Star Apps: 'Inside Llewyn Davis' cast

Actor Oscar Isaac and music producer T Bone Burnett talk about the latest Coen brothers' film's greatest technical challenge, the shortcomings of digital technology in music production, and how things would have turned out differently had Llewyn Davis had owned a smartphone.

Fictional folk singer Llewyn Davis is having a really bad patch. He got his good friend's wife knocked up (pre-Roe v. Wade), he got knocked out by a stranger in a back alley, his manager dropped him, and he lost his home and his friend's cat -- all in the same week. When all else fails for him in 1961 Greenwich Village, the troubled troubadour of the Coen brothers' "Inside Llewyn Davis," convincingly played by Oscar Isaac ("Drive"), piggybacks on a road trip to Chicago to audition for a music mogul.

Co-starring Carey Mulligan, Justin Timberlake, and John Goodman, "Inside Llewyn Davis" also features regular Coen brothers collaborator and music producer T Bone Burnett. The movie is perhaps most memorable for its Oscar-caliber tracks, beautifully delivered by Isaac.

Davis (played by Isaac) is killing them softly with his song. But his career is already going up in smoke. (Credit: Alison Rosa ©2012 Long Strange Trip LLC) chatted with Oscar Isaac and T Bone Burnett about the film's greatest technical challenge, the shortcomings of the MP3, and how things would have turned out differently had Llewyn Davis had owned a smartphone.

What was the greatest technical challenge of the film?
T Bone Burnett: They wanted to make a film about a musician, and they wanted as much detail as they could get about the musician. Therefore, they wanted to film him absolutely live, like this close [gestures with hand]. It's easy, in this day and age, with everything we have to create a virtual performance later. Before and after you can come back and holographically sample somebody and completely manipulate them to sound like whatever you want them to. But a virtual rendition of a performance captures so little of the detail of the performance.

To actually get really super-high-quality recording equipment right on a real performance gives you all the detail and depth that you lose in the virtual world, so they wanted to do the hardest thing you could do. If another filmmaker came to me and said, "We want to make a film about a musician, we want to record it all live, and we want to record three- to four-minute songs, and we want to do it without a click track, and we want to do it documentary style," I would say, "I have to advise you against this. You'll never do this. You'll never find the person to do it." You know, it's difficult even for Elvis Presley to sit there for three minutes and capture you by himself with a guitar -- very few people can do this. They wanted this guy to do this five or six times, either a musician who's never acted or an actor who's not a musician, because there wasn't an obvious two people in one.

T Bone Burnett (center) collaborates with the Coen brothers on set. (Credit: Alison Rosa ©2012 Long Strange Trip LLC)

I talk about the shortcomings of digital technology, in relation to the quality of sound. I talk about these things, and they say I'm a Luddite, and yet I'm working in 5G and telepresence and holograms, and I'm way beyond. I'm called a Luddite by people who are defending an outmoded 20th century technology, which is the World Wide Web as we have it now.

Obviously, the film is set decades before apps and smartphones, but as I was watching Llewyn's journey -- or wild goose chase, more like it -- I couldn't help but think to myself that his journey would have been so much quicker and easier if he only had use of a smartphone and apps.

Oscar Isaac: I think he wouldn't be Llewyn if he had an iPhone. There are many things that would have made the journey easier, and the iPhone is pretty low on the list for Llewyn for things that could help him out. Yeah, I don't see that happening.

But it seems like he could have definitely benefited from Google Maps and Yellow Pages, at the very least.

Isaac: I don't think he thinks that way.

Burnett: Well, he has a phone book...

Isaac: Yeah, he used that phone book in that moment.

Burnett: You have your contacts there, so you don't need your phone's contacts, and it's a contact book at a payphone, so you have your hard line there, too [laughs].

Isaac: He doesn't look for things to make it easier on himself. Maybe that's part of the thing. Maybe if he thought that way more, things would go easier. But I don't think he has a lot of energy to waste on that stuff. I think he's too busy -- kinda in survival mode -- and the accoutrement of whatever is hot, technologically, at the moment is less interesting to him.

Llewyn Davis (Isaac) looks forward to a brighter career. Music producer Burnett looks forward to a better audio standard. (Credit: Alison Rosa ©2012 Long Strange Trip LLC)

T Bone Burnett, in the press kit, you talk about how music's been devalued in recent times. Would you elaborate on that?
That's such a long conversation, but really, honestly, I am not anti-technology; I'm only anti bad technology. I'm anti-Fukushima, because that was bad technology, and there's a reason to not accept technology as a good thing as this overarching concept, like God. Steve Jobs said that technology changes nothing, so we can't forget that, right? Look, I don't want to go backward; I want to go forward to something better than we have now.

The MP3 was never designed as an audio standard. It's a relic from the age of the dial-up modem. The MP3 is compressed audio from a time that there wasn't enough bandwidth to get things through. So the fact that the record companies adopted it as an audio standard and tried to sell it just shows how misguided they were, because it was an obvious free medium. What I'm saying is, you're all welcome to come to my studio, literally, and I'll play you tape against vinyl against CD against 2496 DVD against MP3, and we can listen to it, and we can agree immediately on an acceptable audio standard.

But we're not given any real choices. We're given the choice of vinyl, which is not green and not portable and not easy to miniaturize, or MP3 or CD, which is completely outmoded and was horrible in the first place. But what we're working on is greener, more flexible, more durable, more portable analog media. We stopped developing analog technology for sound 30 years ago when we began developing digital technology. Now we have 30 years of digital technology to go back and address analog technology and bring it up-to-date to a place to surpass either one.

The world of music and the world of audio is important enough to address at the highest quality level. That's all I'm talking about. And I have to say that after 50 years of AV-ing sound, nothing has surpassed audio tape, although I think in the world of carbon fiber, we're going to find something that we can miniaturize that is more portable -- that will be able to surpass anything that's available now.

Recently I went to Best Buy and I bought the best stereo that you can get now, and I put on Frank Sinatra's record "In the Wee Small Hours of the Morning" and turned it up, and the whole house filled with music in the most profound way. I use iTunes all the time, and you turn it on, and this thing happens -- this facsimile of music takes place -- so it's a totally different experience, the difference between seeing a film in 35mm or a film on your iPhone. We have to take music seriously. I take artists seriously, and I take music seriously.

Isaac: Yeah, convenience is not the most important thing when it comes to art.

About Joshua Rotter

Joshua Rotter is a copy editor for and covers iOS.