Joel and Ethan Coen with Inside Llewyn Davis actors Oscar Isaacs and John Goodman. Photo by Brian Brooks
Before Bob Dylan popularized folk in in the mid-'60s, the folk scene had ardent admirers in Greenwich Village. It is the pre-Dylan era that forms the backdrop for Joel and Ethan Coen's anticipated Inside Llewyn Davis, which will have its U.S. premiere at the New York Film Festival this weekend. Starring Oscar Isaac in the title role, the film skews the story about a struggling musician navigating the Bleecker Street music world circa 1961, before "The Times They Are a-Changin," "Positively 4th Street," and the like transformed the genre.
The Coens latest, which won the Grand Prize in Cannes in May, showcases the burgeoning scene from the P.O.V. of a singer-songwriter who might have found success had karma or fate played out differently. The scepter of "failure" was at the heart of inquiries in Cannes and again today at a press screening for the film at the Walter Reade Theatre. And the Coens appeared perfectly happy to focus their latest on a character who only brushes with stardom.
"The success movies have been done, haven't they?," noted Joel Coen about why he and Ethan Coen went this route. "It's less interesting from a story point of view, I think, [to bring in Dylan]. In fact, I don't even know how we would start to think about that one."
Down on his luck but stubbornly determined to maintain his self-stylized sense of credibility, Davis is seen early on in the film couchsurfing at the Village apartment of couple Jim and Jean (played by Justin Timberlake and Carrey Mulligan), also fellow musicians. Jean is not exactly thrilled by his presence and their entanglement is complicated when it's revealed they had a tryst that redulted in a pregnancy. How to pay for an abortion and keep the news from his friend is only one challenge. He can barely hang on. Llewyn shows talent, but his life skills are an obvious roadblock.
"It's a big subject," explained Joel Coen. "We wanted to do something set in the scene before Dylan showed up specifically. We weren't that interested in the period after. I mean, he came out of that scene and when he [became known] he was so transformative, but people already know about that. There were people writing songs and singing them before Bob Dylan showed up."
"There was an obsession with 'authenticity' that people who were involved with this early folk revival were concerned with," added Ethan Coen. "There are interesting and ironic aspects to that."
Film Society's Kent Jones with the Coens, Isaacs and Goodman on Thursday. Photo by Brian Brooks
Oscar Isaacs received early adulations in Cannes for his portrayal of Llewyn Davis, with a number of early prognosticators speculating that he had a good shot at an Oscar nomination. Whether that remains true is, naturally, more muddled as Awards Season gets underway and the contenders for leading male get more crowded. But Ethan Coen heaped early praise on their leading man after the film's Cannes premiere, saying that the project may have never moved forward without finding Isaacs.
"The casting was a challenge," he said. "We had to find someone who would be in practically every frame of the film and also someone who is a musician and be able to carry different songs. We were screwed until we met Oscar."
The film also features a number of folk covers performed by Isaac, Timberlake, Mulligan, and others in the film. The music was produced by T-Bone Burnett, who had previously worked on the Coens' O Brother, Where Are Thou?, the soundtrack for which sold 8 million copies in the U.S. A charity concert is planned in New York featuring music from Inside Llewyn Davis.
"He's a guy who is trying to be authentic and playing old songs, but the scene is moving on," said Isaacs on Thursday afternoon at the Walter Reade Theater. "But his dilemma is, what can he do with that?"
With a palate heavy on darks and grays, much has already been made about the austere style of the film, which Ethan Coen said today is simply about portraying New York in winter more than anything else. The Coens also suggested that Inside Llewyn Davis might be the final feature they make on film, though the prospect is not a welcome one.
"I have to say I'm not wildly enthusiastic about the idea," said Joel Coen. "This movie was shot on film for a number of reasons… I'm glad we shot on film, but it's a hybrid thing right now. It all goes into a computer and it's all heavily manipulated. But still, there's something that looks different. It's probable that the next one will be shot digitally."