Cast: Oscar Isaac, Carey Mulligan, Justin Timberlake, John Goodman, and Garrett Hedlund
Directors: Ethan Coen and Joel Coen
Genre: Music, Drama
Running Time: 105 minutes
Synopsis: Inside Llewyn Davis, the new film from Academy Award-winners Joel and Ethan Coen, follows a week in the life of a young folk singer at a crossroads, struggling to make it in the Greenwich Village folk scene of 1961. Llewyn Davis (Oscar Isaac)"guitar in tow, huddled against the unforgiving New York winter"is beset by seemingly insurmountable obstacles, some of them of his own making. Living at the mercy of both friends and strangers, scaring up what work he can find, Llewyn journeys from the basket houses of the Village to an empty Chicago club"on a misbegotten odyssey to audition for a music mogul"and back again.
Inside Llewyn Davis
Release Date: January 16th, 2014
'We were always interested in the music of the period, the so-called folk revival of the late 1950s, the thriving folk music scene that was taking place in the Village before Bob Dylan showed up" music that was being produced and played during what might be termed the beatnik scene of the 50s and early 60s," says Joel Coen. 'That period lasted only through the very early 1960s, and most people don't know about it."
The Coen Brothers, however, were very familiar with the songs from that time, and they found themselves particularly taken with a book written by the folk musician Dave Van Ronk that concentrated on the period. The book was called The Mayor of MacDougal Street.
'It's Dave Van Ronk's memoir which he started writing but died before completing," says Ethan Coen. 'His friend, the journalist Elijah Wald, basically put it together for him. It's less a memoir than it is interviews with Dave Van Ronk."
The Coens' fascination with the book led them to dig deeper not only into Dave Van Ronk's story and his music, but also into his era and then create a fictional story about a folk singer in that world. Ethan Coen says, 'One day Joel Coen just said, -What about this? Here's the beginning of a movie… A folk singer gets beat up in the alleyway behind Gerde's Folk City.' We thought about the scene, and then we thought, -Why would anyone beat up a folk singer?' So it became a matter of trying to come up with a screenplay, a movie that could fit around that and explain the incident."
Sitting down to research the period and then to develop the concept and write the screenplay, the brothers found the material a natural, comfortable fit.
'We already knew a lot of this music. If you're into Bob Dylan, which both Ethan Coen and I are, you can't help but know about this music because Bob Dylan drew on it so heavily and in such an interesting way. He's such an interesting interpreter of that music," says Joel Coen.
'If you trace it back far enough it's all Americana, the same kind of music, the same family tree, the same species of song we used in O Brother, Where Art Thou?", Joel Coen says referring to their hit film. 'We've both been interested in this traditional American folk music a long time. We felt the folk music revival of the 50s was in part a revival of the traditional American folk musical forms we'd always been aware of and loved.
'A lot of this music is really beautiful. And its revival developed into what we think of as the singer- songwriter -thing,' which is different from traditional folk music."
How Bob Dylan embraced that folk music and the singer-songwriter phenomenon that grew out of it, and where he went with it, is all of great interest to the Coens. But for the story they had in mind the brothers wanted to look back at that earlier era of folk, the era just before Bob Dylan"rather than in the direction in which Bob Dylan took it. 'People know much more about Bob Dylan"his story and his music"than about this period, because he was such an important and transformative figure," Joel Coen says. 'He arrived in 1961 and changed everything."
The Coens steeped themselves in the folk period of the late 50s and very early 60s, watching various documentaries, including one that John Sebastian's brother made about Vince Martin, a Village figure from those days who performed in the duo Martin and Neil with singer Fred Neil. One aspect of the era that especially intrigued the brothers was the quest for authenticity that so many of the folk artists and the emerging singer-songwriters of the day strived for; they all seemingly shared a profound fear of achieving success and -selling out.'
'When you read about the scene you see this mania for authenticity," Joel Coen says. 'You have these guys like Elliot Adnopoz, the son of a neurosurgeon from Queens, calling himself Ramblin' Jack Elliot. In the film we have a character who sings and plays a guitar, wears a cowboy hat and calls himself Al Cody. His real name is Arthur Milgram."
The brothers also looked at variety shows from the era and read Bob Dylan's memoir, in which he talked at length about what the music scene was like when he arrived in New York, at the time Llewyn Davis takes place. But it was Dave Van Ronk's memoir about the Village music scene and its antecedents that was the lodestar for them in creating the story they wanted to tell.
'Dave Van Ronk was not a songwriter," Ethan Coen says. 'He wrote a few songs, but that wasn't his scene. A lot of what he sang was traditional folk songs, songs that could be interpreted and performed in a variety of ways," and which each performer is free to approach differently. (Ethan Coen points out that though the character Llewyn Davis plays songs often associated with Dave Van Ronk"songs like -Hang Me,' -Dink's Song,' and -Green Rocky Road'"Oscar Isaac's performances in the film don't attempt to channel Dave Van Ronk's style per se.)
The songs of Inside Llewyn Davis come from the same family of American music that inspired O Brother, Where Are Thou?, and Llewyn Davis shares a powerful connection to O Brother in spite of differences between the two works in tone, content and style. 'We wanted to make another film that was driven by music, and in that sense the two films are similar," Joel Coen says.
The manner of presenting the music in the two films, however, differs significantly.
'In this movie we wanted entire songs to be played out," Ethan Coen says. 'O Brother used music in a more conventional way. You get little bits of songs on the soundtrack. Here we wanted whole songs to be done in their entirety. The film actually begins that way. You watch Llewyn performing for a whole three minutes. We liked the idea of that. You don't know where you are in terms of scene setting"there's no story yet. You're just watching a performance."
Another link between Inside Llewyn Davis and some of the Coens' previous work is the brothers' close collaboration on this film with executive music producer T Bone Burnett.
'T Bone Burnett is part of the mix from the beginning, when we're starting to write the script and we really don't know specifically what the music is going to be"and we just know that there's going to be a character who plays something," Joel Coen says. 'A lot of what we decide and then write in the screenplay comes directly from talking to T Bone, from the three of us tossing out ideas."
In the Coens' screenplay the audience discovers the character of Llewyn at a crossroads in his life and career, adrift in the New York folk scene of 1961. When they began to write, the brothers took as a starting point the opening image of a folk singer getting beaten up in a back alley of a Village folk club; the question they then asked themselves was, 'How did this character get here"what were the events that led to this?"
According to the Coens, when they sit down to write they only have the most general idea of where the story is going.
'We never, including on this movie, do an outline or figure out what's going to happen, how the screenplay's going to unfold," Ethan Coen says. 'We just start writing with the first scene and we see where it goes."
'In this case, though, we did know how we wanted it to end," Joel Coen says.
When we meet him, Llewyn is struggling to make it as a single act after the suicide of his singing partner, Mike Timlin. Making matters worse, he doesn't have a place of his own or money to pay for one, and he's sleeping on couches all over the city, scaring up what work he can find.
Llewyn, like so many folk singers of the day, is concerned with authenticity"with not selling out. On the one hand he's eager, almost desperate for success, so he can earn a little bit of money; on the other hand he wants to remain true to himself. An irony of the screenplay is that when Llewyn actually sees an authentic backwoods country folk singer"what the Coens describe as -the real thing'"he heckles the singer, which results in his being beaten up in a back alley by her -authentic' backcountry husband.
The screenplay begins and ends with Llewyn enduring a beating outside the Gaslight Café; in the final pages of the script Llewyn finds himself walking into a predicament that bears a mysterious resemblance to the one he walks into in the script's opening pages.
'One thing we wanted from the beginning was to have a circular structure to the story," says Joel Coen. 'It was always the idea, even before the whole story was thought through, that it was going to wind up in the place where it started. And we knew that it was always going to take place within a compressed period of time, a tiny slice of time"roughly a week maybe."
'Another thing that was always on our minds, as we wrote, was when"exactly when, at the end of the movie"we were going to let the audience know that the story was coming, so to speak, back to the present," Ethan Coen says. 'When will the audience get the idea that the story is kind of completing a circle?"
The brothers explain that they carefully constructed the closing scene at the Gaslight: 'It isn't until the scene at the very end, when you go back to Llewyn performing Hang Me' at the Gaslight"just as he did in the opening"that we put in certain things to tell the audience that they're watching the identical moment they saw earlier," Joel Coen points out.
'Llewyn could sing the same song any number of different nights"it's part of his repertoire. So we had to very specifically think about how to illustrate that this was not just Llewyn singing the same song twice, but that this was the same actual performance from the beginning of the movie," Ethan Coen says.
Joel Coen says: 'The shot [of Llewyn coming off stage, after his number] isn't covered by the camera in the same way as it is in the beginning, but the scene repeats the same dialogue, so you realise you're watching the same event, from a different angle."
This shot also expands on the moment. Llewyn performs a chorus of -Fare The Well' (-Dink's Song') after -Hang Me.' At that point the performance is over and he walks off stage. The story has now come full circle.
As for the characters who populate Llewyn's story"they are an amalgam of impressions the Coens have of certain historical characters and fictional creations of their own imagination. Jean and Jim Berkey, for instance, in particular as they perform with their friend Troy Nelson at the Gaslight Café, recall in some ways the folk trio Peter, Paul and Mary.
'In fact, in the script we gave them a Peter, Paul and Mary song to sing"-500 Miles'," Joel Coen says. Ethan Coen says, 'There was a real act called Jim and Jean but all we essentially took from them"from their act"was their names. I have no idea who they were as people. Jim and Jean, as they are in the movie, they are our invention. We thought of Jim and Jean as the more clean-cut version of the folk scene."
'With the character of Roland Turner we were thinking about the New Orleans, old-school, jazz guys, and Dr. John," Ethan Coen says. 'Roland is a composite, on the surface, of various figures."
Llewyn, for his part, is an original, wholly fictional character. Inside Llewyn Davis"the title a reference to Dave Van Ronk's 1963 album, -Inside Dave Van Ronk'"isn't in fact about Dave Van Ronk. Like Dave Van Ronk, Llewyn has a working class background, but otherwise he resembles Dave Van Ronk only in that he shares his repertoire of songs"music that according to the Coens derives more from what they describe as the Scots-Irish-Anglo tradition as opposed to the Southern tradition of the blues.
Llewyn takes a physical beating or two in the story, but he takes a psychic beating as well. His contentious relationship with Jean Berkey, his best friend's wife, weighs on Llewyn through the movie. Jean Berkey sleeps with Llewyn, only to go on the attack, telling him he's got no ambition, isn't getting anywhere"and everything he touches falls apart. When he lands a gig recording a song he thinks is inane about the newly elected President Kennedy, he somehow manages to lose out when the song becomes a hit. The record Llewyn made on his own isn't selling, and so he sets his hopes on being signed by Bud Grossman, a music producer and manager out of Chicago. A golden opportunity to audition for the legendary Grossman suddenly looms when a bizarre twosome" jazz musician Roland Turner and his companion Johnny Five"appears; they are driving cross country and need an extra hand for gas money. Llewyn is in.
Llewyn's trip to Chicago is roughly inspired by an incident in Dave Van Ronk's life, in which Van Ronk suffers through a particularly embarrassing audition for the well-known folk manager Al Grossman (the model for the script's Bud Grossman).
Ethan Coen says, 'The trip to Chicago is not a big deal in Van Ronk's reminiscences, but we felt the movie was so much about New York that the road trip would be a useful detour"we thought of it as a kind of foil that might set off New York in an interesting way."
Llewyn's loss of his Masters Mates and Pilots license is another detail the Coens borrowed from Dave Van Ronk's life (though Dave Van Ronk shipped out twice with the merchant marines, he never returned to sea after losing his seaman's papers), but otherwise Llewyn's odyssey through New York"and the misfortunes that befall him"are the inventions of the Coens.
Their screenplay in hand, the Coens understood at once that the crucial element in filming the tale would be the casting of the title role.
'That was definitely the main challenge," says Ethan Coen. 'If you do a movie about a musician you want to see him perform, so we had to find an actor who could hold his own not only in terms of the dramatic requirements of the role"we needed an actor who could also sustain prolonged performances of music."
'Yeah. It was like -How do we do that'?" says Joel Coen. 'It was a bit like the problem we faced doing True Grit when we didn't know who was going to play the 14-year-old girl, the lead. At a certain point, you have to ask yourself, -Are you really going to make the movie if you don't find the right person'?
'This was a similar situation, but with a different set of requirements. The character of Llewyn has to hold the movie together because he's in every scene. But he also has to perform at least five songs, and we wanted"needed"someone who could really sing. We wound up looking at musicians, and even though there are notable exceptions, most musicians are not actors. There are some that could certainly do a supporting role, but as the lead"someone who's engaging you completely as a made-up character throughout an entire film"that's a different skill set."
The brothers thought they'd have to put the project on the back burner when luck or fate intervened in the person of Oscar Isaac.
The Coens' casting director Ellen Chenoweth first brought up Oscar's name when everyone concerned was tossing around suggestions. Oscar, a New York-based actor classically trained at Juilliard, has a multitude of theatre credits and is beginning to make a name for himself in films, having appeared in several A-list projects, such as Ridley Scott's Robin Hood and Nicolas Winding Refn's Drive. What's extraordinary about Oscar, however, is that he's also an accomplished singer and musician.
'We saw him on an audition tape. That's hard for us. We like to see people in person," says Joel Coen. 'But we thought he was very interesting. So he came in and sang and did some scenes." The Coens were impressed and excited enough to send the tape to T Bone Burnett, the Oscar and Grammy Award-winning executive music producer of Llewyn Davis, as well as the Coens' previous films O Brother, Where Art Thou? and The Ladykillers.
Straightaway T Bone Burnett told the Coens, 'This guy's better than a lot of the musicians I work with. He's the real thing." His opinion carried a great deal of weight for the brothers, and confirmed their instincts.
T Bone Burnett was even more enthusiastic when he saw Oscar perform in person.
'I thought he can play and sing as well as anybody I work with," he repeated"high praise from an artist who performed in Bob Dylan's Rolling Thunder tour and produced records for the likes of Roy Orbison, Elvis Costello, Elton John and Tony Bennett.
Oscar's ability to adapt to and perform authentically in the style of the folk guitar playing of the era also made a big impression on T Bone Burnett. 'That style of playing the guitar is called Travis Picking, and it's not an easy thing to do. But Oscar mastered it," T Bone Burnett says.
Says Joel Coen, 'In addition to Oscar's obvious musical skills, we thought he was so good in the dramatic scenes we did with him when we saw him, that it just became obvious to the both of us that we had found Llewyn."
The other thing about Oscar that appealed to the brothers was that Oscar in no way resembled Dave Van Ronk.
'Not physically, not ethnically, not in terms of his whole aura," says Joel Coen. 'Oscar's got a beautiful tenor whereas Van Ronk was kind of growly, but, you know, we liked that. Oscar was very different from the way we had imagined the character when we wrote, yet we felt there was no reason we couldn't re-imagine him in some way. We also felt that Oscar could convincingly portray someone from New York's working classes, and we liked that. That's a big part of who Llewyn is."
For Oscar, landing the role was a thrill"the lead in a major motion picture. But it was made even more gratifying for him because it was the lead in a Coen Brothers film.
'I had read somewhere the Coens were going to do a movie about the folk music scene of the 60s, and immediately"because I'm a huge fan and have been watching their movies forever, and because I love folk music"I thought, -I have to be a part of this.' I never thought it would happen. But I thought, at least I'll try."
'I was able to get an audition with their casting director, did four or five scenes for her and then recorded -Hang Me'"a Van Ronk version of a folk song they were having people sing"and I sent the tape. I spent four hours recording it, thirty different versions! I also learned -Dink's Song.' Then I saw the Coens, and they asked me to come in for another audition. Then a month went by. An agonising month during which I was screaming at the universe, -Give me this!'" 'I finally got the call. Joel called himself, which is a great way to find out, and which is typical of his kind and quiet personality. He said, -We want to do the movie with you.' I was so elated. At first I couldn't believe it."
With Oscar cast and financing secured, plans for filming moved forward. With a modest budget befitting the scale of the story, the Coens determined they could shoot the script entirely on location in New York and in under forty days. Producer Scott Rudin, who produced No Country for Old Men and True Grit for the Coens, continues his successful collaboration with them on this film. Many of the Coens' other longtime collaborators also signed on, including production designer Jess Gonchor and costume designer Mary Zophres. And the brothers hired acclaimed French cinematographer Bruno Delbonnel (nominated for an Academy-Award® for his work on Amélie and Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince) as director of photography. Delbonnel photographed -Tuileries' for the Coens, their segment from the film Paris, je t'aime.
Pre-production moved along quickly, and the casting process continued. For the key roles of Jim and Jean Berkey, the folk-singing duo who plays a significant role in Llewyn's life, the Coens cast Justin Timberlake and Carey Mulligan, unexpected choices.
'Justin Timberlake came in and we thought he's interesting but also he's an amazing singer with an unbelievable range. Yet he's such a good actor," says Joel Coen. 'We thought it would be a great kick to see him as a folk singer."
Justin Timberlake was very excited about the project.
'I was lucky enough to work with the Coens and with Oscar Isaac and Carey Mulligan," he says. 'I worked with Marcus Mumford on the soundtrack so I became very good friends with all of them. I don't know any other world where we could collaborate like that, but it was so much fun. Not only will it be a great movie, but the music will be fantastic."
'Justin Timberlake was great because he pitched in on the music entirely"not just on the music he was directly involved with [in his own scenes]," Joel Coen says. 'During the week we rehearsed the music for each scene; he stayed the whole time, and worked with everyone. He helped write the song -Please, Mr. Kennedy' and he sings off-screen in the Irish quartet [in one scene that takes place at the Gaslight Café]."
In the film Jim Berkey considers Llewyn his best friend. Jean Berkey thinks of him as something more. She and Llewyn have a volatile, sexual, love-hate relationship that often has them bitterly arguing. The brothers were delighted to cast Carey Mulligan as Jean. Carey Mulligan rose to fame for her performance in the film An Education, which won her a Best Actress Oscar nomination, and she appears as Daisy Buchanan in Baz Luhrmann's adaptation of F. Scott Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby.
'Carey Mulligan was an actor we wanted to work with. We'd seen her in An Education and she was really great in that. We weren't thinking about her as a singer, but she can sing," says Joel Coen. 'We saw a lot of actresses for the part. But Carey Mulligan sent us a tape and it was very funny."
'Funny because she was angry and pissed off," Ethan Coen says. 'It was a really angry reading of the scene with an American accent, and we were a little scared of her. And surprised. She had just done a movie with Oscar in which she couldn't have been sweeter."
Physically, Carey Mulligan also appealed to the Coens:
'There was clearly something about Carey Mulligan's physicality which seemed like the period to us"like she was one of those Village girls of the time," Joel Coen says. 'It's easier with certain actors than with others to imagine them in a particular time period. We could definitely see Carey Mulligan in this period. And we thought it would be fun to see her do this part which is so angry"not the type of character Carey Mulligan is associated with."
Carey Mulligan was delighted when the Coens offered her the part.
'The opportunity to work on a Coen Brothers film comes along once in a lifetime"well, five if you're John Goodman. But if you're just a normal lucky person, when the Coens offer you a role, you jump at it," Carey Mulligan says.
An added plus was that she fell in love with her character.
'I hadn't played or read a character with more than two lines of dialogue strung together and here I would be someone who speaks in paragraphs.
'I also loved how unkind Jean could be, how brutal even. Most of the women I play are quite empathetic, and Jean most certainly is not. We come into Jean and Llewyn's relationship at a heated time; things are heightened between them, she's so resentful, and I loved that."
For the role of Roland Turner, the physically challenged, garrulous, somewhat drug-addled jazz- cum-tin pan alley-cum rock -n' roll songwriter and musician, it was as if the Coens took their cue from Carey Mulligan.
Says Ethan Coen, 'We've done five or six movies with John Goodman and we wanted to do something with him again. We had just done True Grit before we started writing this film, and Charles Portis, who wrote the novel True Grit, always has these gasbag characters in everything he writes. We were thinking of Roland as a Portis character."
'I'm not sure if we were consciously or unconsciously thinking about John Goodman when we started writing the character but when we were done with it we realised that the guy sounded just like John. It had been thirteen years since we worked with him [on O Brother, Where Art Thou?], and we wanted to work together again. So, yes, the role was absolutely written for him," says Joel Coen. 'John Goodman understood the whole jazz cat, the whole Dr. John/Doc Pomus/New Orleans nature of the character. Doc Pomus was a white Jewish songwriter who sang in black clubs in the 40s. John Goodman also understood exactly the way the character looked, that Chano Pozo style," says Ethan Coen. 'Chano Pozo was a drummer who played with Dizzy Gillespie. John knew who he was."
'He even designed his own hairstyle. We called it a Mulligan after the jazz-great Gerry Mulligan. Mulligan wore his hair in a Caesar cut just like Roland."
'Roland's character has a specific function to fulfill in the story"he's the voice in the film that's taking the piss out of folk music," Joel Coen says. 'Llewyn has an ambivalent relationship to the music but he's committed to it. Roland's the guy who simply sends it up."
John Goodman was more than ready for the assignment. He loves all Coens characters"loves their recognisable humanity"and he was eager to work with the brothers again. John Goodman says, 'Roland may appear weird and far out to some people, and to Llewyn. But to me, Roland seems like a normal guy."
'Coens characters are like all human beings you meet, but they're just stretched a little. I thought a lot about the guy before we began and I assumed he was a jazz pianist. But when I went to the read-through with Joel Coen and Ethan Coen, Joel Coen said, -No, he's a trumpet player.' But Ethan Coen goes, -Oh, no, he's a reed man"I see him playing the saxophone.' So he's a little bit of all three. Let's just say he's a jazz musician who's got a problem going with recreational drugs that's gotten a little more than recreational."
Garrett Hedlund was cast in the role of Johnny Five, Roland's youthful, spaced-out, taciturn, caretaker/driver. The Coens were unfamiliar with Hedlund's work but when they met him during the casting process they decided he was exactly right for the role.
'Garrett Hedlund has that kind of natural feeling, he projects that sort of hip, reserved, nut-job type, and we went for him," says Joel Coen.
Says Ethan Coen, 'He looked the part absolutely!"
'I heard about the movie and I heard it was a wonderful story about Dave Van Ronk, but I never thought I'd be a part of it," says Garrett Hedlund, who recently starred in Walter Salles' On the Road, based on the Jack Kerouac novel. 'I'm a big Coen Brothers fan"I've seen everything they've done. I also love that they're from Minnesota like me."
'So when I got a call about meeting them when they were coming to L.A., I couldn't believe it. I'd do a walk on for them, a voice-over. When I read for them, they said, -Yeah, you really have a good handle on this guy.' I don't know why they felt that way. They told me the character's based on a real person, someone they crossed paths with along the way, and he had this -thing' about him. You couldn't really pinpoint it but they felt you couldn't really trust him. Llewyn doesn't trust Johnny Five, so maybe that's why. Johnny Five's a mysterious guy who doesn't talk much and tries to look like James Dean."
'Garrett Hedlund is from Minnesota, actually near where we shot Fargo," Ethan Coen says. 'We thought he'd be a perfect fit with John. His and John's characters are kind of like Mutt and Jeff. John Goodman's Mutt. Or vice versa. But it was a great fit."
Joel Coen points out that Garrett Hedlund's character speaks very little in his scenes.
'In fact he has almost no dialogue. Casting a person with very little dialogue can be difficult. Interestingly, one of the things that attracted us to Garrett Hedlund is that he has this very deep voice. When he does speak it makes a big impression."
F. Murray Abraham and Stark Sands round out the principal cast"Abraham in the role of the Chicago nightclub owner and music manager Bud Grossman, and Sands as a folk singer who's been drafted.
'We've always wanted to work with Murray," says Joel Coen. 'In fact, Ethan Coen has worked with him. He's appeared in several of Ethan's plays. We knew that he was in a play in New York and we thought we could get him at the end of the shoot. And we were able to."
Sands, an accomplished actor/singer, and a Tony nominee, recently scored on Broadway in the punk rock band Green Day's musical American Idiot and is currently appearing on Broadway in the musical Kinky Boots.
Says Sands, 'I've played a soldier so many times that I felt comfortable auditioning, thank goodness. At my last audition Joel Coen said, -What we really need is someone who can play folk style, who can finger. Are you willing to learn that?' Was I ever! I went out, bought a book and taught myself so that I'd be good enough to play by the time shooting started. Whew!"
Folk music is integral to the concept of Inside Llewyn Davis and is a major part of Llewyn's story.
'When we were writing the script, musical ideas"even specific songs we wanted to use"became part of the process," says Joel Coen. 'At this point T Bone Burnett got involved." The Coens work closely with T Bone Burnett. 'We tell him what we're thinking of and he starts making suggestions," says Joel Coen.
Says Ethan Coen, 'One of the things T Bone Burnett suggested was the song -500 Miles' which in fact turned out to be Justin Timberlake's number, not Oscar's. It's a very beautiful song. We saw a YouTube clip of the Brothers Four performing it in a club and the entire audience joined in singing. That wouldn't happen today."
For T Bone Burnett, the memory of having suggested -500 Miles' to the Coens is kind of fuzzy. 'You know what? I can't remember," he says. 'Our collaboration is such that I can't distinguish between what anybody suggested other than to say I think Joel Coen and Ethan Coen suggested most songs. And I just facilitate."
'But I probably did come up with -500 Miles.' I love it. It's a beautiful, beautiful song. Bob Dylan did a version of it," he says.
Other songs in the film are -Dink's Song,' which is closely identified with Van Ronk, -Hang Me, Oh Hang Me,' -Green Green Rocky Road,' the folk ballads -Shoals of Herring' and -The Death of Queen Jane,' as well as -The Last Thing on My Mind,' -Please, Mr. Kennedy,' -The Old Triangle,' -Cocaine,' -Old MacDonald,' -Leaving the Cat' and -Storms Are on the Ocean.' A week or so before filming began, cast rehearsals got underway. This included performing and recording the music"despite the fact that a decision had been made to play the music live during shooting, not on playback.
'The reason we record the music [before shooting] is that eventually we can use it on an album, and also there's a sense that no one will really get serious about the music unless it's all set down," says Ethan Coen. 'Also, T Bone Burnett wanted a studio version of everything."
T Bone Burnett was thrilled with the decision to perform the music live for filming.
'Joel Coen and Ethan Coen wanted it live because they wanted the music and the film to have something of a documentary feel"something of the period about it, the raw reality of it happening right there," T Bone Burnett says. 'That's something you just can't ever get with lip-syncing."
One fortuitous event connected to the music also originated with T Bone Burnett. It was he who suggested bringing in the British musician Marcus Mumford to contribute and play on the tracks as they were recorded. Mumford's group, Mumford & Sons, a British group with an original country-folk-American inflection, has two hit albums. The band's second album -Babel' won the 2012 Grammy Award for Record of the Year.
Says T Bone Burnett, 'Marcus Mumford's music is quite interesting. The energy of the band is unbelievable, and Marcus Mumford is a good man. He seems like one of the boys, he seems like he's on the team." Among the other musicians who played on the tracks were Punch Brothers, the Lost City Ramblers, and John Cohen, who played the banjo.
Production on Inside Llewyn Davis began Monday February 6th, 2012, on location in Woodside, Queens for scenes that take place in Llewyn's sister's house where Llewyn occasionally retreats for a warm bed, a little comfort and a loan. Scenes were also filmed under the EL in Woodside (the elevated subway train) and on the subway platform where Llewyn receives an important call. After a quick stint on Randall's Island for a scene set on the outskirts of Chicago, the unit moved into Manhattan for the scenes in which Llewyn meets with his manager and record producer only to learn that his solo album is performing poorly. Two scenes were then filmed in an East Harlem church replicating a Merchant Marine Union Hall. Llewyn, like his father, is qualified to work on US merchant ships. In the Hall Llewyn suffers another setback. He discovers he's no longer eligible to ship out because he owes back dues. He manages to come up with the money to pay the fee only to suffer a twist of fate that keeps him from being able to work on a commercial vessel.
A sequence was next shot in a doctor's office where Llewyn arranges for an abortion for Jean, followed by a scene on East 9th Street. The unit then set up shop at a Manhattan recording studio where Llewyn, Jim Berkey (Justin Timberlake) and another singer/guitar player, Al Cody (Adam Driver), record Jim's specialty song, -Please, Mr. Kennedy.'
An important sequence followed at the Village's famed Gaslight Café, the focal point of the Village folk scene at the time, where some of the most important music in the film is performed by Jim and Jean and their friend Troy Nelson (Stark Sands), as well as Llewyn.
Carey Mulligan experienced a good deal of trepidation about filming the Gaslight sequences. 'I was very nervous about singing -500 Miles.' Singing for me seems to be the most nerve-wracking thing to do. And when you're surrounded by actual musicians like Oscar, Justin and Stark, it's even worse. The last time I sang on film in Shame, it was a solo. Here it was with these accomplished musical artists so it was very intimidating. But the boys were easy going, and T Bone, who supervised the music, is such a warming, comfortable influence that I was OK." Oscar Isaac was particularly impressed with Justin Timberlake and the way he worked.
'Justin Timberlake's so funny and good-natured. Our characters have a really warm relationship. I think he's the closest thing Llewyn has to a friend in the film and yet here is Llewyn having sex with the man's wife."
Executive music producer T Bone Burnett admired the musical abilities of everyone in the cast but singles out Oscar's particular gifts for special praise.
'I don't think any actor has ever learned to play and sing as thoroughly and compellingly"while filming it all live without the aid of a click track, that is without the aid of any technology"as Oscar," T Bone Burnett says. 'And it's music he hadn't really heard a year before. Amazing."
Additional scenes on Village streets were staged after which a series of intense encounters between Jean and Llewyn were filmed in the Café Reggio, in Washington Square Park and in the Berkey apartment.
'Oscar and I had this long walk and talk scene in which Llewyn and Jean discuss their relationship, and I came away very happy," says Carey Mulligan. 'The Coens just create this ease on set. There's a general understanding that everyone is trying to make a good film. You sort of feel like they're guiding you along but there's no drama. And it was great to work with Oscar. We both said that we should make a plan to do a picture together every year!"
The Coens especially enjoyed Carey Mulligan's working method on set.
'There's this cliché about British actors versus American actors," says Joel Coen. 'The American actor is -angsting' over everything he has to do and the British actor does what he or she's supposed to with a minimum of fuss"just gets on with it. That's acting. That's Carey. You can ask her to do anything and she just goes and bangs it out. No angst involved at all."
'It's a lot of fun to watch an actor like Carey Mulligan work," Ethan Coen adds. 'And she does not suffer from vanity. She kind of goes stomping through the scene, swearing at Oscar, giving him a terrible time. I would think it's some great fun playing a character like that."
'Carey Mulligan and I had a great time playing husband and wife in Drive," Oscar says. 'We loved that experience. It's a real turn on to watch Carey Mulligan do what she's doing here"just get really mean and nasty, really tell it like it is. My favorite scenes in the film are those when she's giving it to me. The Coens really understood she was capable of that. That helped me understand my character as well."
'Llewyn's not an easy figure to define. It's hard to say exactly what kind of person he is. I think he's charismatic, gregarious, you know, outgoing and positive, just not this week"not the week the movie's taking place. You're catching him on a real downswing."
'The uncanny thing is somehow I feel that the character is not complete with me. That's not a false humility thing, just the structure of the whole operation. The Coens created this extraordinary character and their understanding support helped me bring him to life."
'The three of us, Ethan Coen, Joel Coen and myself, started developing something like a second-hand language. I felt as if I could read their thoughts. In one scene, after a take I thought to myself, -Wouldn't it be better to move my hand here,' thinking of this very specific point of dialogue in the scene, when Joel Coen came over and said, -In the next take why not try moving your hand' at the very same moment I had thought to do it. I felt that we'd become like the triplets of the Village. I felt like an honorary brother."
After another blistering scene between Llewyn and Jean in her apartment, the brothers filmed various sequences that depict the near surreal car journey Llewyn takes with Roland Turner and his companion Johnny Five to Chicago, where Llewyn intends to audition for the legendary music producer Bud Grossman. There's a price to pay for the passage. Llewyn has to listen to Roland's rant"not always pleasant for Llewyn but inevitably entertaining for the audience. The trip to Chicago is inspired by a story in Van Ronk's life, though the character of Roland Turner is wholly the invention of the Coens. John Goodman was completely comfortable with the character. The Coens recount that John Goodman felt he understood Roland's humanity. He liked the man.
The Coens had a great time working with John Goodman. The instant rapport they had developed with him the very first time they worked together resurfaced immediately on the Llewyn Davis set. John Goodman seems to exist naturally on their wavelength. Goodman says, 'To me, everything the Coens write is great. I just seem to have an affinity for the things they write. I assume I know where they're coming from and I'm usually right." 'We do have such an easy rapport with him," says Joel Coen. 'We had it right from the beginning. I remember on Raising Arizona we asked him to do a -Spanky' take. We didn't have to explain. He knew exactly what we were talking about" what we were referring to: Spanky from the -Our Gang' comedies. It was the same on this film." The character of Roland isn't exactly disabled but has a great deal of trouble ambulating. He propels himself with a pair of crutches.
'When we talked to John Goodman about how we wanted him to walk in a particular scene we used the name Everett Sloane as a verb," Ethan Coen says. 'He understood the reference to the character Sloane played in Orson Welles' film The Lady From Shanghai. The character is lame. He uses crutches to get around and walks in an odd crab-like manner. John Goodman knew precisely what we meant when we told him, -In this scene you just Everett Sloane your way across the room.'"
'Neither John Goodman nor Carey Mulligan had a great deal of time on set," Joel Coen says. 'But they sort of parachuted in, did their work perfectly, and were gone. It was great."
After stops at a diner along the way, a scene at a forlorn service station (shot in Riverhead, New York) and a stretch of roadside where Llewyn finally abandons Roland and Johnny, action shifted back to a New York soundstage for scenes inside Roland's car and a touching scene that depicts Llewyn's visit to his aging father in a seedy nursing home. Llewyn serenades his father with -The Shoals of Herring,' a song that tells the story of a herring fisherman who went to sea as a boy in the 1890s.
The unit then moved to the Upper West Side to shoot outside the Beacon Theatre at Broadway and 74th Street, and afterward inside a Riverside Drive apartment, home to Llewyn's friends the Gorfeins, uptown, bohemian, arty types who know Llewyn from the days he was singing with his partner Mike. Llewyn often camps out on their couch. We see him sparring one night with the Gorfeins and their guests during a contentious dinner party. Llewyn also spends a good part of his week searching for the Gorfeins' cat after inadvertently letting it out of the apartment.
The Cinematography, Production Design and Costumes
A hallmark of the Coens' work in each of their films is exquisite visuals"their films present a compelling, vibrant atmosphere and tone that's integral to the way the story is being told. It fell to cinematographer Bruno Delbonnel, production designer Jess Gonchor and costumer Mary Zophres to work with the Coens in executing their vision for Llewyn Davis. Says Bruno Delbonnel, 'All I knew about New York in the 60s is based on archives, film footage, still photography. Everything I saw looks desaturated in this material. Was it really like that or not? I felt that using these references would have been wrong."
The cinematographer says that instead he wanted to create a particular mood for the film, a mood based on the 1960s and also on Llewyn Davis's personal story.
'It's the mood of a person who doesn't have a coat to protect him from the cold New York winter," he says. 'It's more about being evocative than truthful to the 60s. I was looking for coldness, sadness, unhappiness, loneliness," he says.
Bruno Delbonnel discussed these ideas with the brothers.
'Early on, we agreed there was something interesting in the front cover of the Bob Dylan record -The Freewheelin' Bob Dylan,'" he says. 'You can feel the slushy, cold New York winter in that photo. The main thing was to avoid being too pretty."
'I also thought of Llewyn's story as a folk song and I thought it could be interesting to -build' the light as a folk song as well."
'The Gaslight Café would become the -chorus,' like the refrain of the movie"dark, contrast-y, almost colorless. For the rest of the movie I decided to go for a very simple way of lighting based on an overcast kind of daylight, and using a palette that was a little bit uncomfortable, magenta, yellow. I was looking for something that was opposed to a blue-cyan cold world."
One major decision the Coens and Delbonnel made was opting against shooting with a digital camera and sticking to shooting the movie on film.
'It was based on a feeling, as none of us has ever shot anything digital," Bruno Delbonnel says. 'Film seemed appropriate for the period because of the grain structure of the film stock. I even made some tests using super 16mm film, but the tests were too grainy. I thought I had made a mistake. So we went with normal film that will look beautiful on HD-TV and on DVDs."
Like the cinematographer, production designer Gonchor's work was based on the specific year and the feeling and setting of the story.
'I had three basics to work with. It's 1961, it's winter, and it's New York City," says Gonchor. 'And it's a particular New York"not the elegant East Side or the leafy outer boroughs, but the messy, unkempt downtown Greenwich Village, which mimics the main character who's in a way himself and doesn't have his own place."
'In most Coen Brothers films, the ones I worked on, the art direction can look almost fake. Not to the point where it's pushed over the edge but where it's almost hyper real. This film was going to be different. The brothers said they wanted to approach it like a documentary, have it be as real as possible, to enhance everything"not make it stylised but to have it seem totally authentic."
Another element Gonchor had to contend with was a modest budget.
'With a smaller budget you have to be very crafty about what you're doing. We did a lot of location scouting to find what we wanted and needed."
A signature scene in the film occurs at the Gaslight Café, but of course the original Gaslight is long gone.
'We hoped to find a subterranean Manhattan club that could work for us but these rooms were too small and cramped for shooting. We found an existing empty space, more or less a small abandoned warehouse in Crown Heights Brooklyn that worked. We turned it into the Gaslight," says Gonchor. 'We lowered the height of the ceiling, constructed arches, brought in the period furniture and fixtures, and the result was that you really felt you were in a dingy Village Club circa 1961."
'We were also creative with the Chicago Club, the Gate of Horn, converting the old Gramercy movie theater on East 23rd Street into a music club, and turning the antiquated projection booth into a cramped, messy office." Once in a while Gonchor and the Coens were able to use an existing location to match their needs.
'Burger Heaven on 51st Street has been there since 1963"it looked perfect for the Chicago diner scene. All we had to do was cover up some modern appliances," Gonchor says.
Costume designer Mary Zophres has worked with the Coens for nearly twenty years and, like Gonchor, is very much on their wavelength.
'As soon as I read the script I had a conversation with Joel and Ethan about the time being very specifically February, 1961, and then I started to research it. We all felt that the era had a timeless quality about it. It could be the 50s or it could be later. The actual time doesn't jump out at you and say -1961.' Nonetheless the look of the movie very much has its foot in the 1950s. In 1961, the counter culture was just beginning to coalesce. What we call -The 60s' came with a distinctive fashion statement."
For Mark Zophres, the main challenge was how to dress Llewyn.
'Basically he's in one outfit throughout. Remember, he doesn't have a place to live, so you know he isn't going to change"maybe just a shirt. And so he carries a small duffel with him in addition to his guitar. He lacks a winter coat"he's always chilly"so his sport jacket is all- important. We tried hundreds on him, tweed, leather, suede, but what came up looking best was a beige corduroy sport jacket from the 1950s. Basically beside the jacket and shirts, all Llewyn has is a sweater and a pair of pants."
'One other thing, actually. Llewyn's shoes became all important. He's always walking around in miserable weather and his shoes don't keep out the elements"a problem for him. We made the shoes ourselves and based them on a shoe of the period made and sold by Thom McAn that we saw in a Sears catalogue. It's a modified desert boot. Oscar loved the shoes. He wouldn't even rehearse unless he was wearing them."
Mark Zophres thought carefully about the clothes for the other characters as well.
'I based Jean Berkey's look on a composite of various folk singers of the time. Carey Mulligan wanted to wear slacks, and that looked absolutely right. She felt this young woman wouldn't want to dress like her mother wearing a dress and pantyhose or heels. You know, -I'm going to wear pants and flats, and I'm not going to put my hair in curlers.'
Jim's look is basically preppy, which worked"a little like the guys from the Kingston Trio, though he has a beard in the film."
Justin Timberlake himself had suggested he wear a beard in the film that resembled the beard of the singer Paul Clayton"the Coens were great with that.
'Roland Turner is like a white man dressing like a black man and that's how I approached it. I researched jazz musicians both black and white, and sort of blended the two, putting Roland in a dark maroon suit with a Fedora. When the character removes the hat he's sporting kind of a Caesar haircut. John Goodman loved that."
'Roland doesn't really care what he looks like"he's mimicking jazz greats he's seen, copying them," says John Goodman. 'He's like a lot of loud people who are searching for a place in the world, just trying to stay on top of things, maybe to prove themselves a little smarter than they are. Roland seems to be an encyclopedia of the mundane. He's had a lot of adventures but let's face it, nobody wants to hear about them."
The road trip to Chicago and the sequences with the Gorfeins completed, the unit moved to the Gramercy Theatre on East 23rd Street for scenes set inside the Gate of Horn, the Chicago club where Llewyn has a frustrating audition for music impresario Bud Grossman. Accompanying himself on guitar, Llewyn performs his version of the traditional English ballad -The Death of Queen Jane,' music that has been sung and recorded by a great many folk artists including Joan Baez.
As John Jeremiah Sullivan has written in his liner notes to the movie's soundtrack, at this point, Llewyn could chose to play 'something crowd-pleasing, and he should, really"but instead he decides to play something weird and old, -The Death of Queen Jane,' a song about a pregnant woman whose life is in danger, and about her baby, if it will live or die. By that point we know these topics aren't abstract for Llewyn. The forces that took the queen's life, sparing her child, move through him and the lives of people he loves (poorly). But he's trapped in his fate. He can sing about it but can't sing his way out of it."
The scenes at the Gate of Horn completed, Inside Llewyn Davis wrapped April 4, 2012 after six weeks of shooting.
1961, Winter. Greenwich Village, New York. On stage at the Gaslight Café, Llewyn Davis (OSCAR ISAAC) is finishing his final number of the night ('You've probably heard that one before, but what the hell"if it was never new and it never gets old, then it's a folk song..."). Offstage, his set done, Llewyn's told someone has been asking for him out back. In the alley, he encounters a thin, angular man, obscured by shadows, who snuffs out his cigarette, moves up to Llewyn, and socks him in mouth"retaliation, the man says, for heckling his wife on stage the night before.
Morning: Llewyn wakes on the sofa of his friends Mitch and Lillian Gorfein, uptown academics. With nowhere to live, no money, no winter coat to protect against the cold, he retreats to their couch on a regular basis. Stumbling into the corridor, Llewyn locks himself out of the apartment, along with the Gorfeins' cat. With no other options, he dumps the cat at the Village walk-up of his best friend and fellow folksinger Jim Berkey (Justin Timberlake) and his wife Jean (Carey Mulligan), letting himself in by the fire escape.
Other hurdles and hindrances, major and minor, pile up: Jean says she's pregnant, and Llewyn's responsible; he's got to pay for the abortion, and if he expects to stay the night it'll be on the floor. At the dingy office of his music label, Legacy Records, Llewyn learns his new album"his first as a solo artist since the suicide of his singing partner"isn't selling.
Out of money and out of options, Llewyn subways out to his sister Joy's modest home in Queens. Looking for a loan Joy can ill-afford, Llewyn wonders if there's any profit left over from the sale of their parents' house"but Joy says the money's in escrow; and besides, the funds are going toward their father's nursing home bills. Joy reminds Llewyn that"like their father"he's got seaman's papers from the merchant marines; Llewyn can always ship out if he's desperate for cash.
Back in Manhattan, there's a message waiting from Jim. It's a gig. Someone dropped out of a studio session for Columbia Records, and the job's Llewyn's for the taking, if he wants it. As Jim, Llewyn, and another musician Al Cody (Adam Driver) rehearse -Please, Mr. Kennedy,' Llewyn scoffs at the song"a novelty tune about the space race"only to learn it's an original composition . . . of Jim's. Finally, taking $200 in cash upfront for the session, Llewyn forgoes royalties, a decision that will come back to haunt him later.
Stopping by Legacy to pick up his mail, Llewyn asks Ginny the secretary if there's been any word from Bud Grossman"a month has passed since Llewyn sent the big-time music producer a copy of his album, and he hasn't heard back. 'Nothing," Ginny tells him, and sends Llewyn on his way with a carton of his unsold LPs.
A break, or so it seems, presents itself when Llewyn catches the Gorfeins' cat running down MacDougal Street. Unnamed cat and unsold copies of 'Inside Llewyn Davis" in hand, Llewyn heads to Al Cody's to unload the stack of vinyl and crash on Al's couch. But the apartment is off limits"Al's girlfriend is coming to town.
Another curve ball awaits Llewyn at Dr. Ruvkin's office: Llewyn wants to schedule Jean's abortion, and pay for it, but Ruvkin says Llewyn's got credit 'from last time"…. Llewyn paid for Diane's procedure last year, Ruvkin says, but Diane decided last minute not to go through with it ('Diane didn't tell you? She asked me to refer her to a doctor in Cleveland…. She decided to… go to term….")
Uptown, at the Gorfeins', Llewyn finally returns the cat, and accepts a dinner invitation from Mitch (Ethan Phillips) and Lillian (Robin Bartlett). But when Mitch brings Llewyn a guitar and asks him to play a tune for their guests"and Lillian chimes in, attempting to sing the harmonies of Llewyn's dead singing partner, Mike Timlin"something in Llewyn cracks. Dinner quickly goes south, and amid the melee over Llewyn's performance ('I'm not a trained poodle. I do this for a living!"), Lillian makes a discovery: the cat Llewyn has brought home isn't theirs. Confronted with incontrovertible evidence ('Where's its scrotum?!"), Llewyn is forced to admit Lillian's right.
With no place to sleep and the unclaimed and unnamed cat on his hands, Llewyn opts in when Al Cody tells him two acquaintances are driving to Chicago and need a third man to help with gas money. On a bleak, windswept Greenwich Village street corner, a huge four-door sedan glides to a stop. Llewyn peers through the windscreen; inside is one Roland Turner (John GOodman), an obese jazz musician sporting a goatee, a feather in his fedora, and an animal fetish tie pin"and, at the wheel, his hipster companion, Johnny Five (Garrett Huedlund). This ride to Chicago is the only thing standing between Llewyn and music mogul Bud Grossman (F. Murray Abraham); if Llewyn can get in front of Grossman"and play for him at his club, the Gate of Horn"he stands a chance to get signed. Guitar in tow, clutching the cat, Llewyn settles into the backseat alongside Roland, forced to listen to the jazzman's jarring, free-associative rant.
During a stop to eat at a forlorn, out-of-the-way roadside diner, Llewyn stumbles on Roland, stoned and unconscious on the men's room floor. Llewyn and Johnny Five get the big man on his feet and walk him back to the car. But things go downhill; late at night a state trooper hassles Johnny for stopping on the shoulder to sleep, and when Johnny takes a swing, he gets cuffed and frogmarched to jail, taking the car keys with him.
Stranded with a comatose Roland on a highway somewhere in the Midwest, Llewyn's had it. He abandons the car"and, finally, the nameless cat"taking a Greyhound bus the rest of the way to the Windy City.
Llewyn's determined to hang in, looking for any way to gain traction in his life and career, and hoping against hope that Grossman will be his salvation. But a big break proves as elusive as ever, temptingly close sometimes but always just out of reach. At the Gate of Horn, Grossman"pre- occupied, his mind perhaps made up even before Llewyn plucks a note"doesn't seem terribly impressed; 'I don't see a lot of money here," Grossman says, reaching his verdict. Llewyn appears to accept Grossman's assessment of his future, his mood in keeping with the mournful nature of the ballad he's just sung.
Llewyn hitches a ride back to New York, where he settles the dues he owes the seaman's union"with the help of an old union buddy of his father's, and the money he saved from Jean's abortion"and secures a post as Seaman First Class in the merchant marine. But after a visit to his ailing father at his retirement home, he learns his sister has thrown out his Masters Mates and Pilots License"the one thing he needs in order to ship out. Another door has closed. A beleaguered Llewyn tries reconnecting with Jean, and with the Gorfeins. At the Gorfeins' apartment, where all is forgiven, he learns that -Please, Mr. Kennedy' is a runaway hit, and will likely pay out royalties for years to come. And, to Llewyn's surprise, in Lillian's arms he finds the Gorfeins' cat"seemingly unchanged and safe in its rightful place. Ulysses found his way home, Lillian says, scratching at the door the night before. The cat's name"it's Ulysses"Lillian says again, when Llewyn at first doesn't understand.
By the end of the week, Llewyn will come full circle: back at the Gaslight, bitter and drunk, he heckles an insecure, aging singer. The following night, his own set finished, he's told a stranger wants a word with him out back. Stepping into the alley, Llewyn finds himself where he began: on a cold winter night, staring into an uncertain future, in 1961.
Inside Llewyn Davis
Release Date: January 16th, 2014