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Sass, sex and recreational slaying: Ethan Coen and Tricia Cooke on Drive-Away Dolls

The film director and his wife have long worked together. Now they’ve teamed up to direct a wacky, anarchic, proudly lewd lesbian road movie

Joel and Ethan Coen have been enjoying themselves since they decided, apparently amicably, to take a spell working apart. It helps that their projects have remained family affairs. Joel directed his wife, Frances McDormand, in The Tragedy of Macbeth. Ethan and his wife, the Coens’s long-time editor Tricia Cooke, now come together for a wacky, anarchic, proudly lewd lesbian road movie titled Drive-Away Dolls. (Meanwhile, the brothers are already plotting a new collaboration.)

Cooke, who first worked with the Coens back in 1990, is credited as editor and cowriter, but, I learn, she and her husband were essentially codirectors. Set in 1999, the film is packed with the sort of ironic pulp chaos that the Coens and Quentin Tarantino traded throughout the premillennial rush. Margaret Qualley and Geraldine Viswanathan play two lesbian pals who accidentally rent a car containing one of those mysterious briefcases that so often drive the plot of such things. It’s all sass, sex and recreational slaying.

It seems the screenplay, originally titled Drive-Away Dykes, began life a full 20 years ago. There was a suggestion that Allison Anders, director of Grace of My Heart and Gas Food Lodging, might get behind the camera, but that didn’t quite happen. The world wasn’t yet ready?

“It was easier to get it made in 2022 than it was to get it made in 2005 or whatever,” Cooke says. “We wrote it in the very early 2000s. And then we worked on it with Allison Anders for a while. We could just never get the right elements. We had some cast, but we couldn’t get the money that we needed. We started doing other things. We didn’t forget about it. But it got put on a shelf.”


Should we be surprised? The 1990 indie boom opened up American cinema to new ideas, but there was still a whiff of cultural caution about. Remember the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences couldn’t bring itself to award Brokeback Mountain the best-picture Oscar in 2006. Barriers remained.

“I think that back then it was hard to get any queer movie made,” Cooke says. “I think people are now more accepting of primary characters in a movie being queer – and it not even needing to be a ‘queer movie’. Just a genre movie with lesbian characters.”

Ethan Coen is happy to add his own wry take.

“There wasn’t as much acceptance of queer movies, but especially of queer movies that were, like, stupid,” Coen laughs. “Now you can do that. Focus, the studio that financed it, they were totally fine about it now. ‘It’s a funny movie with queer characters. That’s okay. Great. Go ahead.’ That just would not have happened 20 years ago.”

Coen and Cooke couldn’t be more amiable. Dressed in casuals, unfazed by any question, they come across as an everyday – if highly intelligent – couple with no conspicuous attachments to the glamorous life. You wouldn’t be surprised to learn they were academics or journalists. There has never been any secret about their relationship. Cooke identifies as a lesbian and – a story already told a few times on this tour – first turned Ethan down for a date before deciding they belonged together. They married and now have two children. It must be a drag having to talk the arrangements through with endless strangers, but they do a good job of not seeming to mind.

“Pretty everything in my life I have fallen into,” Coen says, smiling.

“Because I knew I was a lesbian from a very early age, when I met and fell in love with Ethan that was always there,” Cooke says. “‘Hmm! This is weird. This is odd.’ At some point we thought, Why don’t we open this up and see if it will work, having a more nontraditional relationship? I think it did. So far so good. We’re still together. We’re still here together. We both have other partners. I have a partner who’s a radical anarchist, and Ethan’s partner is the costume designer on the movie.”

Cooke, a film graduate from New York University, has admitted that she barely knew who Ethan and Joel were when she joined them as assistant editor on Miller’s Crossing. She quickly hit it off with her future spouse and worked on further Coen projects, such as Fargo, The Big Lebowski and The Man Who Wasn’t There. There are parallels between the current professional Cooke-Coen partnership and that between the brothers. Until The Ladykillers, in 2004, Joel received sole directing credit – Ethan was mentioned for producing – but since then they have shared both. It seems they were always actually codirectors. That is now the case with Coen and Cooke. Back in the day, the issue seemed to be some complication involving the Directors Guild of America. Surely that is sorted now.

“In both cases – with me and Joel and with me and Trish – it wasn’t a question of what we were obliged to sort out but what we’re sufficiently interested in sorting out,” Coen says. “We kind of don’t care. It was easy for me. I am in the Directors Guild. So it was easy for me to be the titular lead director. The guild would have been okay if we had bothered to present it to them. They probably would have said, ‘Okay, we’ll sanction you as codirectors.’ But we don’t care about the titles. So we never pursued it.”

“We both have a lot of respect for each other and for each other’s choices,” Cooke adds. “How many titles do you need?”

I have always been interested in how Joel ended up being named director for those earlier films. Was he more hands-on during shooting?

“Maybe? Was he? Not really,” Coen says. “It might be as simple as this: he’s the older brother, so he gets to be director. I’m actually being serious. It never occurred to either of us to present ourselves as codirectors. That didn’t exist then, basically. ‘You’re the director, I’m the producer … whatever.’ Yeah. It was unconsidered.”

As an only child, I don’t really get these sorts of dynamics. But all that makes sense.

The period setting serves several purposes in Drive-Away Dolls. The road movie touches down in the lesbian bars of small-town America as the women work their way to inevitable violent denouement. Cooke has already spoken about how that scene is no longer what it was. It feels odd to speak of nostalgia for 1999, but the film is, among other things, a tribute to a world that has apparently lost its edge. It could maybe be subtitled What Became of the Great Lesbian Bars?

“Yeah, there are fewer lesbian bars now than there were back then,” Cooke says.

What’s that about? Is everyone afraid to go out?

“I don’t know. I will say that, in the 1980s, when I first started going to bars, there weren’t many solely lesbian bars. Women always got a Wednesday or a Thursday at a bar. ‘Okay, no one’s going to come in tonight. We’ll make it the lesbian night.’ Ha ha! But when I moved to New York there were probably six or seven, at least, lesbian bars that just aren’t there any more. Who knows?”

As Cooke reminisces one gets the sense of a virtual photobook being laid out before us. There are the makings of a good documentary here.

“I have no idea why there aren’t as many … bars like Meow Mix and Cattyshack and Ruby Fruit. Meow Mix and Cattyshack in particular are the bars that I would go to that were a lot of fun. There were go-go dancers. Cattyshack had multiple floors. There were just women everywhere. It had such a strong sense of community that you didn’t really get anywhere else.”

There is more to that in the millennial nostalgia. Fewer mobile phones to muck up the plot, of course. But Coen also misses the still-clunky mechanics of that era’s technology.

“There’s something fun about the idea of the odometer dial with the numbers turning over as you drive,” he says. “But it just seems – even though the lesbian thing is still transgressive in some people’s minds – more innocent now. It’s more matter-of-fact and accepted as an everyday thing.”

He’s chortling amiably to himself.

“There’s something good about being a little transgressive and a little naughty. You don’t get that jolt so much any more.”

Drive-Away Dolls is in cinemas from Friday, March 15th