Joel and Ethan Coen

The Man Who Wasn't There

Interviewed by James Mottram

Where did the idea for "The Man Who Wasn't There" come from?

Ethan: We have this piece of art, a poster, up in the office. It's a piece of set-dressing from "The Hudsucker Proxy". There was a barber shop in that and it's a picture of period haircuts...
Joel: Yeah, we started thinking about the person who did those haircuts - literally! I mean, what is that about? Spending your whole day cutting hair like that. It had all those things he talked about at the beginning of the movie: 'the butch', 'the executive contour', 'the junior contour'... They were all on the poster.

You seem to draw from the tradition of writer James M Cain, as well as movies like "Detour".

Joel: "Detour" and those movies were something we were thinking about. But Cain for more obvious reasons. He wrote novels about domestic murders and was very interested in people's day-to-day existence. Their businesses: restaurants, insurance, banking, or being an opera singer. That was a big element in the novels he wrote, and was definitely something we were thinking about here.
Ethan: "Detour" is a weird movie, where you enter this nightmare world of the character.

Frances McDormand called the film "weird". Would you agree?

Joel: I certainly wouldn't argue with the description. There are things about it that are pretty weird I guess. But there are other things that seem like natural movie fodder. It is reminiscent of a certain genre, but I guess the context is a little weird.

Where did the title come from? It has a very Hitchcockian feel to it.

Joel: To be honest, it came very late. In our experience, the title either happens very early and is very easy, or doesn't happen at all, and we scramble for something at the end. There were a lot of things that were suggested but at the end of the day this seemed the most appropriate because the movie is so much about Billy Bob Thornton's character.
Ethan: You're right. There is something pulpy about the movie that helps the title work. It's consistent with the fact that he's writing this story for a men's magazine. It's a pulpy existential crisis he's going through.

Read a profile of the Coen brothers.

"The Man Who Wasn't There" hits UK screens on 26th October 2001.