You can just imagine it: Joel and Ethan Coen are trying to sell the idea for their new film to a studio. It’s the story of a melancholic folk singer, they say, who doesn’t really succeed or get anywhere in life. Oh, and we’re going to hear him play his songs – in full. Ethan, sitting with older brother Joel in a London hotel, breaks into fits of laughter. “There’s not a strong pitch for this one!”
Fortunately, the Coens know when to go to a studio – as they did with their 2010 remake of the Western True Grit – and when to go independent. Just as important is the fact they’ve always written, directed and edited their own work. “By doing our own material, it’s been easier for us to exercise creative control,” acknowledges Joel, 59. “It would’ve been harder had we been taking material from other people, consistently.”
Winning the Grand Jury Prize when it premiered at Cannes this year, Inside Llewyn Davis is just as delightfully offbeat as anything they’ve done. Set in New York in 1961 and loosely inspired by the late Brooklyn musician Dave Van Ronk and his memoir The Mayor of MacDougal Street, it stars Oscar Isaac as the down-on-his-luck folkie Llewyn – as Ethan puts it, a man on a “journey with a very ambiguous or indeterminate destination”.
For the Coens, it took them back to their Minneapolis youth – just as 2009’s A Serious Man did – with the story circling around another famous Minnesotan, the musical legend Bob Dylan. “The actual period of this movie, 1961, was when we were really small kids and weren’t listening to music,” says Ethan, 56. “That was later, but Bob Dylan was a really big presence for us, for everybody.”
One of the major difficulties of making Inside Llewyn Davis was finding an actor to play Llewyn, one who could convincingly play folk classics. “We weren’t sure we were going to find someone fully equipped, both as an actor and as a musician, so lightning struck when Oscar walked in the door,” says Joel. “I don’t think we could’ve made the movie without him.”
The other difficulty was filming numerous scenes with the cat that Llewyn is forced to look after as he couch-surfs around a wintry New York and then carpools to Chicago in the hope of making a career breakthrough. “It was just a pain in the ass,” groans Joel. “We had multiple cats that would do specific tasks or act in specific ways: a docile cat, an active cat, a running cat. You can’t train them.”
Winners of four Oscars (for their thrillers Fargo and No Country For Old Men), it would be no surprise to see the Coens nominated this year. And no matter how strange their pitches may be, audiences can’t help but embrace their films. “We like to think the rest of the world has come round to our point of view,” says Joel with a smile, “though that may be a little naive.”
• Inside Llewyn Davis screens at the DIFF on Saturday, at the Madinat Theatre at 4.45pm