For two guys whose films are often cryptic, impenetrable or even flat-out bizarre, Joel and Ethan Coen present the work they do to make them in a remarkably mundane way. Cozied up in a hotel room in Beverly Hills to talk about their latest project, Inside Llewyn Davis, they never hold back in explaining how they came up with their ideas for the 1960s-set character study, or what they were thinking when they decided to paint a vivid portrait of a folk musician who never quite finds success, at least not on his own terms. But then again, the Coens have never gone through the experience that their character does – namely, having to compromise – so it stands to reason that their candor and clarity is a direct byproduct of career-long artistic freedom.
Movies.com sat down with the Coens at the recent Los Angeles press day for Inside Llewyn Davis, where the duo revealed the origins of their latest film, and talked about how they came up with its unusual structure. Additionally, the pair explored the balance between period authenticity and timeless storytelling, and reflected on the differences between their career trajectory and that of their character – as well as what sorts of intangible circumstances might have driven both.
Movies.com: What is Inside Llewyn Davis about for the two of you? People expecting more of an overview of this era of folk music may be surprised to discover it’s really just focused on one week in this character’s life.
Ethan Coen: Yeah! Well, you know…
Joel Coen: That’s what it is.
Ethan: It’s about this character. Yes. It’s about the guy. Yes, a portrait of a guy. Yes.
Joel: And you hear a lot of good music while you’re getting to know him. That was kind of the ambition.
Movies.com: So you look at it as a character study, primarily.
Joel: Yeah, it’s a character study.
Ethan: It’s definitely not a History Channel thing about the folk era. Yes. I mean, yes, that’s the setting, but that’s the setting for this character.
Movies.com: How did you decide what the structure of the film would be, because it’s sort of elliptical.
Ethan: Yeah, it’s got the funny shape, circular shape. It’s kind of round. Yeah, ‘because round is funny’ [Laughs]. Yeah, we were sitting around the office and Joel came up with it – just a what if, suppose we do a movie that starts with the guy getting, Dave Van Ronk, he said Dave Van Ronk, like him being emblematic of some folk singer in 1961, being beaten up outside of Gertie’s Folk City. So we thought of, alright, where does that go, and pretty early on we did realize that we wanted to go, I don’t know, and I’m not even sure why, but early on in the writing process, we realized that where it wanted to go ultimately was back to that first scene. So with that in mind, we kind of wrote through all of the intervening stuff.
Movies.com: How then did you decide that it would cover only a few days as opposed to a longer time period?
Joel: It just kind of emerged that way. I mean, it’s almost not a decision. It’s almost just as you’re writing, it kind of takes a shape. You realize, well, this isn’t so much about a plot as it is about this character, about these few days, what happens to him as he’s sort of trying to get some traction in his career. And about the music.
Movies.com: You mentioned Dave Van Ronk as a point of inspiration. What aspects of the era or the profession was it important to be true to, and what parts did you feel you could be more impressionistic about?
Ethan: I don’t know if this is exactly what you’re asking, but the one thing we knew we wanted to be real was the musical performances. It’s about a musician, and we wanted to shoot the performances live on set and not have some guy faking it, doing it to somebody else’s playback, or even his own playback. We wanted to see the guy actually performing.
Joel: And we wanted it to be real music from the period, not music that was written now to sort of resemble music from the period.
Ethan: But, you know, just in the nature of these things, the wardrobe department, they do huge amounts of research because you don’t just make up that world. You can’t kind of pull it out of your ass. They have to render it in detail. But that aside, nothing was real. I mean, they were all made-up characters and it’s a fictional story, fictional characters in a setting as real as we could make it and with music as real as we could make it.
Movies.com: Oscar Isaac talked about this being the story of an artist who faces the challenge of compromising in order to achieve success, which is something you haven’t seemed to have to do. What sort of insights do you feel like you have about that, standing on the outside of that experience?
Ethan: I don’t know that we have insights about it, but we’re aware of how lucky we are not to have had to [compromise]. Our taste, what we do is commercial enough that we’ve gotten by and been able to keep making movies and haven’t been really even tempted by ideas of like selling out, compromising, whatever. Because, you know, our biases tend to be commercial enough, but it hasn’t given us any great insight. It’s just it makes you think, well, it could have gone the other way; I mean, there are people who were less lucky or less commercially attuned – or whatever.
Joel: And even just the fact of the thing you’re observing about compromise, whether or not you’re willing to compromise, is one of the questions that was interesting to us, just in the context of the whole story as we were thinking about it, which is that we were thinking about, oh, here’s a guy who is a really, really good musician who plays fantastic music. He has a beautiful voice. And he’s not successful – why? Because everybody knows people that are great at what they do and they aren’t necessarily successful, in quotation marks. And it’s interesting, because it’s a lot of things – is it the willingness to compromise, yeah, that could be one of them. Is it just that he’s temperamentally his own worst enemy? Is it luck? All of those things are possibilities, so the movie kind of raises those questions, and they’re interesting questions, and it doesn’t really attempt to answer them, because in a way it’s unanswerable. It’s a little bit of everything, maybe, or not – I mean, you’re never really going to know.
Movies.com: One of the ideas the film sort of flirts with is being “chosen” for success. Is there a moment you can recall where you made a certain movie or choice that was the turning point that allowed you to enjoy the freedom and success that you’ve had?
Ethan: No. I mean, you know, in an obvious way, your first movie is like the most important in those terms because if it’s a crashing failure you’re probably not going to be able to make another one.
Joel: Yeah, the first movie, the first things out of the gate, in this business, and also probably in a lot of other popular art forms, records and that kind of thing. They’re probably the most important because you can easily just be gonged right away.
Ethan: But that’s less a turning point than a starting point.
Joel: We were lucky with our first movie, but again, is it luck? What is it? You know, you don’t know. To us it seems lucky that our first movie got enough critical attention, even though it didn’t make a lot of money – it made very little money, actually. But it made enough given the fact that it was made for so little that everyone came out of it sort of financially okay, even though you wouldn’t call it a hit by any standard. So financially it was okay, and we got enough press attention so that everybody said, okay, do it again.
Movies.com: There’s a recurrent idea in the film that he encounters opportunities to be responsible, or take responsibility for himself. How quickly did that emerge as an idea, and how difficult is it to reinforce that narratively?
Joel: Well, that’s interesting.
Ethan: Clearly, right, we realized early he was interesting because, to some extent, his lack of success is [because] he’s a character who steps on his own dick – he gets in his own way. And yet—
Joel: It’s a self-destructive impulse, yeah. I mean, that was an early element in our thinking about him, I have to say that. That wasn’t something that emerged so much from writing as it was here when we first started to think about it. Right?
Ethan: Yes. And then realizing that, we kept going, alright, you know, well, you chose the words turning point, and yeah, he drives by the Akron sign. He tells his sister to put all of his shit out by the curb. There are a lot of things that could have gone either way. There are a lot of forks in the road [Laughs].
Joel: But that whole idea of him having sort of a vexed relationship with his family was one that I remember from very early on when we were talking about it. But not in a way that you always wanted to feel tempered by some sympathy for the character. You don’t want him to be completely alienating or that’s not interesting either, certainly not in a character who you have to watch throughout the whole movie. You want to be invested in him, and that’s the trick – if you’re invested in him, the movie is at a very base level entertaining.
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