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Talking with Rena Coen

Talking with Rena Coen — We talk to Joel and Ethan Coen’s mother about how they were as kids

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In their second movie, Raising Arizona, Joel and Ethan Coen had a character gleefully vaporize a bunny with a hand grenade. It makes you wonder what life was like in their house when they were growing up.

Ethan, now 33, ”was really very quiet, very reticent, until he went into the movie business. He could be content with just a book,” recalls Rena Coen, an art history professor at Minnesota’s St. Cloud State University and mother of the filmmaking brothers, who grew up in St. Louis Park, a suburb of Minneapolis. But Joel, 36, ”used to have wall-to-wall kids in the house when he was home. He was very social and gregarious, very well liked.”

As Rena Coen recalls, her boys showed a penchant for writing at an early age (they produced a neighborhood newspaper, the Flag Avenue Sentinel and sold it door-to-door for a penny a copy) as well as for filmmaking: Armed with an 8 mm camera, ”they ran around doing jungle movies in the swamp” behind the Coens’ house. In high school, Ethan even began writing a math textbook with his father, now a retired economics professor. Joel seems to have been the schemer of the family, opening lawn-mowing and ice cream businesses in the summer and helping a graduate student film the Twin Cities. He and a friend ”dissected a chicken once on my ironing table,” says Mrs. Coen.

”At that point we thought, ‘Well, Joel might be interested in medicine.”’

And Ethan? ”I don’t think he was too involved in this (chicken episode),” says Mom. ”He was in his own world.”