The Coen Brothers’ Commercial Work (1995-2009)

Over a career spanning nearly three decades, Joel and Ethan Coen have built up one of the most impressive bodies of work in cinematic memory.  Their feature work is often held up as the gold standard of directing excellence, made all the more special by their independent roots.  So color me surprised to learn (when I’m nearly at the end of my examination of their work) that the Coens have racked up an astonishing number of commercial credits since 1995.  But I’ll be damned if that isn’t the defining nature of the Coen Brothers– once you think you’ve got them figured out, they have one more trick up their sleeve that changes all your perceptions.

*Embeds and links to spots are made when publicly available.  The rest of these spots are available to watch via the paid commercial archive site, Source Ecreative.

OLYMPUS: “TOURIST”- 1995

What appears to be the Coen Brothers’ first commercial is an exercise in genre subversion.  In the spot, a young man finds himself the subject of a harsh interrogation in some foreboding underground bunker.  The dramatically-lit, cobalt-blue 16mm film image is the result of a collaboration between the Coens and Director of Photography Daniel Hainey, who, like Roger Deakins in their theatrical work, would become the Coens’ regular commercial cinematographer.  The production design recalls Ridley Scott’s “1984” Apple spot in its moodiness, but the Coen’s signature comedic sensibilities make the spot something else entirely.

HONDA: “OFFICE”- 1996

A year later, Honda enlisted the Coens’ help to realize their spot for “OFFICE”, which features a young man rushing through his place of work and ignoring the frantic pleas of his co-workers so he can reach his “special place”– a white room that holds his beloved Honda sedan.  The piece is shot in black and white, and uses relentless dolly movements and outsized characterization to create a high-energy piece in line with the Coens’ comedic sensibilities.

PARISSIENNE CIGARETTES: “PARISSIENNE”- 1999

This commercial, from European cigarette brand Parissienne, is a riff on old Hollywood silent vampire films like NOSFERATU (1992).  As old-timey horror music plunks over the soundtrack, a wiry vampire approaches a sleeping woman and feeds.  In his post-feeding stupor, he lights a cigarette to calm his nerves.

Curiously enough, the Coens go to great lengths to replicate the wide, proscenium-style shooting aesthetic of early Hollywood films, yet they shoot in color.  They add another modern touch by slowly trucking the camera to the side as the vampire staggers back towards us.  This is a great example of Coens subverting genre expectations (modern techniques applied to silent film aesthetics).

HONDA: “FAMILY NEGOTIATIONS” CAMPAIGN- 1999

In 1999, the Coens once again went to work for Honda, creating a series of four spots built around the comedic concept of a family using individual lawyers to haggle with each other over who gets what features in the new family car.  Out of the four spots created, I was only able to view two, but I imagine my observations equally apply to the remaining spots.

The Coens employ their standard black/brown color palette to reflect the relative generic-ness of their surroundings.  This places a greater emphasis on the larger-than-life characters as they argue vociferously amongst each other.  The Coens use canted camera angles and circular dolly movements to add visual punch to the proceedings, which emphasizes the off-kilter nature of the comedy.  All in all, this is a clever campaign made all the more memorable by the Coens’ skillful helming.

ALLTELL CAMPAIGN- 1999

1999 was a busy year for the Coen Brothers on the commercial front.  They also tackled a small campaign from Alltell.  The conceit of the campaign is simple enough: two characters stand against a white background and argue with each other.  The hero eventually convinces his opponent that switching to Alltell will solve his problems.

The first spot, “CFO”, features a typical Coen archetype: the cigar-smoking, fat-cat boss.  The second, “PUPPET”, is a little more bizarre in that the opponent can only interact through his hand puppet.  It’s not exactly the most clever thing in the world, but hey, it’s a commercial.

Both spots were shot by the Coens’ regular commercial cinematographer, Daniel Hainey, who lights the 16mm film frame with the Coens’ signature black/brown color palette.  The execution of these spots speaks to the Coens’ affection for screwball comedy.

H&R BLOCK: “DESK”- 2002

The black/brown color palette returns in earnest with the Coens’ 2002 spot “DESK”, made for tax firm H&R Block.  The commercial features a mass of people slaving over their ledgers while the man in charge monotonously reads from a gigantic tome.  It’s a joke about the massive amount of boring work that goes into doing your taxes, which H&R Block is all too happy to help you with.

The Coens use classical camera movements to add scale to the room, which adds to the overbearingness of the situation.  Daniel Hainey collaborates with Daniel Pearl on the cinematography, while the Coens’ sometime-feature-editor, Tricia Cook, lends her cutting talents in post production.

For a bunch of number crunchers, the characters have well-developed personalities that are efficiently established within the spot’s 30 second running time.  This is further proof of the Coens’ great love for the characters they create, as well as their attention to behavioral detail.

GAP: “TWO WHITE SHIRTS”- 2002

In 2002, the Coens directed what is arguably their most well-known spot.  Shot by Daniel Hainey in stylish black and white, their spot for Gap– “TWO WHITE SHIRTS”– features Dennis Hopper and Christina Ricci engaged in a low-key game of chess as they lounge by the pool.  A classic rock song blasts over the image.  The camera starts in close on Hopper’s calm, emotionless face.  Gradually, it dollies back to reveal an idyllic southern California setting and an equally emotionless Ricci advancing one of her chess pawns before retiring to her lounge chair.

The spot exudes an effortless cool, using the contrast between black and white to great effect (white letterbox bars are a nice touch).  Gap has always been known for their stylish commercials, so their choice of the Coen Brothers as directors is somewhat curious.  However, it’s a well-made spot, and easily my favorite commercial of theirs.

PARISIENNE: “PARISIENNE PEOPLE”- 2003

A few years after their “PARISIENNE” spot for Parisienne Cigarettes, the Coens shot another spot entitled “PARISIENNE PEOPLE” (not exactly the most imaginatively-named set of commercials, is it?).  This spot plays off the dichotomy of a stone-faced man smoking a cigarette as he sits in the audience, watching a hyperactive man belt out showtunes on stage.

The commercial employs simple camerawork, relying on an alternating shot/reaction shot execution to sell the comedy.  Daniel Hainey again serves as Director of Photography, casting the backgrounds into deep shadow while handsomely lighting the two characters.

Like their feature that year, INTOLERABLE CRUELTY, “PARISIENNE PEOPLE” finds the Coens in pure screwball mode.  Short, little-known works like this help to paint a picture of the brothers’ larger mindsets during particular eras of their career.

REALITY COALITION/ALLIANCE FOR CLIMATE PROTECTION CAMPAIGN- 2009

The Coen Brother’s most recent commercial work is a pair of PSAs for the Reality Coalition/Alliance for Climate Protection.  The spots, “AIR FRESHENER” and “LAUNDRY”, feature fake household-cleaning products that are hailed as wondrous scrubbing agents that ironically pollute the environment around them.

The tongue-in-cheek nature of the concept is perfectly suited to the Coens’ sensibilities.  Each spot is done in the robotically cheery tone of midcentury cleaning commercials, while a genetically perfect Aryan family with plastered-on smiles extolls the virtues of the miracle cleaner as they gleefully choke on the black smoke it emits.

As shot by cinematographer Daniel Hainey, the image is low-contrast in the sterile way that many commercials are now shot in (a trend I find extremely distasteful).  Pastel color tones complement the blandness of the suburban setting, and the animated graphics of the cleaner in action recall the cutesy cartoons seen in similar commercials back in the 50’s.

True to the Coens’ nature, the oddball comedy hints at a darker truth– that there’s no such thing as a wonder chemical that doesn’t pollute.  It’s easy to see why the Coens were attracted to the concept, and their mark is immediately distinguishable from frame one.

As the Coens’ film career continues to develop, I don’t doubt that we’ll be seeing more commercial work from them as well.  Features take a long time to develop, and shooting a commercial or two is a great way to generate extra income during those fallow in-between years.  That’s not to say the Coens need that extra money– they do seem to be rather selective in regards to what work they take on.  Some may say that commercial work makes sellouts out of respected auteurs, but let’s be honest: anything that enables the Coens to put more work out there for us to enjoy is a good thing.