Get Inside Llewyn Davis With the Coen Brothers

Interview Don Kaye 12/12/2013 at 8:46AM

The iconoclastic filmmakers discuss their latest darkly comedic and slightly surreal gem, set in the early 1960s New York folk music scene.

With Inside Llewyn Davis, writer/directors/producers/editors Joel and Ethan Coen add another unique mini-masterwork to their already formidable filmography. Oscar Isaac, in an award-worthy performance, plays the title character, a down-on-his-luck folk singer struggling to break out of the Greenwich Village folk scene of the early '60s after the death of his songwriting partner.
 
Headed into a long, slow tailspin, the self-centered, self-pitying Davis deals with losing a benefactor's cat as well as the possibility that he fathered the impending child of Jean Berkey (Carey Mulligan), who performs in a husband-wife duo with her spouse Jim (Justin Timberlake). He also meets Troy Nelson (Stark Sands), a soldier whose bland version of folk music seems poised to reach a bigger audience than Davis' authentic and soulful work. Davis finally splits town on a dream-like road trip with a dissolute jazz musician (John Goodman) while hoping for a chance to meet folk music impresario Bud Grossman (F. Murray Abraham).
 
It's all beautifully, bleakly shot by cinematographer Bruno Delbonnel and expertly shaped by the Coens, capturing the same melancholic and fatalistic tone of their brilliant A Serious Man, while tapping into the electricity of the music itself. Den Of Geek recently participated in a roundtable discussion of the film with the Coens, who talked about the story's origins, the cast, the music, and that cat.
 
Tell us the genesis of this story.
 
Ethan Coen: We were in the office one day. We just sit around the office doing whatever or talking, which turns into writing at some point, and Joel said, “All right. How about suppose he’s a folk singer and he gets beat up in the alley outside of Gerde’s Folk City in 1961?” Which was like an odd thought. But, you know, that’s what we do when you’re writing. All right, here’s an odd thought. What about this? Does it go anywhere? Maybe. You know, you embroider on each other’s ideas and they go somewhere or don’t. And, in this case, it did.
 
Joel Coen: It didn’t actually for a long time. We sort of put it aside and thought, “Well how does that work? Where does that go?” Then we came back to it at a certain point, a certain time later, and started thinking about it some more and it developed slowly into the movie.
 
How familiar were you in a general sense with the music of the period? Had you listened to it extensively yourselves and then how much more did you go into it once this took on its own life?
 
Ethan: We were familiar in a general sense –- not from listening to it during the period itself because we were small children then. But, you know, when we were kids, we listened to not so much music from that scene as the music that grew out of that scene. I mean, you know, obviously it’s the scene Bob Dylan walked into so his music harks back to that and that’s kind of how we got into it -- by indirection from listening to the music that came out of it. And then, you know, when we knew specifically that we wanted to do this movie, when we were writing the script or finishing the script we did start to listen more purposefully but at that point it was music that we knew more about.
 
Joel: We’d made a movie with T-Bone (Burnett, music supervisor) years ago, O Brother, Where Art Thou? The music in O Brother is very much related to this music. This music came from that music. It’s different in certain ways from that music, but otherwise it’s very similar in certain ways. It was a revival of that music but slanted a certain way and in the folk tradition of reimagining and reinterpretation and rearrangement of music. A lot of those people who were on the scene in 1960-61, the late '50s in the Village were folklorists. They were interested in discovering, recording, playing and learning about that music, specifically the music that was in O Brother, some of it.
 
 
What is the backstory on John Goodman's character?
 
Ethan: Wow. We’re not big on backstory. It’s something actors think about sometimes -- some actors -- and find useful. But, it’s an interesting question because it exposes a complete vacuum in us.
 
Joel: There were certain things when we were thinking about it that we thought would be interesting. We wanted someone who was a musician from the period but not a folk musician. So we thought, well let’s make him a jazz musician. There were a lot of interesting things happening in jazz then. We were vaguely thinking of him as a guy who came out of that sort of post-war bebop movement that was very interesting in New York in the '50s and was happening with jazz but was so different from what the folk people were doing. In certain ways, there was a musical sophistication to it that was also very different from what was happening in the folk scene. But who we thought he was -- I don’t know. John had certain ideas about it and we had certain ideas about it but we didn’t really care as long as it was some kind of counterpoint [to Davis].

 
John has been in so many of your films -- he's kind of your good luck charm.
 
Joel: It is true what you’re saying about John. He’s somebody that we do keep coming back to because he's such an interesting actor and such a great actor but also just because, you know, as we’re writing things we often start to sort of hear John’s voice in them, you know. This was like a real good example of that because we would be writing these speeches and then all of a sudden we go, “Well that’s obviously got to be played by John. He’s kind of the person who can get his mind around it.”
 
Ethan: Somehow he’s an old jazz cat in his soul. It just became obvious it had to be him. He’s some kind of hip that’s not contemporary hip.
 
A lot of the advance publicity has been saying this is loosely based on the life of (folk singer) Dave Van Ronk, and Stark Sands said that his character is kind of loosely based on (folk singer) Tom Paxton. And certainly F. Murray Abraham’s character seems to be a version of [Bob Dylan manager] Albert Grossman. Were the characters that specifically connected to real people for you?
 
Ethan: No -- with the exception of Murray Abraham’s character, which is kind of a reference to Albert Grossman who did have the club in Chicago, The Gate of Horn, and was a big sort of folk impresario and went on to manage Bob Dylan. But no, the other characters were much, especially the main character, much less specific. It would be wrong to say they’re based on anybody. Oscar’s character isn’t based on Dave Van Ronk and nobody who knew Van Ronk, I’m sure, would confuse that character for being Dave.
 
We did give him largely Van Ronk’s repertoire. Oscar does play mostly Dave Van Ronk songs. And there are very specific things that we cribbed from Van Ronk’s memoir, The Mayor of MacDougal Street. Just very specific things for the character like the merchant marine thing. But that’s it. It’s a fictional character and Van Ronk was more of a curmudgeon. He was more like the John Goodman character as a person than he was like Oscar’s character. And that goes for everyone else in the movie. There are sort of specific points of reference but you wouldn’t be able to say that any character except for Murray’s part was based on a real person.
 
Joel: That’s also true of Stark’s character. I mean he plays a Tom Paxton song and Tom Paxton actually was in the army in that period -- just like Oscar’s character, we made him a working class kid from the boroughs like Van Ronk was. That’s the same but, again, Stark’s character is nothing like Tom Paxton beyond that. He’s made up.

 
What are you guys listening to these days? When you guys are out just doing nothing separately, what do you listen to?
 
Joel: Well, as Ethan said recently to someone, we listen to a lot of dead people. Totally dead people.
 
Ethan: I’m sorry. They’ve got to be dead.
 
Joel: It’s not like we know a lot of contemporary music -- by which I mean people who are big with my kid’s age group. I’ve got a 19-year-old, but I don’t know a lot of who he listens to. I just don’t know that music.
 
There’s kind of a folk revival to some extent going on now with acts like Mumford & Sons, the Lumineers and so on. Do you see them as sort of picking up the mantle of the artists that you are referencing in this movie?
 
Joel: Yes. Definitely.
 
Ethan: Yes, I think they see themselves as that, sure.
 
Joel: It’s very interesting. In fact when we were starting to do this my wife said, "It’s interesting that you’re doing this now" -- which was sort of news to me. But she was saying there are a lot of bands out right now that are very directly sort of influenced by that music. Marcus (Mumford) was actually somebody that I did know who, for instance, my kid was really into. And Marcus was very instrumental in the making of the soundtrack along with T-Bone. T-Bone brought him in and he worked on it from the get-go.
 
You can tell that with all the stuff, it really is a continuation of exactly that folk tradition. These really young kids now are taking that music and just doing the same thing that the folk musicians were doing in the early '60s where you listen to this stuff and you run it through your own sensibility and it changes slightly and it becomes something else. There’s a long thread that connects them all.
 
One of you was quoted as saying that the movie didn’t have much of a plot so you threw the cat in to give it a little bit of a narrative.
 
Joel: Yeah. Well it’s kind of true. We did realize at a certain point that this isn’t a plot-driven movie. It’s sort of a slice of life movie -- this brief period of time in this one character’s life. But sometimes just from a narrative point of view you are just looking for things that are going to help you structure it and keep it interesting and also be revealing in some way about other things that are going on and feels natural to it. It’s just a feel thing. At some point that idea came into it, and sometimes those things just prove useful and sometimes they don’t, you know. This one stuck around because it was useful.
 
Can you talk about having Justin Timberlake in the movie?
 
Joel: Justin, I don’t know, he’s like kind of obvious to go to for this kind of movie because he’s a real musician who’s also a real actor. It’s not like there are a lot of them. And we were right in thinking that offering a real musician to do a kind of music that’s totally not what he’s associated with commercially would be appealing to him -- which, in fact, it was. He was actually involved in the music more than just in his performances per se. We did a week of pre-records that amounted to sort of rehearsals and actually he and Marcus were kind of involved in everything. But, yeah, Justin’s great.
 
This is also a real "star-making" type of performance for Oscar Isaac. What did you see in him that said to you this will be Llewyn Davis?
 
Joel: Well, I mean, it really was this bizarre combination. I think I can really safely say that I honestly don’t know anyone else who could have done this part because he’s so musical and yet he’s a brilliant, classically trained actor who could carry the whole movie and be in every scene in the movie. And yet he's also a real musician. When we sent his audition tape of him playing and singing the first time to T-Bone, T-Bone said, "This guy's better than a lot of the studio musicians I work with." He’s the real deal in terms of music. And that was like a huge thing because we thought he was right from a sort of actor point of view and the fact that he was able to do this from a musical point of view was really the key.
 
Inside Llewyn Davis is now playing in select cities and will open in wide release on December 20.
 
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