The screenplays the Coen brothers wrote but didn’t direct

The Coen brothers, Joel Coen and Ethan Coen
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As Joel and Ethan Coen’s long-gestating Scarface remake finally finds a director, we revisit their writing-only credits for filmmakers like Sam Raimi, Steven Spielberg, and George Clooney.

After almost four decades of working on movies, the Coen brothers have never been especially well known as script doctors. Where it’s not uncommon for major writers and filmmakers to undertake punch-up work between projects, the recently announced Scarface remake will only be their sixth script credit on a film they didn’t also direct.

As we reported last week, Luca Guadagnino will do the honours on Joel and Ethan Coen’s script, which takes the basic premise of an immigrant coming to America and evolving into a criminal kingpin, and transplants it to contemporary Los Angeles. The Coens boarded the project in 2017 when Antoine Fuqua was still attached, and Universal has been working on the remake since 2011.

Funnily enough, most of their other scripts have had similar spells in development hell, before producing films with varying levels of success. In exploring some of the stories behind these films, we discount any punch-up work that we’ve heard of them doing, including Bad Santa (which was based on their story idea) and the 2005 remake of Fun With Dick And Jane, and concentrate on the films on which they receive screenwriting credit.

We’ve also omitted 1998’s The Naked Man, which Ethan co-wrote with their regular storyboarder J. Todd Anderson, (making his directorial debut) but that’s because we haven’t seen it and it’s not available for us to catch up. If anyone has seen this revenge movie, about a wrestler who avenges his parents’ deaths at the hands of an Elvis impersonator and a man with machine guns for crutches, please do let us know in the comments!

Crimewave (1985)

Who directed it? Sam Raimi

What’s it all about? Most of these credits come from the last 10 years, but way back at the beginning of the Coens’ career, they co-wrote Crimewave, a slapstick Hitchcock parody that mixes film noir and B-movie tropes, for Sam Raimi to direct. Joel was one of the editors on The Evil Dead and he and Ethan worked on this script with Raimi, who was impressed with the Coens’ first feature Blood Simple.

Crimewave finds Death Row inmate Victor Ajax (Reed Birney) shortly before he’s about to be executed for a series of murders he didn’t commit. In an extended flashback, he recalls a wild story involving his dream girl Nancy, (Sheree J. Wilson) his love rival Reynaldo “The Heel”, (who else but Bruce Campbell) and a pair of dastardly exterminators who “kill all sizes”.

This was Raimi’s first studio gig after the breakout success of The Evil Dead and, perhaps inevitably, it wasn’t a happy production. As well as interference from Embassy Pictures, (who hated everything from Campbell’s casting to Raimi’s editing process) filming was the stuff of one of the director’s horror movies, with certain actors firing their make-up artists and trashing hotel rooms while intoxicated, “trying to exorcise a ghost from a light fixture.”

The result was poorly reviewed and little-seen upon its release in 1985, but for obvious reasons, it’s attained cult status. Though understandably compromised, the film provides a fascinating cross-pollination of Raimi’s style and the Coens’ pitch-black sense of humour.

Gambit (2012)

Who directed it? Michael Hoffman

What’s it all about? Not to be confused with the unproduced X-Men spin-off, Gambit is a remake of Ronald Leame’s 1966 heist caper of the same name. Counter to Michael Caine’s cat burglar in the original, Harry Deane (Colin Firth) is a Smithers-like art curator who plots revenge against his vile billionaire boss Lionel Shabandar (Alan Rickman) by tricking him into purchasing a fake Monet painting, with the help of a brash American accomplice, PJ Puznowski (Cameron Diaz).

The remake had been on the cards at Universal since 1997 when the Coens came to it. Aaron Sorkin and Frank Cottrell-Boyce had previously turned in drafts, but Joel and Ethan’s version, which transferred the plot to America, was approved by producer Mike Lobell. It had initially been set up for Bo Welch to direct, with Firth, Jennifer Aniston, and Ben Kingsley starring, but was put into turnaround.

Lobell then shopped the Coens’ script around to different studios for the best part of a decade. At one point, Alcon Entertainment was set to make the film with Richard LaGravenese directing and Gerard Butler starring as Harry Deane, but this didn’t come to pass. It was reported that LaGravenese made significant edits to the script, but the Coens are credited in the final film and, crucially, in all of the marketing, despite not having laid a finger on the script since 2003.

Gambit leaves a lot to be desired, not least that the late, great Alan Rickman had starred in a Coen brothers film proper, but the lead performances are good and there’s at least one increasingly absurd setpiece around the mid-point. However, after overwhelmingly negative reviews from UK critics in 2012, the film was quietly released straight to DVD in the States 18 months later.

Unbroken (2014)

Who directed it? Angelina Jolie

What’s it all about? Based on Laura Hillenbrand’s 2010 book Unbroken: A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience, and Redemption, this one chronicles the extraordinary story of Italian-American Olympic sprinter Louis Zamperini during the Second World War. Universal had bought Zamperini’s life rights decades earlier, but optioned Hillenbrand’s book in 2011 and hired Willam Nicholson and Richard LaGravenese (him again) to write early drafts.

When Angelina Jolie replaced Francis Lawrence as the director on the project, she brought the Coens aboard to rewrite the script. Unlike Raimi, she was afforded enough power on her first studio gig to assemble a formidable array of behind-the-scenes talent, from the Coens on writing duties to their regular collaborator Roger Deakins as cinematographer.

Jolie’s passion for the story shines through in what turns out to be a very straight telling of a remarkable story. The result is a very worthy and considered film, with a reliably brilliant lead performance from Jack O’Connell. It feels as though the bulk of the Coens’ work on the script may have come in the second half of the film, set in a Japanese POW camp, particularly regarding the character of Sgt Watanabe (Miyavi) and a brutal yet absurd setpiece in which Louis is punched in the face by every other prisoner in turn.

Nicholson and LaGravenese are also credited in the finished film, so there must be as much of their drafts in the finished product as the Coens’. Although it received mixed reviews from critics, the film was a decent-sized box-office hit in late 2014. Bizarrely, it also spawned a faith-based sequel about Zamperini’s post-war life called Unbroken: Path To Redemption, with neither the Coens or any of the other cast and crew returning.


Bridge Of Spies (2015)

Who directed it? Steven Spielberg

What’s it all about? The Coens also came to rewrite the second half of Spielberg’s Bridge Of Spies, based on James B. Donovan’s account of the legal struggle that followed the 1960 U-2 incident and the capture of US Air Force pilot Francis Gary Powers. Tom Hanks stars as Donovan, an insurance lawyer who’s chosen to negotiate a back-channel deal with the Soviet Union after his righteous defence of Russian spy Rudolf Abel (Mark Rylance) in the US Supreme Court.

This story was almost adapted for the screen by MGM back in 1965, with Gregory Peck and Alec Guinness set for the Hanks and Rylance roles respectively, but this project was abandoned due to the ongoing political sensitivity of the Cold War era. As realised by Spielberg in 2015, this is a suitably old-fashioned drama with a wry sense of humour.

Matt Charman wrote the script for St James’ Place (as it was originally titled) and described working with Spielberg, Hanks, and the Coen brothers as “the best film school ever”. He described the Coens’ additions to the Berlin-set negotiation scenes as “enjoyable but truthful” and it’s easy to see what he means when you see Donovan grappling with the surreal Soviet bureaucracy and meeting with Abel’s “family”.

The Coens also punched up Abel’s dialogue, and Rylance’s sympathetic yet deadpan performance later bagged him a Best Supporting Actor Oscar at the 2016 Oscars. The film also earned nominations for Best Picture and Best Screenplay, and is unquestionably the most warmly received of the films on this list. Some may consider it one of Spielberg’s B-sides, but it’s as good as most director’s A-sides.


Suburbicon (2017)

Who directed it? George Clooney

What’s it all about? The most recent film we’re covering also happens to have one of the oldest scripts from the Coens’ drawer. Suburbicon was first written in 1986, shortly after Blood Simple and Crimewave were released. In all drafts of the script, the film sees small-town family man Gardner Lodge taking care of his son and sister-in-law in the chaotic aftermath of his wife’s murder.

The script was sold to Warner Bros and then forgotten about until producer Joel Silver asked the duo about it almost 20 years later. The Coens then went and dug the script out and were paid to rewrite it for a contemporary setting through Silver’s production company. In 2006, but they had other projects they wanted to pursue – most notably, at that point, No Country For Old Men.

Having starred in O Brother Where Art Thou and Intolerable Cruelty, George Clooney was offered the part of Lodge but became more interested in directing the film instead. Once officially attached, Clooney and his writing partner Grant Heslov had another idea in mind for the film and they changed the setting again, to 1957, and combined the script with another screenplay they were working on, about the true story of an African-American family who move into an all-white neighbourhood.

If that sounds like a clash of styles and subjects, then Suburbicon bears that out – it absolutely plays like two different films that have been edited together, connected only fleetingly by Noah Jupe’s inquisitive and sympathetic protagonist. The Coens part is a zany dark comedy that offers the rare sight of Matt Damon playing an utter bastard, while the Clooney part gets utterly lost in the mix. More than 30 years after the script was originally conceived, it’s travelled much too far to pack anything like a punch.


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