Interview: Joel and Ethan Coen


When brothers Ethan and Joel Coen announced they would make a movie about the New York music scene in the 60s, expectation took over film lovers. After all, how would the directors who’d transformed country music in such a huge success with “O Brother Where Art Thou?”, and made classics such as ”Fargo” (1996) and “No Country For Old Men” (2007), treat one of the most important music moments in history, lead by a fellow named Bob Dylan? The answer is easy: directing and writing “Inside Llewyn Davis”, a movie about a failed musician in the pre-Dylan era.

“We didn’t even know there was expectation surrounding our movie”, says Ethan Coen, 55, the younger brother. “It’s interesting, because ‘Inside Llewyn Davis’ is close to the 50s. We were interested in the period before Bob Dylan, in this small community of musicians that would hang out together in small studios”, adds Joel Coen, 57. ”Inside Llewyn Davis” is slightly inspired by folk musician Dave Von Ronk’s memoir, “The Mayor of MacDougal Street”, that describes the folk music scene in the bohemian neighbourhood of Greenwich Village, in New York.

Llewyn Davis (the brilliant Oscar Isaac) is a singer/guitarist who tries to recover from the death of his partner composing sad folk songs in 1961, when radio was ruled by joyful vocal trios and quartets. He can’t sell records nor public to see him at the bars. But his music is beautiful and anticipates a phenomenon that would be huge after Dylan released “The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan”, in 1963. ”It’s hard to say if he’s a loser. Some people make their own luck, but there’s a bit of self-sabotage in Llewyn”, says Ethan. “When he has the chance to show his talent to the owner of a big venue, he sings a song about abortion”, adds Joel.

With T-Bone Burnett as music producer – he had worked previously with the Coen brothers in “O Brother” – and with Justin Timberlake, Carey Mulligan and John Goodman, the movie should be a favourite for next year’s Oscars. Not bad for a loser.

Below is the interview with Ethan and Joel Coen.

“Inside Llewyn Davis” was sold as a movie about New York music scene in the 60s, but it’s a comedy about a loser.
Ethan Coen – It wasn’t our intention, I don’t even know if the term comedy is appropriate. In our movies, you’re allowed to laugh at the jokes, but are they actually comedies?

But do you like comedy?
Ethan – I don’t usually go to the movies as much as I used to, but yes. Who doesn’t?
Joel – Which comedies would make us go to the movies today? The epic conclusion of “The Hangover”?

Llewyn Davis strives to maintain his integrity as a musician. Do you feel the same way as filmmakers?
Ethan – Yes, we are a bit like jugglers trying to balance our success and artistic integrity, but being careful not to be hypocrites. We want to be seen and have our movies well distributed. But how does that make us feel? How much success do we want? It’s easier for us comparing to Llewyn, because…
Joel –…We sold out a long time ago!

Is it complicated to make movies without superheroes in Hollywood?
Joel – I don’t know, we are lucky enough to be in a niche, and, in a way, that makes us free to pretend that these temptations don’t exist. We know this kind of production is out there, but we’re able to ignore it.

The songs are integrated just like in “O Brother Where Art Tou?”. Do you write first and then you choose the songs?
Ethan – When we listen to a song, we try to make it fit. Usually, the script is finished without specific songs. In this case, we wrote it and sent it to T-Bone Burnett come up with the songs.
Joel – It was more about making this songs fit emotionally in the movie and less about what would the lyrics say, because music brings the movie feeling.
Ethan – Exactly. If you just read the script, you’ll see it’s pretty bad.

The movie is about timing. Do you think you’ve showed up at the right time?
Joel – I think we got lucky in our careers. Sometimes, our movies were released at the right time, when everything was in our favour. Today, we can do whatever we want without someone telling us what to do.

Steven Soderbergh has retired saying it’s getting too hard to finance movies…
Joel – He films a lot more than any other filmmaker on Earth. I think that’s a strange thing to say. Yes, it’s getting harder to get money, but that’s not a reason for retiring.

A version of this story was originally published in portuguese on Folha de S.Paulo.
Author: Rodrigo Salem