The marketing campaign on “Inside Llewyn Davis” has been remarkable, pushing the film from Cannes and the fall film festivals to its boffo limited opening last week. The film’s promotion has had an authentic tilt to it, stressing the music more than any other aspect of the Coens’ heartfelt tribute to the folk scene of the early 60s. I got some questions about the film answered by the Coens, T-Bone Burnett, and Oscar Isaac (who I interviewed here and below).
Anne Thompson: What music did you grow up listening to and caring about?
Joel Coen: During this period, we were very young. I wouldn’t say we even listened to music; it was 1961, I was 5, 6 years old and Ethan was 3.
Ethan Coen: The music that we first started listening to was what everyone else was listening to. A lot of Bob Dylan, maybe more than most people, but a lot of rock and roll.
Joel: It was music that came out of this music, so we discovered this music retrospectively in terms of going back to what the roots of the things were that we listened to when we were kids and adolescents: rock and roll, Bob Dylan, who was top 40 radio, weirdly. We did have some records. It was interesting. We had a Pete Seeger, Bill Bill Broonzy record that was a live recording of a concert in Chicago from the late 50s that was important enough to us such that we actually stole things from it for the soundtrack of “Raising Arizona,” which was essentially Pete playin on a banjo. That’s also how we met T Bone. He didn’t realize we stole that from Pete Seeger.
What made you come up with this character? The pursuit of purity in artistic expression is something that you two have adamantly fought for over the course of your career and you’ve achieved it to a remarkable degree.
Ethan: We achieved it not by any design but just because, to the extent that we were interested in selling out–which is as much as anybody–nobody was interested in buying. So when that happens early on you have to do it yourself by default. You get to kind of do it your way. There’s nothing noble about purity, you just kind of want to do what seems to be the right way.
Joel: You’re sympathetic to the character in certain ways even though he may be a very difficult character to like in other respects. In life he’s not so easy but when he performs he’s good and there’s something charismatic about that.
I would say that what you did here was really cool in terms of figuring out how to use the music to bring emotion across, which is where the heart of the movie lies. It’s very difficult to do. You figured out how to make the songs carry the emotion.
Joel: You also needed a performer who can do that.
You trawl the ranks of people in theater in New York and find these amazing people.
Ethan: It’s not us. We also get a lot of good faces. We’ve had a couple of great extras casting people, the current one being Debbie DeLisi.
Joel: It’s not to slam these people but there are people who’ve just had extras casting mills and then there are people we work with who are just as picky and attentive to all of those specific things you’re looking for as we are, even more so. They go out and work unbelievably to find people for these smaller parts and these extra parts that are going to be right for that world. It’s kind of amazing.
Talk about the long sequence in the car. What is that serving in the story?
Ethan: It’s an interval, it’s this strange dreamy interval. It’s a movie about the New York folk scene and it’s wintry and you get a feel for the community, but it’s a break. You want an accent. Two characters played by John Goodman and Garrett Hedlund are in a similar kind of way relief.
Joel: It’s a movie about folk music so it’s good to have the guy who thinks folk music is total bullshit. It’s a little dream in the middle.
You have always a trunk of scripts that you’re delving into. How do you make the decision about which one you’re going to make?
Joel: We sometimes have things that are in various stages of completion or being thought about, and then there’s a few things we’ve written over the years that are kind of written and finished. To be quite honest, the things that get written and finished and get put aside for years we’re not that interested in making after awhile. I don’t know why that is.
But the things we haven’t quite finished and have written a lot on, we take out again to do. It’s bizarre. They’re still alive. So this is more like that. It is true there are things we’ve worked on over the years and we do often put stuff away that we can’t figure out, sometimes we put it away for a long time and then finish it. And then usually at the point where you finish it, then you’re very excited about making it so you push to make that thing at that point.
What about your comedy project with George Clooney, “Hail Caesar?” I always liked the sound of that.
Joel: We’ve been working on that one.
Ethan: It’s about the movie business and life and religion and faith. Faith and the movie business. It’s still George.
Joel: There’s a good chance that would be next.
Oscar and T-Bone, talk about how you two worked together to craft the emotional release of the film from the music and your characters.
Oscar Isaac: Llewyn Davis is a very closed off individual and very prone to even a cathartic moment, which was definitely challenging as an actor. You look for those moments where you must have a bit of release and he never has those. The only times he does is when he sings those songs. They’re a window into who he is. It was very important. T Bone and I worked on that and that’s where the real soul of the character lies and it was definitely a first for me. I’ve never done a film where the real depth and soul of the character is found in this thing that he does, which is singing. So we got together and found Llewyn’s guitar.
Burnett: We went to to find an old guitar on Ventura Blvd, this guy’s got hundreds of guitars out there. We went through about 30 or 40 and he picked up that little Gibson and immediately it was Llewyn’s guitar.
Isaac: That guitar was from 1924. We got together and played a lot of music and at one point T-Bone told me just to sing like I was singing to myself on my couch and that really not only opened up the music but the character. That’s how I played the character as well.
I’ve read many Coen Brothers scripts and they’re really fun to read. What did the script say about the songs?
Burnett: Not much. When I first got the script the first few songs were in it, “Hang Me” and “Fare Thee Well,” but that started the whole thing in motion so all the other songs grew out of those.
Isaac: There were a couple of songs that were delineated. “Hang Me” at the beginning, for instance. In the script it says, ‘Llewyn sits down in front of Grossman and sings a song.’ Then onto the next scene.
When he chooses that song, the whole point is that he chooses the least commercial song he could pick. Is that the idea?
Burnett: I don’t think that’s the whole point. I think really the point is that Llewyn Davis existed in a culture for which fame wasn’t a consideration. They weren’t looking for chart position; they were just looking for square feet in Washington Square Park. There was a scene in Downtown New York, a jazz band here, a folk band, a bluegrass band… there were the beat poets. So there was a lot of competition but it wasn’t like anyone was going to get famous until Dylan showed up.
Don’t you think Llewyn was being slightly self-destructive?
Burnett: They were existentialists. He was trying to sing a song that would have the most depth and resonance for him at that moment. He was not thinking of a commercial consideration at all, from my point of view. Of course, the Coens would say they were looking for the most beautiful and self-destructive thing the could find, and it’s that as well. It’s a song about his parents, so it’s what he’s dealing with.
Did you guys debate which song he should sing?
Isaac: For instance it said, he sings a song. So I had really fallen in love with this whole repertoire of music so I went diving in, and I listened to a bunch of different songs and I found a couple where he’s just screaming his guts out and really laying it out on the floor in a big kind of way, bluesy songs, amazing finger-picking songs. I brought them to the Coens and they were all “meh,” they wanted something a little more white, meaning from like Scotland or some of these old songs and they’d bring out this medieval song about a c-section gone wrong. They thought it would be funny.
For the next couple of months I was trying to find some way into this song that I just didn’t get at all. T-Bone and I went through the arrangement. I went off of instinct at the time. I didn’t try to intellectualize it. It wasn’t until I saw the movie and thought, of course that’s the song he plays because really it’s the most honest thing he can possibly sing at that moment and he’s really the quintessential folk artist. That’s what a folk artist does. They find old, archaic songs that seem to have no relevance and they make them vital and alive and they make them “now” and that’s the definition of who Llewyn wants to be: a folk artist that can do those kinds of things. It’s definitely the wrong choice!
Every single one of us knows somebody who’s an artist who hasn’t made it. Maybe we are that person. Any actor has struggled with making it or not making it and having high points or low points, any musician has. The moment where he sings the song to his father, what is the emotion in that scene?
Isaac: The Coens are so good at giving you a little morsel at one point and just rewarding you for just watching later. His sister tells him, “you used to sing this when we were kids.” And yet that little seed subconsciously just stays in his mind, is just there the whole movie, that little record is something so innocent and he probably hasn’t even thought about it since he played it. He shows up and finally goes to see Dad and he picks up the guitar and that’s the first thing that comes out, a song that he hasn’t played since he was a kid. And he’s learning to play it as he’s playing it. At first it starts a little structured, he probably thinks it’s goofy, and then as he plays it he starts to really rediscover the song right in front of his dad.