Spinning Platters Interview with T-Bone Burnett and Oscar Isaac from ‘Inside Llewyn Davis’

by Chad Liffmann on December 17, 2013

The towering, imposing, and yet, gentle-voiced T-Bone Burnett strolled into the room occupied by a few eager journalists.  Oscar Isaac, quiet and kind, followed close behind.  The two artists, one a musician who has been inching closer and closer to becoming a household name for three award-winning decades, the other an actor who is sharply on the rise, not wholly but in part due to his incredible performance as the lead role in the Coen brother’s newest masterpiece, Inside Llewyn Davis, sit down at the table.  Without pause, we jumped into conversation…and it wasn’t hard to get T-Bone going…

What are your five favorite film soundtracks?

T-Bone Burnett: God, I don’t know.  I can’t even think of any.

Oscar Isaac: The Mission.  Ennio Morricone.

T-Bone:  Yeah, that was a good one.  I like My Fair Lady.  Even though I think that Dr. Strangelove is a much more strange and subversive film and should’ve won the Academy Award…I’m talking like a Hollywood insider, like a movie person <<laughter>>… but I loved that musical.  You know the song, “I’ve Grown Accustomed To Her Face”?  I can barely make it through that song, it’s just so beautiful.  And “On the Street Where You Live,” It’s just beautiful songwriting and one beautiful melody after another.  It beat Dr. Strangelove, which is one of the most important movies ever.

So, one of the reasons why I called the Coen brothers was because I had become a fan of theirs after their first movie, Blood Simple, because it just had so much of my home (Texas) about it and there was a style of storytelling that I thought was really great.  And their next movie came out, Raising Arizona, that just had this insane soundtrack — “Ode to Joy” on the banjo with whistling and yodeling.  And every joke of it landed for me.  And one thing about the Coens is that there’s history in every shot.  Isn’t that right?

Oscar:  Yeah.

T-Bone: It’s never ‘where do you wanna put the camera?’ The shot is drawn up in the morning.  They will give the actor sides that have the lines below a drawing from the storyboard with the camera angle their gonna be in when they say those lines.  They have it all cut in their head before they shoot it.  That’s one of the reasons why they have control, because economy is the essence of art.  So going back, I was looking at all the detail in Raising Arizona, one joke after another, and I started thinking ‘wow, we must have seen all the same films growing up.’  You have John Goodman and his cohort come out of the ground and go into the service station to comb their hair and written in spray paint on the door is P.O.E  O.P.E, but backwards in the mirror.  And I thought, ‘wow this is how detailed they are’, to put a quote from Dr. Strangelove, ‘purity of essence, peace on earth’ sprayed in graffiti on a bathroom door somewhere in Arizona.  It’s like they didn’t want to leave any space unmeaningful.  Everything in the frame has tremendous meaning.  I’ve never seen anybody make films with this kind of detail, which is what this film was all about.  They wanted to make a film about a musician and they wanted as much detail as they could get about the musician, and so that’s why they wanted to film him absolutely live and this close [holds hands framing my face]…and performing live.

It’s easy, in this day and age, with everything we have, to create a virtual performance.  You can holographically sample something, or completely manipulate people to say and sound like anything you want to.  But, a virtual rendition of a performance captures so little of the detail of the performance and to actually get super high quality recording equipment right on a performance gives you all the detail and depth that you lose in the virtual world.  So they [the Coen brothers] wanted to do the hardest thing you could do, which if another filmmaker came to me and said, ‘we want to make a film about a musician.  We want to record it all live.  We want to record three or four minute songs and we want to do it without a click track, and do it documentary-style,’ I would have said, ‘I have to advise you against this.  You’ll never find the person who can do it.’  Because that’s even difficult for Elvis Presley [laughter]…to sit there for three minutes and be captured completely by himself with a guitar.  There are very few people that can do that.  So they wanted this guy to do that five or six times, either a musician who’s never acted or an actor who’s not a musician.

You were not part of that particular music scene but you were on the Rolling Thunder Revue so you knew a lot of those guys.  How does Llewyn track against a lot of those personalities?

T-Bone: I would say that every artist would track with Llewyn Davis.  Every musician and certainly every actor goes through that cycle.  I’ve been in Hollywood forty-something years now and I’ve seen people go through that cycle of happening-over, happening-over — you just cycle through these things.  But specific to that time, I’d say one of the interesting things about it is that there was a park, Washington Square Park, and there were these camps that played in the park.  All the competition was within the park, for space in the park.  It wasn’t for trends on Twitter [laughter], it was for a few square feet on a grassy area…in the “country” of New York.  Nobody was thinking about being famous.  Everyone was just thinking about what was good and what was authentic.  Those kinds of questions.  Then when Dylan came along…

He was thinking about getting famous.

T-Bone: …it was as if everyone was infighting and “fast Eddy” came to town and ran the table!  He had no compuncture.  Everyone was looking backward and preserving.  And he was going backward and forward at the same time.  He was looking back and reinventing it for us, now.  We’re still living in his reinvention. And now there’s a whole extraordinary group of 21st century musicians who are so much better than we were.

So that’s the thing that was happening then.  All the great things were happening in small communities where people weren’t thinking in grand thoughts.  They were thinking about taking care of the things right under their noses and all this energy converged there.  So in that way, Llewyn wasn’t a guy who was thinking about making it in that grand way, he was just thinking about what’s good.  To me he seemed like he was never the kind of guy who wanted to make it.

Oscar:  No.

T-Bone: But hey, Bob Dylan was sleeping on couches.  Bob Dylan was sleeping on [Dave] Van Ronk’s couch.  For real.

You’ve credited Danny Elfman for teaching you how to score a film.  How did the precepts that he taught you come to help you for the music in Inside Llewyn Davis?

T-Bone:  Actually it didn’t have that much to do with Llewyn Davis.  This is what Danny taught me — Anybody can put a piece of music with a piece of footage and have them connect in some way and have them invigorate or change the story.  But, that’s not what makes a score.  A score is telling a story, but in a different language.  It has to tell the same story in one arc from beginning to end.  If there’s one piece here and one piece there, then they aren’t part of the arc and so they’re not part of the score.

Did you try to create that arc here…?

T-Bone:  Well, yeah, actually.  What we always do with the Coens is that we record everything in advance and then I string it together, kind of cutting it together like the movie.  If you listen to O Brother, Where Art Thou?, that’s almost straight down the movie.  It almost plays just like the movie.  So that’s the great kind of soundtrack that you can put together, that it kind of plays like the movie.

Can you speak about your collaboration with Marcus Mumford?

T-Bone: Here’s the way the Coens work, generally — everybody puts everything on the table, and then it becomes ours.  Because they’re so good and because you know it’s going to be around in a hundred years, or I’m not sure we’re even going to have years, pretty soon…[laughing]…but everybody puts everything on the table. It’s not ‘mine’ or ‘his’.  For instance, in the studio, we don’t put down somebody’s guitar part, we just put down the guitar.  I don’t like people to say ‘turn down my guitar part’ or ‘turn up my acoustic guitar’ because I don’t want anyone possessive over any part of it because things shift and it just has to be whatever the best answer is.  It doesn’t really matter who comes up with it, right?  That’s the wonderful thing about the Coens — you never feel like there’s some controlling presence.

So Marcus did the same thing.  He came in just like one of the boys, just like all of us here, and he put everything he had on the table with absolutely generosity.  He’s a great talent.  Marcus is going to be around for a long time.  He’s deep.  He’s got soul.  He’s got a soulful tone and you can hear it in his tone of voice.  He had called up, as a matter of fact, after Carey [Mulligan] had been cast.  He said, ‘You know, T-Bone, Carey is doing this Llewyn Davis movie.  Do you need anybody to make tea or anything?’ [laughing]  And I said, ‘As a matter of fact, yes.  And not only that, but there’s a character named Mike Timlin that I need you to play.  He’s not on camera but why don’t you just come in…this will be perfect. You’ll know how to make a movie after this.’  So he did.  He produced it.  He was with us the whole time. So was Justin [Timberlake], by the way.  He was with us the whole time, writing and singing and playing.  The song Auld Triangle”…the Punch Brothers were doing it and then Marcus and Justin jumped right in.

And Oscar, what music were you drawing from, mainly?

Oscar:  Dave Van Ronk’s repertoire, musically, for sure.  That’s what I clung onto very quickly.  I listened to everything he recorded.  There’s a DVD he has where he teaches you how to play some of his songs.  So I got that.  Just tried to really rewire my brain to play in that style.

Obviously the movie takes place decades before cell phones and stuff like that, and there were moments in the movie where I thought ‘Llewyn’s journey would be so much easier with the use of a smart phone or apps’…if Llewyn had a smart phone, how would that have changed things?

Oscar:  I think he wouldn’t be Llewyn if he had an iPhone [laughter]  There are many things that would’ve made the journey easier and an iPhone, is, um, pretty low on the list [laughter] of things that could help him out.  I don’t see that happening.  I don’t think he thinks that way. He used the phone book that one moment [laughter].

T-Bone: Contact book and a pay phone.

It’s never really for the sake of convenience, it’s really for the sake of what he needs in that moment. 

Oscar:  Basically, yeah.  He doesn’t necessarily look at ways to make things easier for himself.  If he thought that way a little bit more, maybe things would go a little easier.  He doesn’t have a lot of energy to waste on that stuff.  I think he’s too busy and in survival mode.  Whatever a cou tre mon of whatever is the hot technology at that moment is less interesting to him.

Other than the music, which is amazing, what type of things did you do as an actor to immerse yourself in this world?

Oscar:  I’m a huge fan of their movies and I’ve seen them so many times.  I went back and I watched them all again.  Just to get back into the tone.  One of the lines that stuck out really strongly was from John Turturro in Barton Fink when he says, ‘I want to make theater about the common man.’  And it dawned on me, that’s their [Coens] thesis!  That’s what they’ve done ever since.  They stated it, right there.  I just kind of clung to that idea and… why is it funny?  Is it because I find it funny watching someone stuggle to stay alive?  Is it sadistic?  Is it relief that it’s not me?  What is that comedy of resilience?  So I thought a lot about that and it brought me to Buster Keaton, actually.  That suddenly became a source of inspiration.  Here’s a guy where all sorts of horrible shit is happening to him, he’s near death at every moment, yet he has this melancholic impasse in his face, whether he’s in love or a house is falling on top of him and there’s just a suggestion of a very rich inner life.  So that’s what I thought a lot about, not imposing something on the audience.  So there are some scenes where I’m watching Jim and Jean and Troy Nelson play and everyone starts singing, and that’s confusing.  But it’s not that there’s an immediate judgment.  Llewyn is constantly taking in and kind of being overwhelmed by what he’s seeing and what he’s feeling.  As an actor, you immediately want to jump to the meaning of everything.  And sometimes in the quest to find the meaning, you forget to experience it.  So it was always about trying to capture what Llewyn is experiencing, especially with the camera so close.

Did you guys, as artists, connect with the struggles the character goes through in the film?

T-Bone: Yes, definitely.  For my part, yes, I did that strongly for twenty-five years.  In that time period I probably went through this arc two or three times, and I’m still doing it.  But hey, I want to say something about artists.  Artists are the ones that go out into the dark.  Society is like a campfire that people gather around for warmth and safety because at night there are sounds out in the forest.  And artists are the ones that say, ‘I’m gonna go out and find out what that sound is.’  So we value the artists because they are the ones that go there.

Oscar:  There is something that’s both completely self-involved and sacrificial.  As writers this happens to you too… that there’s this third eye that watches.  I’ve felt guilty about that sometimes where I’ve felt bitter at something and there’s that little thought in my head that says, ‘oh yeah, use that.’  You’re kind of a scavenger of your own life.  But you’re not just existing, you’re thinking that at some point you have to express what that existence is.  And I don’t really know where the hell that comes from.

Inside Llewyn Davis opens in select Bay Area theaters on December 20, 2013.

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