The latest film by the Coen Brothers, "Inside Llewyn Davis," is a funny little flick. During their press tours for the film, the always-sardonic filmmakers have joked that the story is plotless, which is why they shoehorned a cat into the movie -- to keep the audience happy. Of course, this is another of their trademark defections from the depths of their own art; naturally, there's a lot going on in this film, a deceptively simple tale of a hapless folksinger making his way during the early 1960s. The Greenwich Village setting, austere palate and wonderful and rich soundtrack hearken back to the kind of neighbourhood depicted on the cover of Bob Dylan's "Freewheelin'" album. The character of Llewyn is based in part on a number of yeoman folkies, including the likes of Dave Van Ronk, the so-called Mayor of MacDougal Street.
Even more than any historical figure, it's the film's star Oscar Isaac that really brings the character to life, bringing both a sensitivity of performance and a deep musical understanding to the role. The casting is impeccable, and from the opening shots of the film where we hear him singing to a smoke-filled room, we're absolutely transfixed in this man's journey. Moviefone spoke to Isaac soon after his Golden Globe nomination was announced, and delved into just what it's like to be playing such a major part within the Coen's world.
For such a unique role I assume the casting process was reasonably taxing.
The casting process was pretty traditional. Ellen Chenoweth, the casting director, had a couple scenes and I did those. I had to record a song, and I did about 30 takes of the song. I sent in take 27.
Once cast, how much involvement you had in the way that the songs were performed on screen, the selection of songs?
There were about two or three songs that were already specified in the script, but there were many that weren't. I quickly fell in love with Dave Van Ronk's music in particular, so I started learning a lot of his music. [Famed music supervisor] T-Bone [Burnett] and I got together and started playing music together. Sometimes I would go and just make an arrangement myself and bring it to T-Bone and he would change a few things, so it was a very collaborative process. The way the Coens work with T-Bone ... they create a community. To be honest, people can't really remember who came up with what. If you ask the Coens "who wrote this line?" they won't remember. As soon as you give your idea you don't own it anymore. It's all the raw materials to build this thing, and I had an equal share in it.
How much research did the Coens encourage you to do to prepare for the role?
Nothing was dictated to me. It would just be a conversation. Basically, we would go over the entire script and we would talk about each scene, but that really was coming from me, saying, "Hey, can we do this?," and they, of course, were happy to do it.
What are the unique challenges of bringing a real era to life while still creating your own character to portray?
You're trying to make an actual human being, so you take from everything. I have a feeling originality is just a lack of information, so you just steal from wherever you can -- a little bit of this, a little bit of that. I've got a buddy of mine, lives on MacDougal Street, [and he's] in his late 60s. He's been doing it forever, and struggling, so I used a lot of his story. Then you go to random places, places where you wouldn't necessarily think were a direct link. Buster Keaton for me was a big inspiration, he's resilient in a comic way, someone who strives and struggles and has this melancholic impasse for a face and we root for them. I like that idea. I also thought of the Charles Bukowski poem called "Bluebird" for inspiration.
How has your own relationship with this era of music changed after playing this role, as you explore New York's Folk scene leading up to the cultural explosion set off by Dylan?
Getting to learn Dave Van Ronk's repertoire was incredible, and listening to the stuff with Van Ronk and Lightning Hopkins and these other amazing players. I could use as an example the [English ballad from 1537] "The Death of Queen Jane." In the script, it says Llewyn gets to Chicago and is about to audition for this gatekeeper, and then he sings a song. The song wasn't specified, so I started researching all this stuff, trying to find the right song, maybe something really bluesy or something wild where he just lays it all out on the table and gives it. So I bring them these songs, and I said I'm thinking of leaning towards Blues. They said, "No, we're thinking of something more white." They gave me "The Death of Queen Jane," which was a song about a medieval Caesarian section.
Why this one? I spent a bit and wrapped my mind around this song about this woman who has a C-section that goes wrong, and what does this have to do with him? I had to just surrender to instinct. It wasn't until afterwards when I saw [the film] that it suddenly dawned on me that of course this is the song he plays. The job of a folk musician, a true folk artist, is someone who looks back and finds these old, archaic songs that seemingly have no relevance and then makes them alive, present, and of the moment. They're living, and that's what he does. The moment when he is asked to play something he says this is the most honest thing I can play right now -- it's not the most commercial, and it's probably the wrong choice for his career, but it's the truest thing that he can play. Actually it has a lot of relevance: the child that he just gave up in Akron, the abortion. The Coens, they don't think about what the most meaningful thing can be and then put that in, they go off on instinct, but what makes them geniuses is that they have so many layers.
For me, "Llewyn Davis" is their most "acoustic" movie. It's such a chill, stripped-down film that on first blush it looks like there's not a lot going on. Can you talk about setting that tone, making a really quiet film and deceptively simple-yet-powerful film that still works?
[Working with the Coens] is a strange phenomenon, I have to tell you. It's the same thing with working with T-Bone, it's so off-handed and relaxed, you don't even know something's happening until it happens. Everything is just part of a conversation, so you're having a conversation about whatever and T-Bone will say something like, "Play it like you're playing to yourself on the couch."
Suddenly that resonates in such a strong way, and I think not only should I play the song that way, but I should play Llewyn that way. He's always taken to himself, he's an island unto himself and so that starts a process. Then I get together with the Coens and we go through every scene and just talk about where he is at that moment, the levels of expression. Maybe it registers a little bit more, play it where it registers less. It's all just very practical and pragmatic adjustments. They never really speak in terms of theme or symbolism or any of that stuff. That's not really them.
Do they talk in terms of other films, like "Check this out, this sets a similar mood"? Or is it simply that you're living within the world of the Coens and you're responding as a specific performer within that world?
That's basically it. They don't try to say you need to watch this, you need to read this. It's really just about the vibe, the feeling that's being created in the moment. Of course I brought a lot of ideas, and a lot of that would be them saying, "OK, that's the right direction," or "No, that's less of the right direction."
You've said in other interviews that when you were working with John Goodman, and looked in the rear view mirror and saw him there you realized that, yup, you're in a Coen brothers film. What do the Coen brothers mean to you as an audience member, and how have their films changed now that you've worked on one of their sets?
Tone is the big thing that pops out to me. One thing they've always been masters of is tone. I think that's why they get along with T-Bone so well, because T-Bone works with tone. I remember watching my very first Coen film, "Raising Arizona." I was just a kid so I didn't know anything about this stuff. But I remember that it stuck with me in such a strange way. It was so funny and so sad and made me feel so weird. And they've been doing that ever since. There's something about the way that they examine existence.
They're able to layer tragedy and absurdity in such an incredible way, much like Chekhov. There's something that just speaks to the way I move through the world in a very similar way and there's always a slight feeling of a stranger in a strange land. So being part of that universe was more than I would have hoped for because they are so generous, not only with their laughter, but with their thoughts about life, movies, art, and everything. They create a community of artists, which is an incredible thing. And their movies, it's just enriched by seeing that process. They're folklorists, that's what they are. They're the greatest American folk artists working today. They make art about the American experience.
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