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Directors on Their Teams: The Coens on ‘Inside Llewyn Davis’

CBS Films’ “Inside Llewyn Davis” opens today, amid very positive reviews. It was written and directed by Joel and Ethan Coen, who produced along with Scott Rudin; the siblings also edited, under the name Roderick Jaynes. In an interview with Variety, the two talked about their invaluable collaborators in re-creating the Greenwich Village folk music scene before Bob Dylan revolutionized it. They took their visual inspiration from a Bob Dylan album cover, and talked about the subtle hazards of recording the songs live and of shooting in New York, even in buildings and rooms appropriate to the era.

Cinematography: Bruno Delbonnel

ETHAN: “Freewheeling Bob Dylan”; it’s an iconic Greenwich Village early ’60s (image). For the the look of the movie, that’s what we talked about with Bruno; that was a touchstone. We wanted desaturated color, desaturated ectachrome look. It’s the picture of the Village that we wanted to present, it’s also the gray sky, no direct sunlight, the whole wintry thing. I don’t know if we suggested it to Bruno or he suggested it to us.

JOEL: I think we both came at it at the same time. As Ethan was saying, it’s emblematic of that period.

ETHAN: Bruno is unbelievable.

JOEL: We worked with him on this short we did in Paris (a segment of “Paris, Je t’Aime”). We have a longstanding collaboration with Roger Deakins but he was shooting James Bond and was essentially out of the market. So we called Bruno and luckily he was available.

Editor: Roderick Jaynes

ETHAN: We have worked with other editors a couple of times, like Trisha Cook, my wife.

JOEL: We’ve worked with other editors but we’ve never NOT cut ourselves as well.

ETHAN: And they were all good experiences. But once we started cutting digitally on the computer, it became so efficient, we kinda hogged the process (laughs).

JOEL: I doubt that (hiring an outside editor) would ever happen again. When I got out of film school, I started working in editing rooms. So I’m perfectly comfortable on the machines; it’s not possible for me to sit over someone’s shoulder. That’s just part of our process, like writing, doing storyboards, production, editing — it’s just something we have to get our hands on. It’s also fun.

ETHAN: There’s another reason why we would not. We don’t have the same financial imperatives for finishing a movie really fast; big movies cut while they’re shooting. We can’t cut while we’re shooting — cuz we’re shooting!

JOEL: We have never cut while we were shooting, with one exception, “Hudsucker,” and that was a mistake. I know some directors do, but we’re too lazy. After we finish shooting for a day, we like to go home and sleep.

Sound: Peter Kurland

ETHAN: (about recording songs live). Kurland treated it like recording dialog, we looked for good sound environments, we got it on boom. Obviously T Bone Burnett was involved. We had picture microphones, which also functioned.

JOEL: Yes, practical microphones, which functioned and we used them for pickups.

ETHAN: Mainly we used booms. Technically, it was nicely recorded. We had a set for the Gaslight (Club).

JOEL: We re-created clubs in a sound-friendly environment. We didn’t shoot those in actual clubs where sound might be an issue. It was being mixed on the set. Peter has worked with us on every film we’ve done since ‘Blood Simple.”

Production design: Jess Gonchor

ETHAN: “No Country” was the first film we did with Jess.

JOEL: He’s unbelievable. The more we get to know him, the less we talk to him, literally. We realized there’s no need to say things to him because he’s so brilliant and he’s so on the wavelength of the movie. He understands everything we’re interested in. He’ll build a set and insist we walk through it multiple times and we just (shrug and) need to convince him that we’re going to like everything he does.

ETHAN: In the usual director-designer collaboration, you probably have lengthy discussions about what it should look like. We don’t do that with Jess, he just knows.

JOEL: It’s period in New York, which is unbelievably difficult to do now. It was done on such a low budget that there was very little building (of sets). So Jess’s job really was finding spaces and converting them for our purposes. There’s a muscle that a lot of designers don’t have if they’re used to building a lot of sets. But that’s a muscle that he has. It suits us very well. There’s often a limit to the amount of construction we do. This was a hard one. Everything in New York now in some ways is beautifully suited to shooting a period movie. All the architecture is there. But when you look closely, you realize everything is wrong now. Windows have aluminum frames, or doorways in tenement buildings no longer have wooden frames. When you look in any direction, details have to be changed. Trying to re-create 1960s subways in New York is incredibly difficult.

ETHAN: You look at the architecture and you think ‘Great, everything is right’ but cosmetically, everything is wrong.

JOEL: The amount of work that went into every shot …

ETHAN: On (Llewyn’s) trip to Chicago, we were out on a road in the middle of nowhere, and thought ‘Easy,’ but even THAT’S wrong because the stripes —

JOEL: The way they painted roads is completely different. You look at it and go ‘Something’s wrong.’ The stripes are modern. So all of those things have to be changed or altered.

Costumes: Mary Zophres

JOEL: Mary has worked with us since “Fargo.” She’s indispensable, a secret weapon of ours. In period, it’s not just a question of doing what the principals need, but also armies of extras who have to be dressed. One interesting thing about the costumes of this film, we were looking at the way people were dressed in that period. Mary and her team did unbelievable amounts of photographic research and a lot of clothing you see on kids in the vintage scenes from the ’60s, you literally could be in Williamsburg now. It’s exactly the way kids in Williamsburg are dressing now. The distinctions are very subtle.

ETHAN: Especially the boys, men.

JOEL: Especially the men! Women less so. But the distinctions get very subtle. How do you make sure it doesn’t look too contemporary? She was saying ‘It’s more about these kinds of fabrics and these types of cuts,’ you know, subtle distinctions. And all the extras have to be dressed that way, so it’s an enormous job.

ETHAN: A lot of her work is character stuff, palette stuff that she discussed with Jess. She considers herself, I think more than most wardrobe designers, responsible for the look of everyone on the set. And she works with the casting director on who’s going to wear what and who’s going to be in the foreground. Mary looks at faces too.

JOEL It goes beyond costume design.

ETHAN: It’s more like “person design.”

Directors on Their Teams runs Monday through Friday. Next week: John Lee Hancock.

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