Coens tout their 'Inside Llewyn Davis' star Oscar Isaac as a 'real musician' - InfoNews

Current Conditions

-1.2°C

Coens tout their 'Inside Llewyn Davis' star Oscar Isaac as a 'real musician'

This file film image released by CBS FIlms shows, from left, Oscar Isaac, Justin Timberlake and Adam Driver in a scene from "Inside Llewyn Davis." THE CANADIAN PRESS/AP/CBS FIlms, Alison Rosa
December 16, 2013 - 11:08 AM

TORONTO - In mapping out a tale about a talented but luckless folk singer, writers-directors Joel and Ethan Coen admit they weren't that concerned with crafting a plot, or whether an actor could actually pull off such a demanding role.

All that came later, after the filmmaking brothers embarked on writing "Inside Llewyn Davis" using an "organic" process that eschewed a traditional outline in favour of a more free-wheeling "see where it goes" strategy.

The result is an understated portrait of a man spinning his wheels while lesser talents around him find the recognition he craves. When it came time to actually make the bleak film, the Coens realized they had a problem — finding their star.

"When we wrote it we were just kind of blithe about it, we figured, 'All right, we need some kind of actor who can do this and we want to see him sing and play, too' and we didn't worry about finding that person, although we should have," Ethan Coen said in a recent phone call from New York.

"We started auditioning people and you realize that having acting gifts to that degree and having a musical gift to that degree isn't necessarily going to happen in one person. Fortunately, we ended up meeting (actor Oscar Isaac), the one person who did have both."

Isaac leaps to leading man status after years of smaller parts in films including "Drive," "Che" and "Robin Hood," earning acclaim for his turn as a sour folk purist who wallows in an underground scene that predates the explosion of stars including Bob Dylan, Phil Ochs and Joni Mitchell.

The classically trained Isaac happens to be an accomplished singer and musician, and his chops were enough to impress not only the Coens but their music producer, T Bone Burnett.

The Coens praise him as "a real musician" who's been playing guitar long enough to be able to master the particular picking style required for the role.

"We wanted to see him actually performing live — our condition was always to shoot the performances live and we didn't want to have somebody lip-syncing, faking it to somebody else's playback," Ethan Coen says of the music-heavy film, which includes crooning from supporting players Carey Mulligan and Justin Timberlake.

"We didn't even realize how rare what we needed was until we started looking for it."

Throughout the film, the sad-sack Llewyn schleps through the folk circles of 1961 Greenwich Village, barely earning enough to survive from gig-to-gig, and relying on generous friends to offer a couch for the night or a paying job to help make ends meet.

His series of disheartening encounters are knitted together by the concurrent wanderings of an orange tabby cat that he accidentally sets free from a friend's apartment, and Llewyn spends much of the film alternately chasing and losing the feline.

It's tempting to draw all sorts of deeper meaning into the cat, but Joel Coen says its main purpose is really quite banal.

"We had a movie that was not really plot-driven, it was a character-study and just a sort of week-in-the-life of a working musician to whom nothing really extraordinary happens," Joel Coen noted in the same phone call from New York.

"And we thought we needed something that was going to lead from one thing to the next and in as simple a way as possible, as prosaic as that sounds.... Once we thought about that and how it might work in the story it seemed to fit with a lot of other things in the story in a convenient way. It seemed right in multiple ways."

The cat evokes loose allusions to "The Odyssey" (his name is Ulysses and he embarks on his own meandering journey home) and the circular trip he takes mimics that of the larger narrative, which also starts and ends at the same place.

The film is loosely based on the memoir "The Mayor of MacDougal Street" by folk musician Dave Van Ronk, a six-foot-four Swede who looks nothing like the compact, curly-haired Isaac.

The Coens say Llewyn isn't really meant to be like the real Ronk, but he does sing a lot of Ronk's actual repertoire. The brothers add that they hope all that screen time gets the lesser-known folk hero wider recognition after the movie is released. "Inside Llewyn Davis" opens Friday in Toronto before expanding to other cities on Dec. 25.

"He was somebody that we'd both listened to and knew, not exhaustively, but we knew him before we even read the book 'The Mayor of MacDougal Street' so it's kind of a longstanding interest in American traditional music in general," said Joel Coen.

"If that stimulates more interest in him specifically that'd be great," added Ethan Coen.

Meanwhile, the brothers say they know little about the TV adaptation of their 1996 crime tale "Fargo," being shot in Calgary and bound for FX.

"We're delighted they're doing it," executive producer Ethan Coen said of the small screen version, featuring Billy Bob Thornton, Kate Walsh, Martin Freeman and Colin Hanks.

"We read a script for the pilot but I don't know what they're doing beyond that."

The TV series will not include characters from the feature film version, but that's not because of anything the brothers demanded, say the Coens.

Still, Ethan Coen says that is probably for the best, since too many similarities would invite unfair comparisons to their Oscar-winning original, which starred William H. Macy, Steve Buscemi and Frances McDormand.

"Sometimes those things can seem like they got the 'B version' of the 'A person,' you know what I mean?" he said.

"It's kind of a canny move they decided to just set a story in that environment but not make it literally referring to the characters in the movie."

News from © The Canadian Press, 2013
The Canadian Press

  • Popular vernon News
  • Comments
View Site in: Desktop | Mobile