trademarks but it would also be the first to not turn a profit. With a $40 million dollar budget, a world-wide box office gross of under three million was a major disappointment.

Although the critical reception has turned toward more favorable over the years, the initial response to The Hudsucker Proxy was negative critically as well as financially.

How The Hudsucker Proxy came about and why it failed

Unfortunately, The Hudsucker Proxy wouldn’t be the Coens’ only poorly received film over the years. Amongst all of the bonafide masterpieces the Coens have created over the years, there lie a couple of duds.

Intolerable Cruelty and The Ladykillers are both of a considerably lower quality than the Coens’ usual output. But even a below-par Coen Brothers film is still better than a lot of films released in any given year.

Coen Brothers auteur

Coen Brothers film style solidified

After the disappointing reception of The Hudsucker Proxy, the Coens returned to their roots with Fargo, a black comedy, crime, thriller set in their home state of Minnesota and, of course, Fargo, North Dakota.

Fargo proved massively successful upon release and won the Coens their first Oscars for Best Original Screenplay alongside nominations for directing and editing under their pseudonym Roderick Jaynes. The writing process employed by the Coen Brothers has proven favorable for the Academy over the years.

By this time, the Coen Brothers’ trademarks had been thoroughly established and they had solidified their directing style as one that can’t be pinned down to a particular genre or tone but that is instantly recognizable as ‘a Coen Brothers’ film.'

The Coen Brothers interviewed by Guillermo Del Toro

There is still plenty of variation in both the content and the reception of their work. For example, Siskel and Ebert both loved Fargo but Roger Ebert’s initial view for The Big Lebowski was far less warm. Upon rewatch years later, Ebert would up his score to four stars.

Siskel and Ebert rave about Fargo

The Big Lebowski exists in an odd place critically. Lukewarm feelings tend to blossom into love for the film, even to this day. It is a film so densely packed that it is difficult to take in all that the film has to offer on just a single watch. The Big Lebowski is endlessly re-watchable and has a loyal fan base. Download and read the Coen Brothers’ screenplay from The Big Lebowski to see how they constructed a cult favorite.

The Big Lebowski  •  Download the complete PDF screenplay

There is a clear knack for bouncing between styles and genres across the Coen Brothers’ filmography and also within individual films. They have carved out a tremendous space for creative freedom within their work. Audiences may not know what to expect from a new Coen Brothers film but they can rest easy, knowing they are in safe hands.

Few directors could follow up No Country For Old Men, their darkest film tonally since their debut with Blood Simple, with the hilarious and goofy Burn After ReadingThe Coen Brothers won Best Picture for No Country For Old Men. This was their only win but not the only Best Picture nomination for the Coen Brothers who also received the prestigious nomination for FargoA Serious Man and True Grit.

No Country for Old Men also won the award for Best Adapted Screenplay. Based on the novel by Cormac McCarthy, the screenplay is simultaneously haunting and beautiful. Download and read a copy of the entire script below or head over to our Script Library where you can browse, download, and read dozens of amazing screenplays.

No Country for Old Men  •  Download the complete PDF screenplay

Coen Brothers quotes

Non-directed work

Outside of directing, there are a number of film projects that the Coen Brothers have been involved in over the years as either screenwriters or producers. These projects don’t bear all of the hallmarks of Coen Brothers’ projects as there are other visions in the mix.

Films that the Coens have written without directing include Gambit, Unbroken, Bridge of Spies, and Suburbicon. Films the Coens have produced include Romance & Cigarettes from frequent collaborator John Tuturro, and Bad Santa.

Coen Brothers biography

In conclusion

Joel and Ethan Coen have cemented a place among the best filmmakers of their generation and of all time. They continue to church out excellent cinematic works including 2018’s The Ballad of Buster Scruggs which was released as a Netflix original and garnered three Oscar Nominations. The Coen Brothers have one of the most diverse and high-quality filmographies of any working filmmakers and their work deserves all of the praise it receives and more.

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