The opening of “Inside Llewyn Davis” is a remarkable achievement: It not only sets the melancholy mood of Greenwich Village in ’61 with the eponymous singer (Oscar Isaac) performing “Hang Me, Oh Hang Me” at the iconic Gaslight, but it also sets us up for a confusing circular odyssey. I got the lowdown on the Coen brothers’ bizarre tale about folk music with the Oscar nominated cinematographer Bruno Delbonnel and sound mixer Skip Lievsay (also nominated for “Gravity”).
While Delbonnel exquisitely captures the coldness, sadness and loneliness of Davis’ struggles by using a lack of light, the opening is very different: striking and hypnotic through a haze of pain and wonderment. It’s this sort of ambiguity that inspires the French cinematographer, who most recently shot Tim Burton’s upcoming Oscar hopeful, “Big Eyes.”
“When I worked with Joel and Ethan we wanted the opening to be the opposite of everything afterwards,” Delbonnel suggests. “It was more sketchy, more evocative than the rest of the movie. I suggested that there was something about the two faces of Llewyn Davis: light and shadow. And he was a person with two minds — one is a real human being and the other is a folk singer totally immersed in the music. And they agreed with me.”
Production designer Jess Gonchor recreated the cave-like Gaslight on MacDougal Street to help evoke the rapture. The light doesn’t fall off in the background as it does throughout the film — it shines a spotlight on Davis’ riveting singing, which was performed live.
“It felt like a chamber of a past reality was created for that event to happen,” recalls Lievsay. “Sound wise, that made it simple because we only had to carefully capture what Oscar was doing. And it was a wide comfort zone for us. I think that song was recorded on the vintage microphone that was in the shot and selected by T Bone [Burnett].There probably was a boom mic above as well but the majority of the sound comes from that one mic.
“In that opening montage, it was all about creating the club sound environment that would go with the image and give the audience a sense that we’re actually there as well watching the performance. The music itself is dry with a little bit of perspective shift, so it would go with the edit.We added some very subtle reverb sounds to give the music that perspective for the wider takes.”
After the performance, the folk singer is inexplicably beaten up in the alley by a mysterious stranger. But as we eventually discover, the beginning is really the end and we go back and retrace Davis’ unusual story before returning to the performance. Only the second time it’s different as the singer and the whole movement are overtaken by the game-changing debut of Bob Dylan.
“The first song and last song are the climax of his life,” Delbonnel adds. “Joel mentioned to me that it’s strong and powerful and not to intrude on the performance. The lighting is very simple. I tried to show his emotion with lighting. He’s so immersed in the song. The first time he sings it, his attitude is: ‘You can hang me, I’m an asshole.’ And the very last one I think he was saying goodbye to folk music. It’s the culmination of everything in the movie and is pure cinema for me.”
But the second part required a tricky sleight of hand so Davis isn’t overshadowed by Dylan. “I think it’s about the idea that in the beginning it’s his hopeful rise to stardom, but then when he comes around to the second time at the end, it’s about the despair about the stardom that isn’t going to happen,” Lievsay sums up. “Now you know the whole backstory and the context changes.”
Yes: it’s about not succeeding and becoming aware of your own strengths and limitations as an artist — and it’s pure Coen brothers.