Joel and Ethan Coen don’t remember the exact moment they became obsessed with Eddie Mannix. He’s not a household name, but he’s one of the most important figures in the Golden Age of Hollywood: a “fixer” for MGM who would help cover up scandals, including ones about sex, rape, even murder. The latest from the filmmakers, 61 and 58, respectively, is “Hail, Caesar!”, set in 1950s Hollywood. Josh Brolin plays a softer, fictionalized version of Mannix: He still solves untold problems, including the kidnapping of a movie star (George Clooney), but he goes to confession, is nice to his wife and is even trying to quit smoking — all unlike the real deal.
What was the motivation for including a character named Eddie Mannix who isn’t exactly Eddie Mannix?
Ethan Coen: Our idea for this, which is maybe 15 years old, was here’s this guy who’s a fixer for the studio. We give him the name “Eddie Mannix” because it’s just a great name. But the real person wasn’t much like our character. He’s the squarest hero ever. We thought we’d do a day in the life of his problems, and then we left it at that for many years. We just sat on the premise. We actually mentioned it to George Clooney way back when, and he kept announcing it to the press that this was his next movie, for some reason.
The film seems to be set in the early ’50s, but there’s a bit about Communist screenwriters that seems it might have been lifted in from the late ’40s, when the blacklist started. I could be wrong.
EC: You’re kind of wrong. Communism was still an issue then.
Joel Coen: It is a little bit of a mixture. However, in 1950, 1951 the House Un-American Activities Committee was still in full-swing. McCarthy hadn’t even happened yet. The blacklisting was still happening.
What made you want to include them as the people who’ve kidnapped Clooney’s character?
JC: It amused us that they were writers, for one thing. It amused us they were Communists, for another. And it further amused us that the Clooney character would so readily embrace that ideology.
It’s funny that he’s so far removed from real life that when he’s exposed to what they preach he has to admit what they’re saying is right on.
EC: That’s the dangerous thing about Commies: They have a few good points.
You don’t do a lot of movies about the present. “Burn After Reading” was the last one, eight years ago.
JC:They all become period movies after awhile.
EC:Real life is present day. And who needs it?
A fair amount of your movies, including “Inside Llewyn Davis,” have a circular structure, where the characters try to escape their problems but wind up caught right back up in them as the world marches forward. This has a touch of that.
EC:That’s definitely true about “Inside Llewyn Davis.” This one starts with a confession scene and we almost end with a confession scene. But the character has gotten somewhere. Unlike Llewyn Davis he’s figured something out.
How was it recreating all those old genres like musicals, Westerns and Biblical epics using old techniques?
JC: It was very challenging. Those methods and technologies that were used when those movies were made have been lost to time, especially the swimming stuff. It was a question of reverse-engineering something that isn’t done anymore, using the technology of the period but with new technology. We have the advantage now to use computer-generation imagery to tweak stuff. But most of what you see here is live. We used some modern technology to help us with problems that had to be solved on set. With the swimmers, we had to ask, “Are there even swimmers who know how to do those things?”
There’s a shot of Scarlett Johansson, as an Esther Williams type, rising out of the water with a huge smile plastered on her face. That looks like it was painful for her.
EC: That was stolen from one of the Esther Williams movies. It was clear it was shot in reverse. They lowered her into the water —
JC: — and then reversed the motion.
EC: She has little sparklers on her headpiece, so you can tell they shot it in reverse. So we shot it so that she goes down in the water and played it backwards.