Joel and Ethan Coen tell Jeremy Kay about the musical collaborations behind Inside Llewyn Davis, and give an insight into life on the Coen brothers’ set.
Inside Llewyn Davis writer-directors Joel and Ethan Coen are like two halves of the same thought, completing each other’s sentences with a flow of droll repartee. Asked why they set their story of a fictitious musician in the early 1961 Greenwich Village folk scene and eschewed the more obvious focus on Bob Dylan, who would break out that same year, the brothers cannot resist a riff.
“Most people don’t know about it,” says Joel, slumped in a chair beside his brother at the Four Seasons hotel in Beverly Hills. They know about a somewhat later period — the Dylan scene — but there was a whole interesting thing that was going on that he walked into and changed and since people don’t know as much about it, it¹s interesting for that reason.”
“The later period, it all just gets harder, you know,” says Ethan. “Like long hair and love beads and stuff - that’s a less serious movie. I mean you put that Indian beat in there and that’s not a serious,” Joel continues: “No, that’s not a serious time. Actually that might be a good [tempo] for whatever movie we do in that period.”
“Or just, oh come on,” says Ethan. His brother agrees: “Oh, come on.”
Joel, the more talkative of the two, describes the cultural milieu that informs Inside Llewyn Davis as an “exotic,” albeit significant, part of the DNA of US popular music.
“This [film] came from some of the music in O Brother [Where Art Thou?, the Coens’ 2000 film] and Dylan, the singer-songwriters and the people who are more popularly known to culture now from the mid-1960s came directly from the music that¹s in this movie.”
The Coens had read enough about the period to feel qualified to explore further. “Putting a story together didn’t seem like an impossible thing
for us to get our heads around as it would have been, for instance, doing something in Elizabethan England,” says Joel.
The opening scene was the first to root itself in their minds. “It was the beginning of the movie, this idea of a folk singer getting beaten up outside a club in 1961. We sort of had talked about it a number of years ago and didn’t know where it would go,” says Joel. “We would come back to it every now and again; I don’t know why. It’s hard to really impose a logical thing on that but for some reason at a certain point we just started spinning it out a little bit further — It grew on that original, weird idea.”
Cueing the music
Once the brothers had a script, the first person they approached was executive music supervisor T Bone Burnett, the celebrated musician with
whom they had collaborated on three earlier films. “We knew when we were writing that he’d be the first one we’d send the script to,” says Ethan. “It’s so much about the music. We sent it to him as soon as the script was done so he could start thinking about what the repertoire might be.”
Burnett helped the brothers find the man who would play Llewyn Davis, a shambolic folk singer-songwriter based loosely on the late Brooklyn musician Dave Van Ronk.
It was not an easy search. “We were going mostly to musicians because the movie being about musicians we knew we wanted long, sustained performances for whole songs,” says Joel. “We didn’t want to post-sync and we didn’t want to dub anything, so we auditioned lots of musicians and that didn’t work out very well because they were all brilliant at the musical performances but there aren’t many of them who are skilled enough as actors that they can carry a whole movie.”
The brothers switched the focus to actors who had some musical ability, and found Oscar Isaac in early 2011. “It wasn¹t until Oscar came into the room on an audition that we met someone who was as musically talented as he was as an actor,” says Joel. “He’s a classically trained actor who went to Juilliard and had been acting for a long time. He was right for the part and a really good actor, but he’s also a brilliant musician and was someone who could learn this style of playing and this repertoire. T Bone knew that. We sent this tape to T Bone and he said, ‘Yeah, this guy’s the real deal.’”
Isaac had to learn the Travis-picking style of guitar-playing that Davis would have mastered. “He plays it like a natural,” says Joel.
Musical pedigree surges through the veins of Inside Llewyn Davis. Justin Timberlake sings and portrays one half of a performing duo opposite Carey Mulligan, and Burnett also enlisted the help of Marcus Mumford (Mulligan’s husband) from UK folk-rock superstars Mumford & Sons.
“There is a Mumford in there in a big way,” says Ethan. “We had this long conversation before pre-production about what songs might be played. But once we started and got into the nitty-gritty of people performing and arranging these songs — T Bone decided to include Marcus, which was great.”
Joel notes how Burnett likes to collaborate with musicians of different ages who bring a fresh voice. “The fact he does that is part of what makes him such a brilliant producer. You don’t exactly see what he’s doing, but by bringing in these different perspectives and personalities and how he deals with all of them, he comes up with what he comes up with, which is really interesting.
“When were doing O Brother he did the same thing and brought in Gillian Welch to help co-produce the music with him. On this one it was Marcus. Marcus was there from the very beginning of the whole pre-recording process in the studio and he does songs for the movie with Oscar and a couple of other tracks. He was there just in terms of just playing and participating and giving his input into the rest of the music.”
The Coens remain defiantly low-key about the prospects of a movie that won the Cannes Grand Jury Prize in May and by mid-December was beginning to hit its awards-season stride. It won the Gotham Award for best feature, and is nominated for three Independent Spirit Awards and three Golden Globes.
So how do they pull the magic together and direct their movies? “Oh man, you know,” says Ethan, looking decidedly awkward. “If you went to the set you’d go, “These guys don’t seem to be doing anything,” says Joel, deadpanning.
“You’d go, “OK, there are two people sitting around reading the newspaper instead of one. It comes out of that,” says Ethan, smiling now.
Joel has the final word: “Directing movies is mostly just answering questions and, honestly, whoever is nearest to the person who’s asking the question answers it and that’s kind of simple and true.” They both grin.