Coen brothers illo

An illustration of Ethan Coen (left) and Joel Coen. (Ken Fallin / For The Times / December 2, 2013)

"Inside Llewyn Davis," the Coen brothers' latest movie, shines a light on the early-1960s Greenwich Village folk scene, focusing on a struggling folk singer (Oscar Isaac, a revelation) who can't get a handle on his career or personal life. T Bone Burnett supervised the music, as he did with the Coens' "O Brother, Where Art Thou?" and has staged a handful of concerts featuring folk songs from the film's warm soundtrack. We spoke to Joel and Ethan Coen shortly after one such show in Santa Monica about their inspirations for the movie and what it might say to artists today.

Did you know Barbra Streisand was going to be in the audience?

Ethan: [laughs] No. I don't think we've ever met her.

Joel: I met her a long time ago. I can't remember the context.

She would have been in New York around the same time as the events in the movie.

Joel: She would have absolutely been around. But it's unlikely she would have been around the Gaslight Cafe. I'm not even talking about a matter of taste. It was a small scene that attracted a niche audience.

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 The movie looks like the cover of "The Freewheelin' Bob Dylan" come to life.

Ethan: That was consciously, definitely the touchstone. That's what we were talking about with [cinematographer] Bruno [Delbonnel], that oppressive, gray, wintry New York Village slush.

You say "oppressive," but for a lot of people, that picture of Dylan with girlfriend Suze Rotolo is the essence of romance.

Ethan: There is something romantic about it, but it's also hard New York. They're not walking down the beach in Maui. They look cold.

They're not exactly dressed for winter.

Ethan: Which we did with Oscar throughout the film.

T Bone feels passionately that this movie speaks both to the role and value of the artist in society.

Ethan: Well, it might. It might not. Hopefully it does. If it does, it's because it's about a well-imagined character, so it's not our place to say. When you're writing a story, it's about a character and a particular artist.

Joel: Not an abstract notion of the "artist." In terms of how we think, it's always about the individual.

Ethan: And that's the truth. It's always about what's important to the characters, not what's important to us.

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Joel: [After a long pause] OK. Here's the respect in which ... this is also honest ... the respect which that idea can be addressed in a slightly different way. In thinking about this story, we were consciously thinking, "OK. We all know people who are very good at what they do but aren't successful. Why is that?" It's interesting to imagine a character in that context. But it's not limited to artists.

You must have pondered that question at times yourselves. Why us? How did we become so successful?