Cat Scratches, Plot Challenges and Justin Timberlake: Making 'Inside Llewyn Davis'
UPDATED: For their 16th film — a musical ode to '60s folk — the Coen brothers wrestled with finding the right actor for the lead and struggled to re-create an NYC that no longer exists.
This story first appeared in the Dec. 13 issue of The Hollywood Reporter Magazine.
On the freezing New York morning of March 9, 2012 -- Oscar Isaac's 32nd birthday -- he carried a plump orange tabby cat down dimly lit stairs into the Canal Street subway station for a scene from Inside Llewyn Davis, which marks his first starring role.
The cat was cradled in his arms and tethered to him, but still Isaac couldn't contain the frightened animal. It reared up and scratched his face, drawing blood, before leaping into the crowd of extras (dressed in early '60s garb) and taking off with a cat wrangler in hot pursuit.
"There were four or five cats that had different personalities depending on what was needed," recalls Isaac. "We had a docile one and a squirrelly one that had to be tied to me so it didn't jump loose. That one didn't like his involvement in the movie and rebelled against it; which included rebelling against the person holding it."
Despite the minor scratch, Isaac was happy to be playing the title role in the 16th movie directed and written by Joel and Ethan Coen. This film was born of the brothers' love of 1950s and '60s folk music -- especially in the beatnik scene in New York's Greenwich Village, just before the arrival of Bob Dylan, the electric guitar and the tumult of the late 1960s. The Coens were particularly taken by the work of musician Dave Van Ronk, whose autobiographical book, The Mayor of MacDougal Street, was a touchstone.
Inside Llewyn Davis charts one week in the life of a folk singer (Isaac) struggling to make it in the winter of 1961, playing in half-empty clubs, scraping by without enough money to even buy a winter coat. One night Davis steps into an alley behind the Gaslight, a club in the Village, and gets beat up by a stranger. It became the Coens' obsession to write a movie that would explain that unprovoked attack while bringing to life an authentic style of American music about to come to an end.
"There's not much of a plot and that's a challenge," says Joel Coen, 59. "We've done things that are very heavily plotted, and in the middle of this we were going, 'Well, what is this? It's really a very discrete period of time, a slice into which nothing much happens, so how do you drive the narrative?'"
The Coens turned to mega-producer Scott Rudin for a third time, after No Country for Old Men and True Grit. And the $17 million budget was low enough to allow them their customary complete creative control. "They tailor a movie to maintain their freedom," says Rudin, who brought aboard French pay TV giant Canal Plus, which put up the entire cost and, before they fielded any offers for the domestic rights, sold enough international territories to cover the budget.
Rudin says CBS Films, led by Terry Press and Wolfgang Hammer, aggressively tracked domestic rights, and just before Cannes -- where Inside Llewyn Davis won the Grand Prix, the second-highest honor -- paid a reported $4 million. "She (Press) loved the music," says Rudin. "She loved the movie, wanted it, chased it hard."
With music playing such an integral role, the Coens once again collaborated with composer T Bone Burnett (O Brother, Where Art Thou?). "This is a story about a musician," says Burnett. "The place where he lives is in his music. So when you're introducing the character, the way to introduce him is in the song, and not just a snippet of a song, but the full song."