Ethan and Joel Coen‘s new film Inside Llewyn Davis takes us back to the folk scene of Greenwich Village in the winter of 1961 and tells the story of a week in one struggling folk singer’s life. To recreate the step back in time, the Coen brothers enlisted their frequent collaborator, production designer Jess Gonchor, who has worked on four other films with the directors, notably on True Grit in 2010, for which he received an Oscar nomination.
Gonchor is a native New Yorker, which helped when it came to scouting for locations for the film, which was shot entirely in New York. Finding a way to make the modern city harken back in time wasn’t always an easy task, but it was one that Gonchor pulled off with aplomb. Even the scenes where Llewyn Davis (Oscar Isaac) takes a road trip to Chicago were shot in New York and rendered astonishingly authentic visually.
Gonchor’s design process began with finding the feelings that can exist in timing. “I use the work tempo a lot when it comes to my design and pace and it was really applicable to this movie because it was somewhat of a musical. So I was trying to figure out what the tempo was and how to tell that story with the scenery and I just decided I needed to slow the pace down. The music [in the film] is a few instruments and a few chords so the scenery needed to match that tempo of the music that was being played,” said Gonchor,
Location scouting for places in the city that could resemble the past and that weren’t “visually noisy” was a challenge. “For example, Times Square is unrecognizable from what it was back then. I call it visual noise. Nothing matches anything. There are signs everywhere. So I had to dig deep and go find pockets of neighborhoods where we could build and recreate the ’60s in Greenwich Village. It took a lot of hard work, location scouting, and finding a spot that was sort of like a blank canvas,” explained the production designer.
Gonchor often got creative when it came to presenting a scenery that appears to be one thing when in reality it was something else. “I found that you can go to a street that’s a blank canvas and add to it. For instance, for the scene that takes place in the West Village, it was just impossible to shoot there for many, many reasons so I went east and found that the East Village is a lot like what the West Village was in the 60s. It was mostly residential with a few shops here and there. It hadn’t exploded like the West Village has now.”
Since the Coen brothers have such a long history working with Gonchor, there was a kind of trust that allowed Gonchor the liberty to run with his ideas. It also helped that it felt to Gonchor like the directors were a couple of extra production designers on set to work with. “It’s a very tight triangle for the work that gets done. There’s constant conversation,” he explained. It was a collaboration that produced a New York straight from the 1960s in Inside Llewyn Davis.