Ethan Coen on his documentary Jerry Lee Lewis and his return to cinema
It is Coen’s first film without his brother Joel, with whom he formed one of cinema’s most cohesive and steadfast partnerships for three decades. But they have recently taken separate paths; Last year, Joel directed “The Tragedy of Macbeth”, a film which he suggested his brother would never have been interested in. Ethan is now gearing up with his wife, editor Tricia Cooke (who has edited many of the Coens’ films as well as ‘Trouble in Mind’), a lesbian sex comedy they wrote together 15 years ago.
“Jerry Lee Lewis: Trouble in Mind” began with their longtime collaborator T-Bone Burnett, who in 2019 recorded a gospel album with the Lewis, 86. The film, as Coen and Cooke noted in an interview ahead of its Cannes premiere, tackles some of the more complicated parts of Lewis’ legacy. (He married his 13-year-old cousin in his early twenties, then Lewis’s third marriage.) But above all, it brings to life the staggering force of the musical dynamo behind “Whole Lotta Shakin’ Goin’ On”, “Great Balls of Fire “. and “Me and Bobby McGee.”
AP: A lot of people thought you, Ethan, weren’t interested in movies anymore. What changed?
COEN: What changed is that I started to get bored. I was with Trish in New York at the start of the lockdown. So, you know, it was all kind of scary and claustrophobic. And T-Bone Burnett, our longtime friend, approached us – actually, more Trish than me – to ask if we wanted to make this movie primarily on stock footage. We could do it at home.
COOKE: It was like a home movie project. We are both big fans of his music. I had some issues with other parts of Jerry Lee’s life. I was like, “I don’t know if I want to touch this.” But it ended up being a lot of fun. Honestly, T-Bone came to see us two weeks into the pandemic, so that was a lifesaver.
AP: Ethan, what undermined your desire to make films?
COEN: Oh, nothing happened, certainly nothing dramatic. You start when you’re a kid and you want to make a movie. It’s all enthusiasm and excitement, let’s make a movie. And the first movie is just a lot of fun. And then the second film is very fun, almost as much fun as the first. And after 30 years, not that it’s not fun, but it’s more of a job than it was. Joel felt the same, but not as much as me. It is an inevitable by-product of aging. And the last two movies that we did, me and Joel together, were really difficult in terms of production. I mean, really difficult. So if you don’t have to do it, you ask yourself at some point: Why am I doing this?
COOKE: Too many westerns.
COEN: It was just getting a little old and difficult.
AP: When you say “difficult”, does that have to do with the ecosystem of the industry?
COEN: Not at all, although that has obviously changed since the starting point. But no, that was the production experience and has been doing it for – I don’t know how many years, maybe 35 years. It was the experience of making a film. More messy and less fun.
AP: Has anything turned upside down for you since you’re set to make a movie together this summer?
COEN: Again, it all depends on the circumstances. We finished this one a while ago and were still seated. We had this old script and we were like, ‘Oh, we should do this. It would be fun.” This is the film we are preparing.
COOKE: I don’t want to speak for Ethan, but I know for myself that at some point I stopped cutting, pretty much, because my priorities changed. And now our kids are grown up and we still get along and have fun doing things together. Joel and Ethan, we had written some of these things, and they were always like, “We’re going to put them in a drawer. The children will find them one day. Now we’re here like, OK, let’s do this. Let’s open this drawer and see if anyone wants to make this movie.
AP: Do you expect, Ethan, that you and Joel will continue to break up in the movies?
COEN: Oh, I don’t know. Going our own separate ways seems to suggest this could be final. But none of this happened permanently. None of the decisions are final. We could make another movie. I don’t know what my next film will be after that. The pandemic has happened. I became a big baby and got bored and quit, then the pandemic happened. Then other things happen and who knows?
AP: Did you always envision “Trouble in Mind” as being archive-based, without a talking head?
COEN: The film has a story that predates our involvement. It was originally conceived as being more about the gospel session T-Bone produced with Jerry Lee in 2019. Along the way, they compiled a lot of stock footage. The archive footage kept piling up. It seemed more logical to talk about Jerry Lee rather than this particular session. We may have pushed it even further in that direction.
COOKE: When T-Bone originally brought it to us, he described what he wanted as a symphonic poem. I don’t think we did that. (Laughs)
COEN: Yeah, that sounds a little fruity.
COOKE: But from the beginning, we didn’t just want a bunch of talking heads, especially if they weren’t Jerry Lee’s.
COEN: T-Bone was explicit about wanting the movie to start with this performance on “The Ed Sullivan Show” of “She Woke Me Up to Say Goodbye.” And he wanted it to end with “Another Place, Another Time”. And we said, “Oh (expletive), that’s great.” He said the performance set. We said, “Oh, great. So you talk about, like, a good movie.
AP: You have each worked extensively in fiction films. Have you often thought of making a documentary? Do you watch a lot of docs?
COOKE: I had made a short documentary years ago called “Where the Girls Are” about the Dinah Shore golf tournament. In general, we both like documentaries. Frederick Wiseman and the Maysles and Pennebaker and Barbara Kopple. All those older documentarians.
COEN: Why are they all old?
COEN: Have you seen the Beatles documentary? It was fantastic. Shit.
AP: The further we move away from the films and music of mid-century America, the more it seems to me that it was such a fertile period of creation that it will never happen again. Like: Where Jerry Lee Lewis is from is no longer a place no one is from.
COEN: I totally agree. It’s like, yeah, it’s all gone now.
COOKE: Things are not discovered in the same way. For Jerry Lee, when he was young, going to a blues club was nothing he had access to before and it became this incredible passion. Everything is now so big, so global – not that that’s necessarily a bad thing – but it doesn’t feel like he has the same passion as he did in the 30s, 40s, 50s.
AP: When you see him play, his arms going up and down like pistons, he’s such a dynamo that you can’t help but wonder where that energy comes from.
COEN: Musicians are monsters. I say it in the best possible way.
COOKE: He’s talking about the Pentecostal Church. It’s almost like he was overwhelmed by this passion for the game. I just remember being mesmerized when we started looking at the footage.
COEN: Sifting through archival footage has been a unique blessing, but also a curse. Because he did his share of (expletive) stuff too.
AP: What are your personal thresholds in the behavior of an artist and the art he makes? “Trouble in Mind” does not seek to pass judgment.
COEN: If it’s a good movie, that’s why it’s good. What are we supposed to do with it? To the right. This is a permitted question. That’s what makes the movie interesting. How do you associate this magnetic artist with this imperfect person? It’s kind of like – I mean none of the Beatles married their 13-year-old cousin – but it’s kind of like the Beatles movie and why it’s so exciting. You go: Wow. They are both huge cultural figures and smaller-than-life human beings. That’s what’s amazing.
Jerry Lee is much the same. I don’t think any sane person would ask for a music embargo because his character had certain flaws. Who imposes this choice? All the credit to T-Bone for giving us the opportunity and saying it’s gonna be about Jerry Lee, about this musician, and it’s not gonna be about heads telling us what think of Jerry Lee or us editorializing, telling the public what to think of Jerry Lee. All of these things are not recipes for making a good movie and are doing Jerry a disservice.
Follow AP Film Writer Jake Coyle on Twitter at: http://twitter.com/jakecoyleAP
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