It looks like Joel and Ethan Coen are moving away from film and into digital. And if you ask the filmmakers, who saw their “Inside Llewyn Davis” screen for press at the New York Film Festival yesterday (our review), it's something they're half-heartedly embracing. “I have to say I’m not wildly enthusiastic about the idea,” Joel told press. “This movie was shot on film for a couple of reasons. We were working with a DP whom we had done one small thing with in the past. [DP] Bruno [Delbonnel] had also not shot anything with a digital camera before, and we discussed that would be one more complicated factor in our relationship with a DP. It’s all a hybrid thing now because it all goes into a box, it goes into a computer, and gets heavily manipulated. But it’s probable that the next one we shot will be done digitally."
That sort of trend-setting seems counterintuitive to their latest film, which finds the brothers looking back into history, specifically the unrecorded kind. The title character of “Inside Llewyn Davis” is an early '60s folk singer just barely trying to survive, caught in the middle of heavy tides during a severe culture shift. “We wanted to do something that was set in the scene before Dylan showed up,” says Joel. “He came onto that scene and kind of changed it, he was sort of a transformative figure. People know about that, so it seemed less interesting to us.” With a laugh, he adds, “Success movies have been done, haven’t they?”
Ethan describes Llewyn Davis as having a “tortured relationship with success. Making new crap out of the old crap, those were concerns for characters in that scene. Not wanting to sell out, but wanting to perform and reach people.” These struggles were brought to life by Oscar Isaac, a young leading man ready for his moment in the spotlight. As Davis, Isaac brings pathos and introspection to his role as a man eternally one step too slow, one minute too late. A lot of that came from Isaac’s collaborations with music supervisor T-Bone Burnett, allowing Isaac to not only perform the songs himself, but sometimes select them on his own.
Isaac describes his character as, “A guy who’s trying to be authentic and only plays old songs. But the culture is sort of moving on from that. And if they’re moving on, what’s he supposed to do? That’s what feels true to him.” Drawing contemporary parallels, he says, “In a way these folk musicians were like curators or DJs. They wrote these songs and presented them and once you collected the records people would realize, we’ve got the original there, we want you to do new stuff.”
Joel and Ethan gained their insight from a number of books from the period, though they primarily drew bits and pieces from “The Mayor Of MacDougal Street,” the memoirs of folk singer Dave Van Ronk co-authored by Elijah Wald. Joel describes the scene by saying, “There was an obsession with a certain kind of authenticity, in quotation marks, and having to do with traditional music that people involved with the early punk revival were very concerned with. And sometimes there were both interesting and ironic repercussions to that.”
Indeed, Joel and Ethan seemed interested in exploring Greek literature once again after their cheeky “O Brother, Where Art Thou?” In “Inside Llewyn Davis,” the character is constantly befuddled by a constantly disappearing cat, whose name turns out to be Odysseus. When this is pointed out, as well as the acknowledgement that John Goodman’s character may be a siren, Ethan jokes, “You could see it as an odyssey where the hero doesn’t go anywhere.” Ethan cautions not to look too close, however, as he downplays the ethereal significance of Goodman’s Roland Turner, with the actor marking his fifth collaboration with the Coens. “John turned us onto Charles Portis, the novelist who wrote ‘True Grit,’ but he’s written a lot of contemporary novels,” Ethan reveals. “And all his novels have this sort of old gasbag character... which is John in this movie.”
Whether on digital or film, or with Goodman or not, we'll be curious to see whatever the Coens do next. But for now, they have the excellent "Inside Llewyn Davis" on the way, playing the New York Film Festival starting this weekend. See all showtimes by clicking here. It opens in theaters on December 20th.