Inside Llewyn Davis

But the things we haven't quite finished and have written a lot on, we take out again to do. It's bizarre. They're still alive. So this is more like that. It is true there are things we've worked on over the years and we do often put stuff away that we can't figure out, sometimes we put it away for a long time and then finish it. And then usually at the point where you finish it, then you're very excited about making it so you push to make that thing at that point.

What about your comedy project with George Clooney, "Hail Caesar?" I always liked the sound of that. 

Joel: We've been working on that one. 

Ethan: It's about the movie business and life and religion and faith. Faith and the movie business. It's still George.

Joel: There's a good chance that would be next.

Oscar Isaac, Justin Timberlake and Carey Mulligan in "Inside Llewyn Davis"
Oscar Isaac, Justin Timberlake and Carey Mulligan in "Inside Llewyn Davis"

Oscar and T-Bone, talk about how you two worked together to craft the emotional release of the film from the music and your characters.

Oscar Isaac: Llewyn Davis is a very closed off individual and very prone to even a cathartic moment, which was definitely challenging as an actor. You look for those moments where you must have a bit of release and he never has those. The only times he does is when he sings those songs. They're a window into who he is. It was very important. T Bone and I worked on that and that's where the real soul of the character lies and it was definitely a first for me. I've never done a film where the real depth and soul of the character is found in this thing that he does, which is singing. So we got together and found Llewyn's guitar.

Burnett: We went to to find an old guitar on Ventura Blvd, this guy's got hundreds of guitars out there. We went through about 30 or 40 and he picked up that little Gibson and immediately it was Llewyn's guitar.

Isaac: That guitar was from 1924. We got together and played a lot of music and at one point T-Bone told me just to sing like I was singing to myself on my couch and that really not only opened up the music but the character. That's how I played the character as well.

I've read many Coen Brothers scripts and they're really fun to read. What did the script say about the songs?

Burnett: Not much. When I first got the script the first few songs were in it, "Hang Me" and "Fare Thee Well," but that started the whole thing in motion so all the other songs grew out of those. 

Isaac: There were a couple of songs that were delineated. "Hang Me" at the beginning, for instance. In the script it says, 'Llewyn sits down in front of Grossman and sings a song.' Then onto the next scene.

When he chooses that song, the whole point is that he chooses the least commercial song he could pick. Is that the idea?

Burnett: I don't think that's the whole point. I think really the point is that Llewyn Davis existed in a culture for which fame wasn't a consideration. They weren't looking for chart position; they were just looking for square feet in Washington Square Park. There was a scene in Downtown New York, a jazz band here, a folk band, a bluegrass band... there were the beat poets. So there was a lot of competition but it wasn't like anyone was going to get famous until Dylan showed up.

Don't you think Llewyn was being slightly self-destructive?

'Inside Llewyn Davis'
'Inside Llewyn Davis'

Burnett: They were existentialists. He was trying to sing a song that would have the most depth and resonance for him at that moment. He was not thinking of a commercial consideration at all, from my point of view. Of course, the Coens would say they were looking for the most beautiful and self-destructive thing the could find, and it's that as well. It's a song about his parents, so it's what he's dealing with.

Did you guys debate which song he should sing?

Isaac: For instance it said, he sings a song. So I had really fallen in love with this whole repertoire of music so I went diving in, and I listened to a bunch of different songs and I found a couple where he's just screaming his guts out and really laying it out on the floor in a big kind of way, bluesy songs, amazing finger-picking songs. I brought them to the Coens and they were all "meh," they wanted something a little more white, meaning from like Scotland or some of these old songs and they'd bring out this medieval song about a c-section gone wrong. They thought it would be funny. 

For the next couple of months I was trying to find some way into this song that I just didn't get at all. T-Bone and I went through the arrangement. I went off of instinct at the time. I didn't try to intellectualize it. It wasn't until I saw the movie and thought, of course that's the song he plays because really it's the most honest thing he can possibly sing at that moment and he's really the quintessential folk artist. That's what a folk artist does. They find old, archaic songs that seem to have no relevance and they make them vital and alive and they make them "now" and that's the definition of who Llewyn wants to be: a folk artist that can do those kinds of things. It's definitely the wrong choice!

Every single one of us knows somebody who's an artist who hasn't made it. Maybe we are that person. Any actor has struggled with making it or not making it and having high points or low points, any musician has. The moment where he sings the song to his father, what is the emotion in that scene?

Isaac: The Coens are so good at giving you a little morsel at one point and just rewarding you for just watching later. His sister tells him, "you used to sing this when we were kids." And yet that little seed subconsciously just stays in his mind, is just there the whole movie, that little record is something so innocent and he probably hasn't even thought about it since he played it. He shows up and finally goes to see Dad and he picks up the guitar and that's the first thing that comes out, a song that he hasn't played since he was a kid. And he's learning to play it as he's playing it. At first it starts a little structured, he probably thinks it's goofy, and then as he plays it he starts to really rediscover the song right in front of his dad.

But he's also trying to communicate with this dad?

Isaac: Of course. It's always that. That's the only way he knows how. 

Did you create an elaborate backstory for your character?

Isaac: I investigated one for sure, where he's from, what his parents were like. I think the movie is in large part a movie about grief. That's what's haunting him the entire time and he's not really willing to face it head-on and you see that he's still reeling from that whole thing. That's why it's really beautiful at the end when he does sing the same song but his solo version, which is much more like a dirge. That actually was not in the script; originally it ended with "Hang Me," but through that process that T-Bone is talking about, just hanging out and playing the music, that's when they said he should play that song again at the end. It's a beautiful way of him saying goodbye.

The movie is a Mobius strip, ending back when it started. So after the first scene--which doesn't show Dylan--it flashes back in time and then winds up with Dylan?

Isaac and Burnett: Right. 

This is loosely inspired by the Dave van Ronk memoir "The Mayor of MacDougal Street." 

Burnett: According to them, and I remember hearing about it a few years ago, Joel said, why would a folk singer get beat up outside Gerde's Folk City? That was the beginning of the movie.

Isaac: That was the genesis. Imagine a folk singer getting punched in the face outside Gerde's. "The Mayor of MacDougal Street" was definitely an inspiration.

Audience: Are the Coens both directing at the same time or are they taking turns?

Isaac: It's pretty out there. You have these two genius filmmakers that are making the exact same movie so you just have these two resources and they don't really check in as far as like, oh you go talk to him. When the spirit moves one they come up and say something and occasionally they'll save different things and I'll just do whatever the last one said. They generally tend to be right on the same tone but really it's about whoever feels the strongest about any one idea. And I think that goes for everybody who's involved. Everything just gets put out on the table and whoever feels the most passionate about any one idea, you get to do that. You get to try it.

How many takes do they usually do?

Isaac: Pretty low. I'd say around, on average, five to six. And they shoot in 35.