inside llewyn davis behind the music moviescope

Inside Llewyn Davis: Behind the Music – movieScope

Inside Llewyn Davis: Behind the Music

The films of the Coen Brother have always had an intimate relationship with music and their latest, Inside Llewyn Davis, is no exception. Here, the film’s star Oscar Isaac and the Coens’ long-standing music producer T-Bone Burnett explain how, in the right hands, movie music can become a character in its own right.

Over the years, the St. Louis-born T-Bone Burnett has become as integral to the Coen Brothers’ family as cinematographer Roger Deakins or costume designer Mary Zophres. He first worked with them on the 1998 cult comedy The Big Lebowski, assembling a soundtrack—including Dylan’s ‘The Man in Me’—to complement the character of Jeff Bridges’ stoner/bowler The Dude.

Then came O Brother, Where Art Thou, the Coens’ 1930s odyssey set in Depression-era Mississippi, which shimmered to the sound of bluegrass music, gospel and country. Burnett produced the soundtrack, a huge hit that won multiple Grammys, including Album of the Year, beating out both Dylan’s Love and Theft and U2’s All That You Can’t Leave Behind.  Arriving in the wake of 9/11, Burnett believed it touched a nerve. “The country was in a state of national trauma and there was this relief, this beautiful music.”

After also collaborating on the Coens’ 2004 Ealing Studios remake The Ladykillers, his recruitment for Inside Llewyn Davis was almost a given. “I have been in a constant research mode for 30 years!” he laughs, and no wonder. In the mid-Seventies, he toured with Dylan on the Rolling Thunder Revue. The connections go even deeper for the Coens who, like Dylan, hail from Minnesota and, as Burnett puts it, “were [all] children of Jewish immigrants”.

The difficulty, however, was finding an actor to play the title role. “It was an incredible part and extraordinarily demanding,” says Burnett. “It required that somebody learn to play and sing a 30-minute repertoire of music.” With the Coens wanting to film the songs live, as Burnett notes, “We just went out on a tightrope, without a rope! But as the universe treats the Coen Brothers, the person showed up who could do it.”

That person was Oscar Isaac, the rising star who played Carey Mulligan’s husband in Drive and Prince John in Ridley Scott’s Robin Hood. Having strummed guitar since he was 12, he was also reared on the music his father listened to whilst growing up in Florida; Dylan, Cat Stevens and so on. “I feel like I’ve been preparing for 33 years for this role,” says Isaac. “I mean that. In retrospect, I can say everything I’ve done has prepared me for doing this role.

“Usually when you audition, you let it go,” he continues. “When it’s done, I throw away the script and if it happens, it happens. But this time I was like ‘I’m going to assume I got this until someone tells me otherwise!’ I decided, ‘I will keep working on it, as time is limited anyway, and I’ll be devastated one way or the other, so I might as well keep going.’ So I kept learning the music, I kept working on it, and then I got the call a month later from Joel.”

In the interim, the Coens had sent Burnett the tape of Isaac’s audition. “It wasn’t that he was perfect,” he notes. “He just did that song and he told the truth.” In fact, in the script, Llewyn was “a heavier, schlubier, more grizzled” type than the 33 year-old actor. But Isaac was able to make the songs feel real. “And then he played the scene, and he understood the scene. It was just obvious. It was clear he was the guy to do it.”

Inside Llewyn Davis is showing at the London Film Festival on October 15, 17 and 19. It opens in UK cinemas on January 24

Read the full interview in movieScope magazine, Issue 36 (October-December 2013)