Coen Brothers Talk Llewyn Davis

By Kay, Jeremy | Screen International, December 23, 2013 | Go to article overview

Coen Brothers Talk Llewyn Davis


Kay, Jeremy, Screen International


Joel and Ethan Coen tell Jeremy Kay about the musical collaborations behind Inside Llewyn Davis, and give an insight into life on the Coen brothers' set.

Inside Llewyn Davis writer-directors Joel and Ethan Coen are like two halves of the same thought, completing each other's sentences with a flow of droll repartee. Asked why they set their story of a fictitious musician in the early 1961 Greenwich Village folk scene and eschewed the more obvious focus on Bob Dylan, who would break out that same year, the brothers cannot resist a riff.

"Most people don't know about it," says Joel, slumped in a chair beside his brother at the Four Seasons hotel in Beverly Hills. They know about a somewhat later period -- the Dylan scene -- but there was a whole interesting thing that was going on that he walked into and changed and since people don't know as much about it, it¹s interesting for that reason."

"The later period, it all just gets harder, you know," says Ethan. "Like long hair and love beads and stuff - that's a less serious movie. I mean you put that Indian beat in there and that's not a serious," Joel continues: "No, that's not a serious time. Actually that might be a good [tempo] for whatever movie we do in that period."

"Or just, oh come on," says Ethan. His brother agrees: "Oh, come on."

Joel, the more talkative of the two, describes the cultural milieu that informs Inside Llewyn Davis as an "exotic," albeit significant, part of the DNA of US popular music.

"This [film] came from some of the music in O Brother [Where Art Thou?, the Coens' 2000 film] and Dylan, the singer-songwriters and the people who are more popularly known to culture now from the mid-1960s came directly from the music that¹s in this movie."

The Coens had read enough about the period to feel qualified to explore further. "Putting a story together didn't seem like an impossible thing

for us to get our heads around as it would have been, for instance, doing something in Elizabethan England," says Joel.

The opening scene was the first to root itself in their minds. "It was the beginning of the movie, this idea of a folk singer getting beaten up outside a club in 1961. We sort of had talked about it a number of years ago and didn't know where it would go," says Joel. "We would come back to it every now and again; I don't know why. It's hard to really impose a logical thing on that but for some reason at a certain point we just started spinning it out a little bit further -- It grew on that original, weird idea."

Cueing the music

Once the brothers had a script, the first person they approached was executive music supervisor T Bone Burnett, the celebrated musician with

whom they had collaborated on three earlier films. "We knew when we were writing that he'd be the first one we'd send the script to," says Ethan. "It's so much about the music. We sent it to him as soon as the script was done so he could start thinking about what the repertoire might be."

Burnett helped the brothers find the man who would play Llewyn Davis, a shambolic folk singer-songwriter based loosely on the late Brooklyn musician Dave Van Ronk.

It was not an easy search. "We were going mostly to musicians because the movie being about musicians we knew we wanted long, sustained performances for whole songs," says Joel. "We didn't want to post-sync and we didn't want to dub anything, so we auditioned lots of musicians and that didn't work out very well because they were all brilliant at the musical performances but there aren't many of them who are skilled enough as actors that they can carry a whole movie. …

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