Joel Coen, 59, and brother Ethan, 56, are too young to have experienced the Greenwich Village folk scene of the winter of 1960-1961, when their new movie, Inside Llewyn Davis, is set. But the music that came out of those grubby cafés has had amazing staying power – it has continued to influence popular music ever since.
And the Coens, sons of Minnesota academics who attended prep school in Massachusetts in the early 1970s, certainly know Manhattan, where they now live. Joel, in fact, first moved there to attend New York University's film school in the seventies and lived on Thomson Street in the Village, not far from folk legend Dave Van Ronk. An avuncular figure to Dylan, Joni Mitchell and others, Van Ronk, who died in 2002, left behind a memoir, The Mayor of MacDougal Street, finished by his friend Elijah Wald.
The book provides the framework for the Coens' movie, and what Van Ronk called "the Great Folk Scare" of the late 1950s and early sixties. It's a movie that explores the contradictions of authenticity, either as adherence to tradition or to emotional genuineness, which, in some ways, makes it a curious choice for the filmmakers known for their famous irony.
I spoke to the Coens by phone (a weather warning had prevented them from travelling from New York to Toronto). The Coens tend to interrupt or finish each other's sentences, which can make interviews a challenge even if you can see their faces. At the outset, one of them (I'll say Ethan; he has a lighter voice) said he didn't care which quote was attributed to whom. Since they write, direct and edit in tandem, this seemed reasonable.
Given their interest in authenticity, I was curious how much the cinéma-vérité movement of the early sixties influenced the look of the film.
"Well, there was a lot of thought along that line," says Joel. "We were going to make a Maysles brothers-style slice-of-life documentary approach, shot in black-and-white and hand-held, which seemed appropriate to the theme."
With their usual cinematographer, Roger Deakins, otherwise employed, the Coens used French cinematographer Bruno Delbonnel. He's known for his work on Amélie, Across the Universe and Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, none of which qualifies him for documentary realism. But the Coens, who had worked with him for their piece of the omnibus film Paris, je t'aime, said he was a "great guy" who spoke their cinematic language.
But, says Ethan: "But we ran into a roadblock. We needed this shot of the camera following the cat's ass down a hallway, which had been storyboarded. It was very stylistic, and that just didn't work with that kind of shooting. So we threw it out. Instead of black and white, we went for this sort of desaturated look."
As homespun as Inside Llewyn Davis looks, it took extensive production design to recreate the Village of 50 years ago.
"New York has changed so much," says Joel. "You go into a room that looks right, and you realize the window has been changed. The sash is wrong. Then the clasps on the curtains are wrong. When we had the basic architecture of a building, we had to take out the additions. There's a lot more CGI in this movie than you would think. Even out in the country, you'd think it would be easier. Then you discover that the lines down the middle of the road are completely different from what they used back then."
That wasn't the only case where the best route to authenticity was through artifice. The Coen brothers like traditional American music, as fans well know: The T-Bone Burnett-produced soundtrack to O Brother, Where Art Thou?, won the 2002 Grammy for album of the year. But Burnett takes a very different approach with Inside Llewyn Davis. Instead of using real luminaries of folk, bluegrass and gospel, and recording their songs in snippets, Inside Llewyn Davis uses performers who are, with the exception of Justin Timberlake, actors who do music rather than musicians who act. What's real is that they sing the songs live, in complete takes (sometimes requiring up to 30 run-throughs) rather than Glee-style lip-synching.
"The movie was about a musician," says Joel. "You have to see him perform live. That's where he reveals his character."
For their lead, they chose 33-year-old Oscar Isaac, a Julliard-trained, Hispanic-American actor who once led his own band. Apart from the beard, his character has little in common with the hulking Irish-American Van Ronk, who's memoir is wry and humorous rather than tortured.
"We're saying the people aren't real," says Joel, "but the music is."
"They're 'inspired by' composites, more than the actual people," says Ethan.
One of Van Ronk's friends, Paul Clayton, was a gay folklorist and singer who had problems with substance abuse and depression and took his life in 1967. Dylan borrowed Clayton's tune and part of the lyrics to Don't Think Twice, It's All Right, which resulted in a record company lawsuit. Was Clayton the basis of the unseen character Mike Timlin?
Their response is a clatter of voices and laughter, Three Stooges style: No. Yes. Maybe? Yes, somewhat? No!
Ethan finally answers: "We haven't had any questions about Paul Clayton. He was from New Bedfordshire and sang sea shanties. He was kind of on the square side of the folk music movement."
Sometimes, fiction and real life coincide. To add a narrative line to Llewyn's travels throughout the city, they invented a cat named Ulysses, the pet of a friendly older couple of academics who take Llewyn in. As Joel told the press in Cannes last May, "The film doesn't really have a plot. That concerned us at one point; that's why we threw the cat in."
On the cover of the 1962 album Inside Dave Van Ronk, which gives the Coens' film its name, the burly folksinger stands in an open double door, as if he has just stepped outside. Behind him, peaking around the door, is a tabby cat.
"Someone told us about that later," says Ethan. "Sometimes, when you're on a certain track, weird things happen."