“Inside Llewyn Davis” is the story of a folk singer for whom everything is going wrong — the irony being that Oscar Isaac, who plays the titular struggling artist, had so very many things go right for him to get the part.
“It’s like the exact opposite of everything that happens to Llewyn, it’s like things have just fallen into place in such a great way,” Isaac said Wednesday night at TheWrap’s awards-season screening of the Coen brothers’ film at the Landmark theater in Los Angeles.
Key among them was a chance encounter for Isaac — who admits he played music and “sang, very badly, for years” prior to his audition – who found his guitar teacher while on the set of another film.
He said a musician picked up a guitar “and he just started Travis-picking (a popular folk style of its time) like a motherfucker,” Isaac said, when prompted by TheWrap awards columnist Steve Pond (below right, with Isaac and Burnett) to talk about where he got his training. “I mean, it was amazing, he was so good.”
The man offered to teach Isaac, whose character was to be loosely based on Dave Van Ronk, a real-life Greenwich Village folk scenester whose blue-collar style never got the attention of flashier contemporaries like Bob Dylan.
“I asked him, have you heard of Dave Van Ronk?” Isaac said. “He goes ‘Yeah, I played with Dave.'”
The teacher turned out to be Erik Fransden, a well-known Greenwich Village musician who still haunts the Village folk scene – and it sounds like Isaac couldn’t have found a better mentor. Drawing from his newly acquired picking skills, Isaac’s audition immediately impressed T-Bone Burnett, who served as the film’s executive music producer.
“Who’s good is really evident — after all this time, it’s not a mystery (to me) anymore,” said Burnett, who should know — the musician, songwriter and producer has worked with everyone from Bob Dylan to Elvis Costello, and won a Grammy for the Coen brothers’ last music themed film, “O Brother Where Art Thou.”
“(Isaac) sounded like one of these cats,” he said.
Isaacs’ fortunes only ascended from there; he described Burnett as a musical “Mr. Miyagi,” whose ingenuity, mentoring skills and decades of experience gave Isaac an understanding of folk music he’d never dreamed of.
“Just complete mind-blowing, very organic,” Isaac said, miming the motions of the main character in “The Karate Kid.” “Just stripping away all of the … wax? … stripping away all of the artifice to get to the Crane-Kick.”
It was a necessary mentorship to do “Inside Llewyn Davis” they way the Coen brothers wanted: With real, live performances of the songs that were neither dubbed nor spliced together. For Burnett and the Coens, keeping the sound and experience of the music authentic to the 1960’s was imperative.
“When you’re like right here and the guy’s singing and playing, for real, … you get so much more detail about that person, about that performance, than you ever can doing a virtual version of it later,” explained Burnett, who didn’t utilize any lip-synching or pre-recorded tracks. “This was actually just … the thing. I want to say nobody in the history of cinema has ever done what Oscar did here. Think about it — learning a repertoire, and then doing it completely live, without a click track or anything.”
At times, Isaac recorded up to 30 takes of the songs to get just one perfect, unvarnished version of a simple, three-minute, three-chord song.
Though meticulous attention to authentic musical detail is the backbone of “Inside Llewyn Davis,” the crowd was most responsive to Isaac’s even more constant (and less cooperative) companion during the film – the cat. Or, as it turned out, cats.
“There was a potpourri of cats, and some of them were less into being in a movie than others,” joked Isaac.
“Some of them really didn’t like folk music, or being tied to a human being,” added Burnett, who noted that they often had to be tethered to Isaac to keep them from darting off. Though something of a MacGuffin – and a pain to work with – the felines held important symbolic meaning for the character, Isaac said.
“It’s his spirit animal, it’s his responsibility, it’s his humanity even,” he said. “It’s all of those things as well.”
Late in the Q&A, TheWrap film reporter Jeff Sneider asked what it was like to work with Scott Rudin, the heavily awards-decorated and notoriously hands-on producer.
“I’ll tell you how hands-on he is, he pre-screened that question you just asked,” Burnett said, laughing – and leaving it at that.
For Isaac, playing the part of Llewyn Davis under the direction of the Coen brothers was a dream in itself.
“I heard about (the part) on the internet, and then I told my representation that they were fired if they didn’t get me into this room,” he said, “because they’re my favorite filmmakers and I’ve been playing music for a long time.”
“Inside Llewyn Davis” opens in theaters December 20.
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