The Coen brothers' movies are not, for the most part, overflowing with sentiment. Black humor, existential mysteries, endlessly quotable dialogue? Sure. Unabashed emotion? Shut the fuck up, Donny. But they've learned to lace their films with deft musical moments that do that cathartic work for them. Their new movie, Inside Llewyn Davis (out December 6th), is their deepest musical dive since 2000's O Brother, Where Art Thou? The title character is an emotionally blocked, career-stymied folk singer (played by Oscar Isaac) in early-Sixties Greenwich Village, and the film is packed with performances.
Like O Brother, Llewyn Davis benefits from savvy music supervision by T Bone Burnett. This time, he sought out Marcus Mumford to sing – he's the voice of Davis' dead, Art Garfunkel-style partner – and help shape arrangements. (Mumford's wife, Carey Mulligan, co-stars in the movie.) The Coens sat for an interview in Manhattan the day after Burnett's all-star concert celebrating their film. "I have stress about that shit, but it was great," says Ethan, the more approachable of the pair – he's friendly and professorial, while Joel, in sleek black, has a peremptory manner and challenging stare worthy of Lou Reed. "It's not like a movie screening," Ethan adds. "It's a live show, so it can always be catastrophic."
Before you found Oscar Isaac, you had a bunch of famous musicians come in to audition for the lead in Llewyn Davis. Was anyone close?
JC: People would come in and just kill the song "Hang Me, Oh Hang Me." Then we'd ask them to do a scene, and then you'd go, "Um, yeah, this isn't gonna work." You can get almost anybody who's got a modicum of talent through a scene, or two, or three, but you can't do that for an entire movie. For that, you need a real actor. There are more actors who play music more than reasonably well than there are musicians who act reasonably well.
The movie begins with a long, uninterrupted performance scene, which puts an incredible musical burden on the actor.
JC: Yes, and also we thought if it's a movie about a musician, there has to be something about the character that's only revealed in their playing. That was the problem.
How did your interest in roots music begin?
JC: I think like everyone else, listening to rock & roll. It all comes from Bob Dylan. We had a record when we were kids of Pete Seeger and Big Bill Broonzy doing a concert in Chicago in the Fifties. We stole a lot of stuff from it for Raising Arizona.
EC: It's funny – I remember being confused by how the Byrds with Gram Parsons were kinda country. That's confusing when you're a kid. Like, "Are these guys cool or not?"
JC: A lot of people still are confused by that, by the way.
EC: Right, and then you grasp that since they're real musicians, they kinda don't give a shit [laughs].
Did the fact that you guys and Dylan are all from Minnesota inspire you as kids?
JC: I mean, he went to our summer camp! And I remember meeting his mother. But, you know, Dylan is Dylan. We could have been living anywhere and he would have still been big for us.
The whole new movie basically looks like the cover of The Freewheelin' Bob Dylan. That must have been a reference point.
EC: Yeah, it was kind of the reference point in terms of color and everything. It's what you think about when you think about that scene. We actually shot on Jones Street, which is where the album cover was shot, although we didn't use it.
Your usual method of writing is to proceed without a clear path – but at the same time this movie has a carefully crafted circular structure. How did that work?
EC: Yeah, we knew very, very near the beginning that we wanted to cycle through and reveal at the end that in effect most of the movie had been a flashback leading up to the beginning again. But we didn't know what all the intermediate stuff would be. Then we kind of just dove in without any clear idea, until we more or less got there.
The Big Lebowski was, in a way, your first musical, thanks to the dream sequences. Music has played a huge role in your movies ever since. What does music do that other things can't in a movie?
EC: The obvious thing is it's emotionally involving. It ropes you in.
JC: It bypasses everything else. There's an alchemy that happens. The combination of the music and the narrative idea – there's an alloy you don't get any other way.
People assume that T Bone picks the music for a movie like this. But it was you guys who chose the folk standard "Dink's Song."
JC: Sometimes it's about T Bone choosing the music and sometimes it's what he does with our choices, you know what I mean? "Dink's Song" felt right to us for all kinds of reasons, and then he takes it to that place. The other brilliant thing T Bone does is involving Gillian Welch in O Brother or Marcus in this movie. He's very wired to what's new and alive.
Mumford & Sons wouldn't exist without O Brother. You couldn't have imagined that kind of influence for the movie.
EC: No. That's always a comical question. It's so not what we would've expected.
JC: We kind of told people as a joke we were doing our remake of The Odyssey with hillbilly music.
Are you proud of that influence?
JC: Sure! Any time something impossible happens, it's really, fantastically fun and all the rest of it.
EC: God, yeah, you know, he had an audience before, but millions of people listening to Ralph Stanley? Fuck!
JC: Or James Carter of James Carter and the Prisoners. We had to find him to give him his royalty check, and he was living in some nursing home in Chicago. They said to him, "This year, you've made more from your record than Michael Jackson." I mean, that's great. Then he gave all the money to the church.
Speaking of unintended consequences: How do you feel about the cult around The Big Lebowski?
JC: It's always amusing and interesting and gratifying to a certain extent that people are still looking at your movie.
EC: It's just another weird thing. We've done a lot of movies at this point. If you just hang around for long enough, everything happens.
JC: Weird shit happens if you hang around long enough.
There's a little bit of the Woody Allen approach to the way you work. It's not quite a movie a year, but rather than reveling in – or even acknowledging – those kinds of successes, you just move forward.
JC: Yeah. You've got to stay occupied. We don't play golf.
This story is from the December 5th, 2013 issue of Rolling Stone.