Directors Joel and Ethan Coen share thoughts on Inside Llewyn Davis at the 51st New York Film Festival.
“It was incredibly emotional, I really fell in love with them as people. They’re incredibly generous and shared with me stories of the great actors they’ve worked with, of their thoughts about directing, about art, and about life,” Oscar Isaac. The affably geeky Ethan and the suaver Joel were accompanied by debuting lead Isaac and longtime hilarious muse John Goodman, for their group media activities around Inside Llewyn Davis’ New York Film Festival premiere. Korean master Park Chan-wook is another supporter: “I love the Coen Brothers’ work. They are inspirational,” he told me at the Big Screen Symposium.
Overall, I love the Coens, too. Cinema like No Country For Old Men and The Man Who Wasn’t There— James Gandolfini’s best non-Sopranos role— inspire me to stay in this crazy game. Films like Burn After Reading and The Big Lebowski—Walter (Goodman) being spectacularly incompetent at the end, the incredible Philip Seymour Hoffman playing a square butler—make me laugh like a hyena. The Ladykillers is their one unequivocal dud.
I enjoyed seeing Ethan’s first full-length play, Women or Nothing, downtown New York. It’s somewhat slight, and the central plot conceit—about lesbians gulling a man into impregnating one of them—is rickety. But there’s a generous serve of witty dialogue, including sharp dissing of New York’s counselling industry. “You don’t even get the proverb.”
“I did [sing songs] internally,” Goodman, who plays a junkie jazzman, quips. “My interior monologue was scored.” It’s Inside Llewyn Davis, 1960s New York music, the Coens in their own words, I’m far from home to hear. Illustration by Elina Nykänen.
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John Goodman was a Siren?
JOHN GOODMAN: I thought that was understood. All must work harder.
ETHAN COEN: John’s last couple of movies with us have been Homeric things. We kind of thought about it as an odyssey in which the main character doesn’t go anywhere.
EC: Uh [laughs], we just knew that John would understand it. Also, John turned us onto Charles Portis, the novelist who wrote True Grit, but his other novels were contemporary. All his novels have an old, gasbag character kind of like John’s character in the movie, so…
JG: I don’t know, the shorthand part is hard to describe so I won’t try, sorry. It’s just something we’ve always fallen into I think since Raising Arizona. They asked me to do a take one time while I was driving an automobile and I said, “Oh you mean a Spanky take?” They knew what I was talking about, I knew it—Spanky from the Little Rascals. So it’s those kind of little things that help make the day go ever so faster.
JOEL COEN: We were also doing a shot once in Barton Fink where John came to the door and was answering the door and Ethan said to him, “John, could we have a little bit more ropey snot on the next take?” and John said, “I’m your man.”
Picking the subject?
JC: Well, the success movies have been done, haven’t they? It’s less interesting from a story point-of-view, I think. In fact, I don’t even know how we would start to think about that one. How do we pick our subjects?
EC: It just comes out of a conversation, it’s not like… Picking a subject implies there’s something really specific we’re picking—but it’s not like that, we talk about whatever. In the case of this movie: a scene, the village, the kind of folk revival or whatever; and possible ideas about a character. It’s just a very, very, very vague conversation that gets progressively more concrete.
Can you elaborate?
JC: I don’t know. In a way it’s an unanswerable question. You just have an idea. I can tell you what we were thinking about or reading or the things that stimulated interest or whatever goes on in terms of, “okay, what if there are a story set here?” At a certain point we literally thought, “All right, Dave Van Ronk gets beat up outside of Gerde’s Folk City. Who would beat up a folksinger?” It’s another good question. And why? We just thought, “Does that go anywhere?”
T Bone Burnett?
EC: T Bone was the first person we sent the script to when we were finished with it so that conversation just started basically as soon as were done with the script.
JC: That’s a big subject and it goes to the heart of what folk music is in a way. The cultural moment you’re talking about was specifically on our mind when we were thinking about the story because we wanted to do something that was set in the scene before Dylan showed up, specifically.
JC: It’s hard for us to imagine stories abstracted or divorced from a very specific locale… We’ve listened to a lot of the music and we were interested. We read a number of books, including a memoir that was written by Dave Van Ronk about that period. That had got us thinking about it. That was one of things that stimulated it.
EC: I was thinking about the scene itself, maybe that got us going. But then there’s this character who seems to fit in that scene, in as much as his concerns are his tortured relationship to success… You asked about making new crap out of the old crap—those are both things that are concerns of characters in that scene: not wanting to sell out, but wanting to perform and reach people, and also the authenticity thing.
EC: Yes. That was a hallmark of the scene, the conflicted worship of authenticity, and the conflicted desire to have some sort of success. The Justin Timberlake character [Jim] is the more commercial side, and he is the person who presumably wants to be more authentic, but also wants to be represented by Murray Abraham. It’s a conflicted, tortured relationship with success. That was a hallmark of the scene—and not just that scene, but the 1960s.
EC: We were kind of fighting the on-coming green to keep the bleakness. Actually, in some of the shots, its mostly supplied snow. You think about New York in the winter, you don’t want to see it in the summer when it’s green. Basically the cover of ‘Freewheeling Bob Dylan’ is kind of the look—that’s that look—and the weather is part of that.
Production design philosophy?
JC: We wanted the film to feel more like something that would have felt, in terms of what you’re showing, contemporary in 1961. The period is in the background, and in a sense, as thrown away as possible.
Black and white?
JC: It’s very difficult to make black and white movies nowadays… We found ourselves starting with that idea but then as we started to break the script down into specific shots, we realised that so much of what we wanted to do from a shot point-of-view just didn’t lend itself to that.
Your last shoot on film?
JC: I don’t know. It’s possible. I have to say, I’m not wildly enthusiastic about the idea. This movie was shot on film for a number of reasons, retrospectively… I am glad that we shot it on film. It’s all a hybrid thing now, because you shoot on film but of course it all goes into a box, into a computer, and gets heavily manipulated. Still, there is something that looks different between movies that are shot on film even though they’re finished with a DI [Digital intermediate], than movies that are shot with an Alexa or some other digital camera.
Dark comedy tips?
JC: Ethan is working on book about that right now. I don’t think there’s a recipe… It’s about tone, right? So you have to perceive instinctually what feels right in terms of tone for you, and for the story that you’re writing, and try and keep your bearings on that.
JC: As Joel has said, we realised near the beginning that we were making a movie about a character that wasn’t really going anywhere and nothing particularly interesting happened to, so we thought, we’ll give him a cat [applause].
Redemption, or the absence of redemption?
EC: Even the place we leave him in, he is in a sense on hamster wheel. Is he redeemed? Is it a good hamster wheel or a bad hamster wheel? I don’t know.
JC: We’re on a hamster wheel too [laughs]. We do what we do, and it is like Ethan was saying, there’s a good hamster wheel and a bad hamster wheel. I don’t know, but we’re on it.
Coerced by producers?
JC: No, we’re very lucky in that respect. It’s like we totally stepped in shit, because from the beginning we’ve been able to control our own stuff. Probably because when we started out we had to find a way of financing our first movie independently. If someone had said to us at that point, “alright, we’ll give you money to make a movie, but it comes with all these strings,” we probably would have said, “great, we’ll take it.” But since nobody was offering that, which was a very fortunate thing retrospectively, we got used to being able to do what we wanted to and we’ve been able to continue to do that.