Life & Culture

Famed filmmaker Ethan Coen on why he’s on a lesbian road trip

He’s made his new screwball romantic comedy with his wife and long-time editor, but if you think this means broiges with brother Joel, you’re wrong


Wanderlust: Margaret Qualley and Geraldine Viswanathanstar as Jamie and Marian in Drive-Away Dolls Credit: Working Title / Focus Features

Ethan Coen lets out a hoot of laughter. A just-published review of his new comedy, Drive-Away Dolls, a lesbian B movie with lashings of sex, claims it’s a “horny movie”. The filmmaker takes this in for a minute. “That is fantastic. It’s a horny movie. That’s great. And it’s true.” By now, he’s guffawing away to himself. “That is so good. I’m gonna treasure that. That has got to be the tagline of the movie: ‘It’s a horny movie’. Oh my god, that’s going on the poster.”

Sadly, this sexy recommendation won’t make the posters advertising Drive-Away Dolls (the tagline is: “A story of two ladies going south” — which, let’s face it, coyly suggestive for a film that includes dildos, dyke bars and a dodgy briefcase in the boot of a Dodge Aries). But all this sexual liberation is new for Coen, the 66-year-old filmmaker who has been making movies with his older brother Joel since 1984’s brilliant debut noir Blood Simple.

Over the years, these Jewish siblings from Minnesota went from indie darlings, with films such as Raising Arizona and Barton Fink, to mainstream outliers, thanks to the Oscar-winning Fargo and No Country for Old Men. But during the pandemic, Joel veered away from the partnership, making The Tragedy of Macbeth, with his wife Frances McDormand as Shakespeare’s scheming Lady Macbeth, while Ethan took to directing the archive-led documentary Jerry Lee Lewis: Trouble in Mind.

Sitting alongside Ethan on our Zoom today is Tricia Cooke, Ethan’s wife, long-time editor and co-writer on Drive-Away Dolls: “Fran had acted in Macbeth a number of times, so I think that was something that Joel was very familiar with and a natural place to go. Especially making something without Ethan,” she explains. “I think it was just a big part of his life, just as Jerry Lee Lewis or this movie is kind of more connected to our lives.”

So, just in case you assumed the brothers might be engaged in a family broiges, think again. Ethan has been making films with Joel since they were kids, when they churned out Super 8 shorts including a pastiche of Lassie Come Home. Although Jewish-raised, theirs wasn’t a particularly religious upbringing: “We didn’t entertain a lot of theological debates in our household,” says Ethan. That said, their mother Rena, an art historian, spent time living in Israel and, as Joel once told Israeli newspaper Haaretz: “There’s no doubt that our Jewish heritage affects how we see things.”

Ethan struggles to sum up the differences between co-writing with Cooke and with his brother, however. “I don’t know,” he murmurs awkwardly. “In each case, the movie you end up with is a product of your conversation with the other person. And the product is very… it all comes out of a give and take. Neither person adds a distinct ingredient. Do you know what I mean? I’m being incoherent. But you know what I mean.” Cooke chuckles to herself: “Joel tells funnier jokes!”

That may or may not be true, but Drive-Away Dolls has plenty of gags. The story follows Jamie (Margaret Qualley) and Marian (Geraldine Viswanathan), two roommates who take a wild road trip from Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, to Tallahassee, Florida, after picking up a car to deliver there. Unbeknownst to them, there is a mysterious briefcase hidden in the boot. Hot on their tail are criminals Arliss (Joey Slotnick) and Flint (CJ Wilson), instructed to use any means possible to retrieve this precious cargo.

As knockabout as it is, the film feels exotic not least because it’s a road movie, something we rarely see in the UK due to our geographical limitations. “You don’t have enough road,” says Coen, dry as a bone.

“It’s definitely a road movie. And we’ve seen a lot of them. I can’t think that we referenced specific ones when we were writing it. But again, they’re all kind of in there.”

The same can be said for the B movies they’ve absorbed over the years – such as Robert Aldrich’s 1955 film, Kiss Me Deadly, which also features a much sought-after briefcase.

Coen and Cooke wrote their script two decades ago — which rather accounts for why the film is set in 1999 — with the intention of their friend Allison Anders (1992’s Gas Food Lodging) directing it. But while there were a handful of lesbian-centred films around at the time, it seems the world wasn’t quite ready for a movie this bawdy. “We just couldn’t get it together,” sighs Coen, “[We] couldn’t get it done.” Back in the drawer it went.

During the pandemic, however, Coen dusted it off, intent on making Drive-Away Dolls the first feature he had directed without his brother. Joel may have been absent, but the Coen Brothers spirit is alive and well in a film that features casual violence, dark humour and idiotic men — one of the siblings’ hallmarks, from the blockheads that George Clooney has played in Hail, Caesar! and Burn After Reading to the hapless kidnappers of Fargo.

Although Drive-Away Dolls’ male co-stars include Matt Damon, Pedro Pascal and Colman Domingo, it is the women that leave the biggest impression, especially Beanie Feldstein, who plays Jamie’s ex, Sukie, a permanently angry cop. “I think we wanted the women to have agency, be empowered,” says Cooke. “And we thought it was important to portray the men as incompetent and foolish.”

Intriguingly, though, there is an undercurrent of homosexuality between the goons chasing Jamie and Marian. “They’re the bad guys…they’re gay but haven’t come out,” says Coen. “And the good guys, the women, are openly...” Cooke interjects: “Openly queer.”

While he can be a reluctant interviewee at times, Coen is effusive in his praise for his two leads. “They’re both very adept and totally responsive to the material,” he says. “Marian is a very closed-off character. And you see a lot of actors doing that. And it’s just boring because they’re kind of closed-off. Geraldine has something lively underneath that [makes] you go, ‘Okay, that’s the character and yet it’s compelling.’ And Margaret, on the other hand, is [brilliantly] all over the place, and a lot of actors come in you go, ‘Wow, that’s just a mess.’”

Qualley, the daughter of Andie MacDowell, rose to fame in Quentin Tarantino’s 2019 comedy drama Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, as a Charles Manson acolyte, while Viswanathan is the lively Australian actress known for Blockers and Cat Person. “They both had the right kind of energy for their given characters,” notes Cooke. Indeed, Qualley’s free-spirited, sexually promiscuous Jamie is a ball of non-stop energy, “like Kristen Stewart crossed with Katharine Hepburn”, as one reviewer noted. Viswanathan, meanwhile, makes the uptight Marian loveable.

The Coen-Cooke dynamic has clearly influenced the building of these two protagonists (Coen jokes that “in a nutshell”, he is Marian to Cooke’s Jamie). The duo met when Cooke, now 58, was hired as an apprentice editor on the Coen brothers’ 1990 gangster film Miller’s Crossing. Coen asked her out on a date, so the story goes, but Cooke revealed she was a lesbian and had been out for several years at that point. But, over time, she realised she loved him. They married and had two children, daughter Dusty and son Buster, both now in their twenties.

The pair still share a home in New York, but both have other partners, while their professional relationship has grown over the years, with Cooke editing a multiple films by the brothers including The Man Who Wasn’t There and O Brother, Where Art Thou? “We have a long history of working together,” Cooke says. “I’ve worked with Joel and Ethan for many years in the cutting room. So there’s a shorthand, there’s an ease and a comfort level that we have together.” Cooke edited Drive-Away Dolls too, which she found tough: “I wished that every once-in-a-while there was someone else there,” she says.

When the conversation moves to the industry, a proverbial dark cloud crosses the screen. “It feels like most of the movies that… are promoted, that you would go and see in the theatres, are just superhero movies or huge action movies,” says Cooke. “So that’s a little disheartening. Where are all of the mid-level or low budget movies? There are just a few genres that get made now where they are promoted. It’s a loss.”

Attention spans these days are “so much shorter”, she adds, “which works for us because we can’t seem to make a movie that’s longer than 85 minutes.”

Coen sighs. After four decades in the industry, he’s beginning to feel a little old. While his last collaboration with Joel, the 2018 western anthology The Ballad of Buster Scruggs, was released via Netflix, he’s not exactly in tune with the streaming age.

As for making grand filmmaking plans far into the future, you can forget it. “All you know, definitely, is the next one, if that.”

Should Drive-Away Dolls fare well at the box office, though, Coen and Cooke do have another two lesbian B movie script ideas featuring fresh characters. Is the first of these a comedy? “Well, not a comedy in quotes,” says Coen. “It’s kind of a detective-crime thing. But put it this way, you’re always allowed to laugh.” Cooke adds: “There’s some levity in it, for sure.”

What about the other script? They’ve only written ten pages. “We know it’s going to embrace nature,” says Coen.

Who knows, maybe it will be even hornier…

Drive-Away Dolls is in cinemas from March 15

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