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Coen '79 talks newest film

Film director Ethan Coen ’79 discussed various elements of his latest film as well as his experience in making movies in a dialogue with poet and creative writing professor Paul Muldoon on Thursday, following a screening of the Coen brothers’ film “Inside Llewyn Davis.”

“Inside Llewyn Davis,” which opened on Jan. 10, is about a week in the life of a young singer, Llewyn Davis, and set in New York City’s 1961 folk scene. The film opened to critical acclaim, garnering a 94 percent rating on the film review aggregate site Rotten Tomatoes.

Coen and Muldoon emphasized the journey-like structure of the film in their discussion, similar to past Coen brothers films such as “O Brother, Where Art Thou?” In particular, Coen said that he and his brother chose to use a circular structure for their plot because “Inside Llewyn Davis” is the story of “a guy who’s not getting anywhere.”

The discussion also centered around the role of music in the movie. Coen noted that, most of the time, the music for the film was chosen not because it corresponded literally to the plot but because the process of slapping the music against a given scene produced a favorable reaction from him and his brother.

One particular example, Coen noted, was the use of Mozart at the beginning of the film, even though “Inside Llewyn Davis” is about a folk musician. Coen said that he and his brother wanted to use classical music rather than folk music to open the movie because they “wanted to introduce the film as being about music, not a music genre.”

Coen explained that “Inside Llewyn Davis” does correspond slightly to the life of musician Dave Van Ronk, an American folk singer nicknamed the “Mayor of MacDougal Street” in Greenwich Street. For example, Coen said, the title of the movie corresponds to the title of the album “Inside Dave van Ronk.” However, Van Ronk is not a stand-in for the eponymous Llewyn Davis of the film, and it would be a mistake to try to find too many parallels between the film and Van Ronk’s life, Coen explained.

One audience member noted that the movie, like many Coen brothers films, has a calm, intimate tone, as opposed to the frenzied madness of other films such as “The Wolf of Wall Street.” Coen explained that the calm and intimate tone of the film corresponds to the atmosphere of the movie’s setting, where “the hallmark was young people thinking intense and serious thoughts.”

Coen also discussed his time at the University and his experience working with his brother for 25 years. After graduating from the University with an A.B. degree in philosophy, Coen did not have ambitions to go to law school or into academia, and instead began working as a temporary secretary. His brother, Joel, studied film at New York University, and the two of them soon began working together to produce scripts for low budget movies.

Coen noted that he and his brother write, edit and direct most of their movies, and that this balance of activities has helped them to stay committed to their work even after thirty years of making movies.

“It’s nature-changing,” Coen said. “I work with Joel for a few months on the script and then the production is a very different experience with all the huge numbers of people and then after eight, 10, 12 weeks of that you get to lock yourself in a room with your brother for a few months for editing.”

Furthermore, the majority of great directors think as editors, Coen said. 

“[Being a director] is thinking about each scene as a movie scene and how it’s gonna work,” Coen said, “and thinking about a movie scene is thinking about how to cut.”

The film screening and discussion took place on Thursday at 4:30 p.m. in the Stewart Theater at 185 Nassau Street.

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