CANNES, France -- In close to three decades of filmmaking, brothers Joel and Ethan Coen have shared a lot of looks. But with "Inside Llewyn Davis," which had its premiere in Festival de Cannes competition Sunday, one particular glance said it all.
"At one point, we looked at each other," Joel recalled, sipping coffee in a joint early morning interview, "and said, ‘Have we written something which is essentially unmakable because it's uncastable?' "
The Coens' concern was legitimate. Set in the small and self-contained folk singing universe of New York's Greenwich Village in 1961, just before Bob Dylan's arrival turned everything upside down, "Inside Llewyn Davis" demanded something very particular of the actor playing the title role.
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"He had to be believable as a musician, because this is not the kind of movie where you hear a few bars of a song; they play out in their entirety," Joel continues. "But the character is in every scene, so he has to be a very accomplished actor. It's not easy to find that in the same person, so we were very frustrated until Oscar walked in."
"Now it weirdly seems as if it was written for him," adds Ethan. "But we would have been screwed if he hadn't come in the door."
The intense and charismatic Oscar Isaac, known to movie audiences for roles in "Robin Hood," "Drive" and "The Bourne Legacy," is the heart and soul of this exquisitely made film, which follows folk singer Davis on a one-week-in-hell journey that is both haunting and ever so bleakly funny.
The Coens mandated entire songs be sung -- the film opens with Davis singing a three-minute version of "Hang Me" in a Village club -- for several related reasons.
For one thing, singing was the best way to demonstrate that, though unsuccessful, Davis was an exceptional singer. "People would read the script," Joel relates, "and say, ‘I don't get it. Is he supposed to be good or is he supposed to be crummy?' "
Also, because Davis can be a difficult person (just ask Jean, one of the women in his life, smartly played by Carey Mulligan), hearing him sing so beautifully, Joel says, "reveals something about him we don't see somewhere else."
In addition, "Frances [Joel's wife, actress Frances McDormand] pointed out that hearing the entire song makes this like a traditional musical. When the song is finished, we've notched up to a different place in the story."