When I Met The Coen Brothers And a Secret Behind the Filming of Inside Llewyn Davis

When I first met the Coen Brothers

In the winter of 2012 I was living in the West Village on Thompson between Houston and Bleecker.  It’s a really beautiful tree lined street without much traffic.  There’s a somewhat famous sushi joint, an expensive Italian restaurant, and what used to be a very inexpensive Italian restaurant that is now owned by Jay Z.

In the apartment next door was my neighbor, an aging cab driver who was actually born and raised in the very same building we lived in.  Imagine spending 5+ decades in the same place.  Needless to say, he paid very little for his rent controlled apartment and was constantly badgered by our landlords to sell out of his lease.  The standing offer was $60k for him to move out.

One day, New York was due for some snow, and so I decided to work from home.  In the middle of the day, I heard a lot of commotion next door, so I decided to knock on my neighbor’s door and see what was up.

When he opened the door, I looked inside to see a dozen artsy looking people with notepads out.  “Are you running a writing convention in here??”  I blurted out.

I was quickly ushered outside by a woman holding the largest of all the notepads.  “Those are the Coen Brothers, and you’re disturbing our research!”

Yes, the world famous filmmakers were in the apartment next to mine with a full cadre of staff.  I was eventually allowed back into the room for a few minutes, and informed that they were preparing for some sort of film shoot.  I left shortly as it became clear I was getting in the way of their process in this cramped 300 square foot apartment.

What were the Coen Brothers doing in this Apartment?

Remember how my next door neighbor was a cab driver?  Well, he was driving along one night and started chatting with the two guys in the back seat.  It turns out these guys had lived in our building on Thompson Street while studying film at NYU a few decades ago.

It also turns out these guys were in the early stages of putting together a movie on a fictional West Village character and still needed a location for the main character’s apartment.  Of course, these guys in the back of the cab were the Coen brothers, and quickly became interested in filming their new movie inside of their old apartment building on Thompson.

When I ran into them that snowy day, they were researching the space – how they’d gut renovate it for a week of shooting a few months later, and how they’d rebuild the space in a soundproof studio to do the majority of the shooting.  This apartment would be transformed into the dwelling of the titular character Llewyn Davis.

It was incredible to see the real life transformation of that apartment, and how it eventually appeared on the big screen.  Some aspects were the same, our black and white checkered floor leading to the apartment was kept intact, as was the red awning outside of our building.  However, the inside was completely changed from floor to ceiling. 

My neighbor moved out the week of filming, and got $10k for his effort.   Not bad for a week, especially since they put everything back the way it was.  Tragically, he blew it all at the Foxwoods Casino a few weeks later.  This was even more tragic since he really needed that money when he broke his arm a few months later and couldn’t drive his cab for a while.  That $60k buyout sure did look attractive then.

What I loved about this experience

It was cool to very briefly meet the legendary filmmakers.  It was cool to get some insights into the process behind the magic that happens on the big screen.  Inside Llewyn Davis would be nominated for several Oscars and win numerous awards.

What I think was even more interesting was the amount of thought that went into the location for this shoot.  There was clearly a ton of research done to pick the right place, and it was just that much more exciting to have it be the same building that the brothers had lived in so many years ago.  Of course, this is a very little known fact and I can’t find any mention of it online.

Funnily enough, this location was made available randomly and by a chance taxi ride with the right guy.  Sometimes all the research in the world can’t beat a simple chance of fate.  And, sometimes we are already familiar with the right solution and nearly need a gentle reminder of the choice.

This post is part of a series related to the research process.  Whether it’s software or film locations, the proper research leads to better outcomes.  Of course, despite all our best efforts, sometimes the best solution comes to us through pure luck.