Really Tying Crime Capers, Queer Comedies and Road Movies Together: Ethan Coen and Tricia Cooke Chat 'Drive-Away Dolls'

One half of the Coen brothers has made his first fictional feature without his sibling, teaming up with his long-term editor on a wildly delightful addition to his resume — and they told us all about it.
Sarah Ward
February 23, 2024

There's a line towards the end of Drive-Away Dolls that's so glorious, so hilarious and so descriptive of the film's plot that it feels like Ethan Coen and Tricia Cooke's lesbian road-movie comedy caper could've sprung from it alone. The dialogue in question spans eight words that are best discovered by watching, riffing on a familiar phrase — and it's marvellous. Ethan is no stranger to writing sparklingly witty and sidesplitting banter. His filmography is filled with it and, with his sibling Joel, he has two Oscars for Best Screenplay, winning for Fargo's original script and No Country for Old Men's adaption. The Coen brothers' own O Brother, Where Art Thou?, A Serious Man, True Grit and The Ballad of Buster Scruggs also scored them nominations, as did co-penning the Steven Spielberg-directed Bridge of Spies.

Ethan and Tricia — who are not only married, but have past experience working together thanks to the latter's role editing some Coen brothers' movies, starting with The Big Lebowski — didn't base Drive-Away Dolls' narrative on that particularly perfect line. That's not how Ethan pens his scripts, he tells Concrete Playground, whether Joel or Tricia is his co-writer. "We write very much, as me and Joel always wrote, in order — in scene order, not knowing, not outlining, and not knowing where we're going in terms of outline, or certainly not in terms of future lines of dialogue that we want to work in," he explains. "So that came up because the situation warranted at that point."

What a situation that Drive-Away Dolls dives into; there might be only one Coen attached, but it's still pure Coens. Two lesbian friends attempt to hightail it away from their everyday Philadelphia lives — one after a fresh breakup; the other unable to relax since her last relationship ended quite a while earlier, and just in general — with Tallahassee, Florida their destination. Margaret Qualley (Poor Things) plays the outgoing, confident, as-casual-as-they-come Jamie, who soon has police officer Sukie (Beanie Feldstein, American Crime Story) for an ex. Geraldine Viswanathan (Cat Person) is the perennially stressed and uptight Marian. Their getaway idea: driving a car that needs taking to their destination anyway, aka the eponymous cheap car-hire service. But their mistakenly allocated vehicle has hidden cargo, which sets a couple of bickering and bumbling goons (Plane's Joey Slotnick and The Blacklist's CJ Wilson) on their trail.

There's an anarchic everything-that-can-go-wrong-will air to Jamie and Marian's eventful road trip, and to the antics of the men following their every move (and to the storyline's twists, which bring in characters played by The Last of Us' Pedro Pascal, The Color Purple's Colman Domingo, Oppenheimer's Matt Damon and The Burial's Bill Camp, too). But this isn't the soulful Inside Llewyn Davis; rather, Raising Arizona, Burn After Reading, The Big Lebowski, O Brother, Where Art Thou? but queer, touring lesbian bars and featuring wall dildos is the vibe. "I think the only thing that we wanted, we definitely wanted to make it a fun queer movie. And, we thought about Cynthia Plaster Caster very early on. She was someone we were like 'okay, we're going to work something like that into the plot'," advises Tricia. 

Margaret Qualley, Beanie Feldstein, Tricia Cooke, Geraldine Viswanathan and Ethan Coen. Photo by Marion Curtis / StarPix for Focus Features.

How do Coen and Cooke really tie all of those elements together, including the artist — "not famous now, kind of forgotten," Ethan notes — known for making plaster casts of celebrity penises? ("Later on, she also cast women's breasts," stresses Tricia; "she wasn't a one-trick pony," adds Ethan.) Uproariously, in their gleeful version of a B-movie, with a 60s- and 70s-inspired spirit, and while crafting a period piece. The movie's action is set in the 90s, where today's ever-present technology can't simplify the scenario. It feels like a throwback several times over, then, and like writer/director/producer Coen and writer/editor/producer Cooke are having an absolute ball making it.

Harking back three decades is a nod to Drive-Away Dolls' history as well, with the film initially conceived and scripted back then under the name Drive-Away Dykes. With that moniker, it was indeed a case of coming up with the title, adoring it, then basing the whole movie around it. With the film that's resulted all these years later in cinemas Down Under from Thursday, February 22, we chatted with its two guiding forces about finally bringing it to the screen — including while Ethan and Joel take a break from their collaborations (Ethan and Tricia teamed up to make 2022 documentary Jerry Lee Lewis: Trouble in Mind first, while Joel helmed 2021's The Tragedy of Macbeth solo). Also covered: how Drive-Away Dolls' narrative came about, digging the script back up, casting Qualley and Australia's own Viswanathan, and loving making comedy capers.

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On Coming Up with Drive-Away Dolls' Story — and Its Original Title 

Tricia: "Well, we did come up with Drive-Away Dykes — a friend of mine and I, not Ethan and I. And I went home and I mentioned it to Ethan, and he was like 'that's a great name. We should write that movie'.

So it just started out because drive-away — I don't know if you have them in Australia, but here they're companies where you can go and get a car, and you can drive it, and you drop it off wherever the owner of the car wants it driven. So we thought that was an interesting beginning of a road movie.

And then, ending up with the wrong car — or what might possibly be in this car that they weren't anticipating. So we started from there."

Ethan: "Trish came up with the title Drive-Away Dykes in the Pravda bar in New York, down on Lafayette."

Tricia: "Yeah, which sadly is no longer there."

Ethan: "I hear they're putting up a plaque there, like Fat Black Pussycat, where Bob Dylan wrote 'Blowin' in the Wind' — but it's where you conceived Drive-Away Dykes."

Tricia: "Excellent. I can't wait."

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On How the Film Finally Come to Fruition Decades After Initially Writing the Script 

Ethan: "Actually, it was just because me and Trish worked on a documentary together — we made a documentary movie about Jerry Lee Lewis — and we just enjoyed working together.

Not that we hadn't before. Trish would cut some of mine and Joel's movies. But we enjoyed working together, and we thought 'hey, we've got this old script that we didn't manage to get made, so why don't we look at that again, and rewrite it again, and make the movie?'."

Tricia: "We both had time. Ethan had kind of decided to take a break, and our kids are grown now, and after the Jerry Lee Lewis movie it was kind of like 'okay, well, what we're going to do next? Well, we have this script here, so let's see if we can interest anyone'."

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On How Drive-Away Dolls' Screenplay Evolved Since the Original Version in the 90s

Ethan: "It was not the case that we worked on it over the years. We wrote it and then forgot about it for many years. And when we did come back, we did rewrite it.

How is it different? I think it's mainly the main two characters are a little more…"

Tricia: "Fleshed out."

Ethan: "In the rewrite, the odd couple thing is highlighted. The free spirit versus the uptight woman, that's more pointed in in the rewrite."

Tricia: "And we also made it a period movie. When we wrote it initially, it was contemporary and it didn't feel right to keep it contemporary for a couple of reasons. It's a lot easier to find people now with cell phones and the internet, and all of that.

And also, all of the lesbian bars and stuff, that was such a big part of my world back then, and that's all changed — not significantly, but it's different now. And so I felt like it wouldn't be a proper representation, and something I didn't know, going to a lot of queer bars in 2022."

Ethan: "It's a weird paradox where lesbian birds then were a little more transgressive, or felt at least a little transgressive. And now, now they don't. And there aren't as many, weirdly. I don't know what explains that."

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On Casting Margaret Qualley and Geraldine Viswanathan as Jamie and Marian

Ethan: "They both came in, and when each of them came in, we said 'okay, that's the person'."

Tricia: "They went to the top of the list. Geraldine came in very early. We saw her maybe in the first group of people we auditioned. Margaret came in very late. So we kind of had a Marian, we knew we were very high on Geraldine — and had a few other Jamies, but when Margaret came in it was like 'oh, that's Jamie'.

She just flopped down in the chair, and she had the spirit that Jamie had. That was a harder part to cast."

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On Ethan Directing His First Narrative Feature without Joel

Ethan: "Weirdly, well, same and different. Weirdly the same because I made it with Tricia — and Trish isn't titularly the co-director, but she is in fact. I mean, we made the movie together.

So in that respect, it's kind of familiar. You're just working with another person, and it's all very collegial, and it's the two of you making the movie.

So it wasn't different in terms of me working by myself, because I wasn't working by myself. It's different because I'm working with a different person."

Tricia: "Joel knows more than I do."

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On Still Making a Movie That Feels Like a Coen Movie — and Gravitating Towards Comedic Capers

Ethan: "It just seems that kind of thing is promising story fodder. You know what I mean? It's what Trish was talking about —a drive-away, you go 'okay, what could make that story go? Okay, there's something in the car they don't know about. And there's bad guys who were after them because they're after the stuff in the car'.

You're looking for an engine for the story, something to propel the story — that's a caper."

Tricia: "And also, we love just being on the road here in the States. There's such a car culture. So much is out there, there's so much material out there — and it just seems like it could be fun. The scenery is always changing, there's always something of interest out there. So those are good things to play around with story-wise, too."

Ethan: "And you get lots of good stuff. The bar at the beginning, the starting point of the trip, and that mirror bar at the end, the end point of the trip — and that's a story."

Tricia: "Raising Arizona is definitely, when anyone asks 'what's your favourite Coen brothers movie?', I always say Raising Arizona. Probably because I didn't work on it, but also it's just so much fun to watch them do wacky things — Goodman, and…"

Tricia, to Ethan: "Oh, there's another!"

Ethan: "Goodman and Bill Forsythe."

Tricia: "We're trying to think of all of the dumb men in cars that have been in Ethan's movies."

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Drive-Away Dolls released in Australian and New Zealand cinemas on Thursday, February 22. Read our review.

Images: Wilson Webb / Working Title / Focus Features.

Published on February 23, 2024 by Sarah Ward
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