Cat Scratches, Plot Challenges and Justin Timberlake: Making 'Inside Llewyn Davis'

6:00 AM PST 12/06/2013 by Alex Ben Block
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Oscar Isaac

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.

Burnett worked with the Coens as they searched for their lead, who had to act and sing well enough to be accepted as a professional but who audiences would believe might never succeed in the music biz. More than 100 actors auditioned. "This is the kind of part where if we had not found Oscar," says Joel of the Juilliard-trained Isaac, "the movie may have been impossible to make."

Joel Coen felt the Guatemala-born and South Florida-raised Isaac -- who'd been in The Bourne Legacy (2012) and Drive (2011) -- brought an important dimension to a character who isn't very sympathetic: "In his performance Oscar refused to court sympathy. He wasn't trying to warm-and-fuzzy the character up, to get the audience to like him. But there is something about Oscar which is naturally sympathetic."

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Costumer Mary Zophres, another frequent Coen collaborator, had a $200,000 budget to cover the entire cast, including hundreds of extras. She rented most of the extras' wardrobe, reusing a pair of pants half a dozen times (with a washing in between). To dress John Goodman for a memorable cameo as an old jazz player, Zophres found inspiration in black jazz musicians of the era. Goodman wanted to look like the late jazz saxophonist Gerry Mulligan. "You have to find comic elements in there to make the darkness richer," says Goodman.

Despite taking place mostly in lower Manhattan (aside from a road trip to Chicago), the production filmed only one scene in the real Greenwich Village (at the Café Reggio), as it has become too commercial over the years. "We couldn't shoot in the West Village," says production designer Jess Goncher. "It's too visually noisy now." (The filmmakers used the Lower East Side and Brooklyn as stand-ins.)

The Coen brothers' go-to cinematographer Roger Deakins was busy lensing 2012's Skyfall, so they turned to Bruno Delbonnel (Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince), whom they had met in Paris seven years earlier. Delbonnel and the Coens agreed they wanted to shoot on 35mm film and gave much of the picture a desaturated, almost monochromatic feel. "Film has an emotional quality I think you lose in digital," Delbonnel says. "And I wanted this movie to be really sad."

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Once again the Coens attracted a spectacular cast that also included Garrett Hedlund, Carey Mulligan, Adam Driver, F. Murray Abraham and Justin Timberlake.

"I'd done Social Network with [Timberlake] and knew him as a guy who was up for a good job and a great experience," says Rudin. "There are a handful of directors in the world who when they call, you go. Joel and Ethan are those guys. Justin didn't want to miss being in a Coen brothers movie."

"Here's the thing," says Ethan, 56. "If you're not offering a lot of money, they're doing it because they think it's interesting. "

Adds Joel, "The less you offer for a part, the more likely you are to get someone who actually knows what they are doing."

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Timberlake, Mumford and Llewyn's Music

As soon as the Coen brothers decide music is central to a movie, they turn to T Bone Burnett, their musical guru since The Big Lebowski and O Brother, Where Art Thou?, whose soundtrack became a popular, Grammy-winning album.

For Davis, the trio set some parameters -- the music had to be authentic Americana, and all the recording had to be live. "We didn't want Oscar [Isaac] to lip sync it," says Ethan Coen. "You can tell." Burnett warned that live recording was risky. "If the tempo varies even a little, " says Burnett, "even a millisecond, you can't cut [in postproduction] between takes because you lose sync."

It worked, adds Burnett, who sat near the camera with a stopwatch: "The miraculous thing is that Oscar never varied [song length] the whole time."

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Burnett vividly remembers when Isaac came to L.A. for rehearsals. That first day they headed to Norm's Rare Guitar in Tarzana. "The first thing you have to do as a musician is get a guitar that blends with your voice," says Burnett. They played guitar after guitar until a vintage 1924 Gibson L-01 nailed it. "It was like, 'Oh, there it is,' " recalls Burnett. " 'Wrap it up.' "

Burnett's all-star musical team on this movie included Justin Timberlake, who acted, sang and mentored -- "Justin has near perfect pitch," says Isaac -- and Marcus Mumford, 26, the husband of Carey Mulligan (and member of Mumford & Sons) who plays guitar, drums and mandolin.

Right after his wife's casting, Mumford called Burnett, with whom he'd discussed doing something musically. "He said, 'This is a Coen brothers movie,' " recalls Burnett. " 'Can I just come make tea or something?' I said, 'I want you to sing a song I need sung.' "

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