Joel and Ethan Coen: "My God, we don't watch our own movies!"

The filmmaking brothers talk "Inside Llewyn Davis," their irresistible portrait of the '60s NYC folk scene

By Andrew O'Hehir

Executive Editor

Published December 5, 2013 12:00AM (EST)

Joel Coen and Ethan Coen      (Reuters/David Mcnew)
Joel Coen and Ethan Coen (Reuters/David Mcnew)

After 15 feature films and nearly 30 years in the business, Joel and Ethan Coen have an established reputation: They are not unduly friendly with the media, resist introspection or any form of amateur psychology, and make movies that often have the character of spring-loaded traps, inflicting painful surprises on their characters and audiences. As with most stereotypes, there are elements of truth to that – consider the fate of Brad Pitt’s semi-closeted gym rat in “Burn After Reading,” or their fascination with telling and retelling the biblical story of Job – but the breadth and range of the Coens’ dramatic work belies the idea that they’re nothing more than coldhearted, sardonic story-engineers.

Furthermore, I’ve always found the duo congenial enough in person. They’re happy to discuss almost anything about their movies and their career, as long as you stay away from questions of what it all means (which are likely to provoke oblique mockery). Our conversation about “Inside Llewyn Davis,” the Coens' wonderfully evocative new picture set against the Greenwich Village folk music scene of the early 1960s, veered from disputes between Trotskyites and Shachtmanites (look it up) to the “ironed hair” look favored by young women of the period to an entirely irrelevant anecdote involving the great Italian actor Marcello Mastroianni.

Any good interview, even one that’s entirely friendly on the surface, should have a slight adversarial quality, since the reporter and the subject have inherently different goals. The Coens don’t always suffer fools gladly, but they give good copy, even in one-word answers to questions that don’t interest them. (“Do you get excited about the Cannes competition?” one reporter asked them. “Does that get your heart pumping?” Ethan Coen: “No.”) Over the years the Coens have developed a routine that lies somewhere between practiced shtick and a psychological coping mechanism. Ethan, the younger, shorter, lighter-haired brother, delivers brief responses, often glib or acrid in tone, and then the taller, older and more loquacious Joel bails him out, expounding generously on the original question or diverting it into friendlier terrain.

While I’m skeptical about the general proposition that the Coens and their films have mellowed with age, there’s no question that after four Oscars (and 13 nominations) they can’t be considered Hollywood outsiders anymore. “Inside Llewyn Davis” is an immensely enjoyable portrait of a place and time, both satirical and dramatic. The film certainly has areas of mystery and darkness – never before has Akron, Ohio, been presented as the road not taken -- but it also features a novelty folk-pop hit called “Please Mr. Kennedy,” sung by Justin Timberlake (with Oscar Isaac and Adam Driver), along with one of John Goodman’s patented gargoyle roles.

“Inside Llewyn Davis” also features one of the year’s breakout lead performances, from Guatemalan-born Oscar Isaac (of “Drive” and “W.E.”), who not only plays the title role but sings and plays period-authentic folk music in entirely convincing fashion. Llewyn Davis is a folk purist, a would-be star of the Manhattan nightclub scene just before the arrival of a certain singer-songwriter from Minnesota who would upend the business; as the Coens explained in our conversation, Llewyn isn't so much a failure as a guy who's really good at precisely the wrong moment.

If Llewyn goes on a circular journey that ends where it starts, and misses the train to stardom en route, I’ll issue a tiny spoiler and tell you that nothing really terrible happens to him – nor, more to the point, does anything bad happen to his missing cat. Maybe the Coens have gone soft after all. I met them at Cannes last spring, two days after the world premiere of “Inside Llewyn Davis.”

Let’s start with the recent rumors about you guys making a sequel to “The Big Lebowski.” Is there any truth to that?

Ethan Coen: John Turturro talks to us incessantly about doing a sequel about his character, Jesus. He has a story worked out which he's pitched to us a few times, but I can't really remember it. But I just don't see that in our future.

Joel Coen: I don't think it's gonna happen.

You don’t actually seem like guys who would be big on sequels.

E.C.: Yeah, well -- is that what it is? Yeah! I don't like sequels. [Laughter.]

I’m really curious to hear about the origins of the song “Please Mr. Kennedy.” Because that is based on a real song from that period, right?

E.C.: There were a couple of guys who performed as the Gold Coast Singers in the early ‘60s who did a song called “Please Mr. Kennedy.” It's a novelty song; it's got some cheese to it. It's what we started from to get to our song. The original song is about asking not to be sent to Vietnam, which was period inappropriate for us. So we changed it to being about John Glenn, which was more in the spirit we wanted. That was really before the ‘60s thing with protest music.

J.C.: And it was before the real American escalation in Vietnam.

E.C.: There was a smush of people -- us and T-Bone Burnett and Justin Timberlake -- dicking with the song to make that into this, or this into that.

Well, it's terrific. Did you realize you had hit on something?

E.C.: It's a hit! All right, boys, it's a hit!

J.C.: That's what it's supposed to be in the context of the story, so that's what we were hoping it would sound like.

It’s also a key plot point for the character of Llewyn, right? As talented as he is, he can't tell when a song is going to be a hit.

J.C.: Right, absolutely.

I wanted to ask about the cat, which reminded me of the cat in "Breakfast at Tiffany's." Which reminded me in turn that the folk scene in New York was happening at the same time as Truman Capote, as Mike Nichols and Elaine May, as Edward Albee, as so many other things.

J.C.: Somebody else pointed that out today, and that's interesting. But it didn't cross my mind. There was an enormous amount of creativity in New York at that time. At the same time the folk scene is going on in the Village, all the Abstract Expressionists were up in Cedar Tavern on University Place, in another part of the Village. There was the big revolution in jazz, the bebop revolution, which was happening both in the Village and uptown, or rather at the clubs in midtown. There were some points of intersection, and then sometimes they had absolutely nothing to do with each other. Even amongst the folkies, there were folkies who wouldn't have anything to do with each other. There were the New Zionist kids over there singing "Hava Nagila," and over here you had bluegrass banjo players. They all hated each other.

E.C.: There was also a political factionalism that we kind of thought the movie would get into, but it never really did as we were writing it. It didn't go there, except for the one gag.

J.C.: Yeah, about the disputes among the communists, between the Trotskyites and the Shachtmanites.

Which is the only gag about the Shachtmanites in the history of cinema.

J.C.: [Laughter.] I'm pretty sure you're right about that.

E.C.: This is also the only movie in the history of movies, I think, to be certified kosher for Passover. We have a bug at the end. I'm proud about that.

J.C. There's another interesting part of that whole scene, which is that Llewyn is a member of a labor union and all that. There's this whole scene in Union Square on 14th Street, where a guy that I know who was involved in that scene said you used to have guys like Ewan MacColl in the union halls, trying to teach the guys in the labor unions how to sing these labor songs and folk songs. What was actually happening at the time, of course, was that all the kids downstairs were listening to Elvis.

Let’s talk about the resemblance, or non-resemblance, to the career and biography of Dave Van Ronk.

E.C.: Oh, there isn't any resemblance. It's just the songs, some of the songs. Here's the thing: How do you stop something that isn't true? Van Ronk's memoir is a very funny book. It's a great book, it's one of the best depictions of this scene. We read it and pilfered a lot from it, but nobody would ever mistake our character for Dave Van Ronk.

A lot of people who've seen this film are describing it as one of the kindest and gentlest of your films. I’m not sure I buy that, but let’s go with it. Are you getting soft? Did doing Charles Portis’ “True Grit” the last time soften you guys up?

J.C.: There's something I've noticed that's interesting to me, which is that we make a movie and people say, "This is a Coen brothers movie for people who don't like Coen brothers movies." And I've been reading that for 15 or 20 years now, as each one successively comes out. So now I'm thinking, so what is a Coen brothers movie? Or what is the originating idea behind that? It's a little puzzling. To me, they're just different stories, and the stories have their own imperatives for everything from tone to point of view to whatever else. Why we choose those stories as opposed to something else, I mean, who knows? It's hard to say.

Well, I feel like one aspect of that is that your movies almost always reward a second viewing. There’s always stuff I didn’t see or didn’t understand at first. Which definitely isn't true of most movies!

J.C.: That's a marketing trick!

E.C.: We endorse it! [Laughter.] But, my God, we don't watch our own movies. No. You work on it for a year, a year and a half, and especially by the final stage when you're fussing over every little thing -- and we cut them ourselves -- and everything is problem-solving, fixing stuff up. There's a job involved, and beyond that when there's nothing to be done, why would you look at it again? I mean, you know how it comes out.

Arguably you guys have been very fortunate in your career, in that you started making movies during a high point of indie film, and you’ve had final cut on your movies for a long time. You get reasonable budgets and you make what you want. Llewyn Davis is a story about a guy who isn’t lucky, who doesn’t get that break.

J.C.: I don't think we were thinking about that in any specific way, but we would be the last people to dispute the fact that we've been very lucky, and luck plays a very big part in success. One of the things that was interesting to us about this movie and this character was the idea of making a movie about someone who's not successful. Now, making a movie about someone who's not successful and who isn't very good at what they do isn't very interesting. But making a movie about someone who's not successful who is very good at what they do is interesting. So many other things factor into the success equation, and luck is certainly one of them.

At the risk of issuing a spoiler, we can say that Bob Dylan briefly appears in the movie, or at least is alluded to specifically. Did you think about putting Joan Baez in the story too?

J.C.: Well, she was mostly in Cambridge during the pre-Dylan era. Some of the characters are hybrids of many people, you know what I mean? We didn't want to do "this character is this person," so much as create characters with a little bit of this person, that person and that person.

E.C.: There was kind of a look, the "Village girl" look with ironed hair. We gave Joan Baez's hair to Carey Mulligan, if you will.

There might be a relationship, at first viewing, between this film, "Barton Fink" and "A Serious Man." Two of them are about artists struggling for success, and the third is a guy who's just trying to be a decent man and failing. Is there something of a common theme there?

E.C.: Yeah. Barton Fink is just too self-important as an artist to get much sympathy. But, yeah, we like put-upon people, we like to inflict pain on the characters. It's just a story thing: What bad thing can happen next?

J.C.: Well, somebody did point out, and it was very interesting to us because we hadn't realized it, that whenever we make a movie about an artist we inflict John Goodman on them. [Laughter.] Which is true of both "Barton Fink" and this movie.

Talk about the casting of Oscar Isaac. I understand you guys had difficulty finding the right guy who had a combination of acting chops and musical ability.

J.C.: Yeah, we had difficulty. I mean, it just didn't happen until he walked in the room. It's true that there was a point at which we wondered if we'd written something that was essentially impossible to cast. At first we just met musicians, because it's a movie about a musician and there's so much performance in the movie, and because the movie's success is so contingent on buying this main character as a musician. So we started off just meeting musicians who we thought might be able to play the part. And the problem with that is that -- it's not that they can't act, but there's a big difference between acting in a couple of scenes and carrying a whole movie as a leading character. It's a different order of thing, and that we just didn't find.

Conversely, it seemed just as difficult to find an actor who could -- I mean, a lot of actors can play and sing, but we wanted to find one who was musically talented enough to convince you through his performance, repeatedly, that he's a musician. And then Oscar came in. He went to Juilliard, and has been playing music his entire life.

E.C.: It was uncanny, because satisfying either of those requirements in isolation was difficult, and Oscar kind of did both. If there had been no musical component to the movie at all, as an actor he would have been the right person to play the part. And as it happened, he's just an incredibly gifted musician.

I thought it was funny that you guys admitted yesterday [during the Cannes press conference] that this movie really doesn't have a plot. I admire that confidence, but a lot of people wouldn't come out and say it.

J.C.: Right, it's more character-driven than story-driven.

E.C.: All we think about is how to keep the audience engaged, and normally we're big on plot because that's the easy way to do it. But there's other ways too.

You sneak in a reference to the Disney film "The Incredible Journey," [which stars a cat and two dogs], which definitely has parallels to this movie. Was that an early thought or a late thought?

J.C.: It was a later thought, but it amused us. There's a tiny bit of fudging there, because I think "The Incredible Journey" came out in '62 or '63, and we're going, "Well, that's close enough. We'll be able to get away with this." We had pretty much written the script and then we were like, wow, there's a movie of that period about a cat finding its way home! Wouldn't it be interesting if that was playing? Anyway, it's kind of a throwaway joke.

You know that cat's going to be a star, right? He's gonna be like that dog from "The Artist."

J.C.: I just hope no one tries to use that cat again. They'd need all six of them anyway.

E.C.: They can have 'em.

J.C.: It's like this story we heard once from Marcello Mastroianni about an actor that Fellini hired once in a movie. He really loved his face, and because all Italian movies of that era were entirely post-synchronized, the actor came in and Fellini just said: "Count: ‘Uno, due, tre.’ I just want you talking and I'll put in the words. Start when I say start and stop when I say stop." He did and the movie came out and then a German producer called him up and said he was really impressed with his performance and wanted him to go to Germany and do a movie. He got to the set and he started counting. In Italian! [Laughter.] But I don't know why the cat made me think of that.

E.C.: That breakfast with Mastroianni was really good. I'm glad we met him, he was really funny. He said: "You should put me in one of your movies. I'll play the old Italian guy."

“Inside Llewyn Davis” opens this week in New York and Los Angeles, with national release to begin Dec. 20.

By Andrew O'Hehir

Andrew O'Hehir is executive editor of Salon.

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