"A New York Treasure" --Village Voice

Bronx Banter Interview: Ethan Coen

The Fan Who Wasn’t There

I worked for Joel and Ethan Coen from the late summer of 1996 through the fall of 1997. I had been working as an apprentice film editor in New York when I went to work for them, first as their personal assistant and later as an editing room assistant on their movie, The Big Lebowski.  We were in Manhattan, at their office for the first six weeks; in November we went out to Los Angeles, where Lebowski was shot on location. After the film was in the can, Joel and Ethan returned to New York to cut the film.

In October of 1996, when the Yankees won their first title since 1978, we were still in New York, so the Coen brothers are tied up in my baseball memories. Joel had no interest in the game at all, but Ethan seemed vaguely aware of what was happening. His wife Tricia, who was the co-editor of Lebowski, as well as the script supervisor, was the sports nut. We stood on line outside of the Yankee clubhouse on 5th avenue to try and get World Serious tickets to no avail.

Ethan Coen’s favorite player on the Yankees was Kenny Rogers. “The Gambler” was like some half-wit out of one of their movies: well meaning, but hapless. The worse Rogers performed for the Yankees, the more shit he got from the fans and the media, the more Ethan liked him. We used to call him “Kenny Everyman” cause Kenny kinda looked like he could be just about anybody. A schmuck.

Nowadays, Tricia is in a fantasy league and Ethan likes to play the guitar. (He yodels too; in fact, one of the best parts of hanging out with Eth and Trish was that they turned me onto Jimmie Rogers, Hank Williams, Webb Pierce and George Jones.) I’ve spoken with Trish several times recently about her league, and she’s taken to it like a bee to honey. Ethan and Joel were been busy mixing the sound to their latest movie this spring, a big-budget studio comedy—a romantic comedy—fittingly titled Intolerable Cruelty. (George Clooney and Catherine Zeta Jones star, and the film will be released in October.)

I finally caught up with Ethan on the phone last week. But first, Tricia and talked some baseball. She was indignant that Torre had been starting Jason Giambi at the DH when he hits better when he plays in the field. Ethan was picking a guitar in the background, noodling around.

“It’s bullshit, man. He’s messing up my fantasy league team,” Tricia told me.

I tried to reason with her but she wasn’t having it, so she passed the phone to her husband, who momentarily stopped playing his axe. Ethan can be a man of few words. It’s not that he doesn’t like talking; it’s just that sometimes he’d rather not be bothered (especially when he’s dicking around on the guitar). Although both Joel and Ethan are definitely Jewish, and definitely New Yorkers, they are definitely not Jewish New Yorkers. There are a lot of meaningful silences; a lot of pregnant pauses that I assume has something to do with growing up in the middle of the country.

Here is an excerpt of our conversation:

Eth: Al?

BB: Eth.

Eth: How are ya?

BB: I’m good. Nu?

Eth: I’m good. You know, I don’t have any thoughts on baseball, though. I quit following it.

(Starts playing the guitar again.)

BB: You quit?

Eth: Ya.

BB: Completely?

Eth: Ya.

(Guitar playing stops.)

BB: Wow. That’s no good. Where did it all go wrong? I mean didn’t you play as a kid?

Eth: No.

(More guitar.)

BB: Did you want to play as a kid?

Eth: I went to games as a kid.

BB: Zolio Versalles.

Eth: Yeah, Zolio. You know. Harmon Killebrew. Rod Carew was with the Twins then. Tony Oliva.

BB: Oliva was good.

Eth: Yeah.

BB: Did you like baseball movies as a kid?

Eth: No.

BB: Do you like them now?

Eth: No.

BB: Has there ever been a good baseball movie?

(Long pause.)

Eth: No.

BB: Really?

Eth: Is there? I don’t think so.

BB: Bad News Bears?

Eth: Bad News Bears: Excellent picture! Yeah, yeah. You’re right. But just that one.

(More guitar.)

BB: Most of them bite. Field of Dreams was painful. The Natural was wack.

Eth: Yeah.

BB: You guys would make a good baseball movie.

Eth: I don’t think so. No, you know, Bad News Bears: you’re right. It’s a really good movie.

BB: Well, that was a great interview man.

Eth: You know what you can put down? You can say that I quit being a baseball fan when the Yankees traded Mickey Rivers.

BB: What the hell kind of thing is that to say? What about your boy, Kenny Rogers?

Eth: Is he still playing?

BB: Yeah, he’s still playing. He plays on your hometown godamn team for crying out loud. He’s on the Twins.

Eth: Shit. (Laughs) “Kenny Everyman.”

BB: Mr. Square Jaw himself. Kenny Everyman is as good as he ever was, and he’s even funnier now cause he’s older, and more mulish than ever.

Eth: Yeah, I should see the Twins the days that he pitches.

BB: The best thing that guy ever did on the Yankees was when they had the World Series parade, and after stinking up the joint all year long, he was up on top of the float hooping and hollering louder than anyone.

Eth: Yeah, he was waving a flag. Pleased as punch. with pride. (Laughs) That’s really funny. That’s good.

BB: Mick the Quick, huh?

Eth: Yeah, I quit being a fan when the Yankees traded him.

Well, there you have it: Ethan Coen is not a baseball fan. But that doesn’t prevent him from making good movies, or giving one hell of an interview.

Hope everyone has a great Memorial Day Holiday.

P.S. Joel and Ethan left for Los Angeles last week to begin their next show–a remake of the old Alec Guiness comedy The Lady Killers. It’ll star Tom Hanks, and according to Joel, “you know, well, a whole lot of other people.”

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"This ain't football. We do this every day."
--Earl Weaver