Interview by Roger Durling with Oscar Isaac and executive music producer T Bone Burnett
Roger Durling: Everyone, please welcome T Bone Burnett and Oscar Isaac.
Burnett: Thank you so much.
Durling: Welcome, welcome. Thanks for being here.
Burnett: Happy to be here.
Durling: I told the whole audience before the movie started that you actually played live all of this performance, which is quite a remarkable achievement. You’re a terrific actor and it was a terrific performance and you play all of the—
Isaac: (applause from audience) Thank you. Thank you so much. I think it was crucial to the Coens that that’s how they wanted to do it. Because as you can imagine, this is a character who is pretty shut off and disconnected from people, and the only time he connects is when he plays his music. He’s on this quest for authenticity, so it would have been pretty terrible if as soon as I started playing you could see me mouthing it or not really playing the guitar. That was really important. All the music was done live documentary-style.
Durling: T Bone, first of all, I am in awe that you are here. (applause) It’s rare to be able to find someone like Oscar, who is an incredible actor and a legit musician. At least he comes across as legit.
Burnett: Well, yeah, it was such a complicated role to cast. You not only need someone who can sing and play—there are plenty of actors who can sing. But most actors who sing have trained voices. One of the things about this music is that it’s music that comes from untrained voices. There’s folk music and popular music. Pop music is made by experts, and folk music is made by just normal people. In fact, one of the great things we’ve done in the United States that I just wanted to mention this Saturday morning is that in the 1920s we started going down South and recording the poorest people in the country and broadcasting their voices and their stories all around the world. I think that’s the first time that ever happened. Bringing it back to here, the thing Oscar did in this was to learn to sing and play a whole repertoire—not just a song to lip sync and not just 45 seconds—because it’s a movie about a musician. You had to spend time with him as a musician. As Oscar was saying, that’s the only time he’s really living. The rest of the time he’s just existing or something like that. I just wanted to say that I don’t think anybody has ever done that. Maybe Fred Astaire could have done that but nobody could play and sing and act this difficult part all at once. It’s a first, I think.
Durling: I also mentioned right before the movie that usually in movies—like even in O Brother, Where Art Thou? where you worked with the Coen Brothers—we see snippets of a performance. In this, it’s three minutes of a performance as you hear the whole song in its entirety. Why was it important to make that choice?
Burnett: Well, because this is where you see who the person really is. That was the biggest acting job. Oscar has somewhat of a trained voice; he’s not a trained singer but he has certainly trained his voice at Juilliard, not as a musician but as an actor. It’s all storytelling. It’s all singing. It’s all rap. It’s all part of the same process of storytelling. What was the question? (laughter)
Isaac: It’s about the full songs.
Burnett: Yeah. Otherwise you would have 45 seconds of a song and 10 minutes of unrelenting doom and another 30 seconds of song. The full song creates the space in the story that allows you to love him in the face of all these other complicated things. He’s passive all through the rest of it. He hardly does anything the rest of the movie. The only time he creates his environment or his future or his life is when he’s playing. And then he creates this beautiful reality for all of us, and when he stops, reality is trying to create him. He just watches it; it’s pretty far out.
Durling: T Bone, you were involved early on in the development of the piece and the screenplay. I’m curious about this fascinating period before Dylan arrived where it seems—I may be wrong—the style of music had died and we were kind of in transition before Dylan came into the picture. Why did you choose this period of time?
Burnett: It was an interesting time when there wasn’t the potential of playing folk music and being famous. It was a preservationist pursuit. The recordings I was talking about earlier in the 20s when the record companies went down and recorded all of the poorest people in the places where there wasn’t electricity—that all got wiped out. That whole library got wiped out except for a couple of collectors—Samuel Charters and Harry Smith, who put out a couple of records of country blues. There were a few remnants of all of that music left but very few. There were thousands of them recorded. Music of the common man, you know? This idea going back to Thoreau, Emerson, Aaron Copland—didn’t he write Fanfare for the Common Man? We’ve been defining ourselves through music for centuries really, but in this country, music is our common language of all of these different languages coming together. We’ve had music as a common language. It’s one of the primary ways we’ve identified what it means to be an American. There was this focused time in Washington Square Park where there were artists and musicians who all converged on this little country town at the bottom of Manhattan and they weren’t competing for space on the charts or anything like that. They were competing for 6 feet of ground in Washington Square Park to pursue their interests. There was a folk band here and a bluegrass band here and a jazz band, and it would be all spread out. It still is kind of going on there off and on. But that’s all they were doing. Dylan came in to that scene and it was like they had all plowed the field. They were archeologists digging up all of this old stuff and preserving it. But they were all looking backward; they weren’t even thinking about becoming stars or going forward. Llewyn Davis wouldn’t even think of “making it,”– that’s careerist.
Durling: That’s what I love about the contradictory character. He’s fighting for authenticity but at the same time he wants stardom. He wants at least some form of success, right?
Isaac: Yeah, he’s not above hypocrisy. (laughter) He’ll go and record a novelty song when he needs the money. But at the same time, he wants to fail just as much as he wants to succeed.
Durling: I love the scene—which I find ironic—he heckles that—
Isaac: The one true authentic one.
Durling: The true authentic character, yes.
Isaac: Yeah, he just kind sees the phoniness of the whole thing and of himself. It has less to do with her to the point when he actually gets punched in the face. I don’t even think he realizes that’s what it is about until much later. It’s a recurring theme he keeps hearing: “What are you doing?” “What is it you do?” He sees it written on the bathroom walls. It’s echoing in his brain. “What are you doing?” I think at that point he’s trying to renounce it all.
Durling: How challenging was this role? It must have been quite daunting to be working on this.
Isaac: Biggest challenge of my life for sure.
Burnett: Mine too; I just wanted to say that. (laughter) No, I’m really serious. The idea of doing it live like the Coens were talking about—from a musical point of view, you just don’t do that. That’s the one thing you don’t do in a film. You do it in a documentary because you don’t need coverage. But this is a whole different level. Oscar had to play the same song 30 times in a row at the same tempo just from his soul and the same energy level and same focus. It’s just crazy.
Durling: At the same time, T Bone, I read that you demanded that you guys all record the songs at the beginning and then you played them live. Can you explain why you wanted them to record first and then shoot?
Burnett: Before you get to the set, especially if you’re going to–not that I’ve ever done it before— start spending a lot of money, you want to know that the music and tone. . . . Almost all the time I record music before filming starts. It has to do with setting the tone of the whole film. The music is an important part of the tone. And you can almost put it together. If you listen to O Brother, Where Art Thou? , the record is just the movie run down. And this record is almost like that too. There are a couple of adjustments just for pace on a record. You can just listen to the movie before you make it, in a way. Also the actors, in this case, had a template to go work and learn it. I think that’s part of the reason Oscar was able to nail the tempo all day long, because he had gotten it into his head so firmly.
Isaac: I had obsessed over it because of panic. (laughter) Just every day, drilling it and drilling it and drilling it. But also that week we got together in New York at Avatar Studios, one of the last fully analog studios in the city, it was all about creating it in the room. That’s what T Bone and the Coens are so great at. It’s not about mimicking some idea or recreating some idea in their heads. It’s about seeing what’s in the room and trying to capture that. That’s why it’s a fully immersive sensory experience to record with T Bone. It’s about what it smells like, what it looks like in there and what it sounds like, what the temperature is like, how we are interacting with each other just as people and then the music comes out of that. What is it that we are playing? What’s the instrument? What’s the microphone? What’s the distance? It’s all about the room not about some preconceived idea of what it should be. That’s how the Coens work as well. Even though they are so meticulous—they print the storyboards on the sides of the lines that you get in the morning for everyone to look at. It’s not because that’s what we need to recreate but that this is the tone that we are going for. How can we marry that to what’s really happening in the room and create something that’s even worth putting on film?
Durling: On top of the music, Oscar, the character is really challenging. He’s not easy to like.
Durling: (laughter) I just had this feeling that this week in particular everything is going really badly for this guy. Normally outside of this week he’s a nice and likable guy but this week it’s just—
Isaac: He’s usually very gregarious and joyful. (laughter) But this one week, you’re just catching him on a bad week.
Durling: No, no for real.
Isaac: It’s true, man. I’m not—
Durling: What was it like inhabiting him?
Isaac: To be honest, it was kind of freeing. I tend to be like most people; you tell a joke and you laugh to let them know it’s a joke and you approach people with that kind of vibe like “I mean you no harm.” To play someone who is too busy receiving the information to even put a judgment—he doesn’t even have time to think about you or to really empathize and adjust to whatever you might be going through. He doesn’t mean to be an asshole; he’s just trying to live. It’s a little bit of a heightened experience because yes, if you were going for super naturalistic realistic there would have to be some sort of “how am I coming across to someone else?” But I don’t know. I thought a lot about Buster Keaton, for instance, as someone who has this melancholic impasse and I think that has to do with the fact that he’s too busy trying to survive at every moment. Whether he’s falling in love or in the front of a speeding train or a house is falling on him, he’s just experiencing it and trying to move forward. That was something that was inspiring. For Llewyn, he’s never ahead of it and never even judging it; he’s just experiencing it. And the only time he has a real point of view, really, is when he plays his music.
Durling: T Bone, one of the things about the film that is so pointed is the value of a musician, the value of an artist. It seems to me that the movie is talking a lot about today. I think the music industry is not valuing the artist as much.
Burnett: Well, the music industry wasn’t great and the electronic universe industry has been even worse. But art is always subversive anyway. It’s the artist’s job to make the art and let distribution take care of itself. I think it goes back to your first question about this time of shift in this film and the time of shift we’re in now. You can look back though the history of art and you can see periods of time when people wanted to take a good hard look at things and you can see periods of time when people wanted everything idealized. I think the artists have stepped back for the last 10 or 15 years. There was a sense that everything was done and had been done. That happened with classical music in the 20s and 30s. There were no more Mozarts. There was no way to go beyond what had been done. So Stockhausen and these people started making other sorts of music—John Cage and returning to minimalism and John Adams. That was a time of shift and we’re in one of those now where the musicians are beginning to now want to take a good, long, hard look at things. I think we’re shifting out of the time when everything has been idealized; everything’s been auto-tuned; everything’s been professional, and everything’s been photo-shopped. And you know what, it’s boring. (applause) That’s part of what this is about –the value of the artist and the artist as a human being too. Certainly, the artist is one who never averts his gaze. The artist is the one who does it. The artist goes out into the dark to hear what the sounds are in the night. We can’t discourage the artists and we also can’t tell them how to make their art. Technologists can’t tell the artist how to use the tools. That’s the kind of shift we’re in. We’re in a shift into a global environment.
Durling: Oscar, you get to work again with Carey Mulligan. You played her husband in Drive. Now she just yells at you throughout this entire movie! What was it like working again with her?
Isaac: She gets to release all the pent-up rage from that movie that she had towards my character and let me have it in this one. It was great. When you have trust with the other actor, it allows you to go even further and to be even more vile because you know that there’s a real foundation of comfort. I think she’s amazing. She’s so funny and twitchy and just angry. She’s great. I’m also shirking a little bit of responsibility, in my opinion. It does take two to tango, right? (laughter)
Burnett: What’s the deal with Pappi? That’s what I want to know.
Isaac: Yeah I know.
Burnett: That’s enough to push anyone over the edge. That guy? Really? Okay.
Durling: T Bone, I’m curious about the choices of songs. You start with “Hang Me,” which is a song about hanging and then later on there’s “500 Miles,” which is a song about slavery and you deal a lot with death in the songs. I’m just curious, is it coincidence that you picked—
Burnett: No, the first two songs are in the script—“Hang Me” and “Fare Thee Well.” Both songs are about death and leaving and dislocation.
Isaac: Well “Hang Me” is interesting because it’s someone who is looking back after death. He says “they hung me up so high.”
Burnett: I think this was an innovation of you and the Coens from this film. But maybe it always was like that. It’s an interesting song and a perplexing song. It’s a Dave Van Ronk song and he did that. He wasn’t always trying to make things make sense or anything exactly. He was sort of impressionistic. He was a jazz musician. He would take those folk songs and make impressionistic versions of them.–too complicated for Elvis Presley, for instance, who did the same thing. Elvis was the first Bob Dylan, in a way, right? He took all the soulful music and reinvented it for a moment and did an incredible explosion of—look at what happened down in Memphis. Four or five young guys all in their twenties changed the whole world with that concentration. That same thing happened in Greenwich Village and Washington Square Park with that concentration of intellectual energy.
Isaac: It comes out of community.
Burnett: Yeah, community. Love. This is the way we change the world–through these little communities.
Durling: And “500 Miles,” which is about slavery right?
Burnett: I think it’s about dislocation we all feel. Certainly, so much of the intellectual folk movement grew out of trying to resolve issues left over from the Civil War, definitely. But what I think is beautiful about that song and why I think it’s a core American folk song is because of this notion of many different nations coming here. One out of many to form this new country based on these ideals. Everybody came here from somewhere else and that sense of “not a shirt on my back/not a penny to my name/ I can’t go home this way.” If we go back far enough, most of us have that in our genes.
Isaac: Those lyrics are dark. It comes from a desperate place. They all are pretty dark and I think that’s what’s pretty amazing about the movie is that it does try to capture some of that desperation and that is where that music comes from. It’s the blues. I remember The Mayor of MacDougal Street was quite an inspiration—Dave Van Ronk’s memoir at the time and he’ll talk about that scene and how energetic it was and alive. And he talked about it in a real romantic way and then he’ll mention this shitty little trip to Chicago and then get back to the exciting part. And that’s the part the Coens wanted to make a movie about was the shitty trip. They were like, “That’s where it comes from.” Yeah, those lyrics were pretty intense.
Durling: Oscar, the movie starts with you singing “Hang Me” and it does a full circle back to that scene and includes some of the same dialogue but is shot in different ways. Did the Coen Brothers ever talk to you about what it was all about? Is there anything you can share about that circular movement?
Isaac: Well, yeah, he’s on a hamster wheel. He’s just spinning and spinning like trying to climb up a greased pole. I always saw the structure of it as a folk song as well. Usually in a folk song you have the first verse and a chorus and the second verse and a chorus and the third verse and a chorus and then back to the first verse again. By the end of the song after the journey, that first verse means so much more. You have a different perspective on it. I’m not sure if that was their intention from the get-go but I think that for me, that made a lot of sense.
Durling: They’re not here. I’ve always been in awe of the Coen Brothers. If you could share a little bit about what it is like working with them. Do you have two directors? Do they fight?
Isaac: (laughter) It usually comes down to a physical fight between them. We’ll all get in a circle and just, you know.
Burnett: They’re brothers. They’re not married.
Durling: Yeah but I mean, do both direct at the same time? Do they both agree? Do they have the same voice?
Isaac: Yeah. All of those things. (laughter) It’s incredible. You have these two genius filmmakers making the exact same movie.
Burnett: It’s weird. That’s the crazy part, though. Either one could be great at it—or maybe they couldn’t. Certainly together either one has complete command and is totally sure-footed at every moment.
Isaac: And it’s a process of just throwing it all out on the table, as you said, T Bone. Everybody just comes to it and puts their ideas in and whoever has the strongest argument or feels the most passionate about his point of view tends to have the foot forward with it. But, in that respect, since everyone is putting stuff on the table and we’re building this thing, you’re never being singled out. We’re building and it’s not like, “Oh thank you for that piece. It’s a great piece.” There’s no time for that. That’s something you have to get used to.
Burnett: I think we’re all fans. Everybody on set is a fan of the Coen Brothers so that’s fun. But I was thinking, “Ethan must have written this line” so I’d say to Joel, “Who wrote that line?” And he’d say, “I don’t remember,” and Ethan would say he didn’t either, because it’s a conversation that goes on. It’s not an argument. It’s just, ”What is the best thing to do here?” and “What about this? Oh, that’s a good idea.” And it just ends up in a great place because they allow it. They don’t manage it. They don’t try to control it and me too. I’m not interested in any music I can control. That’s what I like about music–I can’t control it.
Durling: What was it like working with the great John Goodman, who has that incredible scene with you on the way to Chicago?
Isaac: I remember being in that car and turning around and seeing John Goodman there. I was like, “If there was any doubt whether I was in a Coen Brothers movie, now it’s gone.” (laughter) I am really in it, man. It was amazing. He had quite the challenge because as an actor when you have a big monologue like that, you usually are getting something back from the other person. But that was just right to the back of my head. That was all self-generated coming from who knows where. That was pretty remarkable. He’s amazing. He burns so hot too.
Durling: In what way?
Isaac: Literally. He’s just sweating profusely.
Durling: Oh, I was going to say . . . (laughter) And T Bone, last question. All of these characters are loosely based on real people. Are they not?
Burnett: They’re prototypes, but I think of the Coens as the Dylan of filmmakers. They do what he did. They take a piece of this, a piece of this, and reorder it in a completely new way that shows you a whole lot of things you never considered before. So they’re based on amalgams of different characters and certainly events. Ramblin’ Jack Elliott is an obvious predecessor. Al Cody would be a Jewish cowboy in downtown New York.
Durling: It reminded me of Dr. John. The John Goodman character.
Burnett: He says the haircut was Gerry Mulligan. Do you remember Gerry Mulligan?
Durling: Yeah, yeah. With his hair—
Burnett: I didn’t think of that. That’s exactly right. Okay cool. And Doc Pomus maybe? An incredible New York downtown character and songwriter, you remember him– “Save the Last Dance for Me.”
Isaac: But they are folk artists, Joel and Ethan. They make American Folk. They just use the medium of film for it. Their attitude and everything about it, that’s exactly what it is.
Durling: It’s been quite a joy to have you guys here and quite an honor. Thank you so much for coming out.
Isaac: Thank you.
Burnett: Thank you.
Isaac: Thanks so much for staying around.