In a holiday season stacked with blockbuster sequels and high-profile awards contenders, Joel and Ethan Coen’s beautifully evocative folk music tale “Inside Llewyn Davis” is a must-see.
Set in 1960s New York City, the film chronicles a week in the life of a struggling folk singer named Llewyn Davis (Oscar Isaac) as he tries to find his place amid a complicated Greenwich Village music scene. As the self-defeating Davis navigates the many misfortunes of his personal and professional life, the talented and capable musician, so deserving of success, finds himself making a last grasp at stardom.
The heart of “Llewyn Davis” beats in its soundtrack, which features a dozen stirring folks song covers produced by “O Brother, Where Art Thou” collaborator T-Bone Burnett, and sung and recorded live on set by the cast, including Carey Mulligan, Justin Timberlake and Adam Driver.
I sat down with Oscar Isaac, who recently earned a Golden Globe nomination for his performance, to talk about working with the Coen brothers, singing live and relating to the plight of a beleaguered artist.
David Onda: When you got the script for “Llewyn Davis” and found out it would require singing, what did you do to prepare for that demand?
Oscar Isaac: In a kind of serendipitous way, I was down in Pittsburgh shooting a movie and I didn’t really have a whole lot to do in the film, so I decided I was gonna just start playing the coffeehouses in the area and started playing. This was a year before the audition. So, I started doing that and doing it solo, just a guy with a guitar. And when the time came and the audition process started gearing up, I had been doing it a lot, so I was a bit more comfortable. But I didn’t know how to do this particular style of playing, which was Travis picking, so I had to pick that up as well.
Onda: And all the singing and playing was recorded live. What were the benefits and difficulties of shooting like that?
Isaac: I think it was absolutely critical that it be live for the movie, because it’s the only time that you really see who [Llewyn] really is. You get to see inside of him. And so if, suddenly I’m lip-syncing and not really playing, it would just destroy the whole thing, it would be meaningless. It had to be live for it to work. It was great, it was freeing, because it’s actually really constraining to do playback and have it feel good. It felt like being in the studio.
Onda: The Coens drew inspiration for the script from the memoir of folk singer Dave Van Ronk – did you read that book in addition to the script, and what did you draw from it?
Isaac: I did. And so much. He’s definitely not Van Ronk, clearly, if you read it. Van Ronk was a very gregarious and extroverted guy. Not always, obviously. But he was also surly and a blue collar guy. He was from the Boroughs, a local New Yorker, merchant marine – so, those aspects. Yeah, [I read it] just to get inspired from, but never to do some sort of imitation.
Onda: You describe “Llewyn Davis” as being built like a folk song. Can you elaborate on that?
Isaac: The structure is much like a folk song where, in a folk song, traditionally you have the first verse, chorus, second verse, chorus, third verse chorus and the first verse again. And by the time you get to that first verse again, it’s taken on a whole extra layer of meaning, just by going on the journey of the song. So, the movie’s very similar that way. It’s a circle, but it’s also this journey. If you listen to a lot of folk songs, man, the lyrics are really dark, and yet there’s a celebratory aspect to it as well. You’re celebrating that, yeah, isn’t life [expletive] sometimes? But at least we know that, you know? And we can recognize it and we can sing about it and singing feels good.
Onda: How surreal was it being in a scene with John Goodman, being directed by the Coen brothers? How do you even process that?
Isaac: Yeah, you can’t. It’s unprocessable. [laughs] I just have to keep focused. There’s that moment where you look back, like, “Holy [expletive], I’m in a Coen brothers movie. This is crazy.” But you just kind of keep carrying on, stay focused and stay in it. But that’s why, the whole time, I was just giddy being there.
Onda: You’ve worked with some great directors so far in your career – what are some of the qualities of the Coen brothers that are so distinct to them?
Isaac: I think the udder lack of any vanity or neurosis, the almost provocatively relaxed nature of their set. I think how instinctual they are – and yet it’s the crazy mix of off-the-cuff instinct, but with this, at the same time, deeply cerebral and meticulous quality. It’s a similar complete contradiction, but somehow it exists. And I think their world view. They approach the world a bit like children or like a clown, or commedia dell’arte type clown where it’s just so open, but also very dark and weird. It’s so unique.
Onda: As an actor who has presumably gone through the grind and rejection of auditions and the Hollywood machine, how did you relate to your character’s artistic struggle?
Isaac: You wonder, “What are you doing? Why are you doing this? Why are you subjecting yourself to this humiliation? What is that you’re trying to say? Are you trying to say something, or are you just trying to climb the ladder? What are your motivations?” It can be very undignified, so why do something like that? Yeah, you question your motivations and you have to be like, “No, I have something to say and at some point I’m going to be able to say it the way that I want to say it.”
“Inside Llewyn Davis” is open in select theaters now. Click here to order tickets through Fandango.
The opinions expressed are solely those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Comcast.