Since winning the Grand Prix of the Jury at Cannes back in May, “Inside Llewyn Davis” has been riding a wave of the kind of warm and straightforward acclaim that is somewhat rare for the Coen Brothers, who have managed to garner divisiveness and debate for even their most lauded works. With the film, which tells the deceptively simple tale of a musician trying to make it in quickly evolving folk scene of the 1960s, it seems the pair have hit a somewhat more calm and accessible chord while still managing to maintain their trademark wit and subversiveness. Following the press screening of “Inside Llewyn Davis” at the New York Film Festival late last week, the directing duo, along with stars Oscar Isaac and John Goodman, sat down for a press conference with the festival’s director of programming Kent Jones where they discussed their working dynamic, their influences and capturing the era portrayed in the film.
Taking place over the course of one particularly hectic week in the winter of 1961, “Inside Llewyn Davis” follows the titular character as he tries to break through as a solo act in the Greenwich Village folk scene, struggling to gain exposure by playing occasional café gigs and crashing on various friends’ couches. It is a decidedly unsentimental portrait of a lifestyle that has been romanticized in countless other films. “Well, the ‘success’ movies have been done, haven’t they?” Joel asked rhetorically. “I don’t even know how we would start to think about that one.”
Without being downbeat, there is a consistent shortage of optimism that Davis meets, and as amusingly implied by a late scene in the film where a young Bob Dylan proceeds Davis at an open-mic night at the Gaslight Café, the viewer gets the feeling that there will only be more hindrances and competition in the main character’ road to success. “The idea of the guy that’s trying to be authentic and only plays old songs, but the culture around him is moving on from him,” Isaac said. “And if they’re moving on from him, what is he supposed to do if that’s how he feels he’s being the most true to himself?”
The film is tremendously evocative in capturing the time period, with the perpetually frigid climate and the pea coats and corduroy jackets worn by the characters playing right into our nostalgic fantasies of what the folk scene was like in the early 1960s, a feeling and an aesthetic the directors were keen to harvest. “It’s that thing about the folk scene and when you think about New York in the winter, you don’t wanna see it in the summer when it’s green,” Ethan said. “It’s basically the cover of ‘The Free-Wheelin Bob Dylan’ is kind of that look, and the weather’s part of that.”
While Isaac is the star of the film, “Inside Llewyn Davis” marks the first time the Coens have worked with John Goodman, who plays a mysterious older gentleman named Roland Turner that Davis catches a ride to Chicago with, since “O Brother, Where Art Thou?” in 2000. Despite it being over a decade since acting in one of their films, Goodman found it effortless to assimilate back into their working style, describing the unique and easy shorthand they have developed working together from early on.
“I don’t know, the shorthand part is hard to describe, so I won’t try,” Goodman said. “It’s just something we’ve always fallen into. On ‘Raising Arizona’ they asked me to do a take one time while I was driving an automobile, and I go ‘Oh, you mean a Spanky take?’ They knew what I was talking about, Spanky from ‘The Little Rascals.’ So those kinds of little things that help the day go ever so faster.”
As per usual with the Coen brothers, the film contains several allusions to classic Greek writers, giving the movie an almost mythic dimension, but only to a point. “We kind of talk about it as an odyssey in which the main character doesn’t go anywhere,” Ethan said. A journalist in the audience brought up all of the connection to Greek tragedies in the movie, with the possibility of Goodman’s character acting as a sort of siren. “I thought that was understood,” the actor deadpanned. “I must try harder.”
The film seems reminiscent of another time, and not just in the time period it explores. “Inside Llewyn Davis” was shot on film, a format which is becoming more and more endangered and anomalous by the minute. Going digital on their films in the future is something that the brothers are somewhat hesitant to embrace.
“It’s possible,” Joel said. “I have to say I’m not wildly enthusiastic about the idea. This movie was shot on film for a number of reasons, retrospectively. But I am glad that we shot it on film, and you know, it’s all like a hybrid thing now, because you shoot it on film but it all goes into a box and all goes into a computer and gets heavily manipulated. Still, there is something that looks different in movies that are shot on film… But that’s what’s happening, so it’s probable that we’ll shoot something digitally.”
“Inside Llewyn Davis” screens at the New York Film Festival on October 5 and October 11, and opens in limited theatrical release on December 6.