Joel David Coen (born November 29, 1954) and Ethan Jesse Coen (born September 21, 1957), collectively referred to as the Coen Brothers, were born and raised in St. Louis Park, Minnesota, a suburb of Minneapolis, USA. Their parents were Edward Coen, an economist at the University of Minnesota, and his wife Rena, an art historian at St. Cloud State University. Joel attended the undergraduate film program at New York University, Ethan went to Princeton University and earned an undergraduate degree in philosophy.
The brothers write, direct, and produce their films jointly. They have a satirical, neo-noir and witty style that has given them a name for genre-busting across numerous genres including comedy, crime, the Western, horror, thriller, gangster, drama, romance, and adventure. They have a fascination for botched crimes with a dark comedy element, and victims of crime who are almost entirely unsympathetic characters.
The Coen brothers are well known for their organic writing processes, in which they do not worry about overall outlines, or even what the storyline is or who the characters are, but simply write scenes they believe will be interesting and see if a scene to follow it emerges. In this way they discover the story along the way and then edit and revise heavily until the screenplay is tight enough to shoot. Often, then, they end up writing more than one project at a time, giving one film space to breathe and writing what is fresh and exciting for another film. Barton Fink (1991) was written entirely while they stalled with Miller’s Crossing (1990) and a large chunk of The Big Lebowski (1998) was written while they got stuck with Barton Fink! This unconventional way of creating underpins the immediately and curious ‘real life’ feel of their screenplays, and helps them overcome writer’s block. Ethan writes short stories, plays and poetry solo as well as screenplays with Joel.
Among their achievements are: Blood Simple (1984), Raising Arizona (1987), Miller’s Crossing (1990), Barton Fink (1991), Fargo (1996), The Big Lebowski (1998), O Brother, Where Art Thou? (2000), No Country for Old Men (2007), Burn After Reading (2008), A Serious Man (2009), True Grit (2010), and Inside Llewyn Davis (2013). They also wrote a number of films they did not direct including: Unbroken (2014), Bridge Of Spies (2015), Crimewave (1995), The Naked Man (1998) and Gambit (2012).
The brothers frequently cast: Steve Buscemi, Frances McDormand, Jon Polito, John Goodman, John Turturro, George Clooney, Michael Badalucco, Charles Durning, M. Emmet Walsh, Peter Stormare, Richard Jenkins, John Mahoney, Tony Shalhoub, Stephen Root, and Billy Bob Thornton. They are huge Stanley Kubrick fans and are infamous for insisting that scripts are followed exactly with no improvisation.
Despite their collaborative and shared working style, until The Ladykillers (2004), Joel received sole credit for directing and Ethan for producing. They worked this out by alternating top billing for their screenplays while sharing film credits for editor under the alias Roderick Jaynes. They nearly always work with Skip Lievsay to put together notably clever soundtracks in which mundane sounds are made to seem eerie or used for absurdist effect.
The brothers have been nominated for thirteen Academy Awards together, plus one individual nomination for each, winning Best Original Screenplay for Fargo (1996) and Best Picture, Best Director and Best Adapted Screenplay for No Country for Old Men (2007). Joel is the first person to have ever directed his wife to a Best Actress Oscar (Frances McDormand in Fargo).
The Coen Brothers Filmography
1984 Blood Simple
1987 Raising Arizona
1990 Miller’s Crossing
1991 Barton Fink
1994 The Hudsucker Proxy
1998 The Big Lebowski
1998 The Naked Man
2000 O Brother, Where Art Thou?
2000 The Coen Brothers (Documentary about the brothers directed by Sarah Aspinall)
2001 The Man Who Wasn’t There
2003 Intolerable Cruelty
2004 The Ladykillers
2006 Paris, je t’aime: “Tuileries” segment
2007 Chacun son cinéma: “World Cinema” segment
2007 No Country for Old Men
2008 Burn After Reading
2009 A Serious Man
2010 True Grit
2013 Inside Llewyn Davis