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October 17, 2013.
Written and directed by Oscar-winning brothers
Joel and Ethan Coen, Inside Llewyn Davis offers a glimpse into
the life of singer-songwriter Davis (Oscar Isaac), who navigates New
York's folk music scene during the early 1960s. With original music
produced by Oscar/Grammy winner T Bone Burnett, the film details the
permutations and confabulations of this music scene as huge transitions
come into play that will not only affect the music but the world at
Laden with a sterling cast that includes Carey
Mulligan, Justin Timberlake, Garrett Hedlund and John Goodman, the film
is built less around a flowing narrative and more of a set of
interconnected vignettes that offers a kaleidoscopic experience of that
time and place. The film not only offers a sterling set of songs, but a
well-played shambling performance by Isaac of a man in perpetual
Isaac, Goodman, the Coen brothers and Burnett
took the Walter Reade stage at the 2013 New York Film Festival press
conference for Inside Llewyn Davis and gave all involved a unique
performance. It was a preview not only for the premiere of this film,
but for a special concert of music inspired by the film that was to be
recorded and released as a concert film in its own right.
The following Q&A is modified from an
appearance before the press preceding the premiere.
the film's genesis, when did you two and T Bone Burnett come up with the
film's songs? What's the story behind the music?
A couple of the songs were specified in the script as we were writing
it. What might go in a couple places, but certainly not most of them. T
Bone was the first person we sent the script to when we finished it.
Basically, that conversation just started as soon as we were done with
the script and knew that we were going to do the movie.
We were thinking specifically about Dave Van Ronk when we were writing
the script. Lots of the songs in the movie are songs he sang or were
associated with him or that he recorded, so some of those songs were
there from the beginning. Then we do what we always do with T Bone:
"There's this part of the story. What's going to happen here?"
were cast as the title character, were there any songs you brought into
I think I brought in "Green Rocky Road" — the one I played in the car.
Because it wasn't in the script, the big song for me was the one I play
for F. Murray [Abraham]. On that one, there was some time when we
weren't sure what it was, and I was looking at a bunch of different
songs as well. So it was a surprise when that one ended up being the
didn't sing in this film.
I did, but internally. My interior monologue
you pick the subjects in your films — is failure more interesting to
write about than success?
The success movies have been done, haven't they? From a story point of
view, it's less interesting. In fact, I don't even know how to start to
think about that one. How do we pick our subjects?
We just talk about whatever; it just comes out of a conversation.
Picking a subject implies there's something really specific we're
picking, but it's kind of not like that. We talk about whatever. In the
case of this movie, it was a scene, the Village, the folk revival and
the possible ideas about a character. It's a very, very, very vague
conversation that got progressively more concrete.
your character, Roland Turner, appears in the scene where Llewyn takes a
road trip to Chicago to see if he can boost his music career there. Do
you represent some kind of siren?
I thought that was understood. I must work harder.
John's last couple of movies were Homeric things. We kind of thought of
it as an odyssey in which the main character doesn't go anywhere.
portraying Bob Dylan makes a small appearance at the end of the movie.
Given so many of the traditional songs compared to Dylan, who wrote his
own material, what about people performing other people's material
versus original material? Can you talk about that contrast in the movie?
That's a big subject and goes to the heart of what folk music is, in a
way. It's the cultural moment we were talking about that was
specifically on our minds when we were thinking about the story, because
we wanted to do something that was set in the scene before Dylan showed
up. We weren't that interested in the period. He came onto that scene
and he changed it. He was such a transformative figure and people know
more about that, so it seemed less interesting to us.
But that's right; there's a big difference.
There were people writing songs and singing them before Bob Dylan showed
up. But the era of the singer/songwriter, there was sort of a pivot that
was happening right around there, in terms of traditional folk music and
people who were writing their own stuff. Dylan was one of the big
catalysts of that. There was an obsession with a certain kind of
authenticity in traditional music that people who were involved in this
early folk revival were very concerned with. That had sometimes both
interesting and ironic repercussions and aspects to that. That was
interesting to us. Yeah, we were thinking about that. It's a big, big
you have anything to add about Llewyn Davis' struggle with his
authenticity in being a musician and what you brought to the character?
The idea is of the guy who's trying to be authentic and only play his
old songs as the culture around him and the scene are moving on from
that. If they're moving on, what he is supposed to do, if playing old
songs is how he feels he's most true to himself? What's interesting is
that, in a way, these folk singers were like curators, like DJs that
would collect these songs and present them. When you started collecting
records, it was like, "I've got the original there. Why do I need you to
sing it to me? I want to hear new stuff." That kind of became the new
movement. Of course, Dylan came around and synthesized what the Beat
poets were doing, and traditional music, and made this new thing, and
people got jazzed about that.
scene in a coffee shop when Llewyn wrings water out of his wet socks.
When during the process of making the film did you come up with that
It was in [the script]. There was a little picture too. What's cool is
that every day you get your sides — the words you have to say for the
day, your lyrics — and at the back of the sides, they have the
storyboards printed out, which is a great way for everybody to
understand what's happening. Not everybody does that. I do remember the
picture of the wet shoe. It seems like, "What's a horrible thing that
you can have in a diner, in a place where you're stuck? A cold, wet
I mainly read their scripts for the pictures.
film, the atmosphere is pretty bleak, and everyone looks really washed
out. The sky is always grey, except for when Llewyn sees his father. Why
did you make those color choices?
It was actually a warm winter, so we were rushing around trying to get
these bleak shots, but there were leaves coming in the trees. We
actually had to fake a lot of that.
We [filmed this] two years ago, so we were fighting the oncoming rain to
keep the bleakness. Actually, in most of the shots, it supplied snow. If
you look, you can see blooming trees where there shouldn't be. When you
think about the folk scene, you think about New York in the winter. You
don't want to see it in the summer, when the city's green. Basically,
the cover of The Freewheelin' Bob Dylan is kind of that look, and
that weather is part of that.
Ethan, when you first discussed this movie, were you thinking about
filming the movie in black and white, like a D.A. Pennebaker
documentary? Why did you decide to film it the way that you ultimately
That's interesting. That was an early idea. It's very difficult to make
black-and-white movies nowadays. That aside, just from a broader,
stylistic point of view, we were sitting down with [cinematographer]
Bruno Delbonnel, who shot the movie, trying to figure out all of those
things. We found ourselves starting with that idea, but then as we
started to break the script down into specific shots, we realized that
so much of what we wanted to do from a shot point of view just didn't
lend itself to that. There's a bit of a residual idea of that in the
coverage in the coffee house. The first shot in the movie starts off
with a hand-held shot, actually.
The first shot is actually a very long take, which we could afford to do
because all of the performances were so good. It was a quietly hand-held
take. We thought, "All right, we'll do it at the beginning of the movie,
and it'll feel vaguely good when it comes back at the end." But it kind
of fell away from the rest of the movie.
We started thinking, "We want to follow this cat down the hallway." You
can't really do that. The idea of doing that, from a visual point of
view, or how you design the shot, is sort of antithetical to making it
look like a Maysles Brothers documentary. That transition wants to feel
controlled. So those types of things were starting to push us away from
that as we started to discuss the idea of what the movie is going to
it's connected to the other thing: that kind of slushy, gray, New York —
not literally monochrome, but that de-saturated look. That seemed to tug
away from that idea of black-and-white vérité idea.
New York Times interview that you were thinking about switching to
digital. Is this going to be the last movie you shoot on film?
It's possible. I'm not wildly enthusiastic about the idea. This movie
was shot on film for a number of reasons. One
of them was we were working with a DP that we only had done one short
thing with in the past. Bruno also had not shot anything with a digital
camera before; he'd done everything on film. We discussed it. We thought
it would be one more complicating factor in a new relationship. It was
one extra step too far. I am glad we shot it on film. But you know, it's
all a hybrid thing now. You shoot on film, but it all goes into a box.
It all goes into a computer and, of course, gets heavily manipulated.
Still, there is something that looks different
between movies that are shot on film, even though they are finished with
a DI [digital intermediate], and movies that are shot with an Alexa or
some other digital camera. Even the projected is DCPs [digital cinema
packages]. But that's what's happening. It's probable that the next
[movie we make] will be shot digitally.
is the first time that the Coens and John Goodman have worked together
in a long time. Why was this the movie to reunite John with the Coens?
Do you guys have a sort of shorthand in working together?
We just knew that John would understand it. John turned us on to Charles
Portis, the novelist who wrote True Grit. His other novels are
contemporary, but all of his novels have an old gasbag character, kind
of like John's character in the movie.
The shorthand part is hard to describe, so I won't try. It's something
we've always fallen into, I think, since Raising Arizona. They
asked me to do a take one time while I was driving an automobile. I
said, "Oh, you mean a Spanky take?" They knew what I was talking about.
I knew Spanky from The Little Rascals. Those kinds of little
things that help make the day go ever so much faster.
We were also doing a shot in Barton Fink where John was answering
the door. Ethan said to him, "John, we have a little bit more ropey snot
in our next take," and John said, "I'm your man!"
I think it was, "I'm your boy!"
We asked John to hit a mark, so we said, "John, you Everett Sloane over
to that mark." John knew what we were talking about.
films are often anchored in a specific time, place and scene. This time
it's the early '60s folk scene. Do you have a list of stories tied to
specific times or places that you want to do or are interesting to you?
It's hard for us to imagine stories abstracted or divorced from a very
specific locale. I couldn't imagine us doing a story that could happen
anywhere or just in a generic city. It's hard for us to get any traction
or start anything that way. Why we were thinking specifically, "Let's
start here in New York in 1961 during the folk scene," I don't know. We
listened to a lot of music, and we were interested. We got a number of
books, including a memoir written by Dave Van Ronk about that period
that got us thinking about it. That was one of the things stimulated it.
The scene got us going, but then I was thinking there was this character
who seems to fit in that scene. As much as his concerns are his tortured
relationship to success and the whole idea of what you asked about:
making new crap out of the old crap. Those are both things that were
concerns of the character in that scene — not wanting to sell out, but
wanting to perform and reach people, and also the authenticity thing.
That's not informative but compact.
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