The Coen brothers tell Geoffrey Macnab about the process of adapting Cormac McCarthy’s No Country For OldMen.
JOEL AND ETHAN COEN
A book is a book and a movie is a movie,’ Ethan Coen declares, when asked if he and his brother felt any trepidation about adapting a novel by a writer as revered as Cormac McCarthy. ‘(No Country For Old Men) is a great book but, hell, we weren’t going to do anything to it. It’s still going to be a book after we get done.’
Joel Coen agrees: ‘We felt free to do whatever the hell we wanted. Actually, in the event, what we did in terms of fidelity is pretty faithful to the book, but not out of any sense of fearfulness or trepidation about tampering with it.’
The Coens were firm admirers of McCarthy but had not thought of filming any of his novels until producer Scott Rudin suggested they take a look at No Country.
They saw immediately how they could adapt it. ‘It’s basically a chase story. It seems like a movie,’ Ethan says of McCarthy’s dark, Texas-set yarn about a man who makes off with $2m in drugs money and is pursued by a psychopathic avenger.
McCarthy lived near to where the Coens were filming and came on set once or twice, proving to be surprisingly well-informed about film-making and a firm fan of the work of Terrence Malick.
Casting, the brothers agree, was the major challenge. They found Tommy Lee Jones to play the grizzled sheriff and Javier Bardem to portray the murderous Chigurh. More problematic was casting Llewelyn Moss, the man who absconds with the money.
‘The movie is very much about three equal characters who each have to hold their own,’ Joel reflects. ‘We were very conscious of the danger of having the two compelling people and then cutting away to some lame guy the audience would be bored of. That was the challenge.
It was an impossible part to cast. We saw everybody and we were happy with no-one until the day, a couple of weeks short of shooting, we met with Josh (Brolin).’
The Coens are exasperated at suggestions that No Country was a self-conscious attempt to make a dark film in the vein of Fargo after lighter offerings such as The Ladykillers and Intolerable Cruelty. ‘It got thrown in through the transit by Scott Rudin. We liked it and made it. It was no more self-conscious as a decision to place it in the body of everything else we were doing than that,’ says Ethan.
Atonement’s screenwriter tells Jeremy Kay why voiceover is often a misused tool.
I find the novel (form) is closer to film adaptation than a play would be,’ Christopher Hampton says of his Ian McEwan adaptation, Atonement. ‘It’s a powerful description that you can summon up with an image and augment on screen in some way.’
Hampton was paired initially with director Richard Eyre and they inserted a voiceover as a way of conveying the story of the narrator Briony, whose fateful deed as a child overshadows the lives of her sister and her lover, played by Keira Knightley and James McAvoy.
When Eyre moved on to direct Notes On A Scandal, Joe Wright came on board and wanted to keep the book’s epilogue, in which an older Briony looks back on her life and reveals the story’s true course of events. In the end they came up with the idea of an elderly Briony revealing everything during a TV interview.
‘Voiceover is often a misused tool,’ Hampton says. ‘It’s an easy option. So not having one made a big difference to the energy of the film and made it less literary. But we didn’t want to shy away from the effect that this is about a writer and what it means to be a writer.
‘I like writing about artists,’ says Hampton, a prolific playwright and librettist who won the best adapted screenplay Oscar for Dangerous Liaisons in 1988. ‘You know these characters because they’re doing the same stuff you are.’
The writer of The Diving Bell And The Butterfly tells Patrick Z McGavin how the camera does the blinking.
When approached by producer Kathleen Kennedy to adapt The Diving Bell And The Butterfly, Ronald Harwood was thrilled to be transforming the remarkable story of Jean-Dominique Bauby into a screenplay - though momentarily blocked.
‘The idea I had that made it possible was that the camera itself was Jean-Dominique Bauby,’ says Harwood, the South African-born, English-based playwright and screenwriter. ‘The camera did the blinking. That’s what started it off, because until then I was almost at the point of giving up.’
Directed by Julian Schnabel, the French-language movie stars Mathieu Amalric as Bauby, whose stroke left him with ‘locked-in syndrome’. Having control of only his left eye, Bauby dictated his work a letter at a time.
Harwood’s conflict was shaping a formal story within the author’s stream of consciousness. ‘Once I got that the camera was him in his locked-in state, it enabled me to have his thoughts in voiceover. It’s a kind of consciousness we hear.’
Harwood was introduced to one of Bauby’s speech therapists. ‘I wanted to know how the alphabet was done. I wanted to hear them say it so I could get the rhythm into my mind. It’s difficult enough to write a book when you’re like me, (let alone) to do it by blinking one eye.’