After making movies for more than three decades, Joel and Ethan Coen still don’t wear the auteur mantle comfortably—they seem to be having too much fun to see their brand of filmmaking as a proper job. They say many of their films begin with an opening scene or a desire to put characters into a specific setting. That includes their latest, Inside Llewyn Davis, the CBS Films release which starts and ends with star Oscar Isaac getting beaten up in an alley outside of a 1960s-era Greenwich Village folk-music club. But as matter-of-fact as they might make their work sound, the brothers have built a formidable career on creating detailed characters steeped in their very American environments. They have four Oscars apiece, for the original screenplay of 1996’s Fargo, and for best picture, director and adapted screenplay for 2007’s No Country For Old Men. More importantly, they enjoy an enviable level of creative freedom that ensures each film always contains their specific vision. They recently sat down with me at the Four Seasons in Beverly Hills to talk shop, though their brotherly banter often results in laughing more than answering questions.
DEADLINE: You usually release a film a year. Are you always working on the next project even if you haven’t quite finished the last?
JOEL COEN: We don’t want to glorify it with the description of calling it work. We’re always pretending to work. We are going through the motions.
ETHAN COEN: Yeah, we’ll sit around the office. We don’t necessarily write, but we’re available to write when an impulse to write strikes.
JOEL: I’m not sure we work in the (same) sense as a guy who works at the department of public works on a road crew, you know? Sometimes you feel a little guilty about that. Right before you’re dead.
DEADLINE: Do settings and moments come to you before plot and characters?
ETHAN: Usually, it’s yes. Usually, when we start out—it is weird to say—we start out at the beginning. Is this the beginning of a movie? Then that (leads to) describing a setting.
JOEL: For instance, we did a movie, Burn After Reading, where we thought, “We’re never going to make a movie that starts with a guy in a long hallway and a little type thing comes up that says ‘CIA headquarters, Langley Virginia.’ ” But then we thought, “Well, why not? Let’s try it! What if we did? What would that movie be?” So, yeah, that was starting with the setting.
ETHAN: This one’s was starting with a setting, specifically the Village, 1961, folk club.
DEADLINE: Studio Canal financed Inside Llewyn Davis before you had a distributor. Is that the first time that has happened for you? How did that come about?
ETHAN: It was fantastic. They were happy to it—I don’t know about happy, but they did do it without any commitment from a domestic distributor. There was no pressure to show a half-finished thing along the way. They let us finish the movie and then show it to distributors.
JOEL: I have to say that they were absolutely extraordinary partners, without any hyperbole—perhaps the best ever that we were able to work with.
DEADLINE: Has the Oscar attention you’ve had over the years changed your ability to get films financed. Has it helped?
ETHAN: Who knows? Obviously, that kind of stuff doesn’t hurt, but the degree to which it helps you really can’t say. It’s one of those unquantifiable things.
JOEL: There’s no control on that experiment. It doesn’t seem to have hurt anything; it doesn’t make things harder.
ETHAN: We’re in a good place. We’re able to do pretty much anything—if it’s really cheap. And if it’s more expensive, it kind of depends on what kind of movie it feels like, how mainstream and what kind of actors will be in it. But that’s reasonable. It’s as good as you can hope for.
DEADLINE: You’ve talked a lot about a lot how Dave Van Ronk’s book The Mayor of MacDougal Street inspired the character Oscar Isaac plays in the film. Did you do other research?
JOEL: We had read his memoir and had both found it very interesting. It was one of those things we talked about and drew on. Knowing this milieu, we wanted to work Dave in while we were writing the movie. There were actually a lot of things we read about, though. Dave’s memoir was probably one of the funniest of the period and, in certain ways, maybe the most interesting. There was another one that we had read several years ago called Hoot! A 25-Year History of the Greenwich Village Music Scene [written by Robbie Woliver, published in 1994]. And then there was another book called When We Were Good: The Folk Revival [written by Robert S. Cantwell, published in 1997], which is about an interesting and sort of scholarly folk revival.
ETHAN: We read a lot of things. We had a pretty good knowledge of the period. I mean, we listened to a lot of music specifically in connection with the movie. Some of it we knew, but we listened to a lot more when we were making the movie.
DEADLINE: That must be when the notion of this not really being work comes into play.
JOEL: That’s for sure. It’s like the old Pete Seeger joke. When he would sit there, just noodling on his banjo, his wife would say, “Leave Pop alone. He’s working.”
DEADLINE: The casting process was tough for the film. How long had you been searching before you found your Llewyn Davis?
ETHAN: The process of seeing people was pretty well along at the point where he walked in. We started by seeing by musicians, who all turned out to be, as promised, really good musicians. But as actors, maybe not so much. Then we started seeing actors, and Oscar just kind of walked into the middle of that audition process. Well, it didn’t turn out to be the middle because when he walked in, that was the end.
DEADLINE: Do you go into production with the script locked or do you continue to tinker during shooting?
ETHAN: Probably more locked than most. I mean, you sit around on the set, and there’s things you might change because [the line] doesn’t doesn’t taste right [for the actor] and maybe it would be better this way than that. But pretty locked.
JOEL: The little that we’ve seen of the movie business as it concerns other projects, it is more locked than most.
ETHAN: The changes on the set are just little word [changes], fussing around the edges.
DEADLINE: This is your third film with Scott Rudin producing, and you worked with him on Raising Arizona when he was at president of production at Fox. What works so well with that relationship?/em>
ETHAN: Well, first of all, he doesn’t sleep, so he’s always available. [Laughs.]
JOEL: Yes, that is the main thing, always available.
ETHAN: Some of these sons of bitches go to bed at night.
JOEL: It’s crazy how they do that. What are they thinking?
ETHAN: With Scott, it’s like any collaboration. There are some people you can talk to, you just understand each other. With some people, the conversation never gets started.
Christy Grosz is Editor of AwardsLine.