Struggling to find success and appreciation in the creative outlet you so dedicatedly devote your time and energy to, in an effort to share your artistic vision with the world, can be a difficult process for many people. Just like the title character in writer-directors Joel and Ethan Coen’s new musical drama, ‘Inside Llewyn Davis,’ the filmmakers strive to always stay true to their original voices when telling a story. While Llewyn always remains on the brink of musical success, and struggles to find meaning in why he can never quite realize his dreams, the scribes-helmers have found critical and box-office success with their movies. But the Coen brothers always remain true to telling focused, specific stories that relay a precise, meaningful message they feel is important and maintain a connection with during the filmmaking process.
‘Inside Llewyn Davis’ follows a week in the life of the title character (Oscar Isaac), a young folk singer at a crossroads, struggling to make it in the 1961 folk scene of New York City’s Greenwich Village. With his guitar in tow, the wandering struggling singer-songwriter not only braves the unforgiving New York winter, but also insurmountable obstacles that are limiting his success in the music industry. Living in the mercy of friends, teachers and even strangers, including fellow folk singers Jim (Justin Timberlake) and Jean (Carey Mulligan), with whom he had a past romantic encounter, Llewyn tries to find meaning in his life and career. He even journeys to an empty Chicago club with disabled musician Roland Turner (John Goodman) and his driver, Johnny Five (Garrett Hedlund), to audition for a music mogul and try to land a steady gig. After receiving rejection after rejection, Llewyn begins to question whether he should continue pursuing music, or if he should finally give up on his long-standing dream.
The Coen brothers, Goodman and Isaac generously took the time recently to talk about filming ‘Inside Llewyn Davis’ at a press conference held at the Walter Reade Theater at Lincoln Center during the 51st New York Film Festival. Among other things, the filmmakers and actors discussed how they were interested in telling a story that chronicled the struggles of folk singer-songwriters in the early 1960s in New York City before Bob Dylan emerged on the scene; how Llewyn’s trying to be authentic to himself, but only feels connected to old songs as the culture around him is moving on from that genre; and how the Coens’ films are always anchored in a specific time with specific characters, as it’s hard for the filmmakers to imagine telling stories abstract from a very specific locale.
Question (Q): Can you talk about the music in the film? At what point in the process did the actual songs that were in the film become part of the conversation?
Joel Coen (JC) : When we were writing the script, we discussed musical ideas, and even specific songs we wanted to use became part of the process. At this point, T Bone (Burnett) got involved. We told him what we were thinking about, and he started making suggestions.
Q: Oscar, after you were cast as the title character, were there any songs you brought into the conversation?
Oscar Isaac (OI) : I think I brought in ‘Green Rocky Road,’ which I played in the car. That was one.
Q: Joel and Ethan, do you find failure to be more interesting to write about than success in your films? How do you pick your subjects?
JC : All the success movies have been done. It’s less interesting from a story point of view. I don’t even know how to start thinking that way.
Q: How do you prepare to write about the subjects in your films?
JC : We just talk, and it just comes out of conversation. Picking a subject implies there’s something really specific. We’re picking things but it’s kind of not like that. We talk about whatever, and in the case of this movie, it was the Village with a folk music theme, and the possible ideas about a character. It just starts as a very, very, very vague conversation that gets progressively more concrete as we begin writing.
Q: John, your character, Roland Turner, appears in the scene where Llewyn takes a car odyssey to Chicago, to see if he can launch his music career there. Are you supposed to represent some mythological siren?
John Goodman (JG) : I thought that was understood. (laughs)
JC : Yeah, we kind of thought of it as an odyssey in which the main character doesn’t go anywhere.
Bob Dylan only makes a small appearance at the end of the film. Given so many of the traditional songs versus Dylan, who wrote his own material, could you comment about the cultural phenomenon and the case of being at the wrong place at the wrong time? What about people performing other people’s material versus original material as you do?
JC : That’s a big subject and goes to the heart of what folk music is in a way. It’s the cultural moment we were talking about that 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.
We weren’t that interested in the period (of Dylan). He came onto that scene and he changed it. He was such a transformative figure and people know more about that, so it seemed less interesting to us.
But you’re right, there’s a big difference. There were people obviously writing songs and singing them before Bob Dylan showed up. But there was a pivot that was happening at the end of that singer-songwriter period, in terms of traditional folk music and people who were writing their own stuff. Dylan was sort of the catalyst of that.
There was an obsession with a certain kind of authenticity in folk music. There was traditional music that people who were involved in this early folk revival were very concerned with, and that had sometimes both interesting and ironic aspects to that.
Q: Oscar, can you discus your character’s struggle with his authenticity with being a musician?
OI : The idea of the film is that he’s the guy who’s trying to be authentic, but only sings old songs as the culture around him is moving on from that genre. If they’re moving on, what he is supposed to do, if playing old songs is how he feels he’s most true to himself?
Q: In the film, New York City often looks grim and cold, and is often set against a grey sky. Was it always your intention to make the background dark?
Ethan Coen (EC) : When you think about the early 1960’s West Village folk scene, you think about New York in the winter. You don’t want to see that era in the summer, when the city’s green. Basically, the look and weather on the cover of ‘The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan’ is part of that scene.
Q: John Goodman, this is the first time you worked with the Coens in a long time. Why was this the right role to reunite for? Do you guys have a sort of shorthand?
EC : We just knew that John would understand it. (laughs) John turned us on to Charles Portis, the novelist who wrote ‘True Grit.’ All of his novels have a gasbag character, kind of like John’s character in the movie.
JG : The shorthand part is hard to describe, and I won’t try. It’s something we’ve always fallen into, I think.
They asked me to do a take one time while I was driving an automobile. I said, “Oh, you mean a Spanky take?” They knew what I was talking about. I knew Spanky from the Little Rascals. Those kinds of little things that help make the day go ever so faster.
JC : We were also doing a shot once in ‘Barton Fink’ where John came was answering the door. Ethan said to him, “John, we have a little bit more ropey snot in our next take,” and John said, “I’m your man!”
JG : I think it was, “I’m your boy!” (laughs)
Q: Your films are always very anchored in a specific time and specific scenes with specific faces. This is the early 60’s folkie scene. Do you have a list of stories tied to specific places and subjects you want to do?
JC : It’s hard for us to imagine stories abstract or divorced from a very specific locale. I couldn’t imagine us doing a story that could happen anywhere or in a generic city. It’s hard for us to get traction that way.
Why we were thinking specifically, here, let’s do a New York 1961 club scene, I don’t know. We listened to a lot of music and we were interested. We got a number of books, including a memoir that was written by Dave Von Ronk about that period. I was thinking about it.
EC : It seemed like the scene itself knew it would get us going, but then there was this character in that scene, and as much as his concerns are his tortured relationship to success and the whole idea-making new crap out of the old crap-those are both things that were concerns of the character in that scene.
To watch the ‘Inside Llewyn Davis’ press conference from the 51st New York Film Festival with the Coen Brothers, Isaac and Goodman, watch the Part I and Part II clips on YouTube.