10 Fun Facts About Burn After Reading

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Focus Features

A fired CIA agent, his philandering wife, and a couple of not-so-clever gym employees' lives all come crashing together in Joel and Ethan Coen’s 2008 black comedy. On the 10th anniversary of the film's release, laugh a little bit harder at Burn After Reading knowing these 10 fun facts.

1. IT MARKED JOEL AND ETHAN COEN'S THIRD COLLABORATION WITH GEORGE CLOONEY.

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In Burn After Reading, George Clooney plays married federal marshal Harry Pfarrer, who's having an affair with Katie Cox (Tilda Swinton), the wife of CIA analyst Osborne Cox (John Malkovich). The film marked Clooney's third collaboration with the Coens. Clooney also starred in 2000’s O Brother Where Art Thou? and 2003’s Intolerable Cruelty. The Coens wrote the role of Pfarrer specifically for him.

2. THE COENS WROTE THE SCREENPLAY FOR BURN AFTER READING AT THE SAME TIME THEY WERE WRITING NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN.

While the Coens' standard practice is to work on one project at a time, they made an exception with Burn After Reading. "We actually wrote this script around the same time we were adapting No Country for Old Men," Joel Coen said. No Country for Old Men would go on to earn them Oscars for Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Director, and Best Picture in 2008.

3. THEY PUT THE ACTORS AHEAD OF THE STORY.

Burn After Reading features many of the Coens' usual players, and in some ways they were thinking about the actors they wanted to work with—and what sort of situations they could put them in—before the finer details of the story itself. “We came up with the idea thinking about different parts we wanted to write for actors that we know—who we thought might be fun to throw together; George Clooney, Richard Jenkins, Frances McDormand, and Brad Pitt, each of whom we know and all of whom we have worked with before, except for Brad," Ethan Coen said. "We thought about a mix of characters, and a story, that might be interesting to see these actors play."

4. THE ROLE OF OSBORNE COX WAS WRITTEN SPECIFICALLY FOR JOHN MALKOVICH.

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Even though they had never worked with Malkovich before, the Coens wrote the lead role with the two-time Oscar nominee in mind.

“Like Brad, John Malkovich is someone we hadn’t worked with before but have wanted to for some time," Joel Coen said. "So we wrote John’s part specifically for him, which was a lot of fun to do.”

5. THE FILM MARKED THE FIRST TIME IN NEARLY 20 YEARS THAT THE COENS DIDN'T WORK WITH THEIR USUAL CINEMATOGRAPHER, ROGER DEAKINS.

Burn After Reading is one of the few films the Coens haven't shot with their longtime cinematographer Roger Deakins, who had already committed to working with Sam Mendes on Revolutionary Road. Instead, they tapped then-four-time Oscar nominee Emmanuel "Chivo" Lubezki as their director of photography for the project.

“Chivo spent a lot of time in New York City for pre-production, and we were able to go to places together and figure out where he would need to hide lights, where I would have to put in something architectural, and so on," production designer Jess Gonchor said. In the years since, Lubezki has been nominated for an additional four Oscars and won three of them. His first win came in 2014 for Alfonso Cuarón's Gravity; he won the next two years as well, for Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) in 2015 and The Revenant in 2016 (both of those for Alejandro G. Iñárritu).

6. FRANCES MCDORMAND'S CHARACTER'S BOB HAIRDO HAD POLITICAL ROOTS.

It was modeled on Clinton/Lewinsky sex scandal whistleblower Linda Tripp—or, more specifically, Tripp's post-makeover hair after she helped usher the scandal into the spotlight.

7. TILDA SWINTON THOUGHT THAT SHE LOOKED LIKE A SIMPSONS CHARACTER.

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McDormand's bob wasn't the movie's only statement hairdo. Tilda Swinton's character also had a look that was rather familiar. "Katie has a very rigid hairdo," Swinton said. "Straight, not a wisp of a curl, and a heart-stopping shade of iron-red, if there is such a natural color—which I doubt. I was reminded of Edna Krabappel’s, from The Simpsons.”

8. THE COENS ASKED THE ACTORS TO EMBRACE THEIR "INNER KNUCKLEHEADS."

In preparation for the film, the Coens said they "asked the actors to embrace their inner knucklehead[s]." Joel Coen elaborated: “The story is about middle-aged people, all of whom are undergoing professional, personal, and sexual crises touching on matters of national security. That’s what makes it a Washington tale. The plot concerns the Central Intelligence Agency and the world of physical fitness, and what happens when those two worlds intersect and collide; Internet dating is also in the mix.” Yes, there's a lot going on.

9. THE FILM'S THEATRICAL POSTER IS BASED ON ESPIONAGE THRILLERS FROM THE 1960S.

The typography was modeled after a similar font on the poster for the 1967 film The Comedians.

10. THE THEATRICAL POSTER FOR COMING UP DAISY, THE FICTIONAL MOVIE WITHIN THE MOVIE, SAYS IT WAS BASED ON A BOOK BY CORMAC MCCARTHY.

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McCarthy, as you may know, is the author of No Country for Old Men. The small snippets of Coming Up Daisy shown in the film were actually directed by the Coens’ friend and frequent collaborator, Sam Raimi.

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Wa Wa Wee Wa: The Origin of Borat's Favorite Catchphrase

Wa wa wee wa! Sacha Baron Cohen is back in Borat Subsequent Moviefilm: Delivery of Prodigious Bribe to American Regime for Make Benefit Once Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan (2020).
Wa wa wee wa! Sacha Baron Cohen is back in Borat Subsequent Moviefilm: Delivery of Prodigious Bribe to American Regime for Make Benefit Once Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan (2020).
Courtesy of Amazon Studios

When Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan was released in 2006, a new audience was exposed to Borat Sagdiyev, a “journalist” portrayed by Sacha Baron Cohen who had made frequent appearances on the comedian’s Da Ali G Show.

Soon, in our country there was problem: People mimicked Borat’s catchphrases, "very nice" and “wa wa wee wa,” incessantly. The latter phrase was used to denote surprise or happiness on Borat’s part. While some may have assumed it was made up, it turns out that it actually means something.

Wa wa wee wa is Hebrew, which Cohen speaks throughout the film and which helped make Borat a hit in Israel. (Cohen is himself Jewish.) It was taken from an Israeli comedy show and is the equivalent of the word wow. Reportedly, the expression was popular among Israelis, and they appreciated Cohen’s use of it.

The original Borat also sees Cohen singing a popular Hebrew folk song, “Koom Bachur Atzel,” or “get up lazy boy,” among other Hebrew mentions. It remains to be seen how much of it he’ll be speaking in the sequel, Borat Subsequent Moviefilm: Delivery of Prodigious Bribe to American Regime for Make Benefit Once Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan. It premieres on Amazon Prime Friday, October 23.

[h/t The Los Angeles Times]