The Coen Brothers are back in a big way with their latest film, Inside Llewyn Davis.  The film follows a struggling folk musician, navigating the populous music scene of 1960’s Greenwich Village in New York.  The film screened for the press at this year’s New York Film Festival, and HeyUGuys was lucky enough to attend a press conference that featured both Joel and Ethan Coen, as well as two of the film’s stars, Oscar Isaac and John Goodman.

We learned a variety of different things about how the prolific directing team approaches a film, and also gained some insight into how they go about casting their projects.  Here are five of the most important takeaways.

5.  The Coens are aware that their protagonists almost never get “Happy Endings”.

One of the first questions asked to the Coens was about their choice of subjects, and whether or not failure was more interesting to make a film about than success.  Joel Coen responded with a startlingly direct but revelatory response.

“Well, the success movies have been done, haven’t they?  It’s less interesting from a story point of view, I think.  In fact, I don’t even know how we would start to think about that one.  (To Ethan) How do we pick our subject?

Then Ethan took over the question.

“You know, we just talk about whatever – it just comes out of a conversation.  ‘Picking a subject’ implies there’s something really specific we’re picking, but it’s kind of not like that.  We talk about, whatever.  In the case of this movie, a scene – you know, the Village and the folk revival, or whatever.  The possible ideas about a character, and it’s just a very, very, very vague conversation that gets progressively more concrete.”

Without saying too much, and considering their body of work up until this point, it’s very enlightening to realize that a film where our hero doesn’t necessarily find the answers they’re looking for can oftentimes be a relief, storywise.  Ethan Coen’s response about how they create their stories leads me to speculate about the conversations that they have together.  It’s also a thrilling idea that great stories can be born from a single idea.  All of you aspiring screenwriters out there, take note.

4.  The Coens are specific about imagery.

At one point in the film, Llewyn arrives in Chicago during an especially harsh winter.  He’s broke and cold, and he sits in a coffee shop while his shoes are dripping wet from the melted snow.  It marks a moment in the film where we see Llewyn at his lowest point, and it’s a perfect metaphor for the internal struggle of the character.

When asked about whether or not images like those are preconceived, Oscar Isaac talked about how scenes are delivered to the actors performing them.

“It was in there.  And there was a little picture too.  What’s cool is everyday you get your sides – you know, all the words you have to say for the day, your ‘lyics’.  At the back of the sides they (the Coens) have their storyboards printed out, which is a really great way for everybody to kind of understand what’s happening.  Not everybody does that.  I do remember the picture of the wet shoe, and it seems like, yea, what’s a horrible thing that you could have in a diner, at a place you’re stuck in than a cold, wet foot?”

If you’re a cinephile, I’m sure the one thing that comes to mind is, “how do I get my hands on a Coen storyboard?”  In all seriousness, given their penchant for striking imagery in their films, it’s likely a real gift for working actors and actresses today to know what to expect while shooting a scene.  The Coens’ stories are usually very offbeat, so the benefit of a storyboard attached to the script is a huge benefit to the production.  As John Goodman added to this question:

“I mainly read their scripts for the pictures.”

3.  They almost shot the film in black and white.

Most of the folks who have seen Inside Llewyn Davis have noted that the film is very muted in color.  It’s a choice that lends a very gloomy and melancholy tone to the story, which is an obvious benefit.  Though as we learned at the press conference, the initial conversation about the film was to shoot in black and white.  Here’s what Joel Coen had to say about that.

“That was sort of an early idea. I mean, it’s very difficult to make black and white movies nowadays.  That aside, just from a broader, stylistic point of view, when we were sitting down with Bruno Delbonnel (Director Of Photography) and trying to figure out all of those things, we found ourselves starting with that idea, but then as we started to break the script down into specific shots, we realized that so much of what we wanted to do from a shot point of view just didn’t lend itself to that.  There’s a little bit of a residual idea of that.  In some of the coverage in the coffee house.  The first shot of the movie starts out with a handheld shot actually.”

Ethan Coen:

“Yeah, we talked about it.  The first shot is a really long take because it could afford to be, because Oscar was – all the performances were good.  But a kind of quietly handheld take, and we thought alright we’ll do it at the beginning of the movie and it’ll feel vaguely good again when it comes back at the end, but it kind of fell away from the rest of the movie.

Joel Coen:

“You know, we started thinking we want to follow this cat down a hallway, and you can’t really do that.  I mean, the idea of doing that from a visual point of view or just sort of how you design the shot is sort of antithetical to making it look like a Maysles brothers documentary.  It wants to be sort of controlled.  That transition wants to feel controlled.  So those types of things were starting to push us away from that idea as we started to discuss what the movie was going to look like.” 

While watching the film, I thought that it would be interesting if they shot it in black and white, but I understand that there are obstacles that come along with that choice.  In the end, the omission of a black and white format didn’t hurt the film at all, and hearing them discuss their process of eliminating the possibility points to how meticulous they really are.  Obviously to their benefit.

2. The Coens love John Goodman because he speaks their language.

The topic of the Coens/Goodman history of collaboration and their choice of Goodman as aging bluesman Roland Turner, was explored toward the end of the press conference, and it was a question I was hoping would be asked.  To hear them talk about it brings a smile to your face, and then immediately start to reminisce about the colorful host of characters Goodman has given us over the years.

Ethan Coen:

“(laughs) We just knew that John would understand it, and also John turned us on to Charles Portis, a novelist who wrote ‘True Grit’ but all of his novels were contemporary and all of his novels had an old gas-bag character, kind of like John’s character in the movie.”

John Goodman:

“Um, I don’t know.  The shorthand part is hard to describe.  So I won’t try.  It’s just something we’ve always fallen into I think, since ‘Raising Arizona’.  They asked me to do a take one time when I was driving an automobile, and I said ‘Oh, you mean a SPANKY take?’ They knew what I was talking about, I knew – it’s Spanky from ‘Little Rascals’.  Those are the things that make the day go ever-so-faster.”

Joel Coen:

“We were also doing a shot once in ‘Barton Fink’ where John came to the door, and was answering the door, and Ethan said ‘can we have a little more ropey snot on this take?’ John said, ‘I’m your man!’ 

John Goodman:

“I think it was, ‘I’m your boy!’

Ethan Coen:

“On this one we asked John, you know ‘you have to hit a mark over there, so okay John, you Everett Sloan to that mark’, and John knew what we were talking about. “

Everybody in the room could tell very easily, that these men had a great admiration for each other, and to hear them speak candidly about the ease at which they work with each other was fantastic.  Obviously, we hope they continue to create memorable characters in the future.

1. This will likely be the last movie the Coens shoot on film.

The age of digital filmmaking is progressing quickly, and the last remaining filmmakers who still shoot on film are starting to realize that they can’t hold out much longer.  That’s especially true for the Coens.  They touched on some of the limitations of shooting on film and also about their intention to move on to digital.

Joel Coen:

“I have to say I’m not wildly enthusiastic about the idea. This movie was shot on film for a number of reasons. Bruno (Delbonnel, DP) had also not shot anything with a digital camera before.  We thought that was actually – while we discussed it we thought that might be one more, sort of complicating factor in a new relationship with a DP that, neither of us had, you know, just the one extra step too far. I’m glad we shot on film, but it’s a hybrid thing right now. It all goes into a computer and it’s all heavily manipulated. But still, there’s something that looks different. It’s probable that the next one will be shot digitally.”

That is sad to hear.  I prefer movies that are shot on film, and given my deep appreciation for the Coens, their transition to digital feels like the end of an era.  Alas, technology leaps forward, and with it so does cinema.

Keep checking back as we bring you more coverage from the New York Film Festival, and be sure to check out Inside Llewyn Davis when it hits theaters December 20, 2013.