It's impossible to watch the Coen brothers' absorbing new film, "Inside Llewyn Davis," about a hard-knock week in the life of a struggling folk singer in 1961 New York, and not find yourself thinking about the role that luck plays in any artist managing to break through obscurity to achieve fame and fortune.
Luck -- and its tragic absence -- as a theme runs through the music-filled movie, which won the Grand Prize at the Cannes Film Festival. And it comes up repeatedly in interviews with "Llewyn Davis"' lead actor Oscar Isaac and executive music producer T Bone Burnett.
When Burnett (who won four Grammys for the Coens' "O Brother, Where Art Thou?" soundtrack) received the "Inside Llewyn Davis" script and was tasked with green-lighting an actor-musician for the title role, he says he "would have said to anyone else but (Joel and Ethan Coen), 'This is unadvisable. Maybe even uncastable.' They wanted to have their lead actor, who is in every scene, record all the songs live on set and use entire three- to four-minute performances. Without pre-recorders or click tracks. It's unheard of. It was a crazy long shot, but I believed in the Coens' incredible luck, so I said let's do it."
Inspired in part by the singer and guitarist Dave Van Ronk, "Inside Llewyn Davis" focuses on a specific, almost-forgotten moment in the early-'60s folk revival when the idea of loyally reproducing old-time American standards was about to give way to the revolutionary notion of writing songs yourself.
Burnett says casting the film's leading man required its own stroke of good fortune. "We had seen a lot of brilliant musicians who could act, and a lot of actors who could play music, but we hadn't seen anyone who could do both convincingly. It's a complicated set of skills from both disciplines that overlap in very few people."
The Coens thought they might need to put the project on the back burner when an audition tape arrived of Isaac, at home, playing Van Ronk's arrangement of "Hang Me."
"It was immediately clear that Oscar was the one," says Burnett. He sent the Coens a note that (invoking a famous line from "The Producers") read, "I think we've found our Hitler!"
"The Coens have been my favorite filmmakers since I started watching movies, since 'Raising Arizona,"' says Isaac during a recent visit to San Francisco with Burnett. "I completely love and buy into their particular aesthetic. So when I heard they were making a movie about a musician in the folk scene, I wanted in.
"As luck would have it, I happened to be at the exact place in my career where I could even get a chance to audition for it. Four years before, I wouldn't have been."
Those few years have seen the 33-year-old Juilliard grad and theater veteran's star start to rise. Isaac played Rachel Weisz's suitor in "Agora," King John in Ridley Scott's "Robin Hood," an ex-con in "Drive" and supporting roles in "The Bourne Supremacy" and "W.E." Yet his performance as Llewyn Davis is undoubtedly his crowning achievement to date and is already generating awards buzz.
Isaac plays Davis as a comically bitter drifter in the right place (Greenwich Village) at the wrong time (right before Bob Dylan ignited the scene) and unable to catch a break. He is supremely talented, but plagued by self-destructiveness and a maddening intolerance of compromise that seems to destine him for anonymity.
Shot quasi-documentary style, the film follows Davis around a bitterly cold New York as he couch-surfs with one begrudging friend after another with a guitar and, at times, a cat named Ulysses ( in another Coen nod to Greek literature). While attempting to break out as a solo act after the suicide of his former singing partner, he plays gigs at Village "baskethouses" to scrape together funds for an abortion for his lover (Carey Mulligan), who happens to be married to his best friend (Justin Timberlake).
"Inside Llewyn Davis" is a riveting showcase for Isaac, who sings with a soulful, expressive tenor and a sad-eyed fervor that make a seemingly unlikable character relatably human. "I understood Llewyn," Isaac says. "He wants to do his thing without compromising. There is something really admirable about staying true to yourself even at the expense of your own success."
Born in Guatemala and raised in Miami, Isaac has been playing guitar since he was 13. He has smoldering good looks and a downcast intensity onscreen. Yet in person he is all smiles, chatty and unguarded.
"You know, T Bone is the musical Mr. Miyagi" of "The Karate Kid," Isaac says with a laugh. "His ways are indirect, but firm and effective. The first thing we did was go to Norm's Vintage Guitars in the (San Fernando) Valley to find Llewyn's guitar. We got an old 1924 Gibson L1, a guitar that rock 'n' roll was invented on."
Isaac spent months prior to filming working to master the era's "Travis picking" style. "He nailed it," says Burnett, who sat off camera with a stopwatch to track Isaac's rhythm. "Sometimes we'd do 30 takes and he'd play with the same energy, exact same tempo. Imagine."
"Everything I did for this role was about stripping away artifice, trying to let a real, honest sound come out," Isaac says. "At one point T Bone said, 'Just play the music like you're on your couch playing to yourself.' That was like a bell going off. It helped me unlock not just the music but how I played the character. Llewyn is an island unto himself, isolated. He has a rich inner life, but he doesn't show it to anybody, except when he plays his songs."
Isaac admits it wasn't easy portraying a character whose chilly exterior tests the bounds of an audience's empathy.
"For some reason, in theater we are a lot more open to unlikable, conflicted characters," Isaac says. "Most of Chekhov's characters can be pretty horrible people. But for some reason, in film we've been conditioned that characters remain likable at all times. I don't know why that is. It is a frustrating thing.
"One of the great questions this film asks is how success and failure exist on the same knife's edge. Luck plays such a major role in all our lives, and the Coens recognize that. Most of us need luck as well as a hell of a lot of hard work to have things go right."