Writer Duos: How Joel and Ethan Coen Write A Screenplay

Collaboration is a beautiful thing. It’s a fundamental part of what makes WriterDuet and our community great! So we want to start shining a light on our favorite screenwriting duos out there and figuring out how they work together.

Who Are The Coen Brothers?

Joel and Ethan Coen might be the most well-known filmmaking duo in recent film history. With an eclectic filmography of almost twenty feature films and several screenwriting collaborations with directors such as Steven Spielberg and Sam Raimi, their distinct genre-defying voice has shone through to general audiences, critics, and aspiring filmmakers alike. They are, however, notoriously secretive about their process. It would be a hard process to describe anyway. Their scripts range from outright parody to solemn meditation, sometimes all at once.

Luckily for all of us who would want to learn more about their collaboration, they have spoken on various occasions about the rituals they do and do not follow, as well as the long road to actually finishing a screenplay. We’ve gone through their interviews over the last few decades to see what they had to say about writing together.

How The Coen Brothers Write

What is one important step of the process for both of them? As it turns out… napping?

“We sleep a lot… we waste a lot of time, you know. We just kind of stare at the ceiling. [Both our spouses] are always saying, “I know you guys just go to the office and take naps.” These things take a long time to ripen.”

– Joel Coen, to Tricia Cooke for a 1998 book on The Big Lebowski.

So what comes after that? Outlining?

“No, it’s all sort of really vaporous ideas and then we just start writing at the beginning. And that’s how we crystallize the ideas — not by doing an outline, but by starting to actually write the scenes in order.”

– Ethan Coen
Barton Fink (1991)

Should a writer worry if they’re not following the usual screenwriting structure of outlining and structuring your story? While talking to Little White Lies about making a new process that works for them, Joel jokes around:

“When we write a movie, we don’t worry about doing it wrong. People… they do an outline and make index cards. It’d probably take us forever. We’d be sat there, years later, filling out index cards. Or you finish the screenplay and find a card that slipped under the table, “oh fuck, I was supposed to put this in!””

– Joel Coen

Ethan adds:

“In spite of the fact that we don’t outline and don’t generally know what’s going to happen later in the story when we’re still early on in the story, in the case of this one, we recognized early on that we wanted to have the beginning come back and be the end. Even before we had any idea of what was going to happen in the middle. Then… it goes where it goes… It just goes where it goes. We don’t worry about it. We don’t even worry that it might not come together at the end.”

– Ethan Coen
A Serious Man (2009)

How about dialogue? When asked by Fresh Air’s Terry Gross about how they come up with their unique style of conversation between characters, Joel answers:

“We don’t split it up… it’s not like one of us is reacting to the other. We talk through it together. A lot of our conversations have to do with specific things that people say in a scene… so one of us may something. And then the other person may just sort of answer it with what might come next.”

– Joel Coen

On a trivial note, Tricia Cooke asked the brothers: “Does one of you sit at the computer while the other paces?” Ethan’s response?

“We take turns. Although I usually type because I type faster.”

– Ethan Coen

Not much is known about the brothers’ next project together. Joel Coen’s first solo project, a feature adaptation of Macbeth for A24 starring Denzel Washington and Frances McDormand, is due later this year.

Recommended Posts

No comment yet, add your voice below!

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.