The Coen Brothers on Their Brilliant Folk Film, ‘Inside Llewyn Davis,’ at Telluride
I just saw the first great film of 2013.
The Coen brothers’ Inside Llewyn Davis provides an exquisitely rendered portrait of the early 1960s Greenwich Village folk scene, viewed through the eyes of Llewyn Davis (Oscar Isaac)—a couch-surfing singer-songwriter who, when he’s not picking and crooning, uses the bulk of his spare cash to pay for various women’s abortions. One of these women is Jean Berkey (Carey Mulligan) who, along with Llewyn’s milquetoast pal, Jim (Justin Timberlake), make up a schlocky folk duo.
“Everything you touch turns to shit,” exclaims Jean.
Indeed, Llewyn is a fuck up in every sense—the type of person whose incredible talent is overwhelmed by his combative personality. He doesn’t speak to his merchant-marine father, has run afoul of his sister, and has clearly shit the bed with the Berkey’s, where he usually crashes. His last friend in the world is Mitch Gorfein, an academic living on the Upper West Side—that is, until he accidentally makes off with the family cat. Llewyn used to be in a singing duo that went by the stage name Tiplin & Davis, but his partner, Mike, committed suicide. Now, since his debut solo album has failed to catch on, he barely scrapes by performing gigs at the Gaslight Café in Greenwich Village.
With nowhere left to turn and only 200 bucks to his name, Llewyn embarks on a road trip to Chicago with two oddball travel companions, played by John Goodman and Garrett Hedlund, with the hope of winning over music manager Bud Grossman (F. Murray Abraham), and defibrillating his musical career.
The film marks the 16th feature by the directing duo of Joel and Ethan Coen—or the Coen brothers—and is loosely based on the life of former folk musician Dave Van Ronk. It’s a low-key affair boasting stellar acting; eye-catching lensing by Jean-Pierre Jeunet collaborator Bruno Delbonnel; wonderful music, courtesy of producers T-Bone Burnett, who’d previously collaborated with the Cohen’s on O Brother, Where Art Thou?, and Marcus Mumford, of Mumford & Sons fame; and the duo’s signature brand of dark humor. It’s like Fargo, if you replace the killing with strumming. The biggest surprise here, though, is Isaac, who fully embodies the tormented Llewyn. Even though the character is a complete pain in the ass, you root for him to succeed, which is a testament to Isaac’s mesmerizing performance. The actor even performed all the songs he plays in the film in real time.
In a post-screening Q&A following the film’s showing at the Telluride Film Festival, the Coen brothers, Isaac, and Burnett discussed their folk-music movie gem, which will be released by CBS Films on Dec. 6. Below are some highlights.
On Their Folk Music Influences:
Ethan Coen: “Like a lot of people, we listened to Bob Dylan when we were kids. We were a little too young to have listened to music during the period of this movie, but we listened to Dylan and some folk music that preceded Bob, like Pete Seeger and Big Bill Broonzy. Interestingly, we cribbed something from that—which was Pete [Seeger] doing the banjo “Ode to Joy” for Raising Arizona, which struck T-Bone, wherever he was since we hadn’t met him yet, which moved him to get in touch with us.”
On Capturing the Movie’s Musical Performances:
T-Bone Burnett: “The idea was we were going to do this all live, so it would be film of a person actually singing—in essence, a documentary of an event. In order to do that, we wanted to make sure that we had it in the bag before we went to the set and started spending hundreds of thousands of dollars, so we went and recorded the whole show from start to finish, and we were able to wind it up and listen to it as if it were the show … When we finally got to the film, everything you hear [Oscar] play and sing in there is him actually doing it right in that moment. I want to say, in all honesty, I’ve been doing this for 50 years, and without hyperbole, I don’t think anybody in the history of cinema has ever learned a whole repertoire and then performed it live on camera. It’s unprecedented.”
On Oscar’s Musical History:
Oscar Isaac: “I’ve been playing in bands since I was about 12 years old, but never in this particular style. I did a little bit of picking, but not much. But ever since then, I’ve been writing music and playing it … I hadn’t played this Travis- picking style, which is how Van Ronk played. To get the part, I really, really obsessed on it, thought a lot about it, and somehow clicked into it. Meeting with T-Bone, after I got the part, the first thing he did is have me sit in a room and he played the new Tom Waits record, and left the room for an hour. I think the biggest feat of acting is that it looks like I’m not having the time of my life, because it was so fucking awesome to be able to do this.”
On the Similarities Between Llewyn Davis and Dave Van Ronk:
Joel Coen: “It was a starting point. The ambition was that the movie have the real music from the period, but the characters were essentially made up. Oscar was playing a lot of what Dave played. And we took other things from Van Ronk—the fact that he was a working-class kid from the ‘burbs who came to the Village, and he was a merchant marine. There’s a book that he wrote, The Mayor of MacDougal Street, which is a very interesting description of that pre-Dylan folk-revival scene in the Village that Van Ronk called “the great folk scare” in the late ‘50s and early ‘60s …. but there were many aspects of the character that were made up whole cloth, and didn’t have any connection to Van Ronk.”
On Working with a Cat:
Ethan Coen: “Just don’t work with a cat.”
Joel Coen: “We should’ve known better because we had done it before on The Ladykillers, where we had plenty of stuff with cats, but it’s like we didn’t learn our lesson. In some weird way, at a certain point we realized that we were writing a movie with no plot where really nothing happens, so we thought, Well, let’s put a cat in it.”