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Interview: Dowdle brothers find ‘No Escape’ from Coen comparisons, but don’t mind

John Erick Dowdle and Drew Dowdle on the set of 'No Escape' (photo: The Weinstein Co.)

By Tim Lammers

Considering they all hail from Minnesota, there’s no escaping the comparisons of filmmaking brothers John Erick Dowdle and Drew Dowdle to Joel Coen and Ethan Coen.

The distinct similarities hardly bother the Twin Cities born-and-bred siblings, though. In fact, they fully embrace it. After all, it’s hard not to think of the Coens when you consider that the brothers both write their scripts, while John Dowdle, 41, directs and Drew Dowdle, two years younger, produces. And like their Minnesota filmmaking inspirations, the Dowdles’ combined vision works wonders with their latest film, the compelling, pulse-pounding action thriller “No Escape.”

“The (Coen brothers-like) set-up was definitely by design,” John Dowdle told me, laughing, in an interview Tuesday, alongside his brother. “When I was in college, I read an article about the Coen brothers, which talked about how Joel went to NYU and studied film, and Ethan went to Princeton and studied literature and business, and then the two joined up to make films that Joel directs and Ethan produces. It helped them keep control of what they were doing and keep their voice more singular. Once we saw that article, we went, ‘OK, here’s the blueprint. Here’s how we’re going to do this.”

“The article talked so much about the autonomy that they were able to create for themselves by way of doing everything,” Drew Dowdle added. “That really appealed to us and we definitely took a page out their playbook. We always wanted to work for ourselves and have our own business, but Hollywood seemed to be the kind of place where that would be a hard thing to create.”

Despite the odds against them, the Dowdle brothers, like the Coens before them, are bucking the Hollywood system. To date, their combined independent voices have churned out such hit horror thrillers as “Devil,” “Quarantine” and “As Above, So Below,” and top-level talent is definitely taking notice. In fact, their new film, the independently-produced action thriller “No Escape,” attracted the likes of Owen Wilson, Pierce Brosnan and Lake Bell in the principle roles.

Opening in theaters nationwide on Wednesday, “No Escape” captures the real-life terror that envelops businessman Jack Dwyer (Wilson), his wife (Bell) and his two young daughters (Claire Geare and Sterling Jerins) after they relocate from the U.S. to a Southeast Asian country for Jack’s work. Not long after they settle into their hotel, the family becomes a target in a violent, bloody coup, where insurgents fearful of a U.S. corporation’s plans to privatize the country’s water supply ruthlessly execute Americans and other foreigners at will.

With only a mysterious British citizen (Brosnan) and his friend (Sahajak Boonthanakit) to aid them, the family faces a harrowing day and night of terror as they seek a way to survive the uprising and find possible path to freedom.

While “No Escape” takes a corrupt, American company to task, the Dowdles want viewers to know that “No Escape” is definitely not anti-American. True, bad American and British corporations create the problem, and bad foreigners respond with brute force. In the middle, though, is a good American family trying to survive through it.

“We wanted to make sure this wasn’t a ‘rah-rah’ jingoistic movie where all the Americans were good and the foreign characters were all bad — there’s a much more gray area here,” Drew Dowdle said. “But we do believe a lot of things happen in foreign countries where there’s a lot of blowback due to foreign policies via the private sector when it comes to massive infrastructure investments that are set up to fail in a way. They’re set up to default. That’s something that’s very real and we liked that element. We wanted some of the causality to be pointed back toward the Western world. That detail was very important to us.”

No identity

The interesting thing about “No Escape” is that it takes place in a country that isn’t identified. The brothers filmed “No Escape” in Thailand, which allowed for a Southeast Asian setting that is reminiscent of Cambodia.

“Initially we had written the city where the film took place as Cambodia, where there was the Khmer Rouge Uprising (from 1975-79),” John Dowdle said. “But after reading the script, people kept asking us, ‘Could this happen in Cambodia again? Is Khmer Rouge still around?’ Yes, Khmer Rouge is still around. The location of the story became so much a part of the conversation that we stepped back and said, ‘How do we focus the story more on family? How do we make it more allegorical?'”

By making the story more allegorical, the brothers were able to infuse ideas that harkened such horrifying historical events as the Fall of Saigon, the scene of American soldiers’ bodies being desecrated on the streets of Mogadishu (“That was actually me — the bloodied body being pulled behind the Jeep,” Drew Dowdle revealed) and the terrorist attack on the American Embassy in Benghazi.

The eerie coincidence is, the idea that chronicles the Benghazi-like slaughter was conceived long before the actual incident happened.

“When we first wrote this seven years ago, people said, could this really happen? Now nobody questions that,” John Dowdle said. “This is absolutely possible. This happens all over the place and it could take place in any number of countries.”

Film fans will notice a distinct difference in Wilson’s and Brosnan’s characterizations, in that Wilson, normally the funnyman, is playing a serious role, and Brosnan, the action-turned-drama star, gets the most laughs amid the chaos. The Dowdles like the approach, however, that real life has its share of funny and serious moments, and it shouldn’t matter who when representing real life in their films is delivering the lines.

“We like to joke that we cast Owen in Pierce’s role and Pierce in Owen’s role, but we like to make things feel more real by casting people in interesting and different ways,” John Dowdle said.

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Interview: T Bone Burnett talks ‘Inside Llewyn Davis,’ Coen brothers

Joel and Ethan Coen on the set of 'Inside Llewyn Davis' (inset T Bone Burnett)Joel and Ethan Coen on the set of ‘Inside Llewyn Davis’ (inset: T Bone Burnett). Photos: CBS Films, Lester Cohen/TBoneBurnett.com

By Tim Lammers

Much in the way Billy Preston was referred to by many as “The Fifth Beatle,” T Bone Burnett has more than earned the same sort of distinction because of his fruitful working relationship with filmmakers Joel and Ethan Coen.

In fact, in a recent interview with Burnett in conjunction with the release of “Inside Llewyn Davis,” I asked the legendary music producer if I could refer to him as “The Third Coen Brother,” and he was more than OK with the distinction.

“I hope they’ll adopt me eventually,” Burnett told me, laughing. “I’ve always felt a real kinship with them, really from the first time I saw one of their films. I like their films so much that I actually called them up. We had friends in common and things like that, but I guess you could say this was a fan phone call to them. We talked films and turned into friends from there.”

The first thing Burnett, 65, said he realized in talking with them was that they have the same sort of sensibilities as writers and directors, as he has as a songwriter and producer.

“I could tell they approached storytelling the exact same way I did from their first movie,” Burnett said.

Now playing in limited release and expanding to more theaters Friday, “Inside Llewyn Davis” tells the story of the title character (Oscar Isaac), a struggling folk musician and songwriter in New York’s Greenwich Village a short time before Bob Dylan changed the face of music in 1961.

Burnett’s music-supervisor duties on the film marks the fourth time he’s worked with the Coens, and it’s easily the most extensive project he’s done with them since “O Brother, Where Art Thou?” in 2000.

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Much like his previous collaborations with the Coens, Burnett, who also co-wrote some music for “Llewyn Davis,” was treated like a creative partner on the film. After all, much of the film is essentially told through song, with live performances by Isaac, co-stars Justin Timberlake and Carey Mulligan, and others — so Burnett was happy to be intimately involved with the production.

“They’re incredibly generous and inclusive people,” Burnett explained. “Generosity is the hallmark of an artist, and they are the soul of generosity. While it’s three-way collaboration, I have to say they’re incredibly good at music, too. I’m just their facilitator. They have beautiful tastes and come up with incredible ideas, so I value them. I can’t do it without them, I can tell you that. While the music is part of the film, the film is part of the music. They can’t exist without each other.”

While “Inside Llewyn Davis” includes songs of the era, it also includes a new, original tune, “Please Mr. Kennedy” — a swinging, folksy tune performed by Isaac, Timberlake and Adam Driver in the film. A satirical ditty about America’s entry into the space race, the song pegs John Glenn as a reluctant astronaut before being sent into orbit.

“The song has a lot of history in it; it has Ogden Nash-style lyrics, John Glenn and John Kennedy,” Burnett explained. “There’s an old song from the ’60s, ‘Please Mr. Kennedy,’ that says, ‘Don’t send me off to Vietnam.’ That was the initial impetus of the song.”

While the success of “Inside Llewyn Da

vis” is unfolding — the film has already received top nominations from the Film Independent Spirit Awards, the Broadcast Film Critics Association and the Golden Globes, among many others — Burnett said he can see another collaboration with the Coens in his future because there are just too many ideas in their minds that haven’t been tapped into yet.

In turn, Burnett hopes the brothers tap into his subconscious ideas, too, because deep down, he always wants bring something new and exciting to the fore.

“You’re only as good as the other people in your community, so the idea is that we all try to lift each other up,” Burnett said, humbly. “Certainly, the Coens hold everybody up, including themselves, to the highest standards. It’s like how if you play tennis, you play with better people because you want to play better.”

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