Joel and Ethan Coen Talk INSIDE LLEWYN DAVIS, Casting Oscar Isaac, Working with Cats, Shooting on Film, and Working with T-Bone Burnett

     December 11, 2013


From Academy Award winners Joel and Ethan Coen, Inside Llewyn Davis follows folk singer Llewyn Davis (Oscar Isaac), who is struggling to make it in the Greenwich Village folk scene of 1961.  Relying on friends for a couch to sleep on and scrounging for whatever work he can find, Llewyn attempts to overcome seemingly insurmountable obstacles, many of which are of his own making, while never really catching a break.  The film also stars Carey Mulligan, Justin Timberlake, John Goodman, Garrett Hedlund, F. Murray Abraham, Adam Driver, Stark Sands and Max Casella.

At the films press day, filmmakers Joel and Ethan Coen spoke at this roundtable interview about what led them to cast Oscar Isaac as their lead, the challenges of finding someone who could convincingly act and perform music live, the unusual nature of working with cats, why they chose to shoot this on film instead of digital, what their working relationship with executive music producer T-Bone Burnett is like, and why they think there haven’t been as many popular representations of this period in music.  Check out what they had to say after the jump. 

inside-llewyn-davis-set-photo-joel-coen-ethan-coenQuestion:  What led you to cast Oscar Isaac as your lead?

JOEL COEN:  We were aware that we were in big trouble, if we didn’t find the right person for that part, and that it was not an easy set of criteria to satisfy because we needed someone who was both able to carry the movie as an actor – he’s in every scene of the movie, so that has requirements of its own, obviously – but also then be able to convince people, through live performance and a lot of live performance music, that he was a musician.  So, we actually started just interviewing musicians.  We thought, “Well, this will have to be a musician because there’s so much performance.”  We didn’t want to do it in post, or fake any of that.  We saw a lot of musicians, and discovered pretty quickly that we were probably barking up the wrong tree.  There probably are a lot of musicians that can act, but they are probably very, very few that can act, can sustain, being the center of a movie, and be in every scene of a movie.  Doing a few scenes is one thing.  So, we gave up on that and started looking for actors who could play.  And then, Oscar walked in, and that was that.

In terms of just crafting a character of Llewyn, this is a guy who just constantly gets in his own way and is an asshole, but at the same time, you are magnetically drawn to him and actually care about him.  How did you keep from crossing that line and making him an unsympathetic and character while still exposing all of his flaws on the screen?

ETHAN COEN:  Well, that’s part of why Oscar is great.  It’s just an impulse, in some actors.  You want to make the audience like you.  That’s the aim of the exercise.  But with Oscar, it isn’t.  That’s why he’s great.  If it’s a character that you get to know and have feelings for, then you relate to him somehow.  That’s more interesting than the guy you like because you show him petting his dog.  I don’t know if like is the right word, but you’re with him.  It is sympathy, in that respect. 

JOEL:  Also, when he performs in the movie, not as an actor, but as a musician, because he’s really good at it and it’s soulful, his performance is sympathetic.  You can have a character who can be reprehensible, in certain ways in his life, but quite sympathetically attractive in their art.

How did you cast the cat?

ETHAN:  Oh, we didn’t cast the cat, per se.  You have an animal trainer who looks for several cats.  That was a different experience than dealing with actors.  That was just difficult.  It was what you would expect from an animal on the set.  You just run a lot of film and prompt it to do the right thing, but sit through it doing all the wrong things first.  It worked out well, but it’s just unbelievably boring, frustrating and painstaking to shoot. 

inside-llewyn-davis-oscar-isaac-garrett-hedlundJOEL:  Obviously, we were looking for a kind of cat where we could get more than one that looked exactly the same because you can’t train them.  You just have to find the ones that are temperamentally predisposed to doing whatever you want them to do, in that particular moment.  You’ve got the squirmy cat that will run away, so you put him in those scenes.  You’ve got the very docile cat that will never run away when he’s just walking.  That’s how you have to do it.  So, there were many cats. 

You shot this on film, but was there any pressure to shoot it digitally? 

ETHAN:  No.  Some people do still shoot on film.  This was shot on film.  We talked about it with (cinematographer) Bruno Delbonnel.  Neither the two of us, nor Bruno, had shot digitally before.  All three of us know that it’s going that way, clearly, but we decided not to also introduce that new element to the collaboration, pretty much because none of us had done it before.  We were also so new to each other that we all decided to shoot on film. 

What is your working relationship with T-Bone Burnett like, especially working on a movie like this, that’s so music-driven?

JOEL:  T-Bone is like a lot of people that we’ve worked with, many, many times, over the years.  We’ve known T-Bone for 25 years, and done four movies with him.  It’s just a very congenial relationship, but not unlike the one that we have, for instance, with Carter Burwell, who composes music for us.  You’re just looking for collaborators where you understand their point of view and they understand your point of view, there isn’t a lot of fuss and, temperamentally, you’re compatible.  And T-Bone is brilliant at what he does.  He has this encyclopedic knowledge of American music, and an interesting point of view on it, and these really interesting skills, as both a producer of music and someone who can work with actors who are not necessarily musicians, in terms of eliciting those kinds of results that you see in this movie.

When did you bring him into the process?  Did what he was doing affect what you were doing with the story?

inside-llewyn-davis-oscar-isaacETHAN:  I think he was the first person that we sent the script to, when it was done.  We had maybe a couple of the songs that we specified in the script, but the rest of them were up for grabs, and we got together and talked about what they might be.  While that was happening, we were casting the movie, so we were able to start thinking about it, in more creative terms, as far as what songs will be performed by each actor.  It just became progressively more concrete.  And then, in terms of actually doing the music, even though we all knew that we wanted to shoot it live on set and not to play back, T-Bone arranged a week of pre-recording, right before we started shooting the movie, that were basically rehearsals.  All the actors and musicians got together to figure out what exactly they were going to play, or how exactly they were going to play it, and you arrange guitar and voice parts. 

JOEL:  And during that week of pre-recording, T-Bone was working with Marcus Mumford (of Mumford & Sons), who had essentially come in to help him produce the music, just be another interesting perspective in the room, and also to play.  Marcus played on a lot of the stuff.  He did the duet with Oscar, on Dink’s song.  He sang on The Auld Triangle, as did Justin [Timberlake].  And Justin was also there.  We had a lot of interesting musicians in the room, that were all contributing to that conversation.  T-Bone is really good at bringing those kinds of groups together and getting something out of them that you wouldn’t think about.

coen-brothers-oscar-imageWhy do you think there haven’t been as many popular representations of this period in music.  Is it a bias against folk? 

ETHAN:  It’s wasn’t a big commercial scene, really.  People know about the sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll in the ‘60s because rock ‘n’ roll was big, commercial music in the ‘60s.  It had a big audience.  This kind of music is really for cultists.  It was a very small community.  Folk, like these people were practicing, was just a smaller scene.  It was a small and isolated community. 

JOEL:  Which made it interesting to us to set a movie in it.  If it’s more exotic, people don’t know much about it, and it just makes it that much more interesting to get into and say, “Well, this would be an interesting context for a story because people don’t really know so much about either the music or what was going on.”

This story isn’t a biopic, but you did take inspiration from Dave Van Ronk.  What was it that inspired you to tell this story?

ETHAN:  It wasn’t even his story, so much as before Bob Dylan showed up in that scene, he was the biggest figure on the scene.  He was the avatar of that community.  Dave Van Ronk stood for the pre-Bob Dylan folk musician.  Then, we read his autobiography, or his so-called memoir.  It was written after he died by a guy called Elijah Wald.  But, we did crib certain things from that.  It’s a very funny book.  We were just drawn to the book, and he has a very funny voice.  But, Oscar’s character is not Dave Van Ronk.  You’d never confuse the one for the other. 

Inside Llewyn Davis opens in limited release on December 6th, and nationwide on December 20th.

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