Fearlessly venturing out into the frontier, and taking on unique challenges without any qualms or hesitation, isn’t something that many people can do. But esteemed Academy Award-winning filmmakers, Ethan and Joel Coen, who are collectively known as the Coen Brothers, routinely do just that with all of their movies. They journey back in time to the American Old West with their new six-part anthology film, ‘The Ballad of Buster Scruggs.’ Each chapter of the musical comedy-drama, which will be released on November 16 in theaters and on Netflix, tells a distinct story about the American West.
‘The Ballad of Buster Scruggs’s collection of short stories are tied together by a book that features a style that’s reminiscent of the 1940’s and ’50s. The book contains a painted illustration of each story before the feature delves into each short.
The title first short in ‘The Ballad of Buster Scruggs’ is an over-the-top satire of Western heroism. The tile protagonist (Tim Blake Nelson) is a singing cowboy who rides through Monument Valley before he stops at a bar that’s full of outlaws who refuses to serve him whiskey. Within minutes, the seemingly innocent cowboy, who’s actually a wanted man, has shot everyone to death. As a result, he must face his ultimate fate in a battle to the death.
Another notable segment is ‘The Gal Who Got Rattled,’ which follows a lonely woman, Alice Longabaugh (Zoe Kazan), who travels with her brother out to Oregon to pursue a hapless business deal, and a possible marriage. However, she soon finds herself stranded on a covered-wagon train by herself, after he dies from cholera. In an effort to save both Alice, who he has found a true and instant connection with, as well as himself, one of the wagon’s leaders, Billy Knapp (Bill Heck), decides to propose to her before they reach their destination out West. Unfortunately, the group faces an unexpected conflict along the way, which puts Alice and Billy’s newfound relationship and future together in jeopardy.
The Coen Brothers, along with Nelson, Heck and Kazan, generously took the time on Friday to participate in a press conference, which was moderated by Kent Jones, at the Film Society of Lincoln Center’s Walter Reade Theater during the 56th New York Film Festival, where the movie had its North American premiere. During the conference, the filmmakers, actors and actress talked about writing, directing, producing and starring in ‘The Ballad of Buster Scruggs,’ including what it was like to create the comedy-drama’s music and anthology structure, as well as their evolution as storytellers. Highlights from the press conference are included in the below text, and the interview is presented in its entirety in the above video.
The conference began with the Coen Brothers explaining that they wrote the six segments that are included in the completed anthology feature film over the course of 25 years, and the arrangement in which they appear is almost the same as the order in which they were penned. “They follow, with a couple exceptions, in chronological order in terms of when they were written,” Joel Coen shared. “They just got put in a drawer. They were short movies, and we didn’t know what we would do with them. We probably didn’t expect to make them until maybe eight or 10 years ago, when we started thinking, Well, maybe we can do these all together.”
Ethan Coen then chimed in, stating that “We didn’t really think of an order. They kind of fell into an order by virtue of the way we wrote them. We looked at them and thought, Okay, that’s a good order.”
The stories “can be seen as a sequenced series of stories, or tracks on a record album. This is the right sequence for them,” Joel added.
While the scribes were initially unsure about what they would do with all of the short stories they had written, they never considered merging the different scripts together into a more cohesive larger narrative. Joel noted that he and his brother never felt that the shorts had enough of a cohesive connections between them, besides being set in the Western genre, to craft a feature. “We had all of these stories, and they were all Westerns. Then they all started to relate to each other retrospectively, not consciously, when we started doing it,” he said. “So no, there was never an impulse to connection. This seems like a strange form, but it grew out of the odd nature in which the stories came into existence.”
When the actors were then asked what it was like for them to see the completed movie, Nelson shared that he and his co-stars “all got to read the entire script before we shot our individual constituent parts.” He added that he feels that as actors, “we all felt a responsibility toward the genre of each film in which we appear. I think what’s astonishing about this is that it’s six different movies within the Western genre, but each one is in a different sub-genre. That, at least for me, and I think for the other actors, just underscored one’s responsibility to fit indelibly in the sub-genre in which they appeared.”
Nelson then praised his co-stars who were on stage with him, saying that he thinks “Bill and Zoe are so perfect in their short, and fit so well in that sub-genre, in terms of their acting styles. It was so rewarding to encounter the success of the other actors in all of the stories.”
Kazan then chimed in, saying that “I echo that. Also, I don’t know about other actors, but when I see a movie that I’m in, I spend half the time like this,” as she covered her eyes with her hands. “So to know that I could watch most of this movie happily was wonderful,” she said with a hint of a laugh in her voice.
“I had the same experience watching it as I did reading it; I do see a tremendous internal dream logic between the chapters. To see how that accumulates, and the feeling you have when you reach the end, hit me when I watched it,” the actress admitted. “I saw that there was so much treasure along the way that I didn’t get to witness when the movie was being shot.”
Heck also chimed in, noting that “each pieces gives permission for the next one to occur. There’s something so satisfying about how you’re lifted up by everything else that comes before you, and there’s something safe about that, which you don’t usually get in a normal viewing.”
When later asked about the initial reports that ‘The Ballad of Buster Scruggs ‘ would serve as their first true, original television series that would run on Netflix, Joel debunked the rumors. “That’s an artifact of just what a strange animal it was. They didn’t know, none of us really knew what to call it, or how to classify it. But aside from the confusion about the classification, the actualities of what we were going to shoot, including the length of each of the stories, all of which vary, there was never anything that we were considering doing any differently. There were never any more stories and they were always intended to be seen as a group,” the filmmaker divulged.
With music playing an important part in the overall narrative of ‘The Ballad of Buster Scruggs,’ Ethan also discussed what their experience was like of reuniting with the feature’s composer, Carter Burwell, who they previously collaborated with on such movies as ‘Hail, Caesar!,’ ‘True Grit,’ ‘The Big Lebowski’ and ‘Fargo.’ “As Tim was saying, the shorts are all Westerns, but they’re all different kinds of stories. So we talked about to what extent the music should play all the unique aspects, as well as tie things together,” he shared.
But in the end, “The music plays what each short is, and not what unifies them together. But the opening title overture is the most familiar Western theme in the film, as it plays again during the end credits, and that ties everything together musically…We really thought about how the music would accent the shorts’ differences. But in the end, it’s all the same movie, so we had to confront that,” Ethan added.
With the Coen Brothers’ filmmaking careers spanning over the past 34 years, Nelson, who previously worked with them on their 2000 Academy Award nominated crime comedy, ‘O Brother, Where Art Thou?,’ praised the duo’s entire body of work. “Joel and Ethan are incredibly meticulous as filmmakers, in an unparalleled way. So when you get to the set, there really are no decisions being made during the shooting time that could have been made earlier. That rigor pays off in an interesting way, because it allows the actors to be totally free, and have all the time that they could possibly want to do this very careful writing, which is shot in a very careful and specific way,” the actor divulged.
“So that amount of preparation, which I became familiar with on ‘O Brother,’ is a form of filmmaking I had never encountered before with any other director, and it was amazing. It was used once more on this movie. There was an extra challenge for Joel and Ethan, because they were effectively making six films, which all had different linguistic principles that define Westerns. So I found the specificity that they were working with to be unbelievable, in terms of its extremes, and the way that they were pushing, and allowing, me to do certain things. Then watching five other versions of that is truly astonishing,” Nelson concluded.