After a New York Film Festival screening of Inside Llewyn Davis, someone asked directors/writers Joel and Ethan Coen about the meaning of Ulysses, the cat in the film. One of the brothers deadpanned, “We wanted to make an odyssey where the hero doesn’t go anywhere.”
Set in the early 1960s, Inside Llewyn Davis follows a struggling folk singer (played by Oscar Isaac) in New York City who sleeps on friends’ couches, occasionally plays the Gaslight Café, pines after his friend’s partner, Jean (Carey Mulligan), and pursues said cat after it escapes from another friend’s apartment. Davis also goes on a car trip to see an influential manager in Chicago in an attempt to jump-start his career.
Despite flashes of humor, a sense of sadness and pessimism pervade the story, and this is underscored by the bleak, muted cinematography by Bruno Delbonnel, ASC, AFC. In fact, Delbonnel describes the film as “a kind of requiem” for Davis’ late singing partner, Mike, who has committed suicide before the story begins. “When I read the script, I thought it was like a folk song, and it seems to me that American folk songs have something very sad and unhappy in their stories,” he observes. “That was the idea behind the look of the movie: How to convey this sadness?”
The cinematographer recalls that the visual brief from the Coen brothers was deceptively simple. “They said they wanted a slushy New York. When I suggested the album cover for The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan, they said they had that image in mind as well.” In that picture, Dylan walks with a woman on a New York street under a wintry sky. He is wearing a jacket that doesn’t seem quite warm enough, and they are treading on dirty, melted snow. “We had to feel the winter and that dirty feeling when the snow starts to melt,” says Delbonnel.
Another inspiration came from folk singer Dave Van Ronk, whose album Inside Dave Van Ronk features a cat on the cover, and whose memoir, The Mayor of MacDougal Street, chronicles the milieu depicted in the film: the Greenwich Village folk scene just before Dylan appeared and revolutionized American music.
Delbonnel shot the picture on 35mm with the same combination of film negative, cameras and lenses he has used consistently for five years: Kodak Vision3 500T 5219, Arricam Studio and Lite, and Cooke S4 primes. “I also have a 24-290mm Angenieux [Optimo], just in case,” he says. “I don’t like zoom lenses, but they can be practical.”
The Coens often work with the same crew, and their usual cinematographer is Roger Deakins, ASC, BSC. The directors called on Delbonnel because Deakins was busy shooting Skyfall (AC Dec. ’12), and the French cinematographer was able to work with two of Deakins’ regular collaborators, gaffer William O’Leary and key grip Mitch Lillian. Lillian recalls that Delbonnel quickly became “part of the family.”
At first, Delbonnel wanted to bring in a camera operator, but the Coens asked him to operate, “like Roger does,” and he was delighted to comply. During prep, Lillian suggested adding a Mo-Sys remote head and a jib arm to the grip package, but Delbonnel declined. “I told Mitch, ‘I’m not Roger Deakins; I don’t want that,’” recalls the cinematographer. “Then, during the first week of shooting, Joel or Ethan would say, ‘Bruno, what if we moved the camera a little bit this way?’ And we would have to re-lay the dolly track. After a week of that, I told Mitch that I finally understood, and yes, we should add a jib arm!
“Roger and Mitch have created a system that is very flexible and saves time,” continues Delbonnel. “You don’t have to measure the track down to the millimeter because you can reframe very easily with the jib arm. Also, the jib gives you a 6-meter [19'] range, so you can go farther than the track, which we often did.”
“We broke the remote head out at least once a day — the Coen brothers are used to it because Roger’s always on the remote and on the jib arm,” says Lillian. “We also use the jib to keep actors from having to walk on the tracks. And you can do compound moves; you’re not stuck in one direction. The jib also keeps the dolly and operator away from the lighting.”
Delbonnel and the Coens share a fondness for wide-angle primes. “We shot most of this film with the 21mm and 27mm,” says the cinematographer. “The Coens told me some of their films were almost entirely shot with the 27mm.” Delbonnel adds that the 40mm and 50mm primes were used for car scenes “because they were more practical” in that setting. The mise en scène is straightforward, with angles and reverses for dialogue scenes, and few unusual vantage points. Using the French word for shot breakdown, Delbonnel observes, “The Coens’ découpage is very simple, very classical. There are no embellishments.”
Though much of Inside Llewyn Davis has classical editing, the filmmakers shot many scenes with continuous master shots, notably the musical performances, which were often filmed without interruption. Lillian notes that with the Coens, “a lot of the coverage happens within the master. The masters tend to evolve into something elaborate.” There are a few fast camera moves motivated by the wayward Ulysses. Lillian cites a 100' dolly move on a New York street that follows Davis as he tries to catch the cat. Fortunately, says Lillian, dolly grip Rick Marroquin is a “fast marathon runner!”
Delbonnel has a predilection for soft lighting. “My signature is a source with double diffusion, and sometimes I do triple diffusion. Then, I add a little fill inside, or not. If I do, it’s very soft, and it’s usually a poly [polystyrene bounce] or something simple. I rarely use hard lighting, although I did for a couple of scenes on this film.”
Lillian notes that Delbonnel often used book lights, “with one bounce surface and another diffusion surface at 45 degrees. Usually, we aimed the light into an Ultra Bounce and then diffused it with a Light Grid Cloth.”
When working in interiors, Delbonnel preferred to stay on set near camera, and left the details of creating large external soft sources, including the initial choice of diffusion, to O’Leary and Lillian. “I told them I wanted light coming in through here, with this angle of light, and then I let them work,” says Delbonnel. “Then, if it wasn’t diffused enough, or if it was too diffused, I’d ask them to change diffusion material.
“In general, I start with too much light because it’s much simpler and faster to add Grid Cloth and lower it 1 or 2 stops than it is to change the source to a smaller unit,” the cinematographer continues. “I often start with an 18K and big elevator stands because I may suddenly decide to go up 6 meters. My source is always pretty heavy-duty to start with, but it’s more efficient in the end. That’s the principle of a big source: you can work very quickly.”
Delbonnel wanted to keep the backgrounds of the interiors dark. “My idea was to light the characters in the set, add very little to the backgrounds and let the light fall off. Because the source is rather close to the actor, the light [falls off] quickly. My basic principle was to always have black someplace in the image.” He also often gave the hero a slightly higher contrast than the other characters in the scene.