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BEVERLY HILLS, Calif. — "Inside Llewyn Davis" is the Joel and Ethan Coen's 16th feature to date. Starring Oscar Isaac as a shade of New York folk singer Dave Van Ronk, it tells the story of the scene that Bob Dylan came into, the calm before a storm. It's a love letter to music of the era, making for a potent collaboration — their fourth — with music maestro T Bone Burnett.
The filmmaker siblings are notoriously difficult interviews, though in most of my experiences with them it's been pleasant. You just can't drop the usual mundane queries and expect excitement. But when you key on to something they really want to discuss, usually something that has nothing to do with the film at hand, they light up. They don't suffer too much heady consideration about their work and remain pragmatic, almost refreshingly so, in the face of such things. Nevertheless, they collectively make for one of the most vital voices in all of American art.
I recently sat down with the duo to discuss, among other things, long-standing collaborations, the allure of stardom and the romance of New York City. Read our back and forth below.
HitFix: So what's it like being music producers on this film's soundtrack? That's new for you.
Ethan Coen: It's fantastic! We sit around, put our names on things, and T Bone does all the work.
But you've got arrangement credits and whatnot. Do you kind of sit there and give input about what he might be doing?
Ethan: Not really. The "sit there" part is accurate.
Joel Coen: We're thinking about doing it full time, actually! Switching professions. This movie stuff is bullshit! It's a lot easier when T Bone's around.
I know most of the music here was taken directly from the set but did you record anything a studio?
Ethan: We did pre-record some stuff before we started shooting, but that was more as rehearsal and possibly for record, but we knew we wanted to shoot the music live.
Joel: And then one of those songs was actually recorded — it was a set but, actually — well, I was going to say it was a recording studio, the old Edison recording studio in New York. But in fact when we were in there it was really no longer a real studio. There was no booth. We were just physically in the space.
Ethan: When they record the novelty song ["Please, Mr. Kennedy"].
Talk about that decision to record everything live on the set, which must have come very early on. How difficult was it as editors to deal with that in post-production?
Joel: It could have been difficult but it wasn't. As T Bone has said many times, and it's true, Oscar [Isaac] has such a weirdly perfect sense of time that we were able to combine takes. He wasn't using a click track but we were able to combine takes pretty much throughout the whole show with all of the songs he was doing.
Ethan: It's really weird. Even when you're shooting it live, you always put an earwig on and give the actor a click track, just so you can do that, combine different takes. Obviously it's better to just play it free, and Oscar did. We could always cut. It was great.
Joel: There were all these different, weird things that conspired to make him the perfect choice. You look at those things retrospectively and it seems impossible for them to have fallen into place that way but it did.
And of course the soundtrack has made its way to vinyl. There's a lot of vinyl going around in general lately.
Joel: Yeah, I've gotten very into vinyl through the years. It does sound completely different. There's something really satisfying about it.
One of the things about the film that's interesting is that it's sort of a love letter to New York. Do you remember what your first trip to New York was like and how it affected you? And how much of that perspective did you want to put into the film?
Joel: It was so long ago. I've been in New York for 40 years, actually visiting maybe even a little longer than that.
Ethan: Yeah, me too. You know, it's like a lot of the characters in the movie — although not the main character; he's a kid from the boroughs — we were provincials who wanted to go to the big city. It was "the big city."
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