JT: I’ve known [the Coens] a long time. I’ve known them from the mid-’80s, because I’m friends with Fran [McDormand]. That’s how I know them. I’ve worked with them on four movies, and they were my executive producers for and really helped me edit Romance And Cigarettes. They’re really good friends—and so is someone like Spike [Lee]. It’s a pleasure in this business when you work with someone more than once. It’s nice, because everybody knows each other.
The Coens are like a mom-and-pop operation. They write it, they edit it, they do the whole thing. They’re involved in everything. It’s very low stress, working with them. There’s almost no stress. If I could make a movie with them every couple of years I would, just because of the pleasure of it.
AVC: How did you finally come to work with them on Miller’s Crossing?
JT: They’d seen me do a lot of plays, and so they said they were going to write a part for me. Then they wrote two parts for me in a row! [Laughs.] Those are big things. When someone writes something for you, you really want to return the favor. So I put a lot of work into it, and tried to give them a little surprise back. Actually I’m going to be directing these three one-act plays on Broadway soon, and Ethan is one of the writers. Woody Allen is one and Elaine May is one and Ethan is one. So I’m working with him again. This is, I guess, the sixth time we’ve worked together.
AVC: The big “look into your heart” scene in the woods. How many takes was that?
JT: I don’t remember how many takes. I just know it was 13 degrees, that’s all. It was really cold. You know, it was a long time ago. It was a hard scene. Sometimes you think about movies, and you say, “Well, I want to try to do something that’s not exactly in a movie.” If you’ve ever been in a very dangerous situation, you know that people will do all kinds of things to keep themselves alive. It was very well-written, but you want to imagine what it’s really like to be in that kind of situation. It depends on what you’re willing to do, and in real life you would do a lot of different things. I tried to capture a little bit of that. I had a couple close encounters throughout my life before that, and you store that stuff in the back of your mind. It’s how you do it, but it’s what they choose and how they put it together too. But that was my goal when I did that, was to do something that was almost a little difficult to watch, because people aren’t trying to be heroic at those moments.
AVC: When you first came across that scene in the screenplay, was it obvious to you that it would be so central and important to the movie? They even used it for the poster.
JT: I guess maybe, but not completely. I kind of knew it was important, and they kept telling me it was. But you don’t want to put too much pressure on yourself, because then it’s like going to bed with somebody the first time or something. You’re like, “Oh God, I got to be great.” [Laughs.] You just don’t want to put too much pressure on yourself. I just thought about it in the context of the story, that’s it. Because you can overthink something, too. It all felt really good when they did it, but it was hard to do.
Barton Fink (1991)—“Barton Fink”
AVC: Since the Coens were writing Barton Fink while they were still struggling through Miller’s Crossing, were you guys discussing that during the shoot?
JT: No. They said at the end—the guy, [executive producer] Ben Barenholtz, said there was this other movie. The way he talked, it sounded like Bart And Fink. I thought it was Bart And Fink. I was like, Bart And Fink? I don’t know about that.” And I didn’t completely get it when I first read it. Their scripts you have to read a bunch of times. And now I guess people can read them easier—someof their scripts—because they know their sensibility. But their sensibility can be quite different, depending on the movie that they’re linked to.
AVC: Did you really go to secretarial school just to study typing for Barton Fink?
JT: Yeah, I did. It was in Brooklyn Heights. It was with electric typewriters; they didn’t have computers. But then I had to use the old manual typewriter, which I loved. They get stuck, but I really love the sound of it, and the whole visceral experience. I wrote a lot of things on that typewriter during the shoot, a lot of ideas for other things.
AVC: Didn’t you write Romance And Cigarettes on it?
JT: I wrote the title of it and some ideas. A couple of scenes. But then I kind of sat on it. I put it in this box for 10 years. So yeah, it was “A Film by Barton Fink.” [Laughs.]
AVC: Your character talks a lot about creating “a new living theater of, about, and for the common man,” which is relevant to the sort of stories you seem to tell in a lot of your own work. But in the film, it seems like that whole idea is being mocked as pretentious.
JT: [Laughs.] Yeah. Well, there’s guys who are outside of that and who talk about it, and there are guys who are inside of it. I did Mac right after that, which was really, for me, inside. And Fink is more from the outside. Plenty of writers have taken those stances—especially in the ’30s, because people came out of immigration, and there was a lot of Socialism. People were really liberal. There were anarchists. There was a Communist Party in this country. There was also a Nazi party that people don’t really talk about. So there were a lot of these things going on, and you kind of have to go back years to understand this thing. It was in the Group Theatre, and people like Arthur Miller obviously had that in his plays. Sometimes it could become a little bit pretentious, and other times not. But everything’s connected in different ways.
AVC: My favorite scene—honestly, maybe my favorite scene in a movie ever—is just a simple dialogue between you and Tony Shalhoub.
JT: Which one?
AVC: “Throw it hard.”
JT: “Throw it hard, Fink!” [Laughs.] Yeah, there were some great actors in that movie, and I got to work with all of them. It was just a treat. There was just wonderful writing in it too. Even though it was a strange movie and stuff like that, when I see the movie now, I really appreciate it. I’m like, “Wow, that was really good.” When I first saw it, it’s hard, because you’re in it. But it’s a good movie, so thank you. It’s a really well-crafted film. It was a treat to make that film, and to work with every one of those actors. Judy Davis is just fabulous.