The Coen Brothers on Inside Llewyn Davis

Cult filmmakers talk us through their latest Oscar-nominated flick

Interview

The cult filmmakers behind The Big Lebowski and Fargo talk to Time Out about their Oscar-nominated New York folk flick Inside Llewyn Davis before its Dubai release

This year marks three decades since American-born brothers Joel and Ethan Coen started making movies. They’re now 59 and 56 respectively, and since writing and directing the taut and violent noir Blood Simple in 1984, they’ve applied their wry, borderline-black world view to stories as diverse as Fargo, O Brother, Where Art Thou? and No Country for Old Men. Dry humour is a major ingredient in their work, often served up to their characters with a slap in the face from fate.

That’s especially true of their new film, Inside Llewyn Davis. It’s an insight into New York’s 1960s folk scene, which combines the brothers’ love of music with their fondness for melancholy and flawed characters. The soundtrack is as seductive as the film: producer T Bone Burnett worked with the cast to ensure their musical performances were as credible as their acting.

The film lets us in on one wintry week in the life of a fictional musician on the folk scene in Greenwich Village in 1961. Moody and bitter, Llewyn Davis (newcomer Oscar Isaac) is talented but going nowhere. The Coens took inspiration from The Mayor of MacDougal Street, the book about little-known folk singer Dave Van Ronk, although all their characters are made up. Apart from one: at the end of the film we get a fleeting view of an actor playing the young Bob Dylan.

Were you fans of the music scene depicted in your film?
Ethan Coen: Yeah, a large part of how we came to write it was out of enthusiasm for the music.
Joel Coen: We listen to a lot of American music, and this is really a revival or a rediscovery of the music in O Brother, Where Art Thou? by a different generation. This early 1960s music led to other music we’ve always been into from the period that follows it – the singer-songwriter stuff and rock ’n’ roll. It’s always been a part of our life and upbringing and cultural experience.

Are you trying to throw light on a lesser-known scene?
JC:
Yes, particularly what Dave Van Ronk called the ‘great folk scare’, which was this period in the late 1950s and early 1960s when this folk revival was taking place. It was principally in Greenwich Village but also in Chicago, San Francisco and Cambridge, Massachusetts. That sort of early American roots music was being rediscovered and played by college kids. They would come in from the boroughs and gather in Washington Square. That was interesting and people don’t know so much about that scene – the scene that Bob Dylan came into.

Llewyn, your main character in the film, is seriously talented. But he doesn’t do himself any favours. Was that key? That we believe he’s actually got talent?
EC:
It was crucial.
JC: It was the starting point of the whole idea of the movie.
EC: He’s not getting anywhere, but it wouldn’t be interesting if he was lousy.
JC: Someone being a failure because they’re lousy at what they do is not a story. Someone who’s a failure but who happens to be very good at what they do – that’s interesting.

How easy was it to find Oscar Isaac – an actor who’s also a great musician?
JC:
There was a point in the casting process where we thought we’d written something that was uncastable. It wasn’t about looking for a needle in a haystack – the needle wasn’t there.

What were you looking for?
JC:
He had to be bona fide as a musician, but we were also asking him to carry a movie as an actor. We idiotically assumed it might be possible with a non-actor. So we’d audition musicians and they would play great. Then we’d ask them to do a scene and it was, er, alarming. When Oscar, an actor, came in, we sent his music tape to T Bone Burnett, and he said: ‘This guy is the real thing’.

A runaway ginger cat has a big role in the film. You’ve said that you only included him to help glue a wayward story together. Is that a joke?
JC:
A half joke. Unlike a lot of the stuff we’ve done, there isn’t a plot. The question was: What gives the movie its momentum? We were like: he’s got a cat. What happens to the cat? So there’s another thing you follow. Also, we’re telling a story about a character who has a difficult time with humans but has to relate to an animal. That reveals things.
Your New York looks like the cover of the album The FreewheelinBob Dylan, with Dylan and Suze Rotolo. Was that on your mind?
EC:
Yeah, with Freewheelin’…, we were literally thinking about its colour palette and the weather.

You use the weather as a stick to beat Llewyn with.
JC:
We wanted everything to be oppressive!
EC: He’s not in Oahu!

Has Bob Dylan seen the film?
JC:
I don’t think so. One of the people who works for him, his manager Jeff Rosen, has seen it, and was helpful. He gave the nod for the Dylan song [‘Farewell’] to be in it.
Inside Llewyn Davis will be released in cinemas across Dubai this month.

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