Movie Interviews
2:09 pm
Tue December 17, 2013

The Coen Bros. On Writing, 'Lebowski' And Literally Herding Cats

Originally published on Tue December 17, 2013 11:21 pm

If you ask the Coen brothers about how they write their films, you might not get a straight answer. "It's mostly napping," Ethan tells Fresh Air's Terry Gross.

"We go to the office, we're there, we're in a room together," Joel adds. "We take naps, but, you know, the important thing is that we're at the office, should we be inspired to actually write something."

The brothers don't split up writing responsibilities — they "talk through" the dialogue and "work it out together," Joel explains.

The process seems to be working for the brothers who wrote and directed Fargo, The Big Lebowski, O Brother Where Art Thou?, No Country for Old Men, A Serious Man and True Grit. Their latest film, Inside Llewyn Davis, just won the Grand Prix at this year's Cannes film festival, and it's nominated for a Golden Globe for Best Motion Picture, musical or comedy, and an Independent Spirit award for Best Feature.

Set in 1961, Inside Llewyn Davis stars Oscar Isaac in the title role, as a folksinger in Greenwich Village, just before Bob Dylan comes on the scene. He's known in the clubs but isn't particularly successful.


Interview Highlights

On basing the Llewyn Davis character on folksinger Dave Van Ronk

Ethan Coen: Dave Van Ronk, for those who don't know him — probably most don't know — is a folk singer, probably the biggest person on the scene in 1961 in the folk revival in Greenwich Village, biggest person on the scene until Bob Dylan showed up. But in our minds he was the folk singer, "the generic folk singer," until we kind of figured out who the main character of the movie actually was.

Joel Coen: We were never interested in doing a biopic. That was never the ambition, so the question was, "We want to make a movie about a folk singer — who was he?" And we did draw on certain aspects of both [Dave] Van Ronk and other people, like Jack Elliott, from the period.

On the roots of their interest in folk

Joel: It's a direct descendant from the music that's in O Brother Where Art Thou? It's the kid in 1961 discovering that music that's in that movie. So we've always been interested in those musical forms, and we've always been interested and grew up on the music that grew out of those forms — which is rock 'n' roll and Bob Dylan. When we were kids, Bob Dylan was a top 40 radio artist, we were listening to him on the radio like everyone else was.

On casting and filming the cat in Inside Llewyn Davis

Ethan: We used the advice of the cat trainer ... [to get] a kind of orange, marmalade tabby cat, just because they're common, so easy to double, triple, quadruple — there were many cats playing the one cat. It comes across pretty well in the movie, but the whole exercise of shooting a cat is pretty nightmarish because they don't care about anything. They don't want to do what you want them to do. As the animal trainer said to us, "A dog wants to please you. A cat only wants to please itself." It was just long, painstaking, frustrating days shooting the cat.

Joel: What you have to do is basically find the cat that's predisposed to doing whatever particular piece of action it is that you have to film. So you find the cat that isn't afraid to run down a fire escape or the cat that's very docile and will let the actor just hold them for extended periods of time without being fidgety. Then you want the fidgety cat, the squirrely cat, for when you want the cat to run away. And you keep just swapping them out depending on what the task at hand is.

Ethan: In True Grit we had a vulture, a trained vulture ... that was a pain and that was even — by vulture standards — probably a stupid vulture, and that was frustrating. But I would take a vulture over a cat. The cat was just horrible.

On The Big Lebowski's cult following

Joel: It developed the afterlife on home video. [When] it came out in movie theaters, it didn't do particularly outstanding business in the theatrical market, but it did in the home video market — and then it became some sort of cult thing. How do you explain that? I have no idea. It's one of the more bizarre afterlives, too, of any of the things we've done.

We were at a movie theater together with our families a year or two ago in San Francisco, coming down from a movie, and we saw there was a little booth set up with Big Lebowski posters on it and a young woman sitting on the other side of this table, maybe 17 or 18 years old, and Ethan stopped and said, "What is this?" And she said [without knowing who they were], "Well, we show The Big Lebowski every night and people come dressed up in costumes. You should come, you'll like it. It's fun."

On their editing pseudonym "Roderick Jaynes"

Ethan: We use the pseudonym cutting because our names are in the credits so many times already that adding one more just seemed like bad taste.

Joel: We sort of invented a whole persona for this guy.

Ethan: He's British, as it turns out. He's written introductions to a few of our screenplays. ... We actually had to come up with a bio for him — you need bios for the personnel of your movies, I don't even know why, for PR purposes. I can't remember what we had him doing. He started out minding the tea cart and shepherding the studios. He's very old, in his 80s, actually, when we first started working with him, which would make him probably over 100 now.

Joel: He lives in Haywards Heath, Sussex.

Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

TERRY GROSS, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. My guest, Joel and Ethan Coen, wrote and directed the new film "Inside Llewyn Davis." The Coen brothers also wrote and directed "Fargo," "The Big Lebowski," "O Brother Where Art Thou," "No Country For Old Men," "A Serious Man" and "True Grit." "Inside Llewyn Davis" won the Grand Jury Prize at this year's Cannes Film Festival. It's nominated for a Golden Globe for Best Motion Picture, Musical or Comedy and an Independent Spirit Award for Best Feature.

New York Times film critic A.O. Scott made it number one on his top 10 list. Set in 1961, "Inside Llewyn Davis" stars Oscar Isaac in the title role as a folk singer in Greenwich Village, just before Bob Dylan comes on the scene. He's known in the clubs but isn't particularly successful. He used to be half of a folk-singing duo, but his partner recently committed suicide.

The solo album Davis subsequently recorded didn't sell. He's broke and sleeps on the couches of friends, who are losing their patience with him for good reason. He has a way of sabotaging friendships, as well as professional opportunities. In one scene, Davis listens back to a track from the album of duets he made before his partner's death. Here's that track, with Marcus Mumford singing the role of the late partner.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "DINK'S SONG")

OSCAR ISAAC AND MARCUS MUMFORD: (Singing) If I had wings like Noah's dove, I'd fly up the river to the one I love. Oh, fare thee well, my honey, fare thee well. I had a man, he's long and tall. He moved his body like a cannon ball. Oh fare thee well, my honey, fare thee well.

I remember one evening...

GROSS: Ethan Coen, Joel Coen, welcome back to FRESH AIR. Why did you want to make a film about a folk musician in 1961?

(LAUGHTER)

GROSS: Sorry I asked.

JOEL COEN: Why did we? We had a very early thought, I mean early - meaning well before we ever wrote the script, so a number of years ago - where we thought supposing Dave Van Ronk gets beat up outside of Gerde's Folk City in the Village in 1961, that's the beginning of the movie. And we thought OK.

Yeah, that's - why would that happen? And we couldn't really figure out why that would happen. Who would beat up a folk singer is sort of the problem, or the issue. So we put that thought away and came back to it periodically over the next couple of years and eventually worked it out.

ETHAN COEN: Dave Van Ronk, for those who don't know him, probably most don't know, was a folk singer. He's kind of the biggest person on the scene in 1961 in the folk revival in Greenwich Village, biggest person on the scene until Bob Dylan showed up. But, sort of, in our mind he was the - kind of, in quote, the generic folk singer until we kind of figured out who the main character of the movie actually was and who actually was beating him and for what reason.

GROSS: So how do the characters start shifting away from the original idea of it being Dave Van Ronk?

COEN: We were never interested in doing a biopic. That was never the ambition. So the question was we wanted to make a movie about a folk singer. Who was he? And we did draw on certain aspects of both Van Ronk and other people, like Jack Elliott from the period, New Yorkers who came in from the boroughs and were singing in these basket houses in the Village in 1961.

GROSS: I don't think I've ever heard the expression, basket houses.

COEN: Yeah, I guess you don't hear it anymore. Why would you? It was in a lot of these coffee houses where they played music, folk music or whatever kind of live performance. They would pass around a basket for tips, and that was the performer's - and that was the total of the performer's pay.

GROSS: So where does folk music figure into your lives?

COEN: Well, now, or...?

GROSS: No, then. Like when you were...

COEN: It's taken over.

(LAUGHTER)

GROSS: Yeah.

COEN: It's a direct descendent of the music that's in "O Brother Where Art Thou." It's the kids in 1961 sort of discovering that music that's in that music, which we - you know, so we've always been interested in those musical forms, and we've always been interested and grew up on the music that grew out of those forms, which is rock 'n' roll. So that's the music we grew up - and Bob Dylan.

When we were kids, you know, Bob Dylan was a top 40 radio artist. We were listening to him on the radio like everyone else was.

GROSS: So what point in your lives did you discover, like, folk music, or blues or traditional music?

COEN: Yeah, I've got to tell you, it's actually - I like kind of recoil a little bit. When you hear folk music, it sounds kind of wussy(ph). You know, it's like, you know, when we were kids, we listened to rock 'n' roll, and, I don't know, folk music sounds like froggy went a'courting or something.

(LAUGHTER)

COEN: Hey, that's a good song.

(LAUGHTER)

GROSS: Yes, but call it what you will. You don't have to call it folk music. But when did you discover the kind of music that you've included in "O Brother" and in "Inside Llewyn Davis"?

COEN: Well, I was going to say...

GROSS: Answer the question.

(LAUGHTER)

COEN: What Ethan just said, there was a point at which, you know, Bob Dylan was accused of abandoning folk music, and he said something like to me, folk music is a lot of fat people.

COEN: Yeah, you kind of know what he means. I don't know. T-Bone won't even say folk - T-Bone Burnett, who we worked with, and he worked on the music in this movie with us and several other movies, T-Bone calls it American traditional music, which sounds hateful in another way.

COEN: The music that was being played, you know, in 1961, 1961 we were very, very young. So, you know, I remember hearing it. You know, I actually remember my mother, you know, listening to or singing some of the stuff that was sort of part of that sort of folk music revival. And when we were kids, one record that we had was a record of a concert that Pete Seeger did with Big Bill Broonzy. It was recorded at a university in Chicago in 1957, that we listened to and that we actually - when we made our second movie, "Raising Arizona," we stole something from that, which was the idea of playing Beethoven on a banjo, something that Pete Seeger does on that record.

GROSS: In the movie, there's - Llewyn Davis is broke, and he's made his first solo album, and he's hoping - like he doesn't even have money for a winter coat. So he's hoping he can collect some royalties on the solo album that he made. So there's a scene where he goes to the head of the record label he's recorded for, and this guy's also managing him.

And it's this, like, elderly man who's very, like, old show biz, old record industry. And he's there with his - with an older woman who's his longtime secretary. And they kind of bicker like an old married couple.

(LAUGHTER)

GROSS: So anyway, so Llewyn Davis goes there to try to collect some money, and you can tell that the head of the record company has absolutely, like, no feeling for Llewyn Davis' music. I want to play this scene, where he goes in. And again, Llewyn Davis is played by Oscar Isaac. The head of the record label, Mel Novikoff, is played by Jerry Grayson, and his secretary is played by Sylvia Kauders. Llewyn Davis speaks first.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "INSIDE LLEWYN DAVIS")

OSCAR ISAAC: (As Llewyn Davis) How we doing?

JERRY GRAYSON: (As Mel Novikoff) We're doing great.

ISAAC: (As Llewyn Davis) Really? New record's doing well?

GRAYSON: (As Mel Novikoff) How we doing? Not so hot, I gotta be honest. Ginny, where's Cincinnati?

SYLVIA KAUDERS: (As Ginny) What?

GRAYSON: (As Mel Novikoff) Cincinnati, it's not in here.

KAUDERS: (As Ginny) It should be in there.

GRAYSON: (As Mel Novikoff) It's not in here, I'm telling you. Is it...?

KAUDERS: (As Ginny) Cincinnati?

GRAYSON: (As Mel Novikoff) Yeah.

KAUDERS: (As Ginny) I got it.

GRAYSON: (As Mel Novikoff) What?

KAUDERS: (As Ginny) I got it.

GRAYSON: (As Mel Novikoff) You got Cincinnati?

KAUDERS: (As Ginny) Yeah, you want it?

GRAYSON: (As Mel Novikoff) Could I have it?

KAUDERS: (As Ginny) Should I bring it in?

GRAYSON: (As Mel Novikoff) Yeah.

ISAAC: (As Llewyn Davis) You owe me something? You have to owe me something.

GRAYSON: (As Mel Novikoff) I wish. People need time, you know, to get to know you, buy you as a solo act, even know you're a solo act. Cincinnati is not good.

KAUDERS: (As Ginny) That's it, right?

GRAYSON: (As Mel Novikoff) Yeah, this is it, God help...

ISAAC: (As Llewyn Davis) Nobody knew us when we were a duo. It's not like me and Mike were ever a big act. It's not a big re-education for the public. Mel? Mel?

GRAYSON: (As Mel Novikoff) How 'ya doin' kid?

GROSS: I love that scene.

COEN: That sounds really good on the radio. It should be a radio play. It just needs, it needs like a few cheesy effects to make it a radio play, you know, a creaky door or something. That was good. I enjoyed that.

GROSS: I love the way the agent and his secretary just keep repeating what each other said. So - is that exactly how you wrote it?

COEN: Yeah, pretty much.

GROSS: So do you know - did you know early in your career old show biz agents like this guy?

COEN: No, we didn't, but actually we did know from - well, I guess this is early in our career. When we used to work in the Brill Building, 1619 Broadway, which is - was Tin Pan Alley, exactly where these guys used to work from, it was also a lot of cutting rooms in that building. And there were a lot of - not a lot, but there were a few old-timers still there when we were working in the Brill Building, and we would see them occasionally.

COEN: Yeah, they had the pebble glass doors with the name of the company stenciled on the outside. I remember Johnny Marks' Music was on the same hall we were on, our cutting room.

COEN: And he'd be a guy who, in that case, I think he had like one song, like "Here Comes Peter Cottontail." And sat in there, he's about 90 years old, and he would wait for the phone to ring in case anyone wanted to license it.

GROSS: And so you had your editing room in the Brill Building?

COEN: Yeah, there were a lot of cutting rooms there, actually until quite recently. The last kind of movie postproduction company just moved out recently.

GROSS: My guests are Ethan and Joel Coen. Their new film, which they wrote and directed, is called "Inside Llewyn Davis." We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guests are Joel and Ethan Coen, and they wrote and directed the new movie "Inside Llewyn Davis." I want to play another scene for you, and this is a scene, Llewyn Davis has been - he spent one night crashing at the home of a university professor who he knows. When he leaves in the morning, he's - the couple who he's crashing with have already left.

And when he leaves in the morning, the cat runs out the door of the apartment, and then the door slams behind him. So he's locked out, and meanwhile the cat's running away. So he grabs the cat, and then the cat runs away from him. And then he finds the cat and returns the cat to the apartment.

And so this is when he returns the cat to the apartment, and Mr. Gorfein, the university professor, opens the door, and there's a couple of friends at the apartment, too.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "INSIDE LLEWYN DAVIS")

ETHAN PHILLIPS: (As Mitch Gorfein) Oh, there's the cat. Home from the hill. Hey, Llewyn, welcome, come on in. Lillian's in the kitchen. She's making her famous moussaka.

ISAAC: (As Llewyn Davis) No, I can't barge in for dinner. I just wanted to...

PHILLIPS: (As Mitch Gorfein) Oh come on, one more person.

ISAAC: (As Llewyn Davis) No, I can't.

PHILLIPS: (As Mitch Gorfein) Moussaka. Come on. Do you know - you know Marty Green and Janet Fung?

ISAAC: (As Llewyn Davis) Hello, nice to meet you, Llewyn Davis.

ALEX KARPOVSKY: (As Marty Green) Oh, Mitch and Lillian's folk song friend. Are you crashing with us?

ISAAC: (As Llewyn Davis) No, no, no, I hadn't even planned on dinner.

PHILLIPS: (As Mitch Gorfein) Llewyn's not an Upper West Side guy. We only get to see him...

ISAAC: (As Llewyn Davis) When I've rotated through my Village friends.

PHILLIPS: (As Mitch Gorfein) We're the last resort. Marty's in my department. And Joe's a musician. This is Joe Flom. He plays in music antique with Lillian.

ISAAC: (As Llewyn Davis) Oh, how you doing?

BRADLEY MOTT: (As Joe Flom) Nice to meet you.

ISAAC: (As Llewyn Davis) What's your instrument?

MOTT: (As Joe Flom) Well, anything with a keyboard. I play celeste and harpsichord in MA. I'm a piano instructor most days.

ISAAC: (As Llewyn Davis) Bum a cigarette?

MOTT: (As Joe Flom) Oh, sure.

PHILLIPS: (As Mitch Gorfein) Glass of wine, Llewyn? Little (unintelligible) red?

ISAAC: (As Llewyn Davis) Yeah. I should've brought something.

PHILLIPS: (As Mitch Gorfein) Hey, don't be silly. You brought the cat.

ISAAC: (As Llewyn Davis) You know, I used to take piano lessons when I was a kid from Mrs. Siegelstein(ph). You don't know Mrs. Siegelstein, do you? Very, very big calves, orthopedic shoes, lives in far Rockaway, upstairs from the Carlins.

MOTT: (As Joe Flom) Does she play early music?

ISAAC: (As Llewyn Davis) Um, Harry James on the radio. On the piano, "Drink to Me Only with Thine Eyes." She was not a swinger.

MOTT: (As Joe Flom) Well, Harry James.

ISAAC: (As Llewyn Davis) OK, yeah, well her playing, though, was pretty on the beat.

GROSS: That's a scene from "Inside Llewyn Davis."

COEN: That doesn't work as...

GROSS: It doesn't work so well, you think?

COEN: It doesn't work as well as a radio play, I must say. You need the picture. You need the full horror of the little social conclave on the Jewish academic Upper West Side. Yeah, it kind of loses something there, but OK.

GROSS: Your parents were both - or are still both university professors. Do you feel like you knew the Gorfeins when you were growing up?

COEN: Oh yeah.

(LAUGHTER)

COEN: Definitely.

GROSS: Tell us about the people you knew who you based it on, without mentioning names, of course.

COEN: Oh, now you're trying to get me in trouble.

COEN: No, you know, it's a world we know. Our parents were both academics in the Midwest in our case, not on the Upper West Side. But, you know, academia is probably similar everywhere.

GROSS: Well, I like the way they provide the couch for Llewyn to sleep on, but Llewyn gives them, like, authenticity and, like, folk music credibility. He's their folk music friend.

COEN: Right. Maybe he - right, he keeps them feeling young, yes. He's their young friend.

GROSS: And their hip friend.

COEN: Right.

GROSS: And I also like the way what they're serving is moussaka. I know people still eat moussaka, but moussaka was just, like - it was one of these, like, ethnic dishes that was particularly popular in the '60s, I think.

COEN: Popular in the '60s...

GROSS: New to a lot of people.

COEN: Right, it was exotic but - right, exactly. Later in the movie, he comes back, and she's made a tabbouleh salad.

GROSS: Exactly.

(LAUGHTER)

GROSS: And he even has to pronounce it with a certain, like, ethnic flair, like moussaka.

(LAUGHTER)

COEN: Well yes, that actually was a hallmark of my mother's cooking, too. She was, you know, an incredibly interesting, talented woman but not a cook. She didn't really know how to do it. But she gave everything a try.

GROSS: That's something we couldn't see on the radio is that in the Gorfeins' apartment is a very, like, artistic menorah. It's like a menorah where it's a little, like, abstracted.

COEN: Yeah, actually there are several menorahs there. You could do a kind of Where's Wally or Where's Waldo looking for the menorahs in the Gorfeins' apartment.

COEN: That's true. Actually, I think when we were cutting the movie, at one point I pointed out to you, I said I think there are three menorahs in this one shot.

(LAUGHTER)

GROSS: And are any of those from, like, family collections?

COEN: But yeah, those '60s designs.

GROSS: Yes, exactly.

COEN: Something we're very - also very familiar with, you know, something that we made more hay out of, perhaps, in "A Serious Man," but we were into that whole '60s, modernist, Judaic aesthetic.

GROSS: Right, and as I think everyone could tell from that scene, the main character, Llewyn Davis, just really has a talent for irritating people. He knows exactly how to do it.

COEN: Yeah - no definitely. He's his own worst enemy, and he gets into trouble with people and probably realizes immediately after saying the wrong thing that he's said the wrong and probably feels bad about it, but then, you know, 10 minutes later he'll say the wrong thing again.

GROSS: Why did you want to give him the power to be that irritating to nearly everybody, including people who are his friends?

COEN: I don't know, because it's an interesting character. I mean, you know, we all know people like that. It's - there's something interesting about that and interesting about that, especially for a performer who's supposed to be ingratiating himself to people. I don't know. For us it was just part of the, you know, the character that for us was compelling.

GROSS: You had mentioned Bob Dylan earlier. Bob Dylan is not exactly in the movie, but he almost is, and there's a song of his that's on the soundtrack. I read in an article he went to the same summer camp that you did, I presume not at the same time. But...

COEN: No, not at the same time. That might even be urban or Midwestern myth, but yeah, that was the myth.

COEN: No, it's not myth. I think it's on - who was it that wrote the book about him, Sean Willentz. I think if you go on his website, or some other website having to do with Dylan, there are very early photographs of him at Herzl Camp.

(LAUGHTER)

COEN: That's funny.

COEN: Which is the camp in Webster, Wisconsin, that we went to.

COEN: Yeah, where we both went. But yes, no, Bob went before us. He's older than us. We're catching up, but he's still older than us.

GROSS: So I have to know, is this the kind of summer camp where you sing songs with lyrics about how great the camp is, and then there's team songs with how great the team is?

COEN: No.

GROSS: Aw, shucks. I wanted to think of him as singing those songs.

COEN: No, you sang - it was Zionist summer camp, and you sang Zionist songs in Hebrew.

GROSS: One of the people in your cast is Justin Timberlake, who plays a folk singer who's...

COEN: Turning from the Jewish theme.

(LAUGHTER)

COEN: We're pretty sure Justin didn't go to that camp.

(LAUGHTER)

COEN: No, unless we're very much mistaken, the man is shegetz.

(LAUGHTER)

GROSS: So he plays a folk singer who's married to a character played by Carey Mulligan. And did you approach him knowing that he could sing and knowing that he could act and knowing that he could do comedy?

COEN: Yes indeed, yes all of those things. He was one of the first people we thought about, actually, when we were casting the movie.

GROSS: I want to play a song that really features him, and this is "500 Miles." And he starts off singing it, and then Carey Mulligan is also on it and Stark Sands, who plays a folk singer in the movie. And my favorite - my favorite thing about this song, I don't know if you saw this. Janet Maslin, in reviewing some recent folk-related things, wrote about the soundtrack of the album.

And she said that listening to the soundtrack before she'd seen the movie, she heard the beginning of this song and said wow, she sounds just like Mary Travers. And then when she actually saw the movie, she realized that the person she was hearing at the beginning was Justin Timberlake and not Carey Mulligan.

COEN: Yeah, that's not surprising. I mean, you know Justin can get up there. He's just unbelievable.

COEN: Well, you know, an interesting thing about that is he worked on the rest of the music in the movie, and in the Irish quartet that you hear in the movie, singing "The Old Triangle," that was one song, the one song in the movie that was not performed by the people that you see onscreen. Those are actors lip-synching to playback. And the bass part of that quartet is Justin Timberlake.

GROSS: Joel and Ethan Coen will be back in the second half of the show. Here's "500 Miles" from the soundtrack of "Inside Llewyn Davis," featuring Carey Mulligan, Stark Sands and Justin Timberlake, who we hear first. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross, back with Joel and Ethan Coen. They wrote and directed: "O Brother, Where Art Thou?," "The Big Lebowski, " "No Country for Old Men," "A Serious Man" and "True Grit." Their new film, "Inside Llewyn Davis" is set in the Greenwich Village folk music scene of 1961. The soundtrack features the cast, including Oscar Isaac, Justin Timberlake and Carey Mulligan, singing various folk songs.

Now you also wrote lyrics for a song that's a variation on an existing song - or on several existing songs. So the song is called "Please Mr. Kennedy" It's like "Please Mr. Kennedy Don't Shoot Me Into Outer Space." But tell us about the song that it's based on that you wrote new lyrics for.

COEN: Well, there's another song - yeah. There's another song, there's a song of the period, or maybe a couple years past or a period in the early, mid-60s called "Please Mr. Kennedy" by - it was recorded by a West Coast kind of folk/pop duo called The Gold Coast Singers. And lyrically the idea of the original song was: Please Mr. Kennedy, don't send me off into Vietnam - which was wrong for our period and we kind of rewrote it as a novelty, poppy, please don't shoot me off in outer space. Supposedly it's the - John Glenn is singing it, it's in the voice of John Glenn, who is about to be, you know, shot into orbit.

GROSS: OK. So this is "Please Mr. Kennedy" from the soundtrack of "Inside Llewyn Davis," and it features Justin Timberlake, Oscar Isaac and Adam Driver.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "PLEASE MR. KENNEDY")

JUSTIN TIMBERLAKE AND OSCAR ISAAC: (Singing) Ten, nine, eight, seven six, five four, three, two...

ADAM DRIVER: (Singing) One second, please.

ISAAC: (Singing) Please Mr. Kennedy.

DRIVER: (Singing) Oh-oh...

JUSTIN TIMBERLAKE AND ADAM DRIVER: (Singing) I don't want to go whoa-whoa into outer space. Please don't shoot me into outer space.

ISAAC: (Singing) Oh, please.

JUSTIN TIMBERLAKE AND OSCAR ISAAC: (Singing) Please Mr. Kennedy.

DRIVER: (Singing) Oh-oh...

DRIVER: (Singing) I don't want to go whoa-whoa into outer space. Please don't shoot me into outer space.

(Singing) I sweat when they stuff me in the pressure suits, bubble helmet, Flash Gordon boots. Nowhere up there in gravity zero. I need to breathe, don't need to be a hero. And are reading me loud and clear? Oh, please Mr. Kennedy.

DRIVER: (Singing) Oh-oh.

DRIVER: (Singing) I don't want to go whoa-whoa into outer space. Please don't shoot me into outer space.

(Singing) Oh, please Mr. Kennedy.

DRIVER: (Singing) Oh-oh.

DRIVER: (Singing) I don't want to go whoa-whoa into outer space. Please don't shoot me into outer space.

ISAAC: (Singing) I'm six foot two, and so...

GROSS: that's music from the soundtrack of "Inside Llewyn Davis," and my guests are Joel and Ethan Coen, who wrote and directed the film.

Now this - since that's meant to be a novelty song, it made me think of what were the big novelty songs of that period. And one thing I remembered is like Allan Sherman's big hit album "My Son, the Folk Singer," which...

COEN: Yeah.

GROSS: ...was kind of like satires from a Jewish perspective, with a lot of like Yiddish jokes. And that was a hit in 1962; a year after this is made.

COEN: Yeah.

GROSS: And you had referred to Allan Sherman in a previous interview when talking about the character of Sy Abelman in "A Serious Man."

(LAUGHTER)

COEN: Yeah.

COEN: Well, I was going to -actually, you know, when you asked about what part folk music played in our lives earlier in the interview. Yeah, I was going to mention Allan Sherman because we had Allan Sherman records when we were kids. And you're right, in fact, we just recently did a concert in New York with some of, all of actors in the movie who sang in the movie and a lot of musicians on the music in the movie, and then lots of people were singing sort of old American folk songs and more contemporary music. And Gillian Welch and Dave Rollins were involved in that and it's always been a subject of sort of, you know, an interesting thing between the two of us and Dave, that he also used to listen to Allan Sherman when he was a kid...

(LAUGHTER)

COEN: ...which I find very amusing.

COEN: Yeah. That was an early folk influence, "My Son, the Folk Singer," which I can picture visit the still the album cover and "My Son, the Nut," which is also a great album cover. And I think with "My Son, the Nut," that had "Hello Muddah, Hello Fadduh," right? Yeah.

Yeah. That was the one where he was buried up to his neck in nuts.

COEN: Neck in nuts. Yeah.

COEN: Folk music.

COEN: Somebody just put out a biography of Allan Sherman called "Overweight Sensation."

(LAUGHTER)

COEN: Really?

COEN: ...which I'm anxious to read. Yet, I haven't gotten it yet, but, yes.

COEN: How many volumes?

(LAUGHTER)

GROSS: So it's interesting. In some ways I think of this as like your second musical. You know, the first being "O Brother, Where Art Thou?" Do you think of "Inside Llewyn Davis" as a musical but, you know, a different kind of musical?

COEN: In a way, yeah.

COEN: Yeah. OK.

(LAUGHTER)

COEN: There's a lot of music in it. Is that the - is that the standard? It's not a musical certainly, in the sense that we've never done one in this sense that the characters kind of break into - unmotivatedly(ph) break into song. I mean it's a music about a professional musician, or somebody who is aspiring to be a professional musician, so it's all in a kind of a real context. But, yes, in terms of the amount of music, OK, we'll call it a musical.

GROSS: And do you like musicals at all?

COEN: Well, sure.

(LAUGHTER)

COEN: Well, you're talking about Broadway musicals or...

GROSS: Oh, no, movie musicals.

COEN: Or you're talking about movie musicals?

GROSS: Yeah. That would include like Bugsy Berkeley and Fred Astaire and then Broadway...

COEN: Oh yeah. Oh yeah. Absolutely.

GROSS: ...which includes Stephen Sondheim. I mean like the whole gamut.

COEN: Yes. Yeah. Yeah. Yeah. Absolutely. Yeah.

GROSS: Mm-hmm.

COEN: But Bugsy Berkeley is, you know, a radical sort of and, you know, very, very interesting film artist, and those movies are fantastically interesting. There's fantastic musical numbers in those movies.

GROSS: But you didn't think about that at all when making your, musicals?

COEN: Well, no, we didn't. But we thought about them in the context of other musical numbers and movies that we've done - specifically, in "The Big Lebowski."

COEN: Yeah, we did one thing in "The Big Lebowski" that was kind of, yeah, specifically as; it was very cautiously, self-consciously a Busby Berkeley number.

GROSS: Wait. Refresh my memory.

COEN: Jeff Bridges, the Jeff Bridges character is - oh, my God...

COEN: He's...

COEN: I'm going to try to synopsize and it'll sound demented. He's doped up by a pornographer, played by Ben Gazzara, when he's in a, you know, heightened state, he has a dream about this woman, played by Julianne Moore, in which bowling figures - and it's a Busby Berkeley musical number.

COEN: He goes under the legs of these sort of chorines in a bowling alley and it's all to Kenny Rogers tune called "Just Dropped In (To See What Condition My Condition Is In)."

GROSS: Oh, OK. You know, I saw "The Big Lebowski" began when it was released like one night only in movie theaters like two summers ago, maybe.

COEN: Mm-hmm.

GROSS: It's just amazing how - what a huge following that film got in its afterlife. You know, like after it closed in movie theaters.

COEN: Yeah.

GROSS: How did that happen? It's a great film, but I mean, how did it develop that afterlife? Do you have any idea?

COEN: Well, it developed an afterlife on home video. You're right. It came out in movie theaters, it didn't do, you know, particularly outstanding business in the theatrical market, but it did in the home video market.

COEN: Yeah.

COEN: And then it became sort of, you know, some cult thing. I don't, how do explain that? I have no idea. It's certainly one of the more bizarre afterlives to any of the things that we've done.

GROSS: Mm-hmm.

COEN: We, you know, we were in a movie theater together with our families a year or two ago in San Francisco and coming down from a movie and we saw they were little booths set up with Big Lebowski posters on and a young woman sitting on the other side of this table - maybe 17 or 18 years old - and Ethan stopped and said, what is this? And she said, oh, well, we show "The Big Lebowski" every night and people come dressed in...

GROSS: Oh wow.

COEN: ...in costumes and you should come and you'll like it, it's fun.

GROSS: Did she know who you were?

COEN: No. She was...

(LAUGHTER)

GROSS: That's great. Who would you have come dressed as?

(LAUGHTER)

COEN: We stay away from those things.

GROSS: I'm sure you do.

(LAUGHTER)

GROSS: My guests are Ethan and Joel Coen. Their new film, which they wrote and directed, is called "Inside Llewyn Davis." We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guests are Joel and Ethan Coen. And their new movie is called "Inside Llewyn Davis."

In your previous movie, which we talked about when we came out "True Grit," you had to direct a lot of horses in really tough scenes to direct and you had to, of course, the very careful on how you treated the horses. In your new movie, but tough animal scenes have to do with a cat - or a couple of cats.

So how do you cast a cat for your film?

COEN: Ooh, that was horrible. We just used on the advice of the trainer - the animal trainer, kind of an orange, kind of a marmalade tabby cat, just because they are, you know, common, and so easy to double, triple, quadruple. There were, you know, many cats playing the one cat and, you know, the whole thing is actually pretty, it comes across well in the movie, but the whole exercise of shooting a cat is pretty nightmarish because they don't care about anything; hey don't want to do what you want them to do. As the animal trainer said to us, a dog wants to please you; a cat only wants to please itself. It was just long, painstaking, frustrating days shooting the cat.

COEN: What you have to do is basically find the cat that's predisposed to doing whatever particular piece of action it is that you have to film. So you find the cat that can - isn't afraid to run down a fire escape or this, you know, the cat that's very docile and will let the actor just hold them for extended periods of time without being fidgety. And then you want the fidgety cat - the squirrely cat - for when you want the cat to run away and you just keep swapping them out - depending on what the task at hand is.

COEN: You know, in "True Grit" we had a vulture - a trained vulture - which who knew there were such.

(LAUGHTER)

COEN: But, you know, that was a pain. And it was even like, you know, by vulture standards, probably a stupid vulture and that was frustrating.

(LAUGHTER)

COEN: But, you know, I would take a vulture over a cat. The cat was just horrible.

GROSS: Well, you know, it's funny. I have this - I have a cat...

COEN: Should have written as a vulture.

(LAUGHTER)

GROSS: A pet vulture?

COEN: He slips out of Gorfeins' apartment...

COEN: And flies out. Yeah.

(LAUGHTER)

GROSS: I have a cat and I have this recurring dream that I take the cat outdoors and I'm holding the cat in my arms and the cat runs away and I know I'll never be able to find it. And that's kind of what happens in the movie.

COEN: That's probably a good thing.

(LAUGHTER)

GROSS: What's a good thing?

COEN: Just, we're not big cat lovers.

GROSS: Why not, because of this movie?

COEN: Well, mostly for this experience, yeah.

COEN: So this movie is kind of an anxiety dream for you.

GROSS: Yes, exactly. I've had this dream so many times without the singing, of course.

(LAUGHTER)

GROSS: So your movie is called "Inside Llewyn Davis." And Dave Van Ronk was the inspiration for the movie. And he has a movie, an album called "Inside Dave Van Ronk." And on the cover, he standing in a doorway of what I assume is a Greenwich Village storefront or apartment and there is a cat in the doorway.

COEN: Yeah.

GROSS: Was that cat and inspiration at all for having a cat in your movie?

COEN: No.

COEN: No. Here's, it's very interesting. First of all, I think I was told that the doorway is McSorley's Ale House.

GROSS: Oh.

COEN: Oh, is it?

COEN: That's where they shot that. Although, I didn't know that until recently - 'cause when we did our own sort of copy of that album cover, we thought, you know, we were looking around in the Village for the doorways that were the same or similar to that sort of copy of that album. But the fact that there is a cat in the doorway, believe it or not, we did not notice and was pointed out to us by an art director after we'd written the script and when we were actually in postproduction in the movie and that was a little shocking to us.

COEN: There should've been a vulture in the doorway.

(LAUGHTER)

GROSS: So both "O Brother, Where Art Thou" and "Inside Llewyn Davis," referrer in some way to "Ulysses" or "The Odyssey." Did you read that and did that make a big impact on you? Or is it just kind of coincidental?

COEN: We haven't read it yet.

(LAUGHTER)

GROSS: It's pre-influence for you.

COEN: It's on our list.

(LAUGHTER)

COEN: It's on our list.

COEN: We've made two movie versions of it and we're going to read it soon.

COEN: Yeah. It's right by my bedside table. I keep looking over, at it and going, ugh.

(LAUGHTER)

COEN: I hear it's a good book.

(LAUGHTER)

GROSS: What you are doing the film. I understand your next film is going to be set in ancient Rome? Is that true?

COEN: Well, part of it is set in ancient Rome.

GROSS: Can you tell us anything about the forthcoming movie?

COEN: Well, we don't - we're...

COEN: We don't know that it actually is going to be the next movie. You know, we're in the middle of writing the script. And quite honestly, I mean, you know, we often start these things, get a certain distance with them, and then put them aside for a while. They generally get finished eventually and even maybe eventually, but not necessarily without sort of digressions and other projects.

COEN: It's not really ancient Rome. There's - in 1950 Hollywood and they're making a movie about ancient Rome, so if, yeah, for what it's worth. Are movie, I'm talking about.

GROSS: Oh, I see.

COEN: Yeah.

COEN: Yeah.

GROSS: Oh, that's great.

COEN: Yeah. It's about a movie that is being made in 1950 about ancient Rome called "Hail Caesar."

GROSS: Oh, that's great.

So since you're writing a movie together now, can I ask you a little bit about what the writing process is when you write a movie together? Do you write in the same room together? Do you share ideas after you've written separately?

COEN: It's mostly napping.

(LAUGHTER)

COEN: We go to the office. You know, we're there. We're in a room together. We take naps. But, you know, the important thing, we're there at the office should we be inspired to actually write something. No, we don't split it up. We don't sort of - one of won't write something and then give it to the other to react to. We actually, kind of, talk through whatever we're doing together.

GROSS: Do you do the dialogue out loud with each other as if you were characters?

COEN: Well, sometimes. But it doesn't exactly work like that. It's more - you know, there's so much talking involved, there's so much conversation involved around the whole thing. And a lot of the conversation has to do with specific things that people say in a scene, right? So one of us - and that may be in the context of talking about something completely different from the dialogue, but then that comes up and then that's the - one of may say something about that.

And then the other person may just sort of answer it with what might come next. But it's also the case that frequently Ethan will just sit down and or I'll sit down at the computer and just type up dialogue in a scene. You know? And then the other person will look at it and maybe adjust it or change it or something like that. But it's all in the context of this ongoing conversation.

GROSS: Because you edit together, you - I don't know; I shouldn't say because, because I don't really know why you do this, but you edit together and you edit under the name Roderick James. Why did you need, like, a pseudonym to edit and does that name refer to anybody? Where does that name come from?

COEN: It doesn't refer to anyone. It's just something we grabbed out of the air. I don't know; we just use the pseudonym cutting because our names are in the credits so many times already that adding one more just seemed like bad taste. Yeah, that's really the reason.

GROSS: It's a very un-Jewish sounding name. I'll say that.

(LAUGHTER)

COEN: Oh, yeah. Yeah.

COEN: Yes. It certainly is. In fact, we sort of invented a whole persona for this guy...

COEN: Yeah. He's British.

COEN: ...in the introduction to one of our screenplays.

COEN: He's British, as it turns out. He's introduced - he's written introductions to a few of our screenplays, published screenplays.

GROSS: Oh, really?

(LAUGHTER)

COEN: Yeah.

COEN: Yeah.

GROSS: So tell me more about him.

COEN: Well, we actually had to come up for a bio for him, you know. You have to - you need bios for the personnel of your movies for various - I don't even know why - for PR purposes. But I can't remember what we had him doing. He started out minding the tea cart and shepherding the studios. And he's very old, in his 80s, actually, when we first started working with him. Which would make him probably over 100 now.

COEN: Over a 100. Yeah. Yeah. He lives in Haywards Heath in Sussex.

GROSS: Well, it's been so much fun talking with you both. Congratulations on your new film.

COEN: Yeah, likewise, Terry.

GROSS: And thank you so much for coming back to FRESH AIR.

COEN: Yeah.

COEN: Sure.

COEN: Thanks for having us.

COEN: Thanks.

GROSS: Joel and Ethan Coen wrote and directed the new film "Inside Llewyn Davis." Before making the film, they optioned the late folk singer Dave Van Ronk's memoir, even though Davis is not supposed to be Van Ronk. Dave Van Ronk has a song on the soundtrack. He performed on our show in 1988. You can hear two of the songs from that broadcast on our blog which is on Tumblr. That's at nprfreshair.tumblr.com.

You'll also find a link there to Milo Miles' review of the recently released Van Ronk album "Down in Washington Square: The Smithsonian Folkways Collection." Coming up, rock critic Ken Tucker's 10 Best List. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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