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'Inside Llewyn Davis' Secrets and a New Coens Movie Revealed: Q & A (VIDEO)

Photo of Anne Thompson By Anne Thompson | Thompson on Hollywood December 11, 2013 at 3:57PM

The Coen brothers, Oscar Isaac and T Bone Burnett dig into making "Inside Llewyn Davis"--and the Coens may know what their next movie is--with George Clooney.
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"Inside Llewyn Davis"
CBS Films "Inside Llewyn Davis"

The marketing campaign on "Inside Llewyn Davis" has been remarkable, pushing the film from Cannes and the fall film festivals to its boffo limited opening last week. The film's promotion has had an authentic tilt to it, stressing the music more than any other aspect of the Coens' heartfelt tribute to the folk scene of the early 60s. I got some questions about the film answered by the Coens, T-Bone Burnett, and Oscar Isaac (who I interviewed here and below).

Anne Thompson: What music did you grow up listening to and caring about?

Joel Coen: During this period, we were very young. I wouldn't say we even listened to music; it was 1961, I was 5, 6 years old and Ethan was 3. 

Ethan Coen: The music that we first started listening to was what everyone else was listening to. A lot of Bob Dylan, maybe more than most people, but a lot of rock and roll.

Oscar Isaac in "Inside Llewyn Davis"
Oscar Isaac in "Inside Llewyn Davis"

Joel: It was music that came out of this music, so we discovered this music retrospectively in terms of going back to what the roots of the things were that we listened to when we were kids and adolescents: rock and roll, Bob Dylan, who was top 40 radio, weirdly. We did have some records. It was interesting. We had a Pete Seeger, Bill Bill Broonzy record that was a live recording of a concert in Chicago from the late 50s that was important enough to us such that we actually stole things from it for the soundtrack of "Raising Arizona," which was essentially Pete playin on a banjo. That's also how we met T Bone. He didn't realize we stole that from Pete Seeger.

What made you come up with this character? The pursuit of purity in artistic expression is something that you two have adamantly fought for over the course of your career and you've achieved it to a remarkable degree.

Ethan: We achieved it not by any design but just because, to the extent that we were interested in selling out--which is as much as anybody--nobody was interested in buying. So when that happens early on you have to do it yourself by default. You get to kind of do it your way. There's nothing noble about purity, you just kind of want to do what seems to be the right way.

Joel: You're sympathetic to the character in certain ways even though he may be a very difficult character to like in other respects. In life he's not so easy but when he performs he's good and there's something charismatic about that.

I would say that what you did here was really cool in terms of figuring out how to use the music to bring emotion across, which is where the heart of the movie lies. It's very difficult to do. You figured out how to make the songs carry the emotion.

Joel: You also needed a performer who can do that.

You trawl the ranks of people in theater in New York and find these amazing people.

T Bone Burnett, Joel and Ethan Coen at their Telluride 2013 tribute
Vivien Killilea/Getty Images T Bone Burnett, Joel and Ethan Coen at their Telluride 2013 tribute

Ethan: It's not us. We also get a lot of good faces. We've had a couple of great extras casting people, the current one being Debbie DeLisi.

Joel: It's not to slam these people but there are people who've just had extras casting mills and then there are people we work with who are just as picky and attentive to all of those specific things you're looking for as we are, even more so. They go out and work unbelievably to find people for these smaller parts and these extra parts that are going to be right for that world. It's kind of amazing.

Talk about the long sequence in the car. What is that serving in the story?

Ethan: It's an interval, it's this strange dreamy interval. It's a movie about the New York folk scene and it's wintry and you get a feel for the community, but it's a break. You want an accent. Two characters played by John Goodman and Garrett Hedlund are in a similar kind of way relief.

Joel: It's a movie about folk music so it's good to have the guy who thinks folk music is total bullshit. It's a little dream in the middle.

You have always a trunk of scripts that you're delving into. How do you make the decision about which one you're going to make?

Joel: We sometimes have things that are in various stages of completion or being thought about, and then there's a few things we've written over the years that are kind of written and finished. To be quite honest, the things that get written and finished and get put aside for years we're not that interested in making after awhile. I don't know why that is. 

This article is related to: Interviews, Interviews , Interviews, Inside Llewyn Davis, Joel Coen, Ethan Coen, John Goodman, Oscar Isaac, Awards Season Roundup, Awards, Awards


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Born and raised in Manhattan, Anne Thompson grew up going to the Thalia and The New Yorker and wound up at grad Cinema Studies at NYU. She worked at United Artists and Film Comment before heading west as that magazine's west coast editor. She wrote for the LA Weekly, Sight and Sound, Empire, The New York Times and Entertainment Weekly before serving as West Coast Editor of Premiere. She wrote for The Washington Post, The London Observer, Wired, More, and Vanity Fair, and did staff stints at The Hollywood Reporter and Variety. She eventually took her blog Thompson on Hollywood to Indiewire. She taught film criticism at USC Critical Studies, and continues to host the fall semester of “Sneak Previews” for UCLA Extension.