Coen Brothers on Llewyn Davis, losers and live music
- 26 January 2014
- From the section Entertainment & Arts
As Inside Llewyn Davis opens this week, Joel and Ethan Coen talk about losers, live music and the joys of vinyl.
The latest offering from cinema's famous siblings - who have been making films together for 30 years - is an elegy to the folk music scene in 1960s New York.
Set during one wintry week in 1961, Inside Llewyn Davis stars Oscar Isaac as the titular singer-songwriter who is struggling to make a living after the death of his former musical partner.
The film has picked up two Oscar nominations - for best cinematography and best sound mixing.
The music-loving Coen Brothers took their inspiration from the memoir of folk musician Dave Van Ronk, a book that focused on the pre-Bob Dylan era.
"People know the Dylan folk era," explains Ethan Coen. "We were interested in the music of that [earlier] period as opposed to the more familiar music that came afterwards."
Inside Llewyn Davis reunites the Coens with music producer T Bone Burnett, who brought in Marcus Mumford of British folk rockers Mumford & Sons as an associate music producer.
The cast includes Carey Mulligan (who later married Mumford), Justin Timberlake and Coen regular John Goodman.
The story begins with Oscar Isaac's character singing a mournful Hang Me, Oh Hang Me in a smoky Greenwich Village club. What's striking is that he performs the song in full, and he's singing it live.
The performance sets the template for the rest of the film.
Joel Coen says: "It was an early idea that we had - why not let songs play out so that they feel like live performance? What happens on set is what you see on screen.
"We thought that if you want to make a movie about a musician you don't just want to hear him strum a few chords and sing a few words."
Joel Coen is aware that British director Tom Hooper made the same choice to capture live vocal performances for his recent film version of Les Miserables.
"People are interested in finding other ways of doing songs in movie. They were probably after a similar kind of thing, they didn't want to lip-synch it."
As the story develops, the hapless Llewyn Davis has to contend with an escaped marmalade cat and the revelation that a fling with his best friend's wife Jean (Mulligan) has resulted in an unwanted pregnancy. There is also a road trip to Chicago for an audition that doesn't go quite to plan.
The Coens point out that it's important not to think of Davis as being a failure because he's no good as a performer.
"Everybody knows very talented people who for some reason aren't necessarily successful - and that's very interesting to us," says Joel.
"We do tend to like characters that have a lot of abuse heaped upon them!"
How deliberate is that common theme in Coen movies?
Ethan: "That just happens - we don't really think about them when we're making the movie, but you see them in retrospect. When we were making the movie we were thinking more about we have to deal with a cat again like we did in The Ladykillers!"
Joel: "You could say the character in this movie is not unlike the character in A Serious Man - he keeps getting dumped on for the whole movie."
One big challenge for the Coen brothers was to find the right person to play Llewyn.
"We saw a bunch of musicians who were really interesting - they would do a song, and then they would do a dramatic scene - and that was deflating," laughs Ethan.
"It was awful, just awful. So we started seeing actors and Oscar came in towards the end. He was, fortunately for us, great at both."
The Inside Llewyn Davis soundtrack includes 500 Miles (the song appears on Peter, Paul and Mary's debut album in 1962), Dink's Song and Green Green Rocky Road (both associated with Van Ronk) and novelty composition Please Mr Kennedy, performed by Isaac, Timberlake and Adam Driver.
As well as Burnett and Timberlake, the Coen brothers share the writing credits on Please Mr Kennedy with Ed Rush and George Cromarty, who released a song of the same name as the Goldcoast Singers in 1961. It was that connection that ruled Please Mr Kennedy out of this year's Oscars race.
But how do the Coens listen to their own folk records? "I've got more and more into vinyl in the last couple of years," says Joel.
"I'm much more drawn to the sound of it and the process of actually putting the record on, listening to six tracks and then flipping the record.
"It's so weird. I'm totally back to that. Upstairs all I have is a record player. I went to this record store in Boston and bought 15 old LPs - they're very cheap now!"
Inside Llewyn Davis opens on Friday, 24 January