BEVERLY HILLS, Calif. – “Inside Llewyn Davis” is the Joel and Ethan Coen’s 16th feature to date. Starring Oscar Isaac as a shade of New York folk singer Dave Van Ronk, it tells the story of the scene that Bob Dylan came into, the calm before a storm. It’s a love letter to music of the era, making for a potent collaboration – their fourth – with music maestro T Bone Burnett.
The filmmaker siblings are notoriously difficult interviews, though in most of my experiences with them it’s been pleasant. You just can’t drop the usual mundane queries and expect excitement. But when you key on to something they really want to discuss, usually something that has nothing to do with the film at hand, they light up. They don’t suffer too much heady consideration about their work and remain pragmatic, almost refreshingly so, in the face of such things. Nevertheless, they collectively make for one of the most vital voices in all of American art.
I recently sat down with the duo to discuss, among other things, long-standing collaborations, the allure of stardom and the romance of New York City. Read our back and forth below.
HitFix: So what’s it like being music producers on this film’s soundtrack? That’s new for you.
Ethan Coen: It’s fantastic! We sit around, put our names on things, and T Bone does all the work.
But you’ve got arrangement credits and whatnot. Do you kind of sit there and give input about what he might be doing?
Ethan: Not really. The “sit there” part is accurate.
Joel Coen: We’re thinking about doing it full time, actually! Switching professions. This movie stuff is bullshit! It’s a lot easier when T Bone’s around.
I know most of the music here was taken directly from the set but did you record anything a studio?
Ethan: We did pre-record some stuff before we started shooting, but that was more as rehearsal and possibly for record, but we knew we wanted to shoot the music live.
Joel: And then one of those songs was actually recorded – it was a set but, actually – well, I was going to say it was a recording studio, the old Edison recording studio in New York. But in fact when we were in there it was really no longer a real studio. There was no booth. We were just physically in the space.
Ethan: When they record the novelty song [“Please, Mr. Kennedy”].
Talk about that decision to record everything live on the set, which must have come very early on. How difficult was it as editors to deal with that in post-production?
Joel: It could have been difficult but it wasn’t. As T Bone has said many times, and it’s true, Oscar [Isaac] has such a weirdly perfect sense of time that we were able to combine takes. He wasn’t using a click track but we were able to combine takes pretty much throughout the whole show with all of the songs he was doing.
Ethan: It’s really weird. Even when you’re shooting it live, you always put an earwig on and give the actor a click track, just so you can do that, combine different takes. Obviously it’s better to just play it free, and Oscar did. We could always cut. It was great.
Joel: There were all these different, weird things that conspired to make him the perfect choice. You look at those things retrospectively and it seems impossible for them to have fallen into place that way but it did.
And of course the soundtrack has made its way to vinyl. There’s a lot of vinyl going around in general lately.
Joel: Yeah, I’ve gotten very into vinyl through the years. It does sound completely different. There’s something really satisfying about it.
One of the things about the film that’s interesting is that it’s sort of a love letter to New York. Do you remember what your first trip to New York was like and how it affected you? And how much of that perspective did you want to put into the film?
Joel: It was so long ago. I’ve been in New York for 40 years, actually visiting maybe even a little longer than that.
Ethan: Yeah, me too. You know, it’s like a lot of the characters in the movie – although not the main character; he’s a kid from the boroughs – we were provincials who wanted to go to the big city. It was “the big city.”
It’s obviously very realistic but there’s a touch of fantasy to it as well. Almost like it’s infused with a sort of longing. Is that something you were going for?
Ethan: No, but…OK. I’ll acknowledge that.
Is that a unique thing to hear?
Ethan: Yeah, but I wouldn’t disavow that. I wouldn’t say that’s wrong. We were kind of trying to get it right, but it is kind of the New York of our minds in 1961. It’s the cover of “Freewheelin’.”
Joel: I think for this character it was a little bit different than it was for us, or for me, anyway. Because we were sort of thinking, well, there were all these kids that came out of the boroughs, working class kids, some of them, and some of them middle class kids who were part of that folk revival. That was interesting. In a weird sort of way, our experience is a little bit more like Bob Dylan. Dylan came from Minnesota, we came from Minnesota, and Dylan was definitely not the urban or ex-urban, suburban. He was from Hibbing. But the first time I came to New York sort of on my own I remember being around 16 years old and literally thinking, ‘OK, this is what they were telling me about in the Midwest. This all looks pretty exciting and interesting and cool.’ But that’s not the impression a kid from Queens would have, exactly.
And how about the look of the film. It’s very much in tune with the aesthetic you’ve grown into and developed with longtime cinematographer Roger Deakins over the years, but it’s also it’s own thing. Were you and your DP, Bruno Delbonnel, trying to emulate anything?
Joel: Well, Ethan was saying that we were looking at the cover of “Freewheelin’,” that shot of Jones Street, that little depressing, gray, slushy, cold New York winter. And that kind of slightly washed-out Ektachrome look of the photography. That seemed more sort of evocative. We didn’t want anything leafy and green and warm and fuzzy. We wanted it to be hard. You could say sort of anti-romantic, but in a way that’s not really true. You’ve got all kinds of weird romance to it in a way, like you just said.
I was at the Telluride Film Festival for your tandem tribute with T Bone. That was a great idea, doing it together rather than just the filmmakers, particularly with a film like this.
Joel: It’s nice to celebrate long-standing collaborations that you have with people, especially ones that are as close as ours with T Bone. It was fun and that’s a very important one to us, because it’s one of the really, really long-standing ones. It was fun to celebrate that. There are all the things that go into a long – making the movies what they are. They’re important.
How about this opera project you guys are working on. Any chance T Bone contributes to that?
Ethan: The music in that is a lot more, funnily enough, peripheral. There isn’t as much of it. It’s the story of a guy who starts off as an opera singer and turns into something else. But I’m not sure. We’re kind of in the middle of writing a couple of things, one of which is that, and we’re not sure what we’ll do next.
Would Scott Rudin produce that?
Joel: I don’t know. Maybe. We have that discussion, really, with Scott once we have something concrete that we’re going to do. Possibly.
I wanted to talk about another DP you’ve worked with who is having a great year, what with “Gravity,” and that’s Emmanuel Lubezki. Can you share your experience working with him on “Burn After Reading?”
Joel: We love Chivo. Chivo is one of the funniest guys on the planet. He’s really a riot and we had a great time with him.
Ethan: He’s just really good.
Joel: He’s fantastic. He’s one of the great DPs and he’s got great energy. We did have really a lot of fun working with him. Mostly we work with Roger, so when Roger’s busy, which happens – for instance, on this last movie he was doing James Bond for like a year – we basically look around for who’s available that you know and like and have worked with, hopefully. Bruno we had actually worked with before [on “Paris, je t’aime”]. It was a similar thing when we worked with Chivo. Though we didn’t actually know Chivo. We just knew his work. And I knew Alfonso Cuarón, so I had heard a lot about him from Alfonso. I think that’s how it started.
Is there anything about his work in particular that stood out for you? A film of his that struck you?
Joel: I think it was just the whole body. Chivo has done lots of stuff and it’s all beautiful, so you look at it and go, ‘This is a guy who really knows what he’s doing and is one of the top…’
Ethan: The funny thing about both Chivo and Bruno, a weird thing that is always there at the beginning of our working together, is both of them know that we usually work with Roger, and Roger is held in awe by other cinematographers.
Joel: Roger is kind of the God of all contemporary cinematographers.
Ethan: And both Chivo and Bruno were a little nervous, apprehensive…
Joel: …of working in Roger’s shadow.
Ethan: Yes, ‘What am I doing here?’
Joel: You’ve got to understand, also, it’s hard to come into a thing for a DP, which both of them do brilliantly, but we’ve done 11 movies with Roger. That’s a lot. So they know that we have this very long-standing relationship with a really brilliant cinematographer. And as brilliant as they are, it’s funny. It would be the same as if Roger went into a situation, probably, with Alfonso, who had done 11 movies with Chivo. You know what I mean? It’s hard.
Have you seen “Gravity?”
Joel: Yeah. It’s fantastic.
Ethan: We actually had T-shirts made that we were wearing on the set the first time we were working with Chivo that said, ‘What would Roger do?’
Joel: Which Chivo thought was funny…kind of. And also, DPs, that’s a big job. And they also have big egos. They have to.
Ethan: They get over it pretty quickly, because then you’re working and you actually have to figure out what you’re doing.
Joel: Chivo is funny as hell. He’s a riot. He’s got his own sense of humor. He’s very dry.
Ethan: Yeah, not cracking jokes. Just mischievous.
Coming back to “Inside Llewyn Davis,” you’ve been on a long slog with this one since Cannes. Which you did before with “No Country for Old Men” as well, but how does the experience compare this time around?
Ethan: This is even longer because the movie has been done longer. It’s been done for almost a year. It was financed by Studio Canal but we didn’t have a domestic distributor. We didn’t need one because they financed the movie, so we found ourselves with a finished movie about a year ago, started shopping it to distributors, and by the time that happens, and allowing them time to prepare the release of the movie – it wasn’t going to come out fall of last year and no one wanted to release it in the spring or summer. So by default, it became a year. So it’s been a slog.
Joel: There was a choice not to sell it until it was finished. And it sold right off the first screening. [CBS Films] has been fantastic, actually. Unbelievable. Really good experience, actually. These have been just extraordinary partners, probably the best we’ve ever had just in terms of distribution. They’ve got a lot of initiative and good ideas. It’s a really unqualified thing, which is rare.
To wrap things up here, and not to get too heady with it, but the film seems to being saying something about the allure of stardom and whether an artist really wants that or not. I can’t help but wonder if there’s a correlation there with your career and if you put any of that experience into it.
Joel: We’re also in a business where those are all issues. Our sort of path has been, fortunately, mercifully, so much luckier and different than the one the character has. There have been things that we’ve encountered and had to deal with and others that we haven’t. That isn’t to say that they aren’t informing the story in some way or another.
Ethan: Actually, in that regard, we’re more like the John Goodman character, a jazz guy who just, I don’t know, presumably is successful enough to have a career and the whole stardom thing doesn’t figure in that. [Like it] doesn’t figure for Ornette Coleman or whatever.
Joel: That’s true. It’s just the guys that are able to work and not have to worry about a lot of those things, which we’ve fortunately been able to do that. We’ve been lucky that way.
“Inside Llewyn Davis” opens in limited release on Dec. 6.