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Sexploitation cinema gets a queer spin in ‘Drive-Away Dolls’

‘Drive-Away Dolls’, co-written by Ethan Coen and Tricia Cooke, is a playfully R-rated, unabashedly queer romp

Ethan Coen and Tricia Cooke. Photo by AP

By AP

LAST PUBLISHED 21.02.2024  |  01:28 PM IST

Scripts of all kinds sit in the drawers of Ethan Coen’s home, some to be returned to, some forever abandoned. When writing with his brother Joel over many years, the absurd narrative paths they’d venture down would inevitably lead to strange mental roadblocks.

“Sometimes partial scripts would stop in mysterious places," Coen says. “‘Fargo’ we started writing many, many years before we made it and then we stopped at page 70 with ‘Carl is humping the escort.’ Then the rest of that page is blank. OK, what happens next?"

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One script that sat dormant for many years was a screenplay Coen wrote not with his brother, but Tricia Cooke, Coen’s wife and an editor of many of the Coens’ best films. The script, titled “Drive-Away Dykes," was nearly produced two decades ago. A lesbian road-trip comedy, the movie — a playfully R-rated, unabashedly queer romp — channeled the spirit of long-ago sexploitation cinema.

Penned around 2002, the project was shopped years ago with Allison Anders to direct and, at various points, had actors including Holly Hunter, Christina Applegate, Chloë Sevigny and Selma Blair attached. But the financing never came through. Into a drawer “Drive-Away Dykes" went.

It seemed destined to stay there, too. After 2018’s “The Ballad of Buster Scruggs," Coen dropped out of filmmaking, putting one of the most indelible sibling partnerships on indefinite hiatus. But during the pandemic, their longtime collaborator T Bone Burnett turned up with the idea of making a Jerry Lee Lewis documentary. Cooke and Coen made the film, “Jerry Lee Lewis: Trouble in Mind," together.

“We really enjoyed making that movie," Coen said in a recent interview alongside Cooke. “We thought: ‘What else?’"

Their next one, retitled “Drive-Away Dolls," opens in theaters Friday. It signifies both the much-awaited return of Coen to narrative filmmaking and the giddy revival of a dormant spirit of '70s B-movie filmmaking.

“If it leads to more B-movies being made, bring 'em on," says Cooke. “There’s something very fun and gleeful about them. I just watched ‘Faster Pussycat! Kill! Kill!’ again and it’s just so much fun."

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“That’s the right word: glee," adds Coen. “It’s a kind of innocent glee that just doesn’t exist in movies. You go, ‘Why the f--- not?’ We’ve met John Waters a few times and you can stand there with John and just laugh and laugh."

“Drive-Away Dolls," which Focus Features is releasing, produces a similar effect. Margaret Qualley and Geraldine Viswanathan star as Jamie and Marian, two friends taking an impromptu road trip to Tallahassee after Jamie breaks up with her girlfriend (Beanie Feldstein). They’re delivering a car that was intended for a trio of criminals (Colman Domingo, Joey Slotnick, C.J. Wilson) who tail them, seeking a briefcase of mysterious contents.

Qualley’s character, a colorful fast-talker, is in the celebrated mold of Coen screwball protagonists past. Part of the film's fun is seeing a familiar Coen vernacular — memorable lines include “Tomorrow can wait a day" and the poetic phrase “slapping ham on the veranda" — filtered through a new generation of actors and a much different perspective.

“I kind of represent the queer world," Cooke says. "All of the bumbling men in the movie and all of the caper stuff definitely comes from Ethan’s mind."

“Tricia’s queer and sweet and I’m straight and stupid," Coen adds. “That could be the slogan of the movie: ‘Straight and stupid.’ Me and Joel couldn’t do that because we’re both straight and stupid."

“I’m going to tell him you said that," says Cooke.

Cooke and Coen married in 1990 and have two kids who are now grown. They describe their relationship as nontraditional; each has a separate partner. Cooke and Coen first thought of the title “Drive-Away Dykes" and wrote it from there, taking inspiration from '90s movies like “But I’m a Cheerleader" and “Go Fish."

“Drive-Away Dolls" is intentionally more gritty looking than Ethan’s movies with Joel. It's more loosely framed by cinematographer Ari Wegner. Much of it is informed by Cooke’s own experiences in lesbian bars.

“There aren’t a lot of lesbian genre movies, certainly not back then. I wanted to make a movie that was light-hearted and had a happy ending and felt free and fun. That didn’t exist in the lesbian film world," says Cooke. “It was important for me to make a playful queer movie."

Coen and Cooke spoke by Zoom from snowy Albuquerque, New Mexico, where they were prepping another movie together titled “Honey Don't." Last summer, though, Ethan returned to writing with Joel. After “Honey Don't," the brothers plan to reteam as directors for that movie, a horror film that they wrote fresh, not from an old screenplay.

“We talked about it for a long time but we hadn’t actually written anything," Coen says. “We talked about the starting point. It was in a mental drawer."

What once seemed like an unfathomable split has turned out to be more of a blip. Writing again with Joel, Ethan says, has been as much fun as it always was.

“It wasn’t breaking up. It was just me going, ‘Uaaagghh,’" Coen says, vocalizing his exhaustion. “It was great. It’s always great. But it’s not like we were out of contact. We see each other all the time, talk all the time."

When Coen stepped away from filmmaking, he described diminishing returns from his enjoyment in filmmaking and the toll of a handful of more ambitious productions. “Too many Westerns," Cooke succinctly put it earlier. Asked what’s changed since then about his attitude about making movies, Coen hesitates.

“I don’t know. Working with Tricia is new and that’s stimulating," he says.

“Ethan needed a reset," adds Cooke.

Coen winces. “When people say ‘I was burned out,’ I always roll my eyes."

“Drive-Away Dolls" might suggest a return to a scruffier sensibility. The planned horror movie could harken back to the Coens' 1984 debut, “Blood Simple." But Coen is reluctant to ascribe any commonality to his post-reset movies than: “They're not Westerns."

“I don’t know. It was always fun working with Joel, doing those movies. They were a gas, man," Coen says. “‘Inside Llewyn Davis,’ that was fun going to work everyday. All of ’em."

Another thing that hasn't changed is Coen and Cooke's predilection for applying classic Hollywood genres to very un-classic Hollywood stories. If “The Big Lebowski" was a Raymond Chandler riff with a Los Angeles stoner for a protagonist, “Drive-Away Dolls" is their version of the 1955 noir “Kiss Me Deadly." In that film, famously referenced in Quentin Tarantino's “Pulp Fiction," a sought-after briefcase holds a glowing atomic metaphor. In “Drive-Away Dolls," the briefcase holds ... well, something very, very different.

“These are the forms we’ve been given," Coen says of noir and genre frameworks. “I think neither of us places any premium at all at being original or innovative which make for people making boring movies in which they express themselves."

One difference this time is the cast, most of whom aren't Coen regulars. In the film's opening scenes, it's Pedro Pascal clutching the briefcase. Coen and Cooke praise them all, including Qualley ("Her resting personality is at an 11," says Cooke), Domingo and the great character actor Bill Camp ("Talk about an actor understanding," Coen says). At a certain point, they both looked around realized they were making a movie with a bunch of then-20-somethings in Qualley, Viswanathan and Feldstein. “It was f---ing weird," says Coen.

Yet other aspects remain constant for the filmmakers. Cooke and Coen heap praises on Focus' handling of the film, but they've also grown accustomed to how executives invariably respond when they turn in a movie.

“It’s funny that the studio inevitably reacts that way," says Coen. "They look at the finished movie and go, ‘Huh.’"