An interview with the Coen Brothers: “We sold out long ago…”

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With the Coens’ new film Hail, Caesar!, due out in March, I thought I’d post my feature on the making of Inside Llewyn Davis; the brothers’ yarn about a Greenwich Village folkie in the early 1960s.

The piece ran in Uncut issue 200 and includes interviews with Joel and Ethan Coen, along with the then-unknown Oscar Isaac and returning Coens’ veterans John Goodman and T Bone Burnett.

Follow me on Twitter @MichaelBonner

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Joel Coen remembers the first time he visited Greenwich Village. It was during his student days, he explains, shortly after he had moved from suburban Minneapolis and enrolled in the undergraduate film program at New York University. “This was the very beginning of the Seventies – ’71, ’72,” he says. “The last vestiges of the original folk scene were still there. Gerde’s was still on Third Street. There was still a Gaslight, but it had moved up the street on MacDougal Street. The music was different, but you could sort of see the traces of it. The area was still very heavily Italian American. There was a little bit of it still there, on Bleecker Street and MacDougal.”

Joel tells us this over a mid-morning coffee in London. He’s folded his rangy frame into a capacious leather armchair, with his knees bent upwards and his feet resting on the table in front of him. Today, he’s wearing jeans and a dark blue shirt with a scarf wrapped loosely round his neck. His hair is unkempt, the stubble on his chin is flecked with grey and, as he peers out from behind his round glasses, he has a vaguely professorial air about him.

Next to him, Ethan Coen hunches over his coffee cup. He is dressed identically to Joel, but without the scarf. If his elder brother can seem quite serious, Ethan on the other hand has a permanent squinty smile fixed on his face, as if he’s trying to stop himself laughing. When he does laugh, incidentally, his whole body shakes and he runs his hand through his short hair and across his face, as if he’s trying to make himself stop.

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For their latest film, Inside Llewyn Davis, Joel and Ethan have recreated the cafés and coffeehouses of Greenwich Village; albeit from an earlier era to the one Joel remembers. The events of their film take place across one week in late 1961 – a pivotal time in the Village, it transpires, and also in the life of Davis, a young folk singer struggling to make a living on the circuit who also suffers a series of typically Coenesque indignities. As Ethan explains, “One day, Joel just said, ‘What about this? Here’s the beginning of a movie… a folk singer gets beat up in the alleyway behind Gerde’s Folk City.’ We thought about the scene. And then we thought, ‘Why would anyone beat up a folk singer..?’”

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