Burn After Reading, a comedy thriller from Joel Coen and Ethan Coen (No Country for Old Men, Fargo, The Big Lebowski), is world-premiering as the opening-night film of the 2008 Venice International Film Festival.
At the headquarters of the Central Intelligence Agency in Arlington, Va., analyst Osborne Cox (John Malkovich) arrives for a top-secret meeting. Unfortunately for Cox, the secret is soon out: he is being ousted. Cox does not take the news particularly well and returns to his Georgetown home to work on his memoirs and his drinking, not necessarily in that order. His wife Katie (Tilda Swinton) is dismayed, though not particularly surprised; she is already well into an illicit affair with Harry Pfarrer (George Clooney), a married federal marshal, and sets about making plans to leave Cox for Harry.
Elsewhere in the Washington, D.C. suburbs, and seemingly worlds apart, Hardbodies Fitness Centers employee Linda Litzke (Frances McDormand) can barely concentrate on her work. She is consumed with her life plan for extensive cosmetic surgery, and confides her mission to can-do colleague Chad Feldheimer (Brad Pitt). Linda is all but oblivious to the fact that the gym's manager Ted Treffon (Richard Jenkins) pines for her even as she arranges dates via the Internet with other men.
When a computer disc containing material for the CIA analyst's memoirs accidentally falls into the hands of Linda and Chad, the duo are intent on exploiting their find. As Ted frets, "No good can come of this," events spiral out of everyone's and anyone's control, in a cascading series of darkly hilarious encounters.
ABOUT THE PRODUCTION
In Burn After Reading, the Coen Brothers mix and match strains of comedic DNA - screwball comedy, satire, sex farce - to weave a tale of an ousted CIA analyst, two D.C. gym employees, and a lost computer disc that may contain highly sensitive material.
As events in the contemporary story spin blithely out of control, sinister forces are at work and the dark side of the material comes to the fore.
The fact that Burn After Reading follows last year's No Country for Old Men in the Coens' filmography speaks more to timing than to any storytelling avenue being pursued; although the characters in both suffer dire consequences, that has long been a constant in the Brothers' films.
Joel Coen notes, "We actually wrote this script around the same time we were adapting No Country for Old Men."
Ethan Coen adds, "We came up with the idea thinking about different parts we wanted to write for actors that we know - who we thought might be fun to throw together; George Clooney, Richard Jenkins, Frances McDormand, and Brad Pitt, each of whom we know and all of whom we have worked with before, except for Brad. We thought about a mix of characters, and a story, that might be interesting to see these actors play."
Joel enumerates, "Having worked with both George and Richard twice before, and at least four times with Fran, they are among the actors that inspire us to write characters for them.
"Like Brad, John Malkovich is someone we hadn't worked with before but have wanted to for some time. So we wrote John's part specifically for him, which was a lot of fun to do."
The characters in Burn After Reading are, as the Coens clarify, "knuckleheads, but not unlovable ones. We asked the actors to embrace their inner knucklehead."
Further, says Joel, "The story is about middle-aged people, all of whom are undergoing professional, personal, and sexual crises touching on matters of national security. That's what makes it a Washington tale. The plot concerns the Central Intelligence Agency and the world of physical fitness, and what happens when those two worlds intersect and collide; Internet dating is also in the mix."
"It's a comedy, broadly speaking, and we've certainly done those before," says Ethan. "But the world of Washington, D.C., the world of spies and intrigue - that, we haven't done before."
"Well, years and years ago, we did do an adaptation of Advise and Consent in Super 8," reveals Joel. "That's the last time we tried taking on 'inside the Beltway' subject matter."
Ethan admits, "We didn't get the rights to the original Allen Drury novel, so you can't see that picture commercially. Like Advise and Consent, this new picture is about the personal meeting the political, with melodrama. Burn After Reading is also our version of a Tony Scott/Jason Bourne kind of movie - without the explosions."
"A Seven Days in May sort of thing," adds Joel.
George Clooney, who has made and/or starred in several politically themed projects, offers, "Despite the Washington setting, this picture is really about shockingly dumb people doing dumb things involving sex and other situations. What makes it even more interesting is that they're not politicians.
"As soon as they called me up, I knew I'd do it. What could be better? After all, it's the Coen Brothers. They make roles available to you that people don't know you're capable of doing as an actor. Then they told me they wrote the part for me, which worried me…"
Ethan comments, "As George gets older, our characters for George are getting older, and not wiser."
Clooney muses, "Harry's not unlike the dopes I've played in my other films for the Coens. He's this sort of sad, moronic character. But there's a viciousness to this guy that doesn't exist in, say, Everett in O, Brother Where Art Thou? This script made me howl when I read it. It's so insane, I just went with it. I grew the beard they thought the character should have and showed up to the set - where I finally had the chance to work with Fran."
Frances McDormand remembers, "In the first scene for my character in the script, the description said, 'Close Up On A Woman's Ass. Pale. Bare. Middle-Aged.'
"Why should one even read on? Why should one even consider the job?"
Ethan reveals, "It's fun to write for Fran because you know she's good. It's not fun to show the script to her once it's written, because she yells at you."
"You've been scripting it for a number of months, and she'll go, 'This is it?' But we usually work through that," assures Joel.
McDormand says, "You know, I've been working with Joel and Ethan for the last 25 years. Their first movie [Blood Simple] was my first movie. I don't know why they make me do what they make me do. But it's always worth it."
Brad Pitt had been waiting a long time for a role in a Coen Brothers film, and at last the call came.
The actor admits, "I didn't think the guy would be a dumbbell, a gum-chewing, Gatorade-swilling, iPod-addicted bubble-brain. I said to Joel and Ethan, 'He's such an idiot…' But, he does have a good heart.
"Basically, I see the role as a career-buster."
Clooney shrugs this off, saying of his longtime friend and costar, "Brad is going to steal Burn After Reading."
Joel offers, "Brad grew to love playing a numbskull as much as George does, and he's very funny in the role."
McDormand adds, "Brad was doing some things in our scenes together which made it very hard not for me to crack up."
Like Pitt, John Malkovich had been hoping to work with the Coens for years. He states, "When they called and told me they'd written a role for me, well, I was delighted. The whole script centers on people's quests to change themselves.
"Ozzie is a sarcastic man, and an unbelievable lush. When he gets canned, it throws him into a tizzy, and he writes his memoirs - very badly."
As Cox's wife Katie, Tilda Swinton reports, "I have great lines, like 'Stop the foolishness!' Katie feels she's surrounded by bungling fools; she's angry about everything, disappointed in her husband and disappointed in life."
Becoming nearly as disappointed is Richard Jenkins' Ted Treffon, who, the actor says, "is described as 'soulful.' He's desperately in love with Frances' character, Linda. But she only thinks of him as a friend.
"I had previously made two other movies with Frances - neither of which we had any scenes together in. I finally got to actually work with her, and she's as good as you think she is."
To make Burn After Reading with these specific actors, scheduling became a key issue - another reason why No Country for Old Men went before the cameras first.
"Everything was contingent on the availability of this cast," says Joel.
"We found that sweet spot in terms of their calendars, so that dictated when we would shoot," says Ethan.
When the Coens signed a two-picture pact with Focus Features and Working Title Films, Burn After Reading was designated as the first of the two movies.
Working Title and its co-chairs Tim Bevan and Eric Fellner have had a long-term association with the Coens; Fargo (which won Oscars for McDormand as Best Actress and for the Coens in the Original Screenplay category), The Hudsucker Proxy, The Big Lebowski, O Brother, Where Art Thou? (for which Clooney won a Golden Globe Award), and The Man Who Wasn't There were all made by the Coens with Working Title.
Focus president of production John Lyons had also previously collaborated with the Coen Brothers extensively, as casting director on Raising Arizona, Miller's Crossing, Barton Fink, The Hudsucker Proxy, Fargo, and The Big Lebowski.
With the ensemble, the production company, and the studio in place, the Coens convened another group of regular collaborators, all of whom had just worked with them on No Country for Old Men: costume designer Mary Zophres, set decorator Nancy Haigh, makeup artist Jean Black, sound mixer Peter Kurland, and script supervisor Tom Johnston.
Joel notes, "These are people who are so good at what they do. They're up for anything on our movies. We've been lucky enough to assemble a team of the best people working in these areas."
Production designer Jess Gonchor, a more recent addition to the team, was also fresh from No Country for Old Men. The Coens' longtime composer Carter Burwell was again engaged, while two first-time collaborators came on board; BAFTA Award-nominated hair stylist Lyn Quiyou (Memoirs of a Geisha) and four-time Academy Award-nominated cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki (Children of Men).
A decision was made at the outset that, although several exteriors for Burn After Reading would be shot on location in Washington, D.C., where the story takes place, the majority of the action would be filmed in the New York area. One major factor in the decision was that the Coens wanted remain close to home and their families; another was that Clooney was working on another project in and around New York.
Principal photography on Burn After Reading began on location in Manhattan, in a downtown law firm which stood in for the D.C. offices of Katie Cox's lawyer.
The unit soon decamped to Paramus, New Jersey, where all the scenes that transpire at Hardbodies Fitness Center - the workplace of Linda, Chad, and Ted - were filmed. At an abandoned building that had until recently housed a Tower Records, Gonchor and his department - with an fitness-equipment assist from Gym Source - transformed the newly emptied space into a working gym. The makeover was so realistic that several Paramus residents walked in and went up to the reception desk to inquire about membership.
After more than a week "at the gym," the production traveled to Brooklyn's Steiner Studios for scenes set inside Linda's apartment and Washington's Russian embassy. The next stop was New Rochelle, where both exteriors and interiors of Harry's Chevy Chase, MD residence were lensed. Scenes were also shot in Mamaroneck, Westchester, for a sequence set at a Chesapeake Bay Yacht Club; in Manhattan, at Club Macanudo, a cigar smokers' club; in Manhattan's Riverside Park; and in Riverdale, on the grounds of Bronx Community College, for the exterior/entrance of the Russian embassy.
As part of the combining of the two Russian embassy locations, Gonchor notes, "At Steiner Studios, we created this very distinctive round window, 10 feet in diameter, in the Russian functionary's office where Linda and Chad are interviewed. It was replicating something we had seen and liked on the buildings at Bronx Community College, where the exteriors were shot."
In and around Brooklyn Heights, a succession of townhouses stood in for the Coxes' swanky Georgetown residence.
Gonchor elaborates, "We gave several Brooklyn Heights streets a facelift, painted some house-fronts, and framed the windows of these houses with black shutters so that they resembled houses in Georgetown. For my department, this was the hardest part of the shoot."
"To portray the Coxes' townhouse, we used one location for several downstairs interiors; another for the front entrance, driveway, and a specially built garden wall exterior; still another to establish the house; and a Steiner soundstage, where the upstairs master bedroom and hallway were constructed and dressed."
The unit also returned to Steiner to film sequences set at the offices of the CIA, and on Cox's yacht.
Although the cast drew considerable paparazzi attention wherever filming was transpiring, the process went smoothly - as is the norm on a Coens shoot.
Jenkins comments, "They give an actor responsibility; they know what they want, but they also want you to bring something to the role."
"As filmmakers, Joel and Ethan are so prepared; they meticulously plan out, and it's all to the actors' benefit," adds McDormand. "We don't have to wait for them to make decisions. They not intractable, though. They're open to improvisation to a certain extent, but improvising is not really the way they tell their stories. Their combined sensibility makes it easier for them to articulate what they want to other people, because they've already had that conversation themselves."
Swinton confirms, "They tend to work out things while they're writing, so that by the time they get to the shoot, they're in concert. Burn After Reading, to me, has a classic Coens feel to it.
"The shoot was so seamless and familial; a wonderful place to be, with their rhythm of working. It was beyond easy, except for George and I breaking up during takes." Swinton and Clooney were already well-acquainted, having previously teamed in Michael Clayton, for which she won an Academy Award. READ MORE
About the Filmmakers
JOEL COEN (Director/Writer/Producer)
Joel Coen was honored by the Cannes International Film Festival in 2001, as Best Director for The Man Who Wasn't There, and in 1991, as Best Director for Barton Fink. He was honored as Best Director by the New York Film Critics Circle, the National Board of Review, and the BAFTA Awards for 1996's Fargo; and also won the Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay for Fargo, which he co-wrote with his brother Ethan.
The screenplay for O Brother, Where Art Thou?, also co-written with Ethan, was nominated for a BAFTA Award and the Academy Award for Best Adapted Screenplay. Other films that he has directed and co-written are Intolerable Cruelty; The Big Lebowski; The Hudsucker Proxy; Miller's Crossing; Raising Arizona; and Blood Simple.
He co-directed and co-wrote the 2004 comedy The Ladykillers with Ethan. Joel and Ethan Coen's most recent film is their adaptation of Cormac McCarthy's No Country for Old Men. Among their honors for the latter were the Directors Guild of America, BAFTA, and Academy Awards; the Golden Globe Award for Best Screenplay; Best Picture, Best Director, and Best Screenplay from the New York Film Critics Circle; and Best Picture and Best Adapted Screenplay from the Oscars and the National Board of Review. The film's cast was voted the Screen Actors Guild Award for Outstanding Performance by a Cast in a Motion Picture, and Javier Bardem won the Screen Actors Guild and Academy Awards for Best Supporting Actor, among other accolades.
ETHAN COEN (Director/Writer/Producer)
Ethan Coen has produced and co-written such critically acclaimed films as Miller's Crossing, Barton Fink, which won the Palme d'Or [Best Picture], Best Director, and Best Actor (John Turturro) Awards at the 1991 Cannes International Film Festival; and O Brother, Where Art Thou?, which was nominated for two Academy Awards, five BAFTA Awards, and two Golden Globe Awards (winning one).
One of 1996's most honored films, Fargo, which he produced and co-wrote, received seven Academy Award nominations and won two, including Best Original Screenplay for Ethan and his brother Joel. Among the other films that he has co-written and produced are Blood Simple; Raising Arizona; The Hudsucker Proxy; The Big Lebowski; The Man Who Wasn't There; and Intolerable Cruelty.
He co-directed and co-wrote the 2004 comedy The Ladykillers with Joel. Joel and Ethan Coen's most recent film is their adaptation of Cormac McCarthy's No Country for Old Men. Among their honors for the latter were the Directors Guild of America, BAFTA, and Academy and Awards; the Golden Globe Award for Best Screenplay; Best Picture, Best Director, and Best Screenplay from the New York Film Critics Circle; Best Picture and Best Adapted Screenplay from the Oscars and the National Board of Review; The film's cast was voted the Screen Actors Guild Award for Outstanding Performance by a Cast in a Motion Picture, and Javier Bardem won the Screen Actors Guild and Academy Awards for Best Supporting Actor, among other accolades.
Almost an Evening, comprising three short plays by Ethan Coen, was staged earlier this year off-Broadway by Neil Pepe at the Atlantic Theater Company's Stage 2 and then at the Bleecker Street Theater; in spring 2009, the same director and company will stage his three new short plays under the title Offices.
THE ART OF ORIGINAL FILMMAKING