Inside the Coen Brothers at Cannes

Writer-director Joel Coen (r) with his lead Oscar Isaac
Writer-director Joel Coen (r) with his lead Oscar Isaac

No strangers to Cannes, the Coen Brothers were back this year with their study of a talented but struggling 1960s folk singer in New York City.

Inside Llewyn Davis follows the protagonist of the title over a week, as he sofa-surfs around the city, rubbing the few people who like him up the wrong way. Making a cantankerous central character so likeable is one of the toughest tasks that can fall to any actor, and Oscar Isaac embraces the challenge with aplomb.

“There was a 1 in 17 million chance of finding him,” joked singer-songwriter T-Bone Burnett, who was the music consultant on the film.

At the news conference after the film’s Cannes premiere, co-writer/director Ethan Coen described how hard it had been to get the casting right, “to find someone who could act that you’d want to hear sing – and not just a bit of a song, but a whole song, and not just one song, but many.” You could almost feel co-star Justin Timberlake bristling at the other end of the platform, itching to stick up his finger and ask “What about me?”

Timberlake plays Jim, a friend of the central character, himself a folk singer, and married to Carey Mulligan’s Jean, a former flame of Llewyn’s, in her second film at Cannes, after starring in the festival’s opener, The Great Gatsby.

Justin Timberlake and Carey Mulligan play folk-singing couple Jim and Jean
Justin Timberlake and Carey Mulligan play folk-singing couple Jim and Jean

“I’m very nervous about singing in front of people,” she confessed. “Joel and Ethan have an amazing ability to make you feel comfortable,” she added, before another confession. “They hadn’t heard me sing when they cast me. I just told them I could sing, to get the job.”

Perhaps more significantly, the moderator of the event observed that Mulligan was “more foul-mouthed than we’ve ever seen her before.” But this is the Coen brothers, so a bit of blue language is likely to be expected, but always with good humour. “I’ve never laughed so much on set,” beamed Isaac. Co-writer/director Joel Coen remarked that he and Ethan “sometimes laughed so much that we ruined sound takes.”

But while there was laughter on set – and indeed for the audiences – Joel Coen insisted that the film wasn’t making fun of the world of folk music. “I have a genuine and deep fondness for the music,” he insisted, before adding, after a beat, “Although there are a lot of funny things about folk music.”

There was something more worrying to the Coen Brothers than whether the film would be funny. “It concerned us that the movie didn’t have a plot. That’s why we introduced the cats.” If you’re wondering how cats play into a story about a folk singer, I’ll leave that for you to discover for yourselves, when the film opens.

Having featured heavily in the film, the music is likely to get a second outing as not one but two album releases. The cast had a week to rehearse the songs before the shoot began, and both live and studio versions of the music were recorded. “You want to know you’ve got it down before you go live,” explained Burnett. “It’s a small film, so you have to do everything you can to keep it alive.”

With it’s theatrical release not until the winter, early enough to qualify for the Oscars but late enough to be remembered by voters, it’s got a lot of life in it yet. And winning the Grand Prix here in Cannes will not have hurt its chances on the awards circuit one bit.