Interview with Joel and Ethan Coen for INSIDE LLEWYN DAVIS

We caught up with the Coen Brothers at the Cannes Film Festival last year

The Coen Brothers’ latest film, INSIDE LLEWYN DAVIS, focuses on a week in the life of a young singer as he negotiates the New York folk music scene in 1961. The film premiered at the Cannes Film Festival last year, to almost universal acclaim, and caught up with the legendary writer/directors at the press conference to find out more about folk music, casting, John Goodman and Bob Dylan…

What was the starting point for this movie? Did you have an image in mind of this special time in folk music?
Ethan Coen: A few years ago, we were just sitting in the office and Joel said “I suppose you could start a movie with Dave Van Ronk getting beat up outside of Gurtie’s Folk City, which was such an absurd picture that it took a few years to figure out where it might go from there, why he might have been beaten up and what the story might be. That’s what the story grew out of. I think the story attracted us because we are very much interested in the scene and what the Village was in 1961; the whole folk revival scene. We were always interested in music and what the scene was then, what the Village looked like; everything about it.
Joel Coen: Also, the movie doesn’t really have a plot. That actually concerned us at one point, which is why we threw the cat in.

Speaking of the cat, was it difficult to work with an animal on set?
JC: It was pointed out to us by the trainer that dogs want to please you, but cats only want to please themselves, so they are not easy to train or guide towards sort of actions on screen. It was sort of a pain in the ass, but it was all right.

You usually work with cinematographer Roger Deakins, why did you decide to work with Bruno Delbonnel on this movie?
JC: Yeah we made a lot of movies with Roger; we have used other DPs as well. In this case, Roger was shooting James Bond for six or seven years, and we had worked with Bruno before; we had such a good time with him that he was good enough to come over and help us on this one, and that was great.

You always manage to find the exact right actor for each role, how do you go about casting your films?
EC: Obviously in this kind of movie it’s important – and most challenging when you have written a part that is about one character very specifically, and that character is in almost every frame of the movie, and that character has to be a credible musician who sings and plays guitar, and has to be a performer that you want to spend time with; watching him perform entire songs, not just a snippet. That was a casting challenge, and we were screwed until we met Oscar [Isaac]!
JC: The other way to think about it is, we think about actors a lot when we write, and sometimes we write parts for specific actors, usually what we’ve worked with before. Often in those cases, the exercise is more ‘OK, we understand how good they are as actors, and we have seen them do this and that, but wouldn’t it be interesting to see them do something entirely different from the way you usually see them?’ That’s also fun. It’s all of those things; you think about who’s the right actor for the character, but also, wouldn’t it be interesting to see something a little more out of left field that you haven’t seen them do, but you know they can do.
EC: It’s fun to see Carey [Mulligan] swearing like a stevedore! [laughs]

Speaking of Carey Mulligan, had you seen her sing before?
JC: We had seen the Steve McQueen movie… We got together with T-Bone [Burnett] and everyone in a week that happened before the production started. It was really just to work on the musical part of the movie so when we got on set we could record everything live, which was what happened. It was like a rehearsal for the music.

Did you have to restrain yourself from sending up the style of music, as Christopher Guest did with A MIGHTY WIND?
JC: I think you can tell from the movie that the music is something we have a deep and genuine fondness and respect for. It was never intended to be any kind of a parody. That’s not to say there are no funny things about folk music; there are plenty of funny things about folk music! [laughs]

Did Bob Dylan have any input into the movie?
JC: No. What was interesting to us was the lesser-known scene, which was the scene that Dylan came into, as opposed to how Dylan – who was such a transformative character in terms of music and culture – changed that scene.

Can you talk a little about the importance of John Goodman to this film, as well as to the Coen universe?
EC: It’s a strange part of the movie. The movie we had done before was TRUE GRIT, written by a guy named Charles Portis, who does a lot of road stories, and has a lot of old gasbags in his stories. Goodman actually gave us the first Portis story that I ever read, which was called Masters of Atlantis, featuring one of his many gasbag characters, so we wrote this little road segment of the movie, with a gasbag character, to compensate a partner who doesn’t say anything. Somehow it seemed like Goodman’s thing. It’s an old Jazz Cat who can’t stop talking; the person you least want to be trapped in a car with travelling across country.

INSIDE LLEWYN DAVIS is released in Irish cinemas on January 24th

Words: Brogen Hayes