Good news: the Coen brothers are back. Three years after their critical and commercial smash True Grit, the filmmaking siblings return with Inside Llewyn Davis, a typically wry journey through the downtown New York folk music scene in 1961. It’s the story of an almost-was singer-songwriter, played by Oscar Isaac, a pre-Dylan troubadour whose tempestuous relationship with musical success is matched by the havoc he wreaks on those around him. Along for the ride is Coen veteran John Goodman, returning to the brothers’ fold as a mysterious, garrulous jazzman Davis encounters on the road. Both actors joined the Coens for a discussion of the film recently at the New York Film Festival, and RT was there to sit in on the chat.
What was it specifically about the early ’60s folk scene that appealed to you?
Joel Coen: I don’t know. It’s hard for us to imagine a story divorced from a very specific locale, a story that could just happen anywhere or just in this generic city — it’s hard for us to get any traction starting that way. Why we were thinking specifically New York in 1961 and the Greenwich folk scene, I don’t know, you know. We listened to a lot of the music and we’d read a number of books, including the memoir that was written by [folk musician] Dave Van Ronk about that period that got us thinking about it — that was one of the things that got us thinking about it.
Ethan Coen: It was the scene itself that got us going, but then there was this character that seemed to fit in, in as much as his concerns are his tortured relationship to success, and the whole idea that he has to make new crap out of the old crap; those were both things that were concerns of characters in that scene — not wanting to sell out but wanting to perform and reach people. Yeah, I don’t know, that’s pretty vague.
Joel Coen: But concise.
Ethan Coen: [laughs] Not informative — but compact.
At what point did you arrive at the music for the film, and at what point did you start working with [soundtrack producer and songwriter] T. Bone Burnett?
Ethan Coen: Well T. Bone was the first person we sent the script to when we finished, so that conversation started as soon as we were done with the script.
Joel Coen: We were thinking about the songs when we were writing the script, so some of those songs were there from the beginning.
Oscar, were there any songs that you brought into the conversation?
Oscar Isaac: Yeah, I think “Green Rocky Road,” the one I play in the car — that was one. The big question for me, ’cause it wasn’t in the script, was the song I play for F. Murray [Abraham], and there was a time where we weren’t sure what it was, so I was looking at a bunch of different songs.
John, you don’t sing any songs.
John Goodman: I did internally. [laughs] My interior monologue was scored.
Is failure more interesting as a subject? How do you pick your subjects, given that they’re so diverse?
Joel Coen: Well the success movies have been done, haven’t they? It’s less interesting from a story point of view. In fact, I don’t even know how we’d start to think about that one.
Ethan Coen: How do we pick subjects? You know, we just take whatever comes out of a conversation. Picking a subject implies there’s something really specific that we’re picking but it’s kinda not like that. In the case of this movie we had some ideas about the Village scene and some vague ideas about a character; it’s just a very vague conversation that gets progressively more concrete.
Ethan Coen: We kinda thought about it as an Odyssey in which the main character doesn’t go anywhere.
Can you talk about Llewyn being in the right place at the wrong time — pre-Bob Dylan — and the issue of copying songs versus your own original material?
Joel Coen: That’s a big subject and it kinda goes to what the heart of folk music is in a way, and it was also — the cultural moment that you’re talking about — it was on our mind when we were thinking about this story, because we wanted to do something that was set in the scene before Dylan showed up. We weren’t really interested in that scene, where he came onto that scene and sort of changed it. He was such a transformative figure and people know more about that; it seemed less interesting to us. There were people obviously writing songs and singing them before Bob Dylan showed up, but the era of the singer-songwriter, there was sort of a pivot happening around then in terms of traditional folk music and people who were writing their own stuff, and Dylan was one of the big catalysts of that. And there was also a sort of obsession with “authenticity” with traditional music, something that early folk people were very concerned with, which was something that had interesting and ironic aspects. That was also something that was interesting to us.
Oscar Isaac: Yeah, I guess the idea of the guy who’s trying to be authentic and only plays old songs, but the scene and culture around him is moving on from that — and if they’re moving on, what is he supposed to do? That’s the part that he thinks is most true to himself — playing old songs. It’s a mystery, ’cause in a way these folk musicians were like curators, or DJs — they would take these songs and present them. But then once you had a collection of records you realized, “Well, I’ve got the original — why do I need you to sing it to me?” Wanting to hear new stuff, that kind of became the new movement. And of course Dylan came around and people got more jazzed about that.
There’s a shot of Llewyn’s wet shoes in the diner that’s powerful, specific and detailed in summing up his situation — is that there in the script, is it story-boarded?
Oscar Isaac: It was in there — there was a little picture and everything. What’s cool is that every day you get your sides, all the words you have to say for the day, the lyrics; and then at the back of the sides they have the storyboards printed out, which is a really great way for everybody to understand what’s happening. Not everybody does that. But yeah, I do remember the picture of this wet shoe.
John Goodman: I mainly read their scripts for the pictures. [all laugh]
The visual atmosphere is pretty bleak: the movie is washed out and the sky is always grey. Can you talk about that?
Ethan Coen: Believe it or not it was actually a very warm winter, so we rushing around trying to get all these bleak shots, because there were leaves coming in on the trees. We actually had to fake a lot of that. We were fighting an early Spring, and in some shots you can actually still see blooming trees where there shouldn’t be. Again, that thing about the folk scene… you think about New York in the Winter; you don’t want to see it in the Summer when it’s green. It’s basically the cover of Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan — that’s the look.
You’d originally talked about shooting the movie black-and-white, D.A. Pennebaker style — how did it evolve into the visual language it has now?
Joel Coen: Yeah that’s interesting, that was an early idea. Sitting down with Bruno Delbonnel, who shot the movie, and trying to figure out all of those things, we started with that idea — but then, as started to break the script down into specific shots, we started to realize that so much of what we wanted to do just didn’t lend itself to that. There’s a little bit of residual idea of that with some of the coverage in the coffee house; the first shot of the movie starts out with a hand-held shot.
Ethan Coen: It was a quietly hand-held take. We thought, we’ll do that at the beginning and it’ll feel vaguely good when it comes back again.
Joel Coen: You know, we started thinking we wanna follow this cat down a hallway, and the idea of doing that from a visual point of view, how you design the shot, is sort of antithetical to trying to make it look like a Maysles brother documentary. It was to be kind of controlled. So those kinds of things were starting to push us away from that idea.
Ethan Coen: Also it’s kind of connected to that other thing, that kind of slushy, grey New York — not literally monochrome, but that kind of desaturated look — which took us away from the idea of having it in black and white.
You’ve discussed that maybe your next movie will be shot on digital. Are you still going to shoot on film or will you move to digital?
Joel Coen: It’s possible. I have to say, I’m not wildly enthusiastic about the idea. This movie was shot on film for a number of reasons. One of them was that we were working with a DP that we’d only done one short thing with in the past, and Bruno had also not shot anything on digital. So while we discussed it we thought that might be one more complicating factor. But I am glad that we shot it on film. It’s all a hybrid thing now, because you shoot on film but it all goes into a box; it all goes into a computer and gets heavily manipulated. Still, there is something different about movies shot on film, even though they’re finished digitally, and movies that are with a digital camera — even projected as DCPs. But you know, that’s what’s happening. It’s probable — probable — that the next movie will be shot digitally.
You’re working with John [Goodman] again for the first time in many years — why this was the right role to reunite, and is there a shorthand you’ve developed together?
Ethan Coen: We just knew that John would understand it. [laughs] John turned us on to Charles Portis, the novelist who wrote True Grit, and all his novels always have this old gasbag character, kind of like John’s character in this movie.
John Goodman: The shorthand part, it’s hard to describe. It’s just something we’ve always fallen into. They asked me to do a take one time when I was driving in the automobile, and I said “Oh, you mean a ‘Spanky take’?” They knew what I was talking about — Spanky from The Little Rascals. Those are the kind of little things that help make the day go ever so faster.
Joel Coen: We were also doing a shot once, in Barton Fink, where John came to the door and was answering the door, and Ethan said to John, “Can we have a little bit more ropey snot in the next take?” and John said, “I’m your man.” [Goodman laughs]
Ethan Coen: On this one John had to hit a mark over there, so we said, “John, you Everett Sloane over to that mark” and he knew what we were talking about. [laughs]
Inside Llewyn Davis screens as part of The New York Film Festival, running September 27 – October 13. It opens theatrically December 6 in the US.