23 January 2023

I Watch a Film With a Famous Director Then We Have a Chat (actually I just asked a question from the audience)

Here's the director with his wife, Frances. You may have heard of her.

He’s tall with a large shock of unkempt hair, a beard and glasses. You’d assume he was a professor at Cal or a psychiatrist. He seems totally self-assured yet humble and unpretentious. He clearly enjoys his work but it doesn’t define him nor does his success -- which he attributes in part to luck. His name is Joel Coen and he’s responsible for some of the best films of the last thirty plus years.

Coen was at the Pacific Film Archives last night as part of a series of films he’s co-presenting (many of his own direction). Last night’s fare was Inside Llewyn Davis (2013), my favorite picture of the preceding decade by any director.

I arrived early so got a seat in the third row middle. I’ve seen Llewyn Davis at least five times (I own the Criterion edition). It’s a perfectly constructed film, the kind of movie that you watch and afterwards think you wouldn’t change a thing about it. No scene lasts too long, no character is underdeveloped, no camera angle is a bit off, its a masterclass of directing. It’s bolstered by a bravura performance from Oscar Isaac in what was then only his third film. The cast also included the great Carey Mulligan, John Goodman, Justin Timberlake and Adam Driver, who like Isaac, had yet to hit the big time.

Inside Llewyn Davis is the story of failure. The title character is a folk singer who has enjoyed some success, mostly with a partner who has since committed suicide. As a solo act he’s remained small time, struggling to make ends meet and indeed rotating through an address book of friends whose sofas he crashes on. The year is 1961 and as a young singer who appears at the end would note, the times they are a changing. But Llewyn isn’t. He won’t compromise but has no leverage because his talent and reputation don't match his out-sized ego. He’s dismissive of other acts (and for that matter of people in general) with a too-cool-for-school attitude about most everything, especially other singers. Llewyn is not warm and fuzzy so it’s a wonder we root for him. But we do. There’s also a cat in the story in a subplot that Coen admitted was added so that there would be some kind of plot. 

Llewyn is kicked around by life but his own foot is in on the action.

In the Q and A after the showing Coen sang Isaac’s praises. It seems that if not for him there would have been no movie. He and his brother Ethan (with whom he co-directed, co-wrote and co-produced the film) first looked for a musician to play the lead as they wanted to be sure that they had someone who could sing and play the guitar well enough to avoid dubbing. But they found no one with the acting ability to carry a film. So they looked “for a needle in a haystack” and sought an actor who could do the music. “We found the needle,” in Oscar Isaac. 

The legendary T Bone Burnett was executive music producer for the film and Coen mentioned how great it was to work with him (they'd previously collaborated on O Brother Where Art Thou?) he later noted that Timberlake is a “musical genius” who made contributions to the film beyond acting. Indeed, Llewyn Davis remains one of the most enjoyable working experiences in his film career and one of his favorite of his films. Evidently working with cats is not particularly easy but neither is working with horses as he has done before. Coen sited horses and weather as two variables that can make filming difficult.

One young female audience member asked him about the scene in which the nightclub manager tells Davis that a woman got to sing at his club because she slept with him. “Why did you feel the need to include that?” (Dear me, would someone ask Spielberg why he included gun violence in Saving Private Ryan?). Patiently Coen explained that these were the type of choices people have had to make in the music and film industries and the movie is in no small part about the choices we make in trying to attain success. Maybe the woman was “triggered” by the scene, which is something I wouldn’t make light of, but doses of harsh reality are always going to be included in films.

Yours truly asked two questions. One was about the scene in the subway car in which some of what we see is from the cat’s perspective. How did you come up with that bit of genius, I wanted to know. “I don’t know,” Coen confessed. But he described the making of the scene, which included utilizing a subway museum. I also asked if he knew of Bob Dylan’s reaction to the movie, as a fictional Dylan appears at the end. Coen said that Burnett told him about the film and he knows Dylan saw it but has no idea what his reaction was. (Someone needs to find out.)

Interesting to me was the germ of the idea for the film: Dave Van Ronk being beaten up outside a club. That was it, that’s where it came from. The famed musician was the inspiration for the the main character. Early in production Isaac slicked his hair down so he’d look more like Van Ronk. When Isaac asked Coen what he thought, the director responded, “you look like Adolph Hitler.”

Coen gladly answered all questions: Him and his brother get along well and rarely disagree, and never on important decisions, they may work together again. Casting is critical to making a good film. He rarely does a lot of rehearsal before filming. William H. Macy auditioned for a different role in Fargo then asked if he could read for Jerry Lundegaard. He wasn't what they were looking for but they gave him a shot. He was perfect. He joked about how in so many of their pictures -- as in Llewyn Davis -- John Goodman plays a pompous loud mouth. Many asked questions about symbolism. Evidently people see a lot more in movies than the director intended. That's okay though.

Filing out I passed by Coen and thought about stopping to say a few kind words but there were others around him likely waiting to do the same. It was late and I was anxious to get home having been to a basketball game immediately before the film and it being a “school night.” I somewhat regret my decision now. Joel Coen and his brother’s films have been important parts of my cinephilia. I own DVDs of Inside Llewyn Davis, The Big Lebowski, No Country For Old Men, A Serious Man, Blood Simple, Oh Brother Where Art Thou? And The Man Who Wasn’t There and have greatly enjoyed others such as Fargo, The Hudsucker Proxy, True Grit, The Tragedy of MacBeth and Hail Caesar! It’s rare to chance upon — in any circumstance — someone whose professional work you’ve admired, enjoyed and been inspired by. Kinda wish I told him.

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