Coen brothers dissect 'Inside Llewyn Davis'
A phone conversation with Ethan and Joel Coen about their latest film, “Inside Llewyn Davis,” led to a necessary request: Please say your name before you speak, so it's clear who is talking.
To which the reply was, “This is Ethan, but it doesn't really matter. You can attribute whatever to whoever.”
That's what it's like talking to these guys. They're multiple Oscar winners and acknowledged geniuses of film. And, if they don't like a question, they'll say so. Yet, it's also fascinating to hear them work up answers, to hear how their minds work, as you'll see.
In “Davis,” Oscar Isaac plays a New York folk singer in the 1960s, kind of a jerk, good but not great. They talked about that, and more, recently.
Question: How important is it that we like the protagonist?
Ethan: Um, um, um. It's important if the protagonist is meant to be likable. They don't always have to be. The guy in this, is he likable? Hmm. “Likable” is a weird word. He's not supposed to be your buddy.
Joel: It's more a question of, is he somebody you want to watch, which is a different thing. That's important.
Q: Do you think about that going in?
Ethan: It's not even an examined thing. We write it thinking, what will be interesting? And, if we assume if we find it interesting, then the audience will.
Q: He keeps making selfish mistakes throughout.
Ethan: I think it would have been less interesting if he were just kind of a (jerk). That's something we talked about with Oscar, a kind of character who acts like a (jerk) and on his way home kicks himself and says, “God, why am I such a (jerk)?” That's part of what keeps you engaged.
Joel: The fact that he can't stop himself and keeps making the same kinds of mistakes is part of who he is. It's what's interesting about him.
Q: You really did have him, and others, sing entire songs. That means the songs have to be good.
Joel: Yes, they do. The songs have to be good. The performer has to be good. But it's interesting. One thing that we did talk about and realize is that the audience will let you do almost anything at the very beginning of a movie.
Even something that they're not used to experiencing in a movie. We thought, it's important to start the movie that way, so that you set up the nature of the movie and the nature of the presentation of the songs stylistically. If you do that at the beginning and say, “This is kind of how this movie is going to work,” then you get permission to do it early on.
But I agree with you — they've got to work at every level.
Q: Were you fans of the New York folk scene?
Ethan: Well, back then, I was 4 years old and Joel was 7, so no.
Q: Well, recordings do exist.
Ethan: Yes. Yeah, that's part of why the setting is what it is. We were into the music, yeah.
Q: The people are as interesting as the music.
Ethan: It's a funny thing, any community that you get to know well, it's a small town. They're all well-defined. Every little community is like Peyton Place once you get into it. You know the characters when you get into it.
Q: Directors hate this kind of question, but what do you think happened with this guy, say, a year after the movie ends?
Ethan: I don't know. Not necessarily anything dramatic and probably nothing dramatic. Right, we hate answering it. We stopped. If we were interested beyond that, we probably would have kept going. I guess it's a legitimate question. Probably not a huge success.
Joel: I think another way of looking at the question is, what does the ending of the movie imply, in terms of where he's going to go from there? The answer is probably doing the same thing he was doing throughout the movie, just playing music, at the same level and in the same places.
Q: Do you guys ever look back at “Blood Simple” or “Fargo” or “Miller's Crossing” or whatever and say, hey, that was good?
Joel: We try to neither think about nor see again the stuff that we've done in the past. That's never a really welcome thing.
Q: You don't even look?
Joel: No, not if we can avoid it.
Q: Are you just too critical?
Joel: It's kind of like if you show dailies to a costume designer. Really all they're looking at is the clothes. You're not looking at the big picture. If you show us things that we've done in the past, all that we really see is where we screwed up. We generally don't like it.
Bill Goodykoontz of The Arizona Republic is the chief film critic for Gannett.