Cover Story: Oscar Isaac and T Bone Burnett Find Folk Inside Llewyn Davis

Movies Features Oscar Isaac

The actor and music producer wax poetic about their movie depicting a pivotal moment in folk-music history

Oscar Isaac is one of those very distinct, recognizable faces in Hollywood. The kind that makes you say, “Oh, he’s that guy from that movie. I like him.” As you should. He’s been acting for quite a while now and has had roles in a diverse array of films that range from high-wattage popcorn flicks (Robin Hood, Sucker Punch, The Bourne Legacy) to hipster-friendly cinema of the arthouse variety (Drive, Che: Part One, W.E.). His presence in each film is graciously strong, yet subtle. He’s not necessarily in the background, but he’s not always in the front-and-center—something that’s just changed for the Julliard-trained actor with Ethan and Joel Coen’s Inside Llewyn Davis. Isaac plays the title character in the film that is set in the Greenwich Village folk music scene during 1961. Baptized with the music of T Bone Burnett, the movie was inspired by a memoir titled The Mayor of MacDougal Street by Dave Van Ronk, a folk singer during that musically poignant period of time. It may have been inspired by Van Ronk, but the movie isn’t his biopic.

“Dave Van Ronk was a 6’ 4” 300-pound Swede, and that’s very much not this,” laughs Isaac as he points to himself. “Already, I was like, ‘Okay. If they’re casting me then we’re not doing Van Ronk.’ Van Ronk was the mayor of MacDougal Street. Llewyn’s not the mayor of anything. He’s much more isolated at this moment than Van Ronk seems to have been.”

There are a couple of things that Llewyn and Van Ronk share. They’re both in the merchant marines and they’re both products of the New York City Burroughs. Isaac also says that they share certain attitudes about music, but as a whole, Llewyn is a different character. When we meet him, he’s a couch-surfing, hitchhiking vagabond hustling for performance gigs. And through his opus of quiet desperation, we find out about the suicide of his singing partner—which would explain the Llewyn’s isolation. This spills over into more flawed and complicated relationships. He’s distant from his nursing home-ridden father (Stan Carp) and has a very disapproving sister (Jeanine Serralles). Then there’s his relationship with folk-singing couple Jim and Jean Berkey (Justin Timberlake and Carey Mulligan). Early on in the movie, we find out that Jean is pregnant and it’s not Jim’s. Apparently, Llewyn has stayed on their couch enough times to get her pregnant, and she’s not happy about it. The situation makes for explosive scenes between Mulligan and Isaac—but this isn’t anything new for the two of them.

“We did Drive together—that was our first doomed relationship. This was number two so we already had a real comfort with each other,” says Isaac. “She’s so funny in this movie, just so very angry and twitchy.”

One of the defining attributes of the character of Llewyn, like Van Ronk, is that he’s a musician. That said, the Coen Brothers were posed with the dilemma of getting an actor who’s not a musician or getting a musician who can act (or who thinks they can act). Lucky for them, Isaac was plotted perfectly on their matrix of the two. Yes, ladies and gentlemen, the man can sing and act. As a young teen, he took five months of classical guitar before teaching himself to play the likes of Metallica. Before his acting career took off, he was in a band called The Blinking Underdogs where he played lead guitar and sang vocals, and his talent had already served him well in movie roles. He played a musician in the movie 10 Years where he sang his own song, “Never Had,” and recorded another for the soundtrack. That, combined with his interest in folk music, drew him to the project.

“[When] I found out that the Coens were going to be making a movie about the folk music scene of the ’60s and they wanted people that could play music, I knew that I had to get in on this,” says Isaac. “I was able to get an audition with the casting director, came in did a couple scenes.”

Now that he had the acting part of the role down, he had to get the music part perfected. The casting director sent him home with a recording of “Hang Me, Oh Hang Me” by Dave Van Ronk, who he didn’t know at the time.

“I listened to everything I could find of Dave Van Ronk and I figured out this song and I recorded it—I did about 30 takes and sent take 27 in,” Isaac says, laughing. “The Coens saw it. T Bone saw it. They said ‘let’s bring him in for an audition.’ I was able to get the script and kept playing, obsessing over the style of playing.”

His obsession continued as he learned more songs that weren’t required. After a month spent auditioning two more scenes and playing two more songs, he got the part.

To transport us to the ‘60s folk music scene of New York City, the Coens have the aesthetic on lock. They wash it with a soft folky haze and set it to the tune of sepia-toned Americana courtesy of T Bone Burnett. This marks his fourth collaboration with the directing duo. He struck Grammy gold as the executive music producer for O Brother, Where Art Thou? and could very well do the same with the music he produced for this film. He collaborated with Isaac a lot to create that on-the-verge-of-Bob Dylan folk sound, sculpt the character of Llewyn, and give the audience a full experience of the cultural landscape of that era.

“We actually arranged [the songs] together—it’s traditional music,” says Burnett. “Bob was the avatar at taking part of this and part of this and rearranging it to have a new meaning. That’s part of what this film is about: a period of time when there were a lot of people looking backward preserving things—people in the line of Thoreau and Emerson and Whitman; people in this idea of who we are as Americans; all these different languages coming together with music as the common language, and sort of defining who we are through that.”

The movie sets the stage for the emergence of Bob Dylan (his song, “Farewell” makes a cameo on the soundtrack) and Burnett knows the era well enough—having been Dylan’s touring guitarist and all. He is an essential history book of the folk music era. He remembers Washington Square Park in New York during the time as a “beautiful microcosm” of musicians.

“You had people not looking for chart positions or trends,” says Burnett. “Greenwich Village at that time was the country. It was like a country town and there was bluegrass, folk music, jazz and different music. That culture was so vibrant, and they were all competing each other in this park.”

“And they all hated each other,” jokes Isaac.

“A small community of people in that one little park, that one little green space—and boom they exploded all over the world. [They] changed everything,” says Burnett. “Same thing in Memphis, Tennessee with Elvis Presley, Stan Phillips, Jerry Lee Lewis, Roy Orbison. Five or six guys changed the whole world.”

“Just like CBGB in New York,” adds Isaac.

“There were just a handful of people in CBGB and they exploded out of one little room—now it’s a clothing store,” laughs Burnett.

To achieve even more folk scene realness, the scenes were shot at a recreation of the real-life Gaslight Cafe, the subterranean club on 116 MacDougal Street in Greenwich Village that was a stage for folk singers. To up the ante, all the performances by Isaac and his costars Justin Timberlake, Carey Mulligan and Adam Driver were done on the spot to give the movie even more of a folkie authenticity.

“There was no lip syncing or auto-tuning—none of that stuff,” says Isaac. “It’s all done live and generally we’d do about four to five takes per setup and if there were about four to five setups you’re looking at 25 takes, 30 takes sometimes.”

Singing live isn’t anything new for Isaac considering his experience. He says that there isn’t much of a difference between a guy singing in a room in 1961 and a guy singing in a room in 2013 save a couple of technical differences, one being the “generosity of sound”—something he schools me on.

“I think we are a lot less generous with sound nowadays just in our speeches, in the way that we speak to one another,” says Isaac. “One big example of that is the intrusion of ‘like’ and ‘you know.’ The reason why that’s there and it’s completely unconscious now is because you don’t want to take a stance one way or the other. Right? So you say, ‘I went down to, like, the store.’ Did you go to the store or did you go to something like the store? And you’re saying it’s something ‘like the store’ in case you have other information. We’re very non-committal.”

Inside Llewyn Davis is essentially a 105-minute folk song told through the life a well-meaning, yet flawed and broken man. It’s even-handed, pensive and hopeful, but streaked with struggle and pain. Burnett sees the movie as a tool for the music industry today on multiple levels.

“One of the things we want to do in the wake of this film is we want to build a platform for these young musicians because the whole infrastructure that was built over a century has been dismantled now and nothing has been put in its place, but here is a chance to put a platform together,” says Burnett. “All of them would get their music heard by more people because that’s the whole key. The whole idea is to get out and get your music heard, and the way to do it is by doing it live. Society is like a campfire that people gather around for security and safety and warmth, and it’s good at night. You hear noises out there in the dark and they’re frightening and so people are glad to be close to each other so we can all help each other, but the artists are the ones who say, ‘No, I’m going to go out there in the dark and find out what that noise is.’”

Consider this an invitation for a new folk revolution.

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