Troy Nelson [Stark Sands] gigs at the Gaslight, the center of the Greenwich Village music scene, where Llewyn performs almost every night. This dingy café is more his home than most places he lays his head…
“You’ve probably heard that one before, but what the hell—if it was never new and it never gets old, then it’s a folk song...”
—Llewyn Davis [Oscar Isaac]
A mixture of melancholy and hope, the film INSIDE LLEWYN DAVIS takes us on a weeklong journey with the talented and hapless title character, a musician with endless soul and angst, and limited social skills. The brothers Coen, Joe and Ethan, present the story in an almost documentary manner, collaborating with a standout visual team: Production Designer Jess Gonchor, Set Decorator Susan Bode Tyson SDSA, Director of Photography Bruno Delbonnel and their crews and cohorts, accompanied by music guru T Bone Burnett.
“It’s a crucial American story about a significant time in our culture…from these minds that have a brilliant overview of the century,” shares Burnett. “There’s not a shot in a Coen brothers’ movie that doesn’t have history in it.”
The Coens reveal, “We have a real affection for traditional American music in general…the music that preceded the folk revival and music that followed the period we made the movie about…when Bob Dylan drew on it so heavily and in such an interesting way…A lot of this music is really beautiful. And its revival developed into what we think of as the singer-songwriter ‘thing’, which is different from traditional folk music.”
Taking inspiration from the image on the actual Freewheeling Bob Dylan album cover for the look of the film, the team of filmmakers re-created the early Greenwich Village folk music scene.
“We had 3 basics to work with,” says Gonchor. “It’s 1961. It’s winter. And it’s New York...a particular New York, not the elegant East Side or the leafy outer boroughs, but the messy, unkempt downtown Greenwich Village, which mimics the main character, who’s a mess himself and somewhat lost.”
Delbonnel adds, “I thought of Llewyn’s story as a folk song, and thought it could be interesting to build the light as a folk song as well. The Gaslight Café would become the chorus, like the refrain of the movie—dark, contrasty, almost colorless. For the rest of the movie, we used a very simple way of lighting based on an overcast kind of daylight, using a palette that was a little bit uncomfortable, in magenta, yellow…I wanted always the set to fall off into shadow…”
With that imagery, the set decoration had to be congruently period-specific and non-specific. Joel Coen points out, “When you read about the Village music scene, you see this mania for authenticity.” There are constant references to “authenticity” throughout the film, from song, to self, to life…and in the sets. Doing period NY in NY, one would think that the architecture is perfect. But there are, of course, decades of changes, not only in details, but subtle notes in the way things are built or rebuilt.
Bode explains, “Window frames and door frames have gone from wood to metal, the street signs and parking meters are different. You have to see everything, first for overall impact and then close at hand, every detail whether a park or a building or a street, because you can’t just run to the store and pick up a period replacement! We did extensive research to make sure we hit all the right marks to ensure everything was correct.” Those are extending details; there are also innumerable character-defining elements, whether the character is a person, time or place…or reflection of all three.
The directors and set decorator agree re: the visuals’ compass needle, as Bode notes, “Because Jess has designed a number of the Coen brothers’ movies, he seems to know what they’re looking for, what they’re thinking. He was a great guide to the direction the look of the movie should take.”
In an interview with Variety, Joel Coen said, “He’s unbelievable. The more we get to know him, the less we talk to him, literally. We realized there’s no need to say things to him because he’s so brilliant and he’s so on the wavelength of the movie. He understands everything we’re interested in. He’ll build a set and insist we walk through it multiple times, and we’ll just shrug…we’re going to like everything he does.”
Much of it was translated in this film through Bode and her team. She had worked with Gonchor before, but this was the first time on a Coen brothers’ film, “a dream come true,” she describes. And she is quick to acknowledge her team: longtime Assistant Set Decorator Jennifer Alex Nickason, Lead Bruce Gross, Buyer Imogen Lee, Art Department Researcher Erica Hohf, Art Consulatant Fanny Pereire, Key OnSet Adam Goodnoff-Cernese and an additional crew of set dressers, research and graphic assistants and even a stalwart “picker” from Pennsylvania…very Coen-esque, from the longtime relationships to the depth and variety of talent and skills.
For Bode, there was a special quality to the production, serendipitous moments came often. She describes the Legacy Records office, a rundown “B” level agency that probably hit its heyday a decade before. “We filmed this set in the old post office across from Madison Square Garden. Imagine the history! I’m not sure what is going to happen to that building, but when we went scout it, I was sort of trawling the halls…you could really get a great workout while you walked around! There was all this wonderful old furniture tucked into some of the old office spaces and side rooms. We asked the people who managed the building if we could use some of it, and they agreed, which was great. Of course, we brought in the significant pieces…our couch, a caricature we had done of Mel [the late Jerry Grayson]… and we added and added. And no matter how much, there wasn’t enough you could put in, it could always take a bit more! There were so many layers overflowing with the years of accumulation. It was one of my favorite sets. There was a huge safe that we made into the storage closet that would have been there for years and years, filled with everybody’s records.”
“We would find that some people still had old boxes, things that lent themselves well. Some might not have been specific to the period, but they were timeless,” she continues. “I felt we were fortunate in finding things. It was hard because of the shooting schedule, and it was hard because of the budget. But we cranked it out and in a good way. Everyone on my team sort of powered through it, in terms of hitting the road, or going far afield to find this, or spending a whole day on the internet to find that…and we often go outside of New York to find what we need. I’m not always a fan of using the internet because I feel that, while there are great items there, if you don’t go out and see things, you also don’t see the unexpected, things you never would have thought of but would be fabulous…it limits your chance of discovery. But I think we had a good combination of both and found that there was an awful lot out there that would fit in our world.”
From the beginning…
“One of the pieces of set dressing that was most important for several sets, was the couch…couches, actually…the various couches that Llewyn would sleep on…one at the Gorfein’s, one at Jean and Jim’s, and one at Al Cody’s apartment,” explains Bode. “So when I started the movie, that was one of the first things I focused on. We bought all three couches, each completely different, but they were all more current to the period than ones that had been around from the Forties or Fifties. They were a soft, early Sixties, that you didn’t know were to become an era style at the time, but were trending that way. Somewhat surprisingly, these seemed to come together rather easily, including a last-minute auction winning bid in Pennsylvania, which was a great start for anchoring the look.”
“I’m often amazed at what people choose to collect and sell. Outside of Llewyn’s father’s room in the retirement home was a display…everybody had a memory box outside their door. Since he was a seaman, Jenny found all this great seafaring stuff on the internet and we put together a collection of it. We showed the collection to Jess and then Ethan and Joel, and they were happy with it. So it went into the box. Jess was good at that. He knew the movie had to be multi-layered and then some beyond that. He was just fabulous in terms of creative ideas, “Well what if we did this?” And more was always more. It worked for this movie very well, in terms of the layers. I always layer things to begin with, but this movie had a bit more and it worked beautifully. You really see it in the movie, and we had a lot of interesting, diverse sets to do.”
Among them, the art and cultural iconography-centered home of uptown bohemian academics, Mitch and Lillian Gorfein [Ethan Phillips, Robin Bartlett], whose couch Llewyn often claims as his personal turf, however momentary that may be. As befitting the home of a Columbia University professor of sociology in the early sixties, there is a mixture of tribal artifacts and modern art. Bode reveals, “Finding the period furniture for this was relatively easy. It was sort of startling that it came together the way it did, and everyone loved it. Some of the art and posters that we used were pretty remarkable. Fanny has a really wonderful eye and found some great stuff for us. But again, it always threads back to Jess, who knows the language of what he wants the movie to be.
The most significant set, the Gaslight Café opens the film and is featured throughout. It is the heart of this new/old roots music scene, with all the grittiness and “authenticity” of the songs and performers presented on its small stage. Gonchor describes, “We used a small abandoned warehouse in Crown Heights, Brooklyn. We lowered the ceiling, constructed arches, brought in period furniture and fixtures, and the result was that you really felt you were in a dingy Village club circa 1961.”
Filming took place in unique New York locations, such as:
the old Gramercy movie theater on East 23rd Street for Chicago’s Gate of Horn club venue and music publishing company…
an East Harlem church which became the Merchant Marine Union Hall…
Burger Heaven on 51st Street which has been there since 1963 and translated easily into a Chicago diner…
a Greenwich Village walkup which gave the footprint to Jean and Jim’s [Carey Mulligan, Justin Timberlake] Greenwich Village walkup, whose couch was Llewyn’s most used and abused landing place…he often entered and exited via the fire escape, his seemingly personal entrance accessed through the window next to the couch…’escape” being an operative word…
a Riverside Drive residence that became the Gorfein’s…
and the hallmark Café Reggio at Washington Square Park, both of which stood in for themselves.
All of these were seamlessly transformed into such realistic sets that most of the audience may forget at times that this was not an historic documentary.
New Yorkers will knowingly smile, and everyone will take away not only a sense of place and the times, but a bit of the soul of music as well.