NEW YORK A conversation with the filmmaking brothers Ethan and Joel Coen has only just gotten started when Ethan, quite gleefully, puts a stop to any discussion of growth, evolution or development. “If you’re trying to assign the trait of maturity to us, frankly, it won’t wash.”
Now in their late 50s, the Coens have a host of awards, including best picture for their tense, bone-dry Cormac McCarthy adaptation “No Country for Old Men.” Their last film, the much Oscar-nominated Charles Portis adaptation of “True Grit,” was an unexpected box-office hit, earning $250 million worldwide. Somewhat shockingly, they are – to use the much sought-after label in their “O Brother, Where Art Thou?” – bona fide.
Their latest, the folk music tale “Inside Llewyn Davis,” continues the trend of awards-season releases with more realism than, say, the screwball of “The Hudsucker Proxy” or the surrealism of “The Big Lebowski.”
For now, there’s “Inside Llewyn Davis,” the latest zag in a career full of wholly unpredictable hopscotching through noir (“Blood Simple,” “Miller’s Crossing”), farce (“Burn After Reading,” “The Ladykillers”) and less categorical quandaries (“A Serious Man”).
Aided by the Dave Van Ronk memoir “The Mayor of MacDougal Street,” they arrived at specifically 1960-’61 Greenwich Village for “Inside Llewyn Davis” because it exists on the cusp of history, ahead of Bob Dylan’s arrival.
Oscar Isaac stars as the title character, a folk guitar player and singer whose beautiful playing is contrasted by his foul-mouthed, cynical downtown life, which he spends hopping from couch to couch, gig to gig. The Coens, with T Bone Burnett, fill the film with full performances of less famous songs from the era, all but one of which was filmed live (rather than to playback).
The Coens granted an interview at their Tribeca office, a narrow three-story apartment with editors working on the bottom floor on a concert documentary of the movie’s music, to air on Showtime Dec. 13. To accommodate a reporter, Ethan lugged a chair up to the small top-floor perch where the brothers brainstorm and script.
From here their movies are born, generated from the ping-ponging between their similarly imaginative, comic minds.
“We were just sitting around the office talking about nothing, as we do, and (Joel) said, ‘OK, supposing it begins in an alley behind Gerde’s Folk City and somebody beats the (expletive) out of Dave Van Ronk?’” says Ethan, while Joel laughs. “That’s the beginning of what movie?”
They start most films in this unusually specific way. “Miller’s Crossing” began with a hat floating away into the woods. “Burn After Reading” started when they pronounced that they would never, ever open a film “CIA Headquarters: Langley, Virginia.” But the sheer antithesis of the idea became its greatest attraction: They peopled their version of a hyper-techno spy thriller with the most emphatically human characters.
Some openings don’t immediately lead anywhere. They had the start of “O Brother” – “three dopes chained together” – but didn’t know where it went for three or four years. “Fargo” got stuck midway: “For a year and a half, I would open up the drawer and it would say: ‘Interior: Shep’s apartment. Carl is screwing the escort,’” Joel recalls.
Often, their genre hopping is predicated more on books than movies. “Miller’s Crossing” was an attempt to do Dashiell Hammett, says Ethan. “The Man Who Wasn’t There” was self-consciously James M. Cain. “Big Lebowski” was their version of Raymond Chandler.
They were faithful to the texts the two times they adapted books (“True Grit” and “No Country”). Both novels appealed partly because, Joel says, they’re “not anything like what we’ve done.”
The look of “Inside Llewyn Davis” (cinematographer Bruno Delbonnel stepped in for their usual director of photography, Roger Deakins) was inspired by things like the album cover of “The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan” and a YouTube video of Jack Kerouac wandering around the Village.
Though their movies usually revel in the absurdity of life’s predicaments, Ethan promises the film they’re working on now has answers: “It’s not like our piddly ‘A Serious Man.’” Chimes Joel: “That was a cop-out. We just totally chickened out on that one.”
“We hadn’t grown up,” says Ethan. “In that respect, OK, we have matured. We’re ready to answer the big questions now.”
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