Throughout a distinguished career that’s seen them duck in and out of various genres, filmmaking brothers Ethan and Joel Coen have maintained an often darkly comedic tone, with their leading characters frequently cast as fated victims in a cruel and unforgiving world, where circumstances just beyond their control doom their best efforts. Their latest film, “Inside Llewyn Davis,” an evocative portrait of the grind of creativity set against the backdrop of the pre-Dylan 1960s folk scene, tracks loosely along these lines. As the title character (Oscar Isaac), a talented but downtrodden singer-songwriter, works hard to improve his station in life, he encounters a colorful gallery of friends, lovers and peers — hoping a change in luck lurks just around the corner. For ShockYa, Brent Simon recently had a chance to speak to the filmmakers, about their movie, the unique means they took to capture its wonderful music with T-Bone Burnett, and cats. Wait… cats? Yes, cats. The conversation is excerpted below:
Question: How did you come to cast Oscar Isaac as Llewyn?
Joel Coen: We were aware that we were in big trouble if we didn’t find the right person for that part, and it wasn’t an easy set of criteria to satisfy because we needed someone who was going to be able to carry the movie as an actor — he’s in every scene in the movie — but also be able to convince people through a lot of live performance of music that he was an actual musician. So we actually started originally interviewing musicians because there’s so much performance and we didn’t want to post-dub it or fake any of that. We saw a lot of musicians and discovered pretty quickly that we may have been barking up the wrong tree. There are probably a lot of musicians who can act, but there are pretty few who can sustain that and be the center of a movie. So we gave up on that and started looking for actors who could play (music). Oscar walked in and that was that.
Question: A big part of Llewyn’s misadventures feature him caring for a cat. What was the feline casting process like?
Ethan Coen: We didn’t cast the cat, per se. You have an animal trainer who looks for several cats. That’s a different experience than dealing with actors. (laughs) It’s what you would expect, though, dealing with an animal on the set. You run a lot of film and prompt it to do the right thing and sit through it doing all the wrong things first. It worked out well, but it’s just unbelievably boring, frustrating and painstaking to shoot.
JC: Obviously we were looking for the kind of cat where we could get a lot that looked the same, because you can’t really train them. You just have to find ones who are temperamentally predisposed to doing whatever it is you want them to do in that particular moment. So you have the squirmy cat that will run away, and you put him in those scenes, and then you have the very docile cat that will never run away. So there were many cats.
Question: The film looks gorgeous, in all its desaturation, and it’s shot on 35mm. Did you ever consider shooting on digital?
EC: We talked about it with (cinematographer) Bruno Delbonnel, and none of us had shot digitally before. We know that it’s going that way, clearly, but since the three of us hadn’t worked together before we decided to not also introduce that new element to the collaboration. Actually, I guess we had worked with Bruno once before, on a short (for “Paris, Je T’aime”), but we definitely (wanted to shoot on film).
Question: Llewyn does things that, as one character says, make him a bit of an asshole — and yet as a viewer you’re still magnetically drawn to him, and interested in his journey. What was key to making him sympathetic?
EC: That’s probably why Oscar is so great. With a lot of actors, that’s the aim of the exercise — to be liked — and with Oscar it isn’t. The whole sympathy thing — he’s just a character you get to know and have a feeling for, then you relate to him somehow, and that’s more interesting than the guy you like just because you show him petting his dog. I don’t know if “liking him” is the right phrase, but you’re with him.
JC: An aspect of that is also that when he performs in the movie, as a musician, because he’s very good at it and soulful, in terms of his performance, that makes him sympathetic. You can have a character who behaves in boorish ways in their life but is sympathetic in their art.
Question: How would you describe your relationship with T-Bone Burnett, with whom you again collaborated with on the music for this film?
JC: T-Bone is like a lot of people who we’ve known a long time. We’ve known T-Bone 25 years and done four movies with him, I guess, and it’s because we have a very sympathetic, congenial relationship with him, not unlike with Carter Burwell, who composes music and has done so for us since we’ve started — in all of our movies that haven’t involved T-Bone, and some that have. In general, you’re just looking for collaborators where you understand each other’s points-of-view, and there isn’t a lot of fuss. And in addition to that T-Bone is also obviously brilliant at what he does — he has an encyclopedic knowledge of American music, and an interesting point-of-view on it, and has really interesting skills as both a producer of music and someone who can work with actors who are not necessarily musicians.
Question: When did you bring him into the process?
EC: I think he was the first person we sent the script to when it was done. And then he didn’t work on the music in terms of — well, here’s what happened: We had a couple of the songs in the script that we’d specified, and the rest were up for grabs, so we got together and talked about what they might be. While that was happening we were casting the movie too, so we were all able to start thinking about it in more concrete terms, and not just in terms of what song would be performed where. It just progressively became more and more concrete. And then even though we knew we wanted to play it live on set and not with playback, T-Bone arranged a week of pre-records right before we started shooting the movie that were basically rehearsals. All the musicians got together to figure out what and how exactly they were going to play when it was an ensemble thing, and to also arrange guitar and voice parts when it was just Oscar singing and playing. It served as a run-through of what we were going to do when we shot live.
JC: It was always the intention for the movie to record and do it live on the set, but during that week T-Bone was working with Marcus Mumford too, who had come in to essentially help him produce the music and just [give] another interesting perspective, and also to play. So Marcus played a duet with Oscar, he sang on “The Old Triangle” as well. Justin (Timberlake) stopped by too. So we had a lot of very interesting musicians who were contributing to that conversation, and that’s also part of what T-Bone is really good at — bringing those unlikely groups together.
Question: People know about sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll from music of the 1960s, but there haven’t been as many movies against this setting — is that just a bias against folk music?
EC: Well, it wasn’t a big commercial scene, really. People know about sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll in the ’60s because rock ‘n’ roll had a big commercial audience. This kind of music was kind of for cultists — it had a really small community. There was a cleaned-up subset — Kingston Trio and Harry Belafonte and stuff like that, but these people practicing it was a much smaller scene, and in a way an isolated community.
JC: [And that] was part of the reason that it was interesting to us too, to set a movie against (that backdrop). If it’s more exotic and people don’t know as much about it, it just makes it that much more interesting to get into and say this would be an interesting context for a story.
NOTE: “Inside Llewyn Davis” opens December 6 in New York and Los Angeles, and expands on December 20.
Written by: Brent Simon