On Jan. 22, with an asphalt pomp heretofore unseen on the West Coast, Joel Coen took to the stage at Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive (BAMPFA) to discuss two films, the first John Huston’s 1987 “The Dead”, and the second him and his brother Ethan’s 2013 “Inside Llewyn Davis.” The screenings took place as part of BAMPFA’s series “Joel Coen in Person,” which runs over the course of two weekends in January. In the series, Coen pairs films from his oeuvre with personal favorites from the archive’s collection and beyond.
Roosted in a single-buttoned blazer and gray scarf, Coen and sweater-vested Comparative Literature professor Timothy Hampton bore striking resemblance to characters Llewyn Davis (Oscar Isaac) and Mitch Gorfein (Ethan Phillips). The film follows Davis in 1960s Greenwich Village as he struggles to survive as a folk musician and keep track of Gorfein’s tabby cat. It was largely inspired by the life of singer Dave Van Ronk and the downtown Manhattan scene he so embodied.
“One of the pleasures of making movies is recreating worlds,” Coen told Hampton. He revealed that “Inside Llewyn Davis” stemmed from a simple question, though he could not remember if it was himself or Ethan who asked it: “Dave Van Ronk gets beat up outside of Gerde’s”— a famed New York folk club — “is that the beginning of a movie?”
Coen also commented on casting Oscar Isaac in the role, a real “needle in the haystack” type search. The brothers wanted a real guitar player, and while plenty of actors claim they have played guitar for ten years, Coen clarified “what they mean is that they’ve owned a guitar for ten years.” Isaac, however, was the real deal.
“Most musicians have a clip track in their ear,” Coen explained, referencing how actors maintain a consistent speed across multiple musical takes, “[Isaac] had no clip track, like perfect pitch but for tempo.” Isaac apparently had some concerns about playing the Welsh-Italian role as a half-Guatemalan, half-Cuban man: He would straighten his hair in preparation for filming until Joel Coen told him “you look like Adolf Hitler.”
Coen spoke extensively about the self-parodying nature of folk music. “To be successful you have to be genuine in being fake,” Hampton commented on the matter.
“Making a movie about someone who is extraordinarily successful is uninteresting to me,” Coen added, noting Llewyn’s “willful self-destruction … If part of that is in your genome, you’re gonna have a harder time getting anywhere.”
In response to an audience question, Coen revealed that Bob Dylan, whose younger persona appears in the film’s final scene, had seen the movie. During production, though, Dylan had expressed some discontent with the making of a Dave Van Ronk movie. Coen summarized Dylan’s response to the idea as “no.”
Though Coen did not give a panel following BAMPFA’s “The Dead” screening earlier in the day, he did give a brief introduction. The film is a faithful adaptation of James Joyce’s Dubliners short story of the same name. It follows old friends and family in Dublin at an annual Christmas party.
“Houston was drawn to unadaptable material, some of it ill-advised,” Coen said before the screening. “You could say he was not afraid of failure.”
When Coen was asked if he, too, was drawn to unadaptable material, he clarified he had no plans to adapt written works.
Coen also lauded the film’s unconventional design, describing its direct emotional arcs and indirect narratives as “two distinct notes that harmonize.” He noted Huston’s distant reverence of filmmaking. “It wasn’t a religion. He didn’t romanticize it. It was just his way of telling a yarn.”