Ethan Coen On His Killer Jerry Lee Lewis Docu, How The ‘Great Balls Of Fire’ Singer Invented Cancel Culture & Reuniting With Brother Joel Coen: Cannes Q&A
EXCLUSIVE: After a long Oscar-laden movie partnership with his brother, Ethan Coen makes his solo and documentary debut on the A24 film Jerry Lee Lewis: Trouble In Mind, which premieres at Cannes tonight. He and wife/editor Tricia Cooke made this one while brother Joel Coen and his wife Fran McDormand were off making The Tragedy of Macbeth. Here, Ethan Coen describes the allure of making a free form docu on the firebrand singer/pianist behind hits like Great Balls of Fire. Coen worked closely with T Bone Burnett, the music man extraordinaire who collaborated with the Coens on Inside Llewyn Davis. And when the Coens will put the band back together and make another together.
DEADLINE: Always thought I’d do a great Coen Bros interview someday. I did one with your brother Joel and Fran McDormand for Macbeth, and now we’re sitting down for your solo documentary debut Jerry Lee Lewis: Trouble In Mind. My destiny is to not have you guys together.
ETHAN COEN: Well, you never know. It doesn’t happen till it happens.
DEADLINE: Your movie on Jerry Lee Lewis reminds of non-traditional musical documentaries, maybe like Buena Vista Social Club, which was dominated by the music. I see connective tissue with T Bone Burnett and your editor/wife Tricia Cooke, and there was Steve Bing, the financier/producer who took his life. How did all this happen?
COEN: The connection was T Bone and Steve Bing. They were involved long before me and Trish were. Steve was a fan and friend of Jerry Lee’s and the impetus for making a movie was his. He recruited T Bone, who did this gospel session with Jerry Lee which is in the movie briefly at the end. As originally conceived, the movie was going to focus on that gospel session with some interstitial archival story with younger Jerry Lee. Steve was going to talk to Jerry Lee and that would be part of the movie. But in the interim, everything changed. Steve died, it turned out there was a huge amount of archival material and T Bone thought maybe it was more about that than the gospel session. Maybe it was going to be weighted more toward that. He recruited me and Trish and we pushed it even further in that direction. That’s the history of this thing, and how it became an archival history thing.
DEADLINE: I’d seen the Dennis Quaid movie Great Balls of Fire, but never really had a real sense of Lewis’ chops as a musician until I watched these long, full songs play out in your documentary. Were you a big fan going in?
COEN: I probably started like you, and most people who know Jerry Lee Lewis and think of him through the Sun Records hits, the rock and roll hits, and I was vaguely aware he had this second country music career. Then when T Bone recruited us, we looked at this archival stuff and, it was almost shocking. The musicianship and his ability as a performer was unbelievable, but it was something we learned like you did. The guy was just a motherfucker…in every sense of the word.
DEADLINE: The other thing we all know about Jerry Lee Lewis is, he married his teenager cousin. It felt like in your movie that he was trying to live up to these lofty expectations of being a Christian, but could never do it. But never stopped trying, even in terms of making music about it. He would do some spirit-lifting gospel music and then you see him asked, ‘did you marry your 13 year old cousin,’ and he said, ‘well, she was 12.’ Like it didn’t occur to him that people would respond negatively to that.
COEN: There are a lot of things to talk about there. One is him saying, she was 12. Which was not true, and he was just winding Jane Pauley up. Like saying, oh, you think I married a 13 year old? Well fuck you! I married a 12-year old. That is so much, him. The religion thing, he never gave up, he struggles with it still, even when we met him after we made the movie. Marrying the 13 year old? Jerry Lee is a serial marry-er. It’s a funny thing. That’s not something he would have thought at the time violated the tenets of Christianity. Getting married is what you to do, in order to not have sex outside the marriage. It’s the virtuous thing to do. It’s totally not transgressive, in that time and place, if you’re a Christian. It’s certainly transgressive now, anywhere in the United States. But that was not an unheard of thing from where Jerry Lee was from. When it became a big scandal, his reaction was like the one he gave to Jane Pauley. Fuck you. I’m a Christian man and fuck you, that could have been the name of the movie.
DEADLINE: What surprised me is that when he married his teen cousin, that was his third marriage and he was only 22.
COEN: Yeah, the first came when he was 16 but like I say, it was not that unusual to marry young when you’re from there. Now, 13, that is real young but not unheard of. What are you going to say about it?
DEADLINE: We know what they’d say now, in this gotcha moment.
COEN: Jerry Lee was the original canceled person, wasn’t he? He was the trailblazer, man.
DEADLINE: So not only was he a pioneer in rock n roll, he invented cancel culture?
COEN: He really did. All credit to Jerry Lee, man.
DEADLINE: He said at that time he had no regrets, but the blowback kept him from getting airplay and bookings. Out of necessity, he went from being a rock and roll superstar to being a country superstar, with a string of number one hits following. Why did that segment of fans accept him?
COEN: That’s a good question, and I’m not sure. You look at Jerry Lee performing. It’s not a genre, that guy is a musician. For some reason, that could be it. But who knows?
DEADLINE: Maybe if you grew up where he did, it wasn’t uncommon, marrying young so as not to have sex outside the marriage.
COEN: As Jerry Lee says, I don’t think we put it in the movie, but you get married so you don’t burn. Burn in hell, I mean.
DEADLINE: You open the movie with a whole song he performed on the Ed Sullivan Show. It told us what this movie was going to be, not a litany of narrative about his life, but a lean in on the music broken up with interviews he did that explain some of the crazy things that happened in his life. Interesting choice. Why did you do that?
COEN: I will tell you, Mike, it wasn’t just an interesting choice, it was a brilliant choice. I’m free to say that because it wasn’t my choice. T Bone brought us this shitload of archival stuff and he said he only wanted two specific things. He wanted the movie to start with that Ed Sullivan performance of She Even Woke Me Up To Say Goodbye, and he wanted it to end with the performance of Another Place, Another Time, his first country hit. He said he wanted them to play his full performances. So me and Trish said, ‘Oh, fuck, you want a good movie. You don’t want a stupid music documentary, you want a good one! Okay, we’re in, man.’ But what you’re talking is the identity of the movie, starting with that. And it was T Bone, all the way. We took it and ran with it.
DEADLINE: When you make a movie like this, you want to tell us something we don’t know about an iconic provocative musician they called The Killer. What was T Bone’s priority and what was most important that you wanted to convey in your first documentary?
COEN: T Bone never put it this way, he never talked about it, but I know it’s what he thinks and what we responded to and hopefully what the audience responds to; he’s an artist. Giving those two mandates, he was asking us to give a portrait of an artist, a compelling performer, great musician and somebody who, like you and me before I started working on the movie, got pigeonholed as this rock and roll crazy man. Jerry Lee is a trip, not a happy soul but a compelling character and a great performer. Who wouldn’t want to do a movie about him?
DEADLINE: There is a pure Coen Brothers moment, for those of us who were discovering things about Jerry Lee as the movie unfolded. That’s the part where TV news is reporting about this mysterious stomach ailment that blew up his gut and almost killed him. We then hear him say how out of control he was with drink and drugs, and there is Tom Snyder doing a gentle interview with Jerry Lee about his recovery and Jerry Lee raises his right arm, and Snyder says, “Is that a cigar in your hand?”
COEN: Holy shit. The process of making a movie like this is hours and hours wading through archival stuff. Most of it is pretty boring because there’s so much of it and not every performance is great. But we saw that happen on Tom Snyder we were like, oh, fuck. We gotta write this down!
DEADLINE: Here, Tom Snyder is interviewing him on his death bed, trying to coax him back to life…
COEN: And Jerry Lee has this fucking big ass cigar in his hand. It was just fantastic. Tom Snyder liked Jerry Lee, he had him on several times.
DEADLINE: How could an interviewer not love him? He was honest and unapologetic.
COEN: Mr. Un-apology.
DEADLINE: I would never expect you to do a VH1 Behind the Music docu on a musician, and this was a departure, like free form jazz number. You pepper in the most fascinating things, and then move on. Like that his parents mortgaged their house to buy him a piano when he was so small, and then his father one day drives him to Sun Records, because that’s where Elvis went, and he gets signed. Was there a guidepost docu for you on the choice not to beat us over the head with facts? You gave me things to think about, but didn’t answer every question I might have had about the guy. The idea he stepped out of a car, and they said, you got three minutes, and that’s all he needed, is unbelievable.
COEN: Isn’t that a great story? Jerry Lee this 20-year old kid walking into Sun and telling that guy Jack Clement, who later became a recording artist, I’m going to be a hit. Sam Phillips, the guy who ran Sun Records was out of town, but he came back later, listened to the demo and immediately signed him. What was your question?
DEADLINE: How do you filter the information you tell us, in between his music?
COEN: Well we knew what we wanted to do, make a good movie, and a picture of Jerry Lee, and you can get all these experts talking about the greatness of Jerry Lee and the more experts you have, the less I believe it. Fucking show the guy! So we knew we didn’t want talking heads though we broke that rule a time or two, with his ex-wife and briefly his road manager. How do we decide what to do? You put in the good shit and then you go very much by feel. It’s like writing a movie, you just go with what feels appropriate given what’s gone before. The only difference is, this is not a narrative.
DEADLINE: If this was your tenth documentary and not your first, you might have a template of familiarity like most documentary makers have…
COEN: Nah, we don’t care about history, like that. The documentaries I like, D.A Pennebaker and Fred Wiseman made some great movies. They’re not telling literal narratives, telling stories in that sense. They’re giving you a good picture of something that doesn’t have to be a chronological historical picture. Pennebaker’s most famous one is Don’t Look Back, on Bob Dylan. Trish, who is my wife, we have a shared sensibility for these, and the Amy Winehouse docu which used found footage, that was good. And though it came out after we finished ours, fucking hell, that Peter Jackson Beatles documentary was fantastic. Wow. Paul McCartney breaks out the acoustic guitar on The Two of Us and you go, that’s how it happened…
But you not only don’t have to know everything, you can’t know everything. So, what’s interesting to know?
DEADLINE: Have you become a Jerry Lee Lewis expert when you immerse for a docu like this, or was it just what you needed to know?
COEN: Frankly, not really, not at all. This kind of addresses your earlier question. You make a movie, it doesn’t matter what you thought you got, what the scene is, how you wrote it. In the cutting room, all that matters is the footage you got, and okay, how’s this going to work best? Facts we knew or other people knew about Jerry Lee, that didn’t matter. All that mattered was the footage we had. Which was a lot of stuff.
DEADLINE: All previously unseen stuff?
COEN: A lot of it, but some it available if you know where to look. This thing, the internet, which I don’t believe in, but apparently people are excited about…
DEADLINE: You don’t believe in it?
COEN: No. I’m waiting for the whole thing to blow over. I’m going to sit here in my ignorance and not bother to get real sophisticated in something that could end any day.
DEADLINE: Well, something that pops up out of nowhere is Jerry Lee sporting a beard and saying he’s going to star in a movie about Jesus Christ. You never go back to it. What happened there?
COEN: Thank you for asking that. You go, what the what? The movie never happened, but you’re right, there’s nobody talking about it after. It never happened, is all I know. What I know is, he was going to play Christ.
DEADLINE: The other one I didn’t know was Jerry Lee is arrested trying to break into Graceland, armed and drunk, and the question is, was he trying to kill Elvis. WTF?
COEN: That’s one of the more well known Jerry Lee stories. Even I knew that one. Was he going to kill Elvis? He was out of control, drinking and drugging, and shit like that happened. He drove up to the gates of Graceland in a car with a gun, because he wanted to see Elvis. But there happened to be a gun in the car. Because he’s Jerry Lee Lewis, of course there’s a gun in the car. He wanted to chat with Elvis. They were kind of buddies. Though maybe buddies is strong. He was closer to people like Carl Perkins, Chuck Berry. They knew each other. Jerry Lee would say he was best friends with everyone famous, but I don’t think they were good buddies.
DEADLINE: Most people come to someone’s house who’s a buddy, they’d bring a cake. Not a loaded gun, but we’re not rock stars, either.
COEN: It’s a lifestyle.
DEADLINE: He had a stroke in 2019, unable to play piano until he retaught himself. Was he helpful with this documentary and the making of it?
COEN: Yes, very much so. He was close to Steve Bing, Jerry Lee and his wife Judith. Steve was a fan who looked him up and they just became friends. And then Steve left.
DEADLINE: What did having Jerry Lee on your side allow you to do that you couldn’t have done, had he been opposed or indifferent to it?
COEN: Frankly, not much if anything. And frankly, and that’s why I was really nervous when Jerry and Judy saw the movie. They were interested but didn’t have control. T Bone went down to Memphis and showed them there.
DEADLINE: What did they think?
COEN: They both loved it, which frankly didn’t surprise T Bone but surprised me. Because it’s not a whitewash and Judith is the keeper of the flame. It talks about the scandals, the drugs and drinking. I was worried they wouldn’t see the movie beyond those things. But they were totally into it. Jerry hated Great Balls of Fire. T Bone worked on it and it’s kind of embarrassed by it. But Jerry loved this and T Bone put me on the phone with him after they saw it. He was gratified.
DEADLINE: You make this movie, and you’re used to looking left or right and not seeing your brother Joel. Are you putting the band back together?
COEN: Oh yeah. Definitely. Maybe. Me and Joel…here’s the good thing about it. We’d finish one movie and before we were even finished, we’d start thinking about the next one. We’re both more relaxed now and think, okay, we’ll take whatever comes. This came along for me, I got another one going with Trish. But something will come along for Joel and me…it’s kind of great, not having a plan, and so that plan doesn’t preclude anything.
DEADLINE: Is there something you discovered about yourself, working solo?
COEN: This a weird case, because it was just editing and doing that with Trish is different than doing it with Joel. But yes. I thought, many times, there are all these problems when you go, oh fuck. You’re stuck. This doesn’t work. And I’d think, Joel would have an idea what to do here. So, where the fuck is he?