Casting conundrum solved, Coen brothers go 'Inside Llewyn Davis'

Tue Dec 3, 2013 5:32pm EST
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By Mary Milliken

BEVERLY HILLS, California (Reuters) - Leave it to the prolific filmmaking pair Joel and Ethan Coen to create their own movie conundrum, and engineer (or maybe luck) their way out of it.

For their new film, "Inside Llewyn Davis," the brothers Coen painted themselves into this corner: They needed an actor for the title role of a struggling folk singer in the early 1960s who could carry an entire movie, be in every scene, convince the audience he was a musician and play songs live in their entirety multiple times.

"We thought the movie might have been unmakeable," said Joel Coen in a recent interview with his younger brother by his side. "That person just might not exist. Oscar coming in, that was a big thing."

Oscar Isaac, 33, a Guatemala-born, Miami-raised actor and musician trained at the Juilliard School, turned out to be the ticket. "Inside Llewyn Davis," from CBS Corp's CBS Films, opens in U.S. theaters on Friday.

Isaac, best known for his supporting role in the 2011 drama "Drive," thought he was a long shot for what would be his first lead role, but he nevertheless "obsessed" about learning the folk singing and guitar style of the day, even as weeks went by without word from the Coens after his first audition.

Then there was a stroke of luck before a second audition: He met a guitar player who had played with Dave Van Ronk, the folk singer upon whom Llewyn Davis is based, and who lived above the Gaslight bar in New York's Greenwich Village, featured in the film. He taught him "Travis picking," a widely used pattern in popular music invented by Merle Travis.

Et voila, the Coens found their somewhat obscure actor-musician to anchor their film and around whom they could arrange an ensemble cast populated by big names like Justin Timberlake and Carey Mulligan as a folk-singing duet, and John Goodman as a drug-addled jazz musician.

Award-winning music producer T. Bone Burnett honed Isaac's musical abilities, telling him, "Play it like you play to yourself on your couch." Every song, bar one, was filmed live.   Continued...

Directors Joel Coen (L) and Ethan Coen pose for a photo in Los Angeles, California, November 15, 2013. REUTERS/David McNew