10 Fun Facts About Burn After Reading

Focus Features
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.

George Clooney and Frances McDormand in 'Burn After Reading' (2008)
Focus Features

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.

John Malkovich in 'Burn After Reading' (2008)
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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.

Tilda Swinton in 'Burn After Reading' (2008)
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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.

Brad Pitt, Ethan Coen, and Joel Coen in 'Burn After Reading' (2008)
Focus Features

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.

The Reason Why the Genie From Aladdin Is Blue

Disney Enterprises Inc.
Disney Enterprises Inc.

Ever since Disney’s original Aladdin movie debuted in 1992, the Genie has always been blue. The Genie in the Broadway musical wears a royal blue costume, and a trailer for the 2019 live-action remake shows a blue, shirtless Will Smith playing the part of the Genie. While Disney has been known to change things up when it remakes classic movies like Beauty and the Beast or The Jungle Book, the Genie’s hue is one area where they're apparently sticking with what worked the last time around.

As Smithsonian explains, the reason for that is both symbolic and stylistic. Eric Goldberg, who oversaw the Genie’s animation for the original Aladdin, said the movie’s color palette was intentional. Specific colors were used to convey subtle messages about what the characters were like, before viewers had the chance to get to know them.

“The reds and the darks are the bad peoples’ colors,” Goldberg told Smithsonian. “The blues and the turquoises and the aquas are the good peoples’ colors.” If you go back and rewatch the movie, you’ll see that Jafar wears black and red, while Aladdin and Jasmine are dressed in cooler shades of blue, purple, and white.

Production designer Richard Vander Wende, who developed the movie’s color script, said the blue hue has even deeper symbolism attached to it. “Certain blues in Persian miniatures and tiled mosques stand out brilliantly in the context of the sun-bleached desert, their suggestion of water and sky connoting life, freedom, and hope in such a harsh environment," he said.

Disney animators and designers often use color to highlight the traits and attributes of different characters. A color wheel created by Venngage shows the colors various Disney characters are associated with, as well as the traits those colors supposedly stand for. For better or worse, crimson-clad characters like Jafar, Mr. Incredible, and the Queen of Hearts remind us of strength, energy, determination, and passion, according to Venngage’s analysis. Blue, on the other hand, stands for trust, loyalty, and confidence.

So even if people aren’t thrilled with Will Smith’s off-putting hue, it would seem the symbolism runs too deep to do away with it now.

[h/t Smithsonian]

Why Are the Academy Awards Statuettes Called Oscars?

Getty Images
Getty Images

In 2013, the Academy Awards were officially rebranded as simply The Oscars, after the famed statuette that winners receive. "We're rebranding it," Oscar show co-producer Neil Meron told The Wrap at the time. "We're not calling it 'the 85th annual Academy Awards,' which keeps it mired somewhat in a musty way. It's called 'The Oscars.'" But how did the statuette get that nickname in the first place?

The popular theory is that the nickname for the Academy Award of Merit (as the statuette is officially known) was coined by Academy Award librarian and future Director of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences Margaret Herrick. The story goes that when Herrick first saw the statue in 1931, she said that it looked like her Uncle Oscar. According to Emanuel Levy, author of All About Oscar: The History and Politics of the Academy Awards, columnist Sidney Skolsky was there when Herrick said this and would later write that, “Employees have affectionately dubbed their famous statuette ‘Oscar.’”

While the first documented use of “Oscar” as the nickname for the statuette was made by Skolsky—in a 1934 New York Daily News article—there doesn’t seem to be any evidence that Skolsky was actually responsible for the above quote. Skolsky, in his 1975 memoir Don’t Get Me Wrong, I Love Hollywood, claimed he first used the nickname referencing a classic vaudeville joke line, “Will you have a cigar, Oscar?” in an attempt to mock the Academy Awards:

"It was my first Academy Awards night when I gave the gold statuette a name. I wasn’t trying to make it legitimate. The snobbery of that particular Academy Award annoyed me. I wanted to make the gold statuette human. ... It was twelve thirty when I finally arrived at the Western Union office on Wilcox to write and file my story. I had listened to Academy, industry, and acceptance talk since seven thirty ... There I was with my notes, a typewriter, blank paper, and that Chandler feeling.

You know how people can rub you the wrong way. The word was a crowd of people. I’d show them, acting so high and mighty about their prize. I’d give it a name. A name that would erase their phony dignity. I needed the magic name fast. But fast! I remembered the vaudeville shows I’d seen. The comedians having fun with the orchestra leader in the pit would say, “Will you have a cigar, Oscar?” The orchestra leader reached for it; the comedians backed away, making a comical remark. The audience laughed at Oscar. I started hitting the keys ...

“THE ACADEMY awards met with the approval of Hollywood, there being practically no dissension … The Academy went out of its way to make the results honest and announced that balloting would continue until 8:00 o’clock of the banquet evening … Then many players arrive late and demanded the right to vote … So voting continued until 10 o’clock or for two hours after the ballot boxes were supposed to be closed … It was King Vidor who said: “This year the election is on the level” … Which caused every one to comment about the other years … Although Katharine Hepburn wasn’t present to receive her Oscar, her constant companion and the gal she resides with in Hollywood, Laura Harding, was there to hear Hepburn get a round of applause for a change…”

During the next year of columns, whenever referring to the Academy Award, I used the word 'Oscar.' In a few years, Oscar was the accepted name. It proved to be the magic name."

"Mouse's Return," a September 11, 1939 article in TIME magazine, seems to back up Skolsky’s above claim, stating:

"This week Sidney Skolsky joined the growing stable of writers that Publisher George Backer is assembling for his New York Post. Hollywood thought Publisher Backer had picked the right horse, for Skolsky is one of the ablest columnists in the business (he originated the term “Oscar” for Academy Awards) and by far the most popular …"

Though Skolsky has actual evidence to back his claim, his assertion that he coined the nickname is still slightly in doubt. Many claim that during Walt Disney’s Academy Award acceptance speech for Three Little Pigs in 1934—the same year Skolsky first covered the Awards—Disney referred to the statuette his little "Oscar," which was supposedly an already well-established nickname for it within the industry. The term Oscar was commonly used as a mocking nickname for the Academy Award (as Skolsky claims he used it), but in this theory, Walt Disney was supposedly the first in the industry to publicly use the name in a positive light.

Perhaps Herrick really did think the statuette resembled her uncle. Or maybe Skolsky really did come up with the moniker (whether he did or not, he certainly helped popularize it). In the end, nobody really knows why the Academy Award statuette is called an Oscar.

The idea for the design of the Academy Award statuette was thought up by MGM director Cedric Gibbons. His idea was to have a knight gripping a sword while standing on a film reel. Sculptor George Stanley was then hired to create the actual statuette based on this design idea. The first Academy Awards ceremony was held on May 16, 1929 in the Blossom Room of Hollywood's Roosevelt Hotel. The nickname Oscar wasn’t officially adopted for the statuette by the Academy until 1939.

Incidentally, the Academy states that the five spokes on the film reel the knight is standing on signify the original five branches of the Academy: writers, directors, actors, producers, and technicians.

Daven Hiskey runs the wildly popular interesting fact website Today I Found Out. To subscribe to his “Daily Knowledge” newsletter, click here.

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.

This article originally appeared in 2013.

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