This weekend the New York Film Festival got rolling and if you mistook it for the Scott Rudin Film Festival you wouldn’t be far from wrong. Rudin’s October 11th Sony Pictures release Captain Phillips world premiered to a standing ovation on Opening Night Friday. On Saturday the much-awaited New York premiere of his December 6th CBS Films pic Inside Llewyn Davis made its local debut with stars Oscar Isaac, John Goodman and writer/directors Joel and Ethan Coen among those on hand. But if that wasn’t enough of a Rudin takeover of the Fest (which runs a longish 18 days) there is an unprecedented sold out concert going on tonight at the Town Hall engineered by Rudin, the Coens and T-Bone Burnett called Another Day, Another Time: Celebrating The Music Of Inside Llewyn Davis. The concert featuring numerous folk singers of the early 1960s period in which the New York-based film is set also scheduled appearances from some of the movie’s stars including Isaac and Goodman. It’s clear Rudin, using the festival that also launched his The Social Network two years ago, doesn’t have to leave his hometown to make a mark in Hollywood’s nascent awards season. Game on.
In the case of Inside Llewyn Davis, the strategy seems particularly smart. Unlike Phillips or other upcoming Oscar-hopefuls like NYFF World Premieres for 20th Century Fox‘s The Secret Life Of Walter Mitty starring and directed by Ben Stiller and playing next weekend, and the October 13th closer, Spike Jonze‘s Her from Warner Bros, Davis has already been making the fest rounds since beginning in May at Cannes where it won the Grand Prize (second place), and then in a North American launch at Telluride on Labor Day weekend that included a tribute to the musical movie collaboration between the Coens and T- Bone Burnett.
Related: Hammond On Cannes: Competition Finally Heats Up With Coen Brothers’ ‘Inside Llewyn Davis’
At each of these, as in New York, the film’s title star Oscar Isaac has also made his mark and will be the subject of a major Best Actor push by CBS Films. A Golden Globe nod for Best Actor Musical or Comedy would seem a no-brainer (and for the film too) but getting into the impossibly crowded and competitive Oscar race for Isaac might take a more concerted push. When you consider he’s fighting for a slot against the likes of Redford, McConaughey, Hanks, Bale, DiCaprio, Dern, Jackman, Whitaker, Ejiofor, and Elba (just to name a few) it’s not easy. And Isaac’s performance as the morose ’60s folk singer is so subtle and pitch-perfect it doesn’t have all the flashy moments some of those others do exhibit, but it might be the trickiest balancing act any actor has had to pull off this year. As Isaac (whose previous films include supporting roles in The Bourne Legacy, Drive and Robin Hood) explained when we sat down for lunch last week at Sunset Tower, he had to walk a thin line in capturing the essence of Llewyn. “The basic theme of the whole film is about a man who wants so much to succeed, and also to fail,” he says. Nevertheless the Coens searched far and wide for their Llewyn and until they found Isaac. He knows the role is a major leap forward in his career. And he fought for it. “I had heard about it way early on and said I have got to get in on this thing. I love the Coen Brothers. I play music and I can sing so when the time finally came I was able to get an audition with the casting director… They had been looking for a lot of great musicians because they wanted to have full performances, live, like a concert film,” he said about the process of auditioning for the Coens who were looking for an actor who could sing rather than the other way around. “A month went by and I heard that it went well but it took a long time to hear. I was just begging the universe to give me this one shot, please give me this one shot!”
In the end he got the call from Joel and the role was his. Isaac threw himself into the part but was so thrilled to be cast he had a hard time staying in the role between takes. In other words he’s not like Daniel Day Lewis who never breaks character. “The biggest feat of acting was that when the camera wasn’t on I was just smiling ear to ear. I was just so happy to be there. I couldn’t really keep it morose, ” he said.
Of course sometimes what you wish for isn’t always easy. A scene stealer in the film is a pet cat who (literally) attaches himself to Llewyn on his journey. And because, unlike a dog, you can’t really train a cat to act, there were six cats on board to perform different feats. Isaac wasn’t relishing the idea. “I’m not a cat person. A year before that a cat I was just petting bit me and the next day I woke up with a red line that went all the way down my arm. I was in the hospital for two days. So on this film they show up and say ‘we are going to attach these cats to you and you are going to have to run as fast as you can into the subway. Sound good?'” he says wincing at the thought of the scene.
As for any inspirations of real folk singers of the period that helped shape the character for him Isaac had a surprising response. “Actually I looked at Buster Keaton, I looked at people that were silent. The comedy of resilience. He never changes his expression ever. He can be in love, this or that and something about that just creates heartache when you watch him. He’s just always vaguely sad, Buster Keaton. It was that kind of thing. I thought about the circumstances and creating warmth and intimacy without using charm. How do you find intimacy and warmth without those tools of smiling and winking. He still wants to be warm, he is just not going to bullshit you with charm. Really the only window you can have into him is his music, his songs,” he says in describing the complexity of playing the latest creation from the Coen Brothers.
Talking about taking the film to the New York Film Festival, Isaac is particularly excited since he went to school at Juilliard, right next door to Lincoln Center where his most important starring role to date would be screened. “It’s not so much ‘look at me now’ at all (laughs). It’s just more exciting, the wildness, the absurdity of life that this is how it’s ended up. I have been working professionally now for ten years but it still always feels sudden, it always feels new,” he said.